Posted by: trevormeers | July 31, 2011

Day Three: Why Vikings Still Matter

Daily dispatches from a week-long bicycle trek across Iowa. *

RAGBRAI is simply about bikes like the Kentucky Derby is simply about horse racing. Roots are the real theme. When a town learns it’s been selected for the route, local leaders immediately form a few committees and starts thinking not only about how many port-a-potties they’ll need to rent, but about how to best showcase local pride to thousands of people who have never even heard of the town and probably will never visit again. Townspeople hope to make a buck off the tour, to be sure, but they’re just as motivated to show everyone that Griswold or Templeton or Elkhart is quite possibly the only place sane people would choose to live.

Elkhorn, for example, nailed its roughly 7 hours in the spotlight, Viking horns and all. The town is so proud of its Danish heritage that it built an enormous working windmill in the middle of town. (Don’t feel bad if you’re unsure why both Iowa’s Dutch town of Pella and its Danish town of Elkhart built the same civic landmark; I can’t explain it either.) And when RAGBRAI came to town on Monday, both the windmill and Danish pride were soaring higher than when Hamlet was London’s hottest ticket.

Bicyclists’ first stop was a Viking house, which looks a lot like a log cabin that’s been squished a few feet into the ground by a giant troll’s foot (I think I just created a folk tale). The interior is dark and austere, befitting people who lived in almost perpetual cold and considered a bellyful of cod and a good battle ax some of life’s greatest pleasures. A few feet away is the windmill, which cyclists could climb via an interior stairway and emerge waving in their Spandex like gate crashers in “It’s A Small World After All.” The local king and queen of something Danish were squirting whipped cream onto Danish crepes for riders. “Come get creamed by royalty!” the lady on the street shouted to passersby. Several men were cooking aebleskivers, round balls known as the “Danish pancake.” When blonde kids approached the serving line, one guy would ask them, “Are you a little Danish child? You sure look like one.”

But what really caused a jam in the endless stream of riders were the mermaids. The next town up the road from Elkhorn is Kimballton, famed for its replica of a more famed mermaid fountain in Copenhagen (that’s a city, not just a dip, rodeo fans). Showing a little streak of Viking hospitality, Elkhorn scooped Kimballton’s act 3 miles before riders saw it by dressing three lifeguards from the local pool in mermaid suits. As bikers clipped out of their pedals, the street barker yelled, “Don’t miss our mermaids!” And just to make sure those raiders up in Kimballton didn’t get any ideas, Elkhorn had stationed a WWII-era tank beside the mermaid pool with a sign reading “Don’t Mess With Our Mermaids. ”

The girls sat under an awning on large rocks set in a pool of water and waved to anyone who glanced their way. Plenty of cyclists were yanking off their biking shoes quicker than you can say “aebleskiver” to wade into the pool and awkwardly drape their arm around one of the mermaids for a photo op. I was snapping a few photos of the scene when the barker said, “Would you like to get in for a picture with the mermaids?” I said, “I’m not sure what my wife would say to me coming home with a picture of me with three high school mermaids.” The lady looked back at the splashing in the pool and said, “Yeah, a lot of men have been saying that.” To stay on the safe side, I opted instead for a photo with the far less friendly, yet far less controversial, Viking mannequin on the park bench under the windmill.

Forty-three miles later, I arrived in Willey, which amounts to a few houses draped around a lonely intersection jazzed up with an open-air post-office and a massive Catholic church. Two nuns were selling bomb pops out front as a guy with an electric guitar sang, “Sweet home, Willey, Iowa! There’s nothing in Carroll you can’t get here!” I wandered out back of the church, past the mechanical bull sweltering on the ball diamond without a single customer, and decided to buy a walking taco. If you’re not from Iowa, you probably won’t know this is a bag of Doritos ripped open and filled with the standard taco ingredients. I thought it was a little ridiculous when I first heard of them a decade ago, and today I paid 5 dollars for one and genuinely complimented the ladies on their generous hand with the fixin’s.

I sat in the shade by the church cemetery, savoring my walking taco and reflecting on whether this was the day some tiny gauge in my soul had tipped slightly over from “Nebraskan” to “Iowan.” Then I glanced at the headstone about 10 feet behind me. It listed the names of Marvin and Esther Brunhoff. I noted that Esther outlived Marvin by a good 39 years, and I wondered what those long decades of widowhood were like for her. Then I turned back to look at the folks pulling cans of pop from an icy stock tank and selling them to cyclists. One guy’s shirt said “Marvin & Esther Brunhoff Family.”

And that helped me quit worrying about Esther, even after she lost Marvin at the age of 40. If her offspring were still tending to the good of Willey just 20 yards from her grave, I’m sure they didn’t let Esther spend a lonely day. That’s what roots are about after all, even if they do sometimes look like mermaids on the edge of town.



  1. Switching your soul from Nebraskan to Iowan over a bag of Doritos with some toppings mixed in??!! Say it ain’t so Trevor. Until I see you rockin’ Hawkeye black and gold the day after Thanksgiving, I won’t believe it…GO Huskers! By the way, way to stay strong and choose the Viking over the mermaids….that is like George Costanza choosing the homely gal for his secretary.

  2. Just for the record, I did rock a Huskers cycling jersey three days of the ride. I was surprised at how warm the welcome was from all the Big 10 folk I met. Just cemented how glad I am to be out of the Texas 12.

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