Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The first words out of the first person to speak to me in Iowa were, "I rode RAAM a few years ago."

My ears heard "RAAM" but my brain registered "RAGBRAI," as among cyclists Iowa is synonymous with this acronym for the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa that just celebrated its 40th anniversary this July.  I fully expected to excite Iowans left and right as a reminder of this great event and to be continually having conversations with people who had participated in it or had relatives or close friends who had.

So it was no surprise to immediately meet someone who wanted to talk biking.  But before I responded to his greeting, I thought maybe I had misheard him and asked, "Did you say you rode RAAM."

"That I did," he proudly affirmed.

I stuck out my hand and said, "Congratulations.  That's quite a feat."

I would have offered congratulations to anyone who had ridden the 400-mile Iowa ride across the state from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, but not with the same ardor or respect as for someone who had ridden RAAM, the non-stop 3,000 mile Race Across America, a truly super-human feat.

The man I was talking to had been part of a two-man team in 2008.  I asked him how much sleep he got.  "Not much," he said.  It wasn't something he'd do again, though he did crew for his daughter since, who was part of an eight-person team.  Surprisingly, neither of them had bothered with RAGBRAI, even though their home town of Glenwood, where we were chatting, was an occasional starting point for the ride, near as it was to the Missouri.  

We were standing in front of the town's Carnegie library, the first of eleven on my route across the southern portion of the state.  Its blood-red brick exterior was extra bright in the setting sun.

It had a matching brick addition to its rear.  Two small statues of a boy and a girl sprawled on their chests engrossed in a book adorned each side of the steps leading to the library's original entrance, still in use, with an auxiliary handicap-accessible entry to the side.

The RAAM-rider had never done any touring.  He wanted to, but was leery of having to carry weight on his bike and camping.  I assured him that camping was one of the best parts of touring.  I was afraid he would invite me to camp in his back yard denying me my nightly pleasure of finding a place to camp where no one had ever camped before.  But he was headed to a bar to meet some friends and apologized for having to cut short our conversation, as he was late already.  He asked though if he could take my picture.  He said he had a gallery of photos in his barn of interesting people he has met.

I continued 40 minutes down the road before dark, leaving highway 34 to go down a gravel road to find a place for the night in an overgrown field I saw a few deer romping through.

Iowa had gotten off to a wonderful start with a strikingly nice Carnegie, a good conversation with a genuine cyclist and an idyllic camp site.  The wonderful Carnegies kept coming, with not a one demolished, and pleasing camp sites available whenever I was ready for one, but in the four days since, as I have nearly completed my transit of the state, there has not been a single mention of RAGBRAI or cycling unless I initiated it.  I had been braced to have to put up with people continually telling me I was lagging way behind, like two months, though I had been looking forward to people asking me if I knew about the book that had just been written about the history of RAGBRAI, as I would be able to tell them the author, Greg Borzo, was a friend.  Even though 25,000 people participate in RAGBRAI every July, it has not converted locals into ardent cyclists, nor even made them extra-friendly towards cyclists.  It has been a surprise.

But still the cycling has been perfectly fine, other than battling a strong headwind that has kept my daily average speed the lowest of the trip, right around ten miles per hour.  It is jeopardizing my weekend return to Chicago and a dance performance by one of Janina's teachers.

But the Carnegies have not disappointed, other than having staggered hours, not the standard nine to seven or eight, allowing me entry to just a few of them, forcing me to just peer in to the others just imagining their homey warmth and denying me the pleasure of giving the Carnegie portrait a nod.  Of the eight I have so far visited, only Albia's had Carnegie chiseled into its facade.

The libraries in Villisca, Oscelo and Charitan identified themselves as a "Free Public Library."  Villisca hadn't had an addition, though one had been proposed if the funding could be found.

Malvern and Red Oak were simply identified as "Library," while the monumental Ottuma library included the word "Public," with the "U" spelled using the letter "V."  

Ottuma, like Villisca, hadn't had an addition, but only because it was so large when it was built with a $50,000 grant, five times the usual amount.  Ottuma had been a large important city on the Des Moines River.  It was still a sizeable city, but hadn't outgrown its grand original library.

The Red Oak library had had three tasteful additions since it was built in 1909, the first a hasty fifteen years later, then on its 50th and 100th anniversaries.  I was there on a Sunday when it wasn't open, but was joined by two teen-aged boys out front using its WIFI.

The Malvern library didn't expand until ninety years after it was built in 1916.

The substantial  Charitan library was only open from one to seven the first three days of the week, then ten to six on Thursday and Friday.  It was a block from the town's main square with a gigantic courthouse and city hall in the middle and surrounded by small shops, including a Trek bicycle store, many of which would instantly be put out of business if a WalMart moved in.

I was able to relax on a couch in front of a fireplace at the very homey Osceolo library.  Fireplaces in these old libraries are a regular feature.  Even moreso are distinctive globes of some sort out front providing illumination.

I'm closing in on Illinois and three more of the 108 Carnegies that were built in Iowa, three less than Illinois.

Last night I camped in an open field near a stream just over a hill that blocked me from being seen by traffic on the nearby small rural road.  It was the first time in Iowa that the sun dried the dew on my tent before I took it down.  For the first time since I left Telluride I found an NPR station.  One of the stories this morning was that REI has rescinded its lifetime no-questions-asked return policy on its merchandise, reducing it to just one year.  That means I won't be able to return this tent when its zippers go, as I have been able to do several times over the years.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Your Carnegie library facades are very interesting. When I traveled through Europe, I always loved being surrounded by history: old churches, castles, palaces, bridges, stone "penance crosses" put up beside the road because someone had murdered someone 600 years ago. Many hiking paths were equally old and had stone markers indicating which duchy one was entering or giving the distance to the next marker. Sometimes I would come across a modern-day plaque explaining that a battle had taken place on that spot many hundreds of years ago. I always thought that sense of history was lacking a bit in the USA. Of course, I know the Spanish were already in North America from the 1500s on, and I even had visited many Anasazi ruins dotting the Southwest that predated the Spanish. But I never knew a thing about Carnegie Libraries until I started reading your blog. Bicycling, Cannes Film Festival, Tour de France, Telluride and the Carnegies, thanks for being such a "religious" blogger.