The Hills Of Iowa

There are hills in Iowa. They are rolling ribbons of green and brown topped by rows of soy beans and corn stretching off in every direction. They are capped by an endless sky, and traversed by roads that go on forever.

I’m sitting on my cousins’ couch in North Liberty, IA. Inside, three generations of Wagners are bustling about, save for Chris, Jen, Luke and me, who — having ridden nearly sixty miles in the rain today — aren’t so much bustling as melting into the aforementioned couch.

Yesterday’s trip was a total haze: Laguardia, O’Hare, Cedar Rapids. I got in about one p.m., strapped my bag on my shoulder, and walked down the highway — can you imagine walking out of O’Hare or Laguardia? — to A&W. Two hours and two root beer floats later, my dad showed up.

Dad’s tuckered (trust me, I shared a hotel room with him last night and was stirred by his deep, cacophonous snoring). He’s drivin’ one of two support vehicles: three bikes, one baby seat, and a pile of gear. Uncle Brian’s driving the other: three more bikes, four more guys. When I showed up, they’d been on the road for three days. Everything smells of mud and sweat. The are granola bar crumbs everywhere. And Ethan’s Cheerios. To date, the bikes have gone 350 miles. The trucks have gone over 1000.

The Des Moines Register’s Great Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is a really big deal for Iowa. It’s in its 32d year. The course is different every year, but always rolls from the Missouri River in the west to the Mississippi in the east. And it’s always the last week in July. For a town like Van Horne or Cultier, a big week is a bumper crop at the grain silo. So for 10,000 bike riders and their 20,000 friends to traipse through town… well, you can imagine. It’s a big deal. Like, County Fair Big Deal.

I’ve ridden RAGBRAI twice before, in 1997 and 2000. It’s always fun, always scenic, and always a radical departure from life in New York. But this year I resolved that if I was taking time off of work, I was going to get more out of it than a sore ass. So I skipped the first half of the week’s ride, and showed up in time for The Big Party.

The entire Wagner clan was gathered at The World’s Most Depressing Indian Casino for Uncle Stan’s 60th. Forget Las Vegas. Forget Atlantic City. This is chintziest, most prefab hotel in the middle of Cornfield Nowhere with a glorified oversized garage full of cheap neon and slot machines. And it’s full of old people pissing away their pensions. I mean, the place is dry, for God’s sake. What’s the point of gambling when there’s no freeze booze? What’s the point of gambling?

I felt a little out of sorts. One minute I’m in a cab heading east on 57th Street, the next I’m sitting on the floor playing with my four-year-old cousin. I felt only slightly less out of sorts riding through the aforementioned hills in the rain on a borrowed bike. Approaching mile sixty, I began lobbying for the beer garden. (I love the phrase “beer garden,” as if something grows there.) Three Bud Lites, two ears of corn, and one dancing Ethan later, I had arrived.

I’m in Iowa. I’m home.

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