Sneak preview: RAGBRAI XLI
When 10,000 cyclists ride en masse through Iowa’s small towns and big cities next week, everything changes. Tiny towns with no more than a few businesses and a grain elevator will be pushed to the limit with an explosion of pork chop vendors, pie-peddling church ladies, port-a-potties, beer gardens, and bikes, bikes, bikes.
I wondered what it would be like to drive the RAGBRAI route – this year through Iowa’s midsection – BEFORE the bikes come. So yesterday I drove the Council-Bluffs-to-Harlan section (Day 1) and a bit of the Day 2 Harlan-to-Perry route. (The actual bike event begins on Sunday, July 22.)
Here is what I found:
COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA
I started my exploration of Council Bluffs on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a footbridge that connects Omaha, Neb., to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It’s a short walk across the modern, S-curved, cable-stayed bridge, the first to connect two states.
Council Bluffs is crawling with Lewis & Clark attractions. I visited the Western Historic Trails Center (3434 Richard Downing Ave.) and the Lewis & Clark Monument & Scenic Overlook. Council Bluffs is on the Lewis & Clark National Historical Trail, managed by the National Park Service; in fact, the National Trail headquarters is right across the river in Omaha. I found the monument and scenic overlook in northern Council Bluffs well worth the out-of-the-way drive.
Other historical attractions in Council Bluffs include the Golden Spike Monument, Historic General Dodge House, squirrel cage jail, Kanesville Tabernacle, Bayliss Park, and more.
How all those bicycles are going to get through Council Bluffs I don’t know. But they will leave the city via county road G8L and travel through some of the most beautiful farmland in Iowa – maybe in the entire country. The west-central portion of the state is, of course, part of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and it is just spectacularly beautiful right now, with tall, green corn as far as the eye can see.
Traveling northeast along G8L, the first town the cyclists will encounter is Underwood. At first glance, Underwood is just, well, really small (population 917 as of the 2010 census). But the wide streets will undoubtedly hold all of those bikes just fine. And at least two people are ready for them.
Underwood Bar & Grill’s owner John Brunow, and chef Mike Gonzales are RAGBRAI virgins – that is, they’ve never experienced the spectacle before. But they’re jazzed about it. They’ve ordered cases of Budweiser and will also be preparing Bloody Marys made with Hair of the Dawg drink mix. In fact, John said, Underwood Bar & Grill is an OFFICIAL “Dawg Stop” on the RAGBRAI route, and his establishment will be the only place cyclists will be able to find a beer in Underwood. Of course, it could be 7 a.m. when the riders come through…
Next up is the town of Neola, with its welcoming sign and well-kept baseball field. The town of 850 boasts Coon’s Corner bar, a U.S. post office, the newly renovated Phoenix theater and Don’s Fuel, all on Main Street. Don’s Fuel has a heck of a nice black-and-white mural on its wall, and I stopped there to buy some water.
The woman who took my money was decidedly less excited about RAGBRAI than the guys in Underwood.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” she growled. “I’ve been here before.”
Turning east on G18 and traveling to Minden, I encountered the first of what would be many road crews, spiffing up the pavement and shoulders in preparation for thousands of bicycle tires. The RAGBRAI roads along this section are in great shape; many appear to have been recently paved and striped.
I passed by the Breezy Hill vineyard – undoubtedly a fun place for riders to stop next Sunday – and headed into Minden, home to 599 people at the last census. Like Neola, Minden had a very nice welcome sign. And just beyond the Minden Volunteer Fire Department building was the Minden City Hall, with a sign announcing a RAGBRAI volunteer meeting Friday night at 7 p.m.
I think I’ve probably been on more state and county highways in Iowa than most Iowa natives, and I’ve probably visited more small towns. I really love seeing the civic pride and history that some of these small towns have. Shelby is a good example. Although the town’s population is just 641, it has the look and feel of a much larger town, probably due to its close proximity to Interstate 80.
Driving north on M16, just before you reach Shelby, there’s a huge Menard’s distribution center. Then, crossing over I-80, you come to the Shelby welcome sign and Agri-Symbol Park (AKA the park with a 76-foot-tall-ear-of-corn statue). It’s made of metal, and it’s definitely not the highlight of the park, if you ask me. There are lovely, well-tended flowerbeds, a gazebo, and benches surrounded by a tidy white fence. I met a volunteer there weeding one of the flowerbeds. She said each bed is maintained by a different individual, couple, or group. The results are impressive. And colorful bicycles decorate the entrance and gardens.
Nearby are the Cornstalk Café and the Corn Crib Restaurant, on opposite sides of the highway. I’m starting to sense a theme here.
This community has clearly pulled together to welcome the RAGBRAI riders. Beyond the park, there is a sign across the highway (“Shelby: When you’re here, you’re home”) with dozens of painted bicycles forming a welcoming arch for the cyclists to pass beneath. Colorful bikes are also fastened to the main street light poles.
I would love to see this place on Sunday afternoon.
Shelby is also home to a Rock Island stone arch, one of the nation’s four 30-foot culvert bridges.
Traveling north on M16 through Tennant, Iowa, the route takes a right turn onto Hwy. 44 into Harlan, the tour’s first overnight town. I think the riders will be pleased with the route so far – it really showcases the state’s beautiful farmland and small towns – though its hills might be challenging to some if the weather stays this hot and humid.
So Harlan will be the last town of the first day, but for me, traveling on four wheels, it’s time for lunch.
Harlan is by far the largest town on the route so far. It’s the county seat of Shelby County, and its population is listed at 5,106 as of the census. The thing that strikes you about Harlan, besides the awesome courthouse, is the really wonderful town square. It’s a really thriving downtown, with shops and restaurants and businesses – even a great movie theater.
Someone loves this town, you can tell. Nearly all the downtown businesses are in impeccable shape, painted in historical colors, with plaques on most businesses explaining the building’s history. Many are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Very nice!
I ate lunch at the Sandwich Bowl. Well, I actually ate ice cream at the Sandwich Bowl. But there were plenty of options for sandwiches and other lunch fare. I just wanted ice cream.
The Big House Sports Bar (below) was already welcoming RAGBRAI riders and promoting its beer garden with live music.
What a great place to spend the first night.
Still heading east on Hwy. 44 (part of Iowa’s Western Skies Scenic Byway), I arrived in Kimballton, one of two small towns in this area promoting their Danish heritage. Kimballton (population 322) is the smaller of the two. Its primary attraction is its Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid fountain, a replica of the famous statue that stands in the Copenhagen harbor. Beyond that, the town is well maintained with plenty of American and Danish flags fluttering on every flagpole, plus there’s a charming mural on the side of one of the main street’s brick buildings.
A couple of miles south of Kimballton is Elk Horn, the larger of the two Danish villages. You could spend the better part of the day here. I took a look at the authentic 1848 Danish windmill imported from Denmark and walked up and down the main street. But I didn’t visit the Danish Immigrant Museum, which would clearly take a commitment of more time than I had (I’ll go back another day).
Other attractions in Elk Horn are the visitor center museum; Family History & Genealogy Center (“Danish roots, American branches”); Bedstemor’s Hus, a Danish grandmother’s house operated by the Immigrant Museum; and a General Store Museum. There’s also a Danish-American restaurant and other Danish-themed businesses and artwork on the main street. The town is cute as a button.
I wish I could say I completed the Day 2 route, but alas, I ran out of time and had to hit I-80 to drive the rest of the way home. But I know that the 10,000 cyclists who ride the first part of the RAGBRAI route next week are gonna absolutely love it.