Driving RAGBRAI XLIII: Day 2
Here we go on Day 2 of the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa! We left off in Webster City, so the first stop this morning is Boondocks – not so much a town as a truck stop/motel next to Interstate 35.
Our route today (which actually starts midway through Day 3 of the cyclists’ week) starts out hovering near Highway 20. Our second stop was in tiny Williams (population 344), home to the Hemken Collection of vintage cars and to Ye Olde Drug Store / Antique & Craft Mall. Nothing was open, and the town was pretty darn quiet.
Next up: Alden (population 787). We had trouble getting to Alden, because D20 was closed and the gravel road we tried to skirt around it was closed. So we had to retrace our steps back to Williams and take an alternate route to get there. But it was worth it, primarily for the dam on the Iowa River.
Alden city leaders really seem to be into the swing of RAGBRAI already, even though the ride doesn’t start for nearly three weeks. We saw signs promoting “Iowa’s Best Dam Party” along with a friendly beaver mascot. The city’s year-round motto is “Best Town by a Dam Site,” so the folks here seem to have a lot of fun with this theme.
Alden has several shops in the downtown area, a pretty park, bars, and, of course, the river. It should be a fun stop for riders. Before we left town, we stopped at Casey’s for a donut.
Tiny Buckeye (population 108) didn’t hold much interest except for a grain elevator (does every small town in Iowa have one of these? It sure seems like it) and massive railroad tracks.
Moving on, we take the Karras Loop to Radcliffe, and I’m so glad we did. Because it’s in Radcliffe (population 545) where we meet Larry Pearson, a metal artist who’s hard at work welding a bicycle sculpture for Eldora, the next overnight town.
Larry was a very interesting guy; he took us into his shop and showed us several projects he was working on. We also visited his showroom. He’s got a couple of really cool pieces – a buffalo and a moose – that will be great photo ops on RAGBRAI.
Rounding out Day 3 of the riders’ route is Eldora (population 2,732), the county seat of Hardin County. Eldora has at least three things going for it: First, its courthouse (below) is one of the most beautiful in the state, and it’s located in the middle of a nice town square.
Second, one of the businesses on that square is the Ahoy old-fashioned soda fountain, above. It’s a dandy place to stop for a chocolate malt. (Yummy!) And third, Pine Lake State Park is nearby. The 654-acre Pine Lake park (below) has a very scenic lake – when we were there, lots of folks were canoeing and boating – plus hiking, picnic spots, camping, and more. It’s tough to just drive through without getting out and taking a hike, but we had to keep moving.
Oh, by the way, Eldora’s overnight stop theme is “A Wheely Big Deal!” and riders will be entertained by The Johnny Holm Band, along with a number of opening acts.
Cyclists will start their Day 4 ride by passing through Pine Lake State Park and they’ll very quickly reach their first town of the day. Steamboat Rock (population 310) is one of several towns on the route where the welcome sign is pretty much the best thing about the town. Steamboat Rock does have a dam (below), and we met an interesting biker dude there.
Just past Steamboat Rock is the very pretty Sac & Fox Overlook (above) with a view of the celebrated Hwy. 20 bridge that took decades to complete due to the challenging environmental impact of the area.
Next, there’s unincorporated Cleves, followed by the slightly disappointing town of Ackley (population 1,589) where we found this giant ice-cream cone (above). Absolutely no idea what this was for.
And then it was on to Austinville (also unincorporated), where we found a historic bank building (above) and more railroad tracks.
Aplington (motto: “Northeast Iowa’s Best-kept Secret”) boasted a few businesses, none of them open. The 1,128-person town is home to Stinky’s Bar & Grill, the Busy Day Mini-Mall (“A Little Piece of Iowa”), and the Peppercorn Pantry.
Parkersburg (population 1,870) is a robust little town, with a lively Main Street, some nice historic architecture, and lovely homes, all pictured above. There’s even the Parkersburg Historical Home (established 1895) that’s open for tours.
I was looking forward to our next stop, New Hartford (population 516) based on the description in the Register’s RAGBRAI preview. It seems that floodwaters devastated the city in 2008, forcing a number of houses to be torn down. The empty lots have been filled with parks and gardens. What a great idea! We found a map of New Hartford in one of the parks, and we found that there’s a Town Square Gazebo, Meditation Garden, Four Seasons Perennial Garden, 1800s Heritage Garden, and more. I also loved the topiary flowers lining the main street.
While we were in New Hartford we met an interesting older guy, Lee, smoking a pipe and telling stories about the floods and the history of the town. He was very entertaining.
But we have to move on. Our next stop is the Day 4 overnight town of Cedar Falls (theme: “It’s All Down Hill From Here”).
This is where the day got really fun, because we met with Mary Taylor (with me, above), one of the co-chairs (along with Steve Carignan) of Cedar Falls’ RAGBRAI committee. Mary is a friend of mine, and she was willing to take time out of her very busy schedule to meet with us at Cup O’ Joe coffee shop in downtown Cedar Falls.
It was really interesting to get Mary’s perspective on all the work that goes into an putting on an overnight stop on RAGBRAI. Mary and Steve oversee 18 committees, with about 35 total leaders. Official planning for the July 22 overnight stop began in early February, but behind-the-scenes work began as early as last fall. The leaders plan the route within the city, book entertainers (Hairball, with a variety of opening acts) and 30 commercial food vendors, locate campgrounds, and a ton of other logistics.
Cedar Falls is unique in that it encompasses both the city and the University of Northern Iowa, where most of the events will take place. Mary suggests visitors to Cedar Falls should explore the downtown area (we did, and it’s fabulous…I hate to admit this, but I think it’s better than Ames), the Ice House Museum, restored Post Office on 3rd & Washington, and, of course, the UNI campus.
Mary expects 20,000 visitors on July 22 and has an estimated 1,000 volunteers at the ready. She’s excited to share Cedar Falls’ bicycle culture with a lot of new friends!
We sort of hated to leave Cedar Falls – there was so much to see and do there, that I vowed on the spot to come back and explore the city further. But we had to go “down hill,” as the route finally strays from the Hwy. 20 corridor and heads southeast toward Cedar Rapids.
Our first stop on Day 5 of the route is Hudson (population 2,282). I was happy to see that there’s an actual grocery store here, and in front stands a large cow sculpture, making that the highlight of the town.
I eagerly anticipated the next stop – La Porte City – because I’ve been to this town before, specifically to buy donuts. La Porte City Bakery is known far and wide for its glazed donuts and cinnamon twists. My mouth was actually watering as we headed into town. But, of course, the bakery was closed because we were too late in the day. We did find Tootsie’s Ice Cream stand open, but we’d already had those chocolate malts earlier in the day…so we didn’t order anything.
The next town, Mt. Auburn, embraces its population number – 150 – by highlighting it right on its welcome sign. The downtown area is as small as you expect it will be, but what you don’t expect is for someone to come out of one of the buildings and regale you with tales of a rock ‘n’ roll career.
But that is what happened in Mt. Auburn. Ron James came out of the Rhythm of Life Music Hall and talked about the small town’s citizens pulling together to clean up the streets in preparation for RAGBRAI. He himself was putting a fresh coat of paint on the music hall. In fact, he had the paintbrush in hand as he spoke. We asked about the kinds of music he attracts to his establishment and he launched into a tale of his own career, playing with the likes of Glen Campbell, Wynona Judd, Rare Earth, Bob Seger, Grand Funk, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Wow! He admits that nobody would recognize his name (“I’m a nobody,” he says) even though he is proficient on 32 musical instruments. Someday I’d like to visit Mt. Auburn when Ron has a concert going on.
Vinton, Iowa (population 5,257) was perhaps the most surprising stop along today’s route. Vinton calls itself the City of Lights, and we were thinking, yeah, right.
But it’s a great little town! The “City of Lights” claim comes from the dozens of old-fashioned streetlights that line the main street. And the Benton County courthouse is a beauty. Shops and restaurants line the streets, the architecture is noteworthy, and the town has half a dozen well-painted murals. Not to mention a parade of corn statues.
Two more towns to go before calling it a day. Shellsburg (population 983) has a few interesting attractions. Coop’s Roadhouse Bar & Grill looks like a fun place to eat and drink. There’s a candy company called Divine Decadents. And, of course, Shellsburg is the future home of the Benton County Freedom Rock.
We ended our second day of driving the RAGBRAI route in Palo, a Cedar Rapids bedroom community and home to Iowa’s only nuclear power plant. Riders will continue to Hiawatha for their Day 5 overnight stay, and that’s where we’ll start our next day’s drive.