RAGBRAI 2019, day 1: Council Bluffs to Atlantic

It’s July, so it’s time for my annual-ish drive across the state of Iowa, following the designated RAGBRAI route. This is always a cool opportunity to get out the big Iowa map, travel along county roads and through small towns, and see parts of Iowa I’ve never seen before.

To be clear, I do this by car, not bike.

I started this year’s drive the 4th of July weekend, spending a full day driving the first two RAGBRAI sections.

The route starts in familiar territory: Council Bluffs. It takes about 2.5 hours to get there from my house in Ames, so I will admit that I only drove as far as the edge of the town to get gas at Casey’s and then turned back east on the official route. I was eager to be on my way.

Riders will experience a teensie bit of the Loess Hills right at the very beginning of Day 1 – not nearly enough, in my opinion. I think every RAGBRAI route should start with a full embrace of Loess Hills.

The beginning of the route runs parallel to Interstate 80, so close that you can see and hear it.

Driving along county road G8L, I was immediately greeted by a patriotic hay bale before rolling into Underwood, population 917.

The next town, Neola, has a good welcome sign, a ball field, big American flag, and brightly painted water tower, all as you enter the town.

Continuing through Neola, I stopped at what appears to be an old movie theater. The sign says the Phoenix operated from 1913 to 2011.

I vaguely remember driving through here before, because there’s an engaging black-and-white mural of the Champlin gas station, complete with vintage cars from the 1940s. Here’s a detail:

Neola also has a bar called the Tipsy Cow, another mural – this one a salute to veterans – a church with a steeple so tall you can see it from all over town, and a small downtown area with buildings in various stages of disrepair.

Next up is Minden, with its grocery store, park, greenhouse, and fireworks stand. And a lot of American flags. (It’s 4th of July weekend, after all.)

Continuing on county road G18 toward Avoca, I encountered slow farm equipment, good-looking corn, and killer hills. To me, the hills are fun. To the bikers on RAGBRAI, they will probably be less so.

In Avoca, today’s “meeting town” on the RAGBRAI route, I inadvertently stumbled upon the town’s 150th celebration. Wow, this is a big summer for Avoca – first a sesquicentennial and then a RAGBRAI stop.

The celebration ran July 3-6, with games and a farmers market, car show, train display, scavenger hunt, barbeque, corn boil, watermelon feed, beer garden, talent show, fireworks, 5K run, pancake breakfast, swimming, kiddie parade, sand volleyball, ice cream social, food trucks, and lots more. Just thinking about the planning that goes into this kind of small-town celebration makes me tired.

The day I was there (Saturday, July 6: “Born To Be Wild” day, according to a sign in one storefront), there were a lot of bikes of a different type: motorcycles.

I was intrigued by the trivia questions in some of the store windows. Do you know what was built in Avoca in 1924 and at 250 feet long and 135 feet wide is said to be the largest in the state of Iowa? Well, I do not. (Let me know if you have the answer, because this is bugging me.)

I hated to just drive away from Avoca’s celebratory downtown, but I was eager to get to Walnut, Iowa’s Antique City. (As an editor, I cringe at this, because I’m sure that it should be “Iowa’s Antiques City,” right? The city’s not an antique; it has antiques stores. Anyway, sorry to digress.)

I love antiques, so I’ve been to Walnut several times before. If you are NOT an antiques lover, you might want to avoid this town, because that’s pretty much the only thing here. A few images for you:

I poked through a few of the shops and managed not to spend any money. I did enjoy just perusing the storefronts, murals, and other visual details. They are clearly starting to prepare for RAGBRAI here in Walnut (population 785).

The land around Walnut is pretty: hills, curves, corn, wind turbines. After leaving Walnut, I drove through Marne (population 115) without stopping, even for one photo. Perhaps I was too hasty. Marne has a darn nice website, touting the town’s “convenient location between Omaha and Des Moines” and its proximity to I-80. There’s apparently a beautiful park with tons of amenities. How did I miss this? My favorite thing about the website? Pictures of pie. Marne’s slogan, if you’re curious, is “From a proud past to a promising future.” All I know is that I slowed down a bit, looked left, looked right, and then noticed that the speed limit had gone back up.

Wow, today went by quickly on four wheels – I’m sure it will feel a lot longer on two. I got to Atlantic (population 7,112) around noon. I’ll tell you more about it in my next post: Atlantic to Winterset.

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