Gratitude: With RAGBRAI comes rush of emotions, experiences, connections


Whenever Sarah or I do something for my dear sweet mother, she says, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” My sense is that she says those two words, three times, to anyone who helps her in anyway. It’s a sense of gratitude she feels.

I am feeling that way today, a sense of gratitude for opportunities, friends new and old, the beautiful world around me and for the warm feelings that come when adversity is met and the goal is completed as well as for a deeper sense in how we are connected.

This gratitude swelled during a mostly sweltering hot week riding a bike across Iowa from Le Mars through overnight towns Sac City, Ft. Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa, DeWitt and finally to Clinton. It was in Clinton where, on the nicest day of the week, I dipped my front tire into the Mississippi River. Goal accomplished.

The adversity started on the first day, an 87-mile ride from Le Mars to Sac City–RAGBRAI never takes the shortest routes between two overnight towns. Although the morning started with cooler temperatures, late morning and afternoon were hot, hot, hot in the high 90s with the sun reflecting off the roadway. Even with drinking some water every five minutes or so, dehydration set in. It wasn’t pleasant. I had to lie down in the shade halfway through dinner.

This was my longest bike ride ever.

Somehow that experience moved me into a better place. Friends offered suggestions for better hydration and they worked. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Gratitude.

On these hot days a new strategy emerged. Leave the campsite by 5:30 a.m., and ride as far as possible by 10:30 when things heated up. Then take long rests at pass-through towns until coming to the new campground in a new overnight city.

The strategy worked and as the week progressed I felt stronger.

Even in the darkest moments, there was beauty around me.

I hope to never forget those sunrises. The sun, a brilliant orange peeked up over the eastern horizon. Riders by the hundreds stopped on the side of the road to snap photo after photo.

I’m told that the forest fires way away from here added zest to those sunrises.

To top that off on those first few days was the haze and fog which blanketed the ground in a horizontal pattern. Paired with the sunrise, one might have thought one was traveling through a fantasy land.

How grateful I felt to witness nature at its finest.

Along the way I met people.

I met John Schwab from Durand. He’s the former football coach there. He wondered if I knew of someone by the name of Mike Hyland.

“OMG,” I said. “Mike’s been my friend for nearly 40 years. We’ve done a lot of marathon training together.”

Small world?

Another time, I was sitting in the shade enjoying peach ice cream when a guy sat next to me and we started talking. He was from Ohio.

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When I shared that I was from Galena, he shared a big smile and said, “I love Galena.”

Thirty-five years ago he brought his girlfriend to Galena and proposed to her. Earlier this summer they returned, staying at the Lamberson Guest House.

I was beside myself.

“Behind Lamberson did you see the brick house on the corner next to the church?” I asked. “That’s where I live.”

Many people I met that week shared how much they loved Galena.

While talking to Mark and Tyler Moran in Jesup on the way from Waterloo to Anamosa, a Jennifer Smerod from San Marcos, Calif., walked up. On her third RAGBRAI, she had spotted the GOATS Cycling jerseys on Mark and Tyler and wanted us to know if we knew her godmother, Carola Connor, a Galena Territory resident who was a member of the GOATS. We did. (GOATS by the way stands for Go Out and Tour's the name of the Galena cycling club.).

On Friday, from Anamosa to DeWitt, I wore a Grinnell College jersey. A guy walked up to shake my hand. He said, “Mark McAllister, Grinnell ’81.”

I knew Mark, but would never recognize him in a crowd. He was in my brother’s class at Grinnell. His sister, Mary McAllister, lives in Maquoketa, Iowa, and we’ve been friends and business colleagues since the mid-1980s.

Those days, I was riding with new friends, John and Brian. Both live in New Hampshire and were part of our little crowd of friends. My connections came so quickly that they began teasing and wondering if I knew half of RAGBRAI.

I am so grateful for our little group and the sense of community we developed. In addition to John and Brian were college friends Ed Senn and Robert Meyer hailing from Washington, D.C., and from Miami, Fla., as well as Tom and Ben from Knoxville, Iowa.

A grandfather-grandson duo, Steve and Jack, joined our little group. At age 13, this was Jack’s seventh RAGBRAI experience. He’s completed all of them. It was touching to see how they bonded.

Steve’s brother-in-law also dealt with bile duct cancer, the same rare cancer which is impacting Sarah.

I’m grateful that they were all part of my life for one short week and that we could have so many fun and thoughtful conversations with each other.

I’m also feeling so grateful to the hundreds if not thousands of volunteers who make this event possible as these pass-through and overnight towns provide food, entertainment and port-a-potties available to the riders. There are also all the law enforcement officers and EMTs who make sure the intersections and roadways are safe and who provide assistance when necessary. All met with some form of adversity along the way and yet they all pulled off their appointed tasks.

As I approached the end of RAGBRAI, I was overcome by a wave of emotions and tears came to my eyes. So much had been accomplished and experienced.

And, after dipping my front tire into the Mississippi River and lifting my bike over my head, I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing only that it was possible with the help and support of a great many people.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

by P. Carter Newton, publisher