Walking the Beans and Climbing the Hills in Iowa

"If you don't stay hydrated in this heat, you start imagine men in kilts and women wearing a lot less." - Ernie Corrigan

If you are thinking about running for President of the United States, you are going to have to spend some time here in Iowa to help you understand what folks here care about. In 1973, Des Moines Register writers Donald Kaul and John Karras decided the best way to find out what Iowans were thinking about was to climb on their bikes, ride across the state and ask people what was on their minds. The initial result was a series of feature stories by the avid bicyclists, but the lasting legacy of that first 450-mile trek is the Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), now in its 39th year.

This is my second year at RAGBRAI, and while it might not be most people’s idea of a vacation, I couldn’t be happier – even while straining in near 100 degree heat climbing the hills of Iowa. Hills of Iowa?

Brooklyn-owa. The Community of Flags and birthplace of John Wayne.

The first Iowan fallacy to fall for me was the notion that Iowa is flatter than a parking lot. Yesterday’s ride from Altoona to Grennell was barely 60 miles, but it boasts 66 hills and a climbing elevation of 3,200 feet. Not exactly Montana, but those hills get your attention and remind you that if you really want to understand something, it is best to stay close to the ground where it is really happening.

The upcoming 2012 presidential caucuses in Iowa are going to help decide which Republican candidate is left standing to oppose President Obama in the fall, but seeds of that contest are already popping here in corn country. Iowans, like their counterparts in New Hampshire, worry every year that the primary schedule will make the Iowans’ votes less important, but the state may play an even bigger role next year in deciding the fate and future of native Iowan Michele Bachmann, who now serves in Congress from Minnesota.

The 2011 RAGBRAI takes us to a final destination in Davenport, Iowa on the Mississippi, 450 miles from the Missouri River where the ride began on Sunday. My first and only time in Davenport was in 1987.  As a political reporter, I was covering the early presidential forays of then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who would eventually claim his party’s nomination in 1988 before losing the presidency to George Herbert Walker Bush.

Typical grouping of riders makes the ride seem shorter but there are still 50 miles to Coraville today.

It was in Davenport where I first learned the importance of knowing – and appreciating – local culture and language. It was there when an Iowan told me about how Iowan school kids would earn a few bucks by “walking the beans,” a process where you walk through a harvested bean field and pull the old bean stalks so they can rotate the soil and plant corn.

A local driver for UPS told me the other night that the one thing that galls her about outsiders (she was talking about someone like me!) is that when people hear she’s from Iowa, they invariably ask her about the state’s reputation as a big producer of potatoes. “That’s Idaho,” she said, clearly annoyed, although I have always been clear on the difference. I didn’t mention that potatoes also come from Maine.

The highlight of my 75-mile ride today might be meeting the uncle of one of my ride mates, Michael Flaherty, whose uncle Ed Flaherty is planning to hold a one-man protest against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya, I guess). Mike told me to look for Ed somewhere between the towns of Brooklyn and Victor. And then it’s on to Coralville where Ed’s son Brian is an EMT on duty at the Coralville Fire station.

It pays to know that Ed is a faithful and committed Democrat and that his son is a firefighter. Never know when that might come in handy during a presidential caucus.

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