July 6, 2013
Of Boys, Bikes, Gnats, and Bottles
In the morning, after the smell of BBQ and sulfur had faded, I was startled awake by my equally startled dog that had chosen at this moment to prove she was worth every exerted muscle entailed in towing her along. The father of one of the families, unaware of our location (a test to my ability to hide myself well, one of my primary goals on the road) had swung around the shrubbery protecting our campsite, and my old girl had sprung to life, barking, baring her teeth, belying the years evident in her limp.
He backed away as quickly as she had sprung forward, assuring her he posed no threat, hoping she would assume the same non-threatening posture. When she refused to provide the assurance, I did, calling her to return to my side, secretly thankful I had recently taken to attaching the leash to her harness before falling asleep rather than letting her run at large as she is wont to do.
A rescue, a scrapper herself, she, like any other scrapper, has struggled with socialization. As her growl faded, the laughing echo of the person I had interviewed two days early reverberated through my memory, and I recalled his jibe, “I bet you don’t ‘work well with others,’ do you?”
As she and I shared our breakfast, our intruder’s son joined him, and before long, the young boy pulled ashore the wide-mouth bass she and I had watched ripple our remote corner of the lake. It was large enough to have required his father’s assistance, measuring about 2/3 the height of its young captor. Within minutes, the fish had barely ceased squirming on the grass, its scales gleaming in the sun, when the three generations represented on the shore declared the trip to be successful, and the boy, aware of the snapping of my shutter, proudly carried his trophy past my now docile dog, smiling almost as broadly as the bass was long, exuding head-to-toe, well deserved pride.
Surrealists believed time loops continuously back upon itself. At that moment, I relived the scornful silence of my father as he struggled to untangle my line with a flopping carp attached to the other end, and understood why my breakfast this morning included tuna from an plastic/foil envelope rather than the latest catch. The image of the smiling young boy and myself at about the same age folded upon that of my daughter hauling in a beautiful rainbow trout from the same shore from which I had been banned after the tangled line incident. I smiled wryly as I pedaled away from the lake with my over-packed haul that did not include a wriggling fish.
Fourth of July weekends at times seem to last forever, and the pop of celebratory fireworks reverberate at odd hours, which is why when I first heard the loud “cachunk” interrupting my reverie regarding fish scented by freshly mown grass, I thought little of it, but my quick jerk/duck reflex allowed me to avoid getting thunked by the offensive projectile: a beer bottle shooting from the side of the mower.
When my children were young, they learned the early lesson not to litter, a transgression which bore deepest consequences. If even the smallest scrap were to slip through their hands without being retrieved, their outcome had been an entire city block (my choice) of cleanup.
Our dusty, windy town boasted an expanse of baseball fields at the edge of town with a chain-link fence that served as a makeshift wind block once filled with blowing detritus. After only serving their time along that fence once, they were careful not to litter thereafter.
I smiled knowing that a discarded bottle would not have been a result of my children’s celebration of the long weekend. I was struck by the ever-increasing awareness that litter in Iowa is, indeed, a problem that has resulted in more than just dangerous projectiles. The litter I had noted abandoned by the bags-full along the most scenic areas along my journey also serve as a breeding grounds for another pestilence of my trip: insects.
After dodging the flying bottle, my racing heart settled into a steady pace, and I longed to be able to escape the annoyance of the gnats constantly circling me as easily as I had shrugged off the temporary increase in blood pressure from taking the near-hit. Yet each time I noted another discarded piece of litter, my ire (as well as remembrances of fear) escalated. Partial solution: at least rid myself of the pesky gnats.
I had forgotten one of the primary trials of living in small towns until I had hit the third one in search of another can of insect repellent. Store after store in one small town after another yielded the same result: “We sold the last bottle a few hours ago,” I was informed. “The mosquitoes, gnats and ticks seem to be particularly bad this year, and we can’t keep anything in stock. I would suggest (insert name of another local store), but they are closed for the long weekend.”
With each subsequent stop as the town names faded one after another, though I couldn’t ascertain the seemingly precious and rare repellent, I did garner a number of observations regarding my bike and my quest—at least the easier one that moved me closer to Colorado sunsets since my quest for insect repellent had been less successful than ticking off the miles as I headed further west.
Nearly everyone I met has either known someone or has participated themselves in Iowa’s RAGBRAI, or Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The event began in 1973 when two Des Moines Register writers chose to record their experiences as they spent eight days and six nights riding the width of Iowa. Originally approximately 300 people participated, whereas the event, officially limited to 8,500 participants, now purportedly attracts over 40,000 annually. And each participant has been raised to iconic status by their local admirers.
As I began my own trek across the width of the state, the names of towns clicked away almost as frequently as my shifting gears—Grand Mound, Calamus, Wheatland, Lowden, Clarence, Stanwood—each one bereft of insect repellent but resplendent in tales of RAGBRAI and its participants.
Near sunset, as I pulled into yet another burb in a long string of them in hot pursuit of a way to eliminate the extra gnat protein in my diet, I was met with the same response, “No, hun, I sold the last bottle… but I have something even better.” She reached for a small brown bottle of a concoction as local as the ride itself: vanilla oil, assuring me it worked better than repellent would—“at least for the gnats,” she hastily added. “Just use it like you would perfume. A dab here and there, and you are good.”
As I paid for my bottle, she smiled, and gleefully noted, “Hey, I never met anyone famous before.” Her words echoed emptily behind me, and perhaps it was a sense of pride that made me disinclined to point out that I was neither a famous author, artist, or even bicyclist, but someone running from my own ghosts, trying to hold my life together with a tow bar and a bunch of bungee cords.
In addition to RAGBRAI, Iowa hosts Habitat for Humanities and Bike N Build, two other touring groups who traipse across the state on their way from the east to west coast. With so many events, as well as a swelling sense of pride when the locals talk about them, I anticipated Iowa drivers to be more bike friendly than they actually are, and I believed the trails to be more plentiful and easier to access. I was wrong on both counts.
Although I have had my share of honks, hoots and hollers, all to be expected, I suppose, when one trudges slowly up one hill, shooting down the next, smelling something like a cross between yesterday’s BBQ, sulfur and citronella vanilla candles. Yet every push of the pedal, as well as swallow of the gnat, and pop of discarded bottle has been well worth the effort, even if I still have yet to proudly walk along one of the numerous Iowa lakeshores or riverbeds towing a fish.