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Letter to the Editor: RAGBRAI reflections

To the Editor:

Yes, it finally happened. RAGBRAI XLV hit Allamakee County and Waukon, and what a sight it was with thousands of people and bicycles everywhere. Not since Dick Sparrow and Ray Sweeney brought the 40-horse hitch to Waukon have so many strangers graced our streets - only this time they stayed for a while.

It was one of those “you almost had to be there” moments. I hope many pictures were taken for sharing with locals and others years from now. I was asked by a friend in another state, “What exactly is RAGBRAI?”.

To summarize it, RAGBRAI is a combination of a big tent chautauqua, a carnival (without big rides), a traveling road show, a smaller version of the Iowa State Fair, a food extravaganza - both local and mobile, an outdoor rock concert, and the summer Olympics, all rolled into one. The only thing missing was a religious revival, and maybe some of that took place also.

In traversing the RAGBRAI grounds - which wasn’t easy because of the many street barriers, school bus shuttles filled in, including to Green Valley, which was like a tent city in itself with thousands of people, food and great music. In sharing “supper” (an Iowa term) there with a few riders - two men from Arizona and a couple from Michigan, many questions about Iowa, and specifically northeast Iowa, arose.

A question from one of the Arizonians was, “Is Iowa always this green?”, and the Michigan lady piped in, “And with so many variations?”. I immediately thought of the Irish song “40 Shades of Green” and the Irish settlement of Wexford which they would see firsthand the next day.

There was also good country music at Stage 2 in the City parking lot near Kwik Star. Many wanderers were enjoying that.

Late Friday afternoon, while standing in the midst of possibly 1,000 people on Spring Avenue listening to our local talented band “El Caminos” warm up the crowd, and with the sun reflecting off the west wall of the large brick building on the east corner of the stoplight intersection, when a tall man suddenly proclaimed to his partner while pointing to his right, “Look, there is where we are now and where we are going tomorrow,” as he moved his cell phone camera into place.

Those around him also looked up, and those next to them, and in seconds hundreds of visitors - strangers from everywhere - were raising cell phones, tablets and cameras with telephoto lenses, taking pictures of the colorful wall mural of Waukon and Allamakee County. The secret was now out, and with the aid of modern technology the rest of the country, and possibly the world, within seconds knew where Waukon and Allamakee County, Iowa are located. It would be interesting to see if anyone contacted our city because of such pictures. An hour later, new members of the crowd were still taking pictures.

Thanks to those from years ago who had the foresight to put such a descriptive painting of our area for all, to inform and enjoy, and thanks to the artist who painted it. That’s what one could call visual promotion of our geographical area.

Our local churches seemed to have good responses to their food and pie offerings. I partook in one such offering and heard only good comments. There is no shortage of great pie makers in Allamakee County.

Where would one start to thank those who even ventured to host this extravaganza. They could maybe number in the hundreds, but a few stand out: The Waukon Police force and Street Department for putting up the many street barricades so quickly and removing them much the same way; and also to the police department for traffic control that kept everyone safe and still allowed local traffic to move about without paralyzing the city. Also, Pladsen Motors must have had a huge investment of time and manpower to allow use of their property, etc. for the main tent site, which was ideal. It was also inspiring to see so many young people volunteering in all areas with their eyes wide, taking in the mass of humanity. Perhaps down the road they may use it on a resumé.

The band highly promoted lived up to its reputation and, literally, seemed to make the Spring Avenue building walls vibrate. It was not a place to be if one suffered from agoraphobia. If in the midst of a crowd, one needed to stay there.

A sound technician told me while wrapping up that the venue was as good as it gets, with acoustics and the speakers’ sound being able to carry out indefinitely, unlike circular arenas or stadiums that feed back. I’m sure some in south Waukon could testify to that fact.

A few statements overheard from locals and visitors included: “I didn’t know northeast Iowa even had so many portable outhouses;” “Waukon rocks;” “This is the best RAGBRAI party ever;” and “They saved the best part of RAGBRAI for last.”

A couple from New York who were first-timers to Iowa had two extra days of vacation, so they asked if they could leave from Lansing on bicycles to make it to the Field of Dreams, or if they should depart from Harpers Ferry. They were told it was 75 miles of hills and valleys.

All in all, this July 2017 bicycle invasion may go down in history as the most people ever congregated at one time in our little county seat town, 40,000-plus one estimate stated. All involved did Allamakee County proud and upheld the high standard Iowa has exemplified in hospitality toward strangers. No wonder they call it “Iowa nice”.

Jim Magner

P.S. Other Allamakee County towns should tell of their RAGBRAI experience.

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