Taking Chances

When I was 26, I was actively looking to begin the next stage in my life. I was ready. To meet my soul mate. To settle down. To have babies. And a home. With a yard (maybe). There was no match.com or Tinder or any other kind of online dating app. There was mostly work, and bars, and happenstance. None of these were working for me. And so, I left my home in San Francisco. I packed my bike and my tent. And I headed to Iowa.

For a week, for a ride across the state. Because, hey, you never know where your soul mate might be hiding.

RAGBRAI, Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, is a bike ride from the Missouri River, bordering Iowa’s western side, to the Mississippi, on Iowa’s eastern border. The ride was started in 1973 by two Des Moines Register columnists. Two guys who thought Iowa was a beautiful place and were determined. Determined to meet people who agreed with them and to convince people who didn’t.

I decided to do RAGBRAI in 1988. By that time, the race directors accepted lottery submissions from all over the world. They capped the number of participants at 8,000. I received an official spot in the ride, but thousands of non-registered riders came without a lottery spot. Bandit riders. Right there in the Iowa cornfields.

RAGBRAI is approximately 400 miles of riding over seven days. In July. At temperatures often over 90 degrees. Towns across the state vie for the honor of being on the route. The lucky ones are night stops, where riders buy up hotel rooms and pitch tents all over town. Churches sell spaghetti dinners for $3 per plate. Local bands set up in town commons and many riders dance all night. And then ride all day.

I loved RAGBRAI. I did not meet my soul mate, but I did meet people from all over the world. They were old and young. Some were on beat-up paperboy bikes. Others were on state-of-the-art high tech machines. Throughout the ride, there were lemonade stands, manned by little Iowans, on just about every corner. They didn’t want money. They wanted a signature in a book, attesting that I was there, in Iowa, on their street, and that I was from the far away world of San Francisco. And that, for that brief moment, I existed in their lives. I like that.

Ten years after I rode my bike in RAGBRAI, I was settled down, and married, with a son, and a house, and a yard. None of this settling down came as a result of that ride. But who I am, what I love, what I want from life, who I continue to aspire to be? Well, RAGBRAI definitely contributed to that. As did all of my pre-settled-down adventures.

I met a young woman in a writing class not long ago. She is not 26, but close. She does not look like I did when I was her age. She is far more glamorous and beautiful. She is a cool dresser and a cooler talker. She is a fabulous writer and a nice person. She does not look like the type of girl who would pack up her bike and head to Iowa. I like her anyway. She is relieved when I tell her I had my last child at 40. She is happy to hear that, perhaps, there is still time left for her. To meet her soul mate. And settle down her life.

I wonder about the adventures she has before her. I hope she enjoys them. And remembers them well.

And I hope she takes a chance on something unusual. Something like RAGBRAI. Because whether or not you are in search of your soul mate, spending a week of your life in the middle of the country, in the middle of the summer, well, there is nothing wrong with that.

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