[ continued from yesterday ]
A clap of thunder dislodged me partially from sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Because it was such a warm night and there was no rain in the forecast, Laura and I had gone to sleep without the fly sheet over our tent, leaving the mesh open to the air. But now I could see that the fly sheet was in place. As I blinked, a flash of lightning cast someone's shadow onto the fabric of the tent. I remember thinking, "Oh, it's so nice of Colin to take care of our tent," before lapsing back into sleep.
I slept fitfully after that, as did Laura, since the tent was now stifling. At one point I realized that she had tied back the door in the fly sheet on her side of the tent so that the rain would fall on her face and help keep her at least somewhat cool. I did the same.
I was chagrined to wake up at 5:00 am (when my alarm went off) and learn that, in fact, the lightning shadow on the tent had belonged not to Colin but to Laura. Since I didn't wake up, she had installed the fly sheet all by herself, not to mention dragging our bags to shelter and snatching down the clothes we'd hung over our bikes to dry. We broke down our tent and packed all our stuff away as quietly as we could in the sleeping camp. We dragged our bags over to the support van, hopped on our bikes, and headed out.
It was Monday, July 23. Our first stop in downtown Cherokee was the one shop open on the main drag selling coffee, fruit, pastries, and granola. We tanked up on caffeine, bolted some food, stashed extra supplies in my pannier, hit the latrines, and hit the road.
The time was 6:20 am, which seemed like plenty early to help us beat the coming heat, but the sailing was anything but smooth. As we joined the streams of bikes headed for the road out of town, we realized that hundreds if not thousands of riders were all trying to get underway at once. Police had blocked off one lane of the main road and were keeping the flow of bike traffic constricted there. The crowd, stretching miles into the distance, was riding practically shoulder to shoulder, in many cases almost too slowly to stay upright. Someone riding outside the cordon was admonished by the police to stay inside the cones for his safety. "What makes you think I'm safer in there?" the rider asked.
Within a couple of miles, we turned a corner and were able to spread out across the whole width of the road, but the crowd was still pretty thick, and we had a nasty hill to climb right away. Laura lost her chain shifting gears halfway up the hill and had to make the dicey passage to safety on the shoulder. I struggled to the top of the hill where I waited for her, watching the road bikes fly by and realizing somewhat belatedly that a hybrid like mine was probably not the best choice for making this journey.
Then again, road bikes had their hazards too. It was somewhere on the back half of that first segment that I witnessed a horrific accident. At an intersection of two roads up ahead, the police were alternately blocking the bike traffic and the crossing car traffic. As we all slowed to stop, I looked directly to my left and saw a fast cyclist hit his front brake too hard. He flipped right over his handlebars, smashing his face into the pavement. His bike fell on top of him, followed an instant later by a tandem that couldn't swerve fast enough. A pileup ensued that Laura and I both, thankfully, missed being part of. (Laura was trailing a ways behind me and reported that the aftermath of the accident looked like a real mess for the people trying to pick it apart.)
Laura and I took advantage of the gradually spreading crowd and relatively cool temperatureshigh seventies to low eightiesto crank out all the miles we could. We barely paused in the first town of Aurelia, sneaking around it to avoid the thick crowds on the main thoroughfare, then spent as little time as we could grabbing more food and water in Hanover.
(Hanover, by the way, an unincorporated town with a reported population of 3, was a good example of the circus that descends on every step along the route. Vendors alone had to have swelled the population a hundred times, and maneuvering through the crowds gathered to pet a baby calf or watch an old-time sawmill in operation was a slow proposition. Oh, and my shop teacher father would have cringed at the way no one operating the sawmill, and no one gawking, wore eye protection.)
By our 8:15 am arrival in Hanover, we were nearly a third of the way through our route for day, and I was feeling very good about our prospects. 9:30 am found us entering the town of Schaller, halfway done. And by 11:00 am, when we stopped for a good long rest in the shade of a gazebo outside Nemaha, we were two-thirds of the way there. But the heat was rising, the air was thickening with humidity, and we had really begun to slow down. We rested in Nehema for probably twenty minutes before setting out again.
We were careful about drinking plenty of water and eating regularly, but even so the fifth segment of the day was tough as hell to get through. Laura called out for a stop when she saw a Gatorade sign halfway along that leg. The bottles of G2 we bought from an enterprising gentleman in the shade of an awning in the driveway of his farmhouse were just the perfect degree of ice-cold. Laura asked him how much it would cost to let her climb into his cooler for a while. "Considering that the ice cost me seventy-five dollars," he said, "I'd have to say seventy-five dollars."
By the time we limped into the town of Sac City, five-sixths of the way to the end, the mercury was well on its way toward triple digits, and we were both wrung out. Drenched in sweat, overheated, wobbly. Laura asked one of the locals where the best place to find some air-conditioning would be. The woman directed us to a nearby pharmacy. (I think the name of the place was Oasis Drugs, but that might be a heat mirage in my memory.)
We lingered there in the cold air of the drugstore, finding excuse after excuse to stick around. We browsed the aisles for small products we could buy. We took turns sitting down in the automated blood-pressure machine. We spoke with the pharmacist. We spoke with the cashier. We did everything we could to avoid going back into the heat for as long as we could.
But we had to. It was still 9.6 miles to the end of our day's route.
Immediately outside the drugstore was a long, steep hill which also happened to be the route out of town. As we limped back to our bikes, we couldn't believe what we were seeingpeople still actually able to ride up that hill. I certainly couldn't. We pushed our bikes up the sidewalk to the crown of the hill, then mounted up and joined the flow.
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that biking that final leg of our route was the hardest thing physically that I've ever done. I wasn't sore, exactlyone amazing thing about our time on RAGBRAI was that we took care of ourselves well enough that neither one of us ever experienced excessively sore musclesbut I was worn out, and the heat made ever motion three times as difficult as it should have been. No matter how much water I drank, I always seemed to need more immediately. Every time I saw a sprinkler that had been turned to spray into the road, I steered through it. Laura was told by someone with a bike thermometer that the temperature above the road surface was 114 degrees. We later heard reports that the road temperature had exceeded 120 at times. We heard reports that the thin tires on some people's road bikes had simply exploded from the heat. (Chalk one more advantage up for hybrids!) Several times we had to merge right to let ambulances pass. At one point I saw a team of EMTs at the side of the road tending to a man in a neck brace on a stretcher.
Here's the thing. The weather reports we'd seen before the trip showed temperatures in the high nineties for the first three days of RAGBRAI, maybe grazing 100 a time or two, after which temps would slowly ramp down to 89 or so by the end of the week. But this was the second straight day with high temperatures around 105 or higher, and the updated forecast now called for two more days of the same.
We took frequent breaks, though one of those breaks was mandated by Laura's chain falling off again on a tough slope. (In fact, this time the chain jammed itself tight between the derailleur and the frame, and it took me a few minutes of trying to dislodge it.) But two main thoughts kept me going through that last leg. First was the anticipation of food and beer. At the five-mile mark, we saw a huge sign for Glacier Bay Bar & Grille (and every mile thereafter). The very name promised coolness and rest, and we determined that this would be the destination we bent our paths toward the moment we reached our sleep town of Lake View.
The second thought was a result of a disquieting realization I'd been grappling with throughout the day. Our current leg was 62.0 miles in length. The next day's route would be 81.2 miles, or nearly 20 miles longer. We were already pushing seven and a half hours on the road. I couldn't see a way, with weather just as hot if not hotter, for us to finish the next day's ride in anything under ten hours. Even if we managed to hit the road by 5:00 amnot by any means a certaintywe couldn't hope to finish until after 3:00 pm, and would probably finish much later. I was on the verge of collapse. Laura was on the verge of collapse. So I gave my permission to entertain what seemed, in the company we were keeping, to be a wickedly transgressive thought.
I told myself that if I could just make it to Glacier Bay, and if Laura were amenable, I would find a way to leave the ride and get us home early.
Glacier Bay was located on the near edge of town. At 1:45 pm, we dumped our bikes and hobbled on wobbly legs into a huge wooden building that wasn't as cold as we had hoped but by God was cool enough. I bought us drink and meal tickets and staked out a table while Laura went to the bar to fetch us beers. The best option was Budweiser, but it came in those new aluminum bottles and was so cold that it could have been captured directly from the runoff of a melting beer glacier.
When our beers were half gone, I turned to Laura and said, "I have a proposition for you."
[ to be continued ]