RAGBRAI 2017: Day Two – July 24

“Would you like a tissue?” she asked as I stood in line at the porta-potties. “There isn’t any toilet paper left.” “Sure,” I said gratefully, thinking to myself, “Now there is a difference maker.”

Wayne and I cycled 103 miles today, with the other riders completing a shorter loop. Starting in Spencer, we rode through the towns of Ayrshire, Curlew, Mallard, West Bend, Plover, and Whittemore to reach Algona. Three things caught my attention today.

First, difference makers abound. RAGBRAI riders are unfailingly polite and upbeat. RAGBRAI is not a race, so there is no need for riders to compete with each other. Everyone is out to have fun at the same time as they test their physical endurance. Every minute I hear someone say, “Rider out. Rider in. On your left. Car up. Car back. Good job!” Whenever someone goes down on their bike or has a mechanical issue, riders always stop to help and support one another. Because I am trying to be polite as well, I purchased and tried to eat a “walking taco” in a Doritos bag for breakfast. Regretfully, it will be my last walking taco ever.

My favorite words of support are, “Rumble strip ahead!” On many rural roads in Iowa, there are three sets of rumble strips that warn drivers of a stop sign ahead. The problem is that they cover the entire lane and are very hard on bike tires. Warning riders ahead of time about rumble strips prevents many falls. More discerning riders will even say, “Good rumble strip!” or “Bad rumble strip!” depending on how deep the grooves are.

Second, the “church ladies” of United Methodist churches along the way have been very hospitable to RAGBRAI riders. Men are helping too, but lots of signs talk about the food that church ladies are selling. This morning we stopped at a roadside concession sponsored by Emmettsburg United Methodist Church and greeted their new pastor, Hojin Shin, and church members, Later in the day, we stopped at a park in Plover to eat the famous ham balls cooked by the Plover Hope United Methodist Church. All proceeds are going to mission. Difference makers.


Third, our host churches and families have been unfailingly gracious to our RAGBRAI team of five riders and Wendy, our driver. Tonight we enjoyed a wonderful spaghetti dinner at Algona United Methodist Church, which is located in the center of town and welcomed hundreds of visitors to their Fellowship Hall. Again, proceeds are going to mission. We were graciously hosted overnight by Tom and Pat Larson. Difference makers.
How will you be a difference maker today?

The Circuit Riders of RAGBRAI

Overheard yesterday on our first day of cycling.

Rider #1: “I feel like spaghetti for lunch.”

Rider #2: “That’s what the churches always serve during RAGBRAI.”

Rider #3: “There sure are a lot of churches in Iowa.”

Rider #4: “Sounds like heartburn to me!”

We arrived in Orange City in northwestern Iowa on Saturday afternoon, ready to begin our seven-day RAGBRAI adventure by riding our bikes across the state of Iowa. The tradition is for riders to dip their rear tire in the Missouri River (western border of Iowa) before the ride and then dip their front tire in the Mississippi River (eastern border) a week later at the end. Because Orange City is not within a short distance of the Missouri, ride officials brought the river water to us.

Our team is appropriately named The Circuit Riders. Pastor Chad Jennings, his teenage children Nathan and Abby, United Methodist lay person Wayne Bank from Michigan, and I are riding together, with Wendy Jennings as our driver. Three years ago, Chad, Wayne, and I cycled a thousand miles from Brandon, South Dakota, to Port Clinton, Ohio as a fundraiser for malaria prevention in The United Methodist Church

Any serious cyclist knows about RAGBRAI: (The Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It all began in 1973 when The Des Moines Register feature writer/copy editor John Karras, an avid bicyclist, suggested to Don Kaul, author of The Register’s “Over the Coffee” column, that he ride his bicycle across Iowa and write about what he experienced. Kaul said he would do it if Karras rode with him.

Around three hundred people showed up for the initial ride on very short notice, beginning in Sioux City and ending in Davenport. Since 1973, more than 326,650 people have ridden at least some part of the 44 annual RAGBRAIs. However, no one knows how many people have been touched in other ways along the 19,542 total miles covered by the ride since 1973. RAGBRAI has been routed through 80 percent of the incorporated towns in Iowa.

In fact, the ride has become so popular that RAGBRAI officials now limit the number of week-long riders to 8,500 in order to maintain control and ensure fewer injuries. In essence, however, 20,000 day and week riders, family members, volunteers, and concession workers all move across the state of Iowa together. RAGBRAI riders come from all fifty states and many countries around the world, garnering much media attention. In 2005, Sports Illustrated named RAGBRAI as one of the 25 Summer Essentials, things that all sports enthusiasts need to do before Labor Day.

It’s no coincidence that our group name is Circuit Riders. John Wesley’s plan for evangelism in America consisted of circuits made up of two or more churches called a charge. Pastors would be appointed to a charge and would travel from church to church, preaching daily in whatever site was available. They would make disciples and baptize converts, administer communion, and organize the Methodists into small groups for discipleship. These itinerating preachers were called circuit riders, who rode horses, traveled light, and carried books in their saddlebags. At times, it would take circuit riders five or six weeks to cover their entire circuit before starting over again. The Methodist Church grew to be the largest denomination in the United States in the 1800’s because the circuit riders moved west as the settlers moved west.

Our team is circuit riding this week, only we’re riding bikes rather than horses. Since a galloping horse can travel 25-30 miles an hour and the average RAGBRAI rider probably covers 10-15 miles an hour, we won’t be moving as fast as our Methodist clergy forbearers. We’ll be riding 402.7 miles over seven days, with two optional loops that add an extra 48.8 miles.

From what I can glean, the first religious service in northwestern Iowa may have been held in the Spirit Lake area in 1857 by Rev. Prescott, a Methodist circuit rider, several months after the Spirit Lake Massacre. In 1859, Prescott asked the Methodist conference to send preachers to the frontier settlement. One of them was the circuit riding preacher, Rev. Samuel Pillsbury. In 1865, the first camp meeting in northwestern Iowa was held in a grove at what is now known as Ft. Dodge Point.

The RAGBRAI Circuit Riders will be attempting to connect with members of the twenty-three United Methodist churches that are on our seven-day route between Orange City and Lansing, our ending point along the Mississippi River. Like the circuit riders of old, we will greet whoever is present at each church or is selling “church food” in town, offer words of encouragement and prayer, and, at times, bread break together. Clergy in United Methodist churches along the route have offered to host our Circuit Rider team overnight, and we have brought our sleeping bags. It will be a far cry from the circuit riders of old, however. Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), one of the most colorful Methodist frontier preachers, described the life of the circuit-rider in his autobiography: “A Methodist preacher, when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical Institute, hunted up a hardy pony, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, a Bible, Hymn book, and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle-bags for a pillow. Often he slept in dirty cabins, ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee; took deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune.”


We were hosted our first night by Pastor Don and Myra Nelson and participated in the RAGBRAI Expo where we could check out the latest bike gear and enjoy a variety of food booths. Our first day riding from Orange City to Spencer was 69 miles. It wasn’t as hot as last week, but lots and lots of Gatorade was consumed. Our overnight hosts on Sunday night were Pastor Paul Frederiksen and Jane Moen at Spencer Grace UMC. Today we are on the road again to Algona with 101 miles of riding for those of us taking the long way!

Thanks be to God that the circuit riders of RABGRAI will have a much more comfortable adventure this week. In fact, the riders have lots of fun dressing up, partying, and simply having a good time riding out in the Iowa cornfields.

At the same time, I pray that, like the Methodist circuit riders of old, we, too, will spread scriptural holiness across the land of Iowa. By riding across the state, we want to share the good news of God’s love for all people and encourage everyone we meet to become difference makers for Christ wherever they live, work, play, and worship.

P.S. We did not have spaghetti at Spencer Grace UMC tonight. We had delicious pork BBQ sandwiches, baked beans, and coleslaw. Nor did we get heartburn!

P.P.S.: I hope to send brief updates of our adventures each day this week.

Pura Vida

I had just completed seventh grade when my parents took us four kids on our first big trip “out west.” It was my grand introduction to the spirituality of travel. My father constantly encouraged us to “pay attention to everything.” As I observed weather patterns, ever-changing geography, and the variety of plant and animal life, I also began paying attention to the language, dress, culture, and habits of the people in the places we visited. Especially enthralled by Yellowstone, Arches, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks, I reveled in the handiwork of God around every corner and always wanted to keep hiking when it was time to turn around. I announced one night that I wanted to be a national park ranger when I grew up.

After my first overseas trip in high school with my church youth group, I realized that if I learned other languages, I could better connect with people around across the globe and celebrate that we are more alike than different. By participating in mission trips at home and abroad, I understood the importance putting my faith into action but also struggled with the danger of inadvertently exploiting the very communities we hoped to help. While studying music in Germany during college, I developed deep friendships and came to embrace a much simpler and meaningful life. This made it extremely difficult to return to our much more consumer oriented society in the US.

Today I strive to travel with humility, prayerfully seeking God in the most unexpected of people, forming relationships with those who speak, dress, live, and worship differently, and challenging myself to see my country and my own life with new eyes. One of my favorite travel quotes is from Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” 

Gary and I just returned from a vacation in Costa Rica, and I am still reflecting on the spiritual impact of the land and its people. The national motto of Costa Rica is pura vida, which literally means “pure life.” Costa Ricans use this phrase to greet people, convey gratitude, and express the value of living simply. I experienced in Costa Rica a people who enjoy life, are not obsessed about “getting ahead” or competition, and are deeply connected with the land. For a country that is smaller than Lake Michigan and has 4.9 million people, Costa Rica leads the world in ecotourism, environmental imagination, and living in harmony with all of God’s creatures.

  • Costa Rica (CR) is the third “greenest” country in the world after Finland and New Zealand
  • CR contains 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity but only 0.03% of the world’s surface
  • CR uses 99.2% renewable energy, including hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power; no nuclear, diesel, or coal is used
  • CR has vowed to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by the year 2020
  • 25% of CR’s land is owned by the government, including 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, and many other protected areas that enhance the distinctive and diverse natural habitats found throughout the country.
  • CR is home to10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 indigenous and migratory birds, 205 species of mammals, 35,000 species of insects, and over 1,000 species of fish
  • 10% of the world’s butterflies are in CR

  • 99% of crops in CR are organic; McDonalds is not permitted to import beef or veggies because of the risk of pesticide contamination
  • Children are required to bring recycling items to school
  • CR has not had an army since 1948, when a conscious decision was made to use the money saved for education
  • CR has a government-run universal health care system
  • 98% of Costa Ricans can read and 66% have a university degree.
  • Everybody works, with employment offered to tens of thousands of neighboring Nicaraguans as well

Pura vida is an intentional acknowledgment of Costa Rica’s intimate connection with the environment and each other. As I reflected on my opportunity to visit Costa Rica, I wondered, “How can we recover a sense of pura vida in our country and world? How can we do better?

What will it take for us to realize that we have one precious earth that is shared by 7.5 billion people and countless other living creatures and that it is our human responsibility to care for it? What will it take for the US to have a national health care plan that prioritizes caring for the most vulnerable among us rather than giving tax breaks to the wealthy? What will it take to engage each other in open and honest conversation around issues that threaten to divide us, such as racism, immigration, poverty, world religions, human sexuality, and creation care?

To put it more simply, as people of faith, how can we ensure that all people experience pura vida? What is our responsibility as human beings created in the image of God to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” by embracing and witnessing to pura vida?

In Krista Tippett’s 2015 book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, she interviews Dr. Ellen Davis, with whom she studied the Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in the 1990’s. In the interview, Davis says that a student approached her one day about how she lectured all the time about care for the “the land.” Davis said, “You can’t go more than a few chapters without seeing some reference to land, water, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water.” Davis realized that in her own travels, she had become more aware of the huge difference between the detailed attention biblical writers give to the land and our obliviousness to the land in the US.

Tippett asked Dr. Davis, “So how do you step back from the Genesis language of subduing and especially ‘dominion’ – what do you see that is not clear in the way we have translated and used this text?”

Davis answered, “The Hebrew word is a strong word, and I render it ‘exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures.’[i] The notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art of being human… But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing, in previous verses, of the creatures of sea and sky. They too are to be fruitful and multiply.” Pura vida.

Why is travel a spiritual act? Because it reminds me that, as an American and a citizen of God’s world, I can do better in my attempt to live a pura vida that respects the diversity of all living creatures. Because by connecting with and learning from people who are not like me, I am a more responsible world citizen who acknowledges the impact that my decisions can have on people across the globe. Because humbly embodying the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit has a difference-maker effect on others and our earth. Because travel enlarges our borders and draws the circle wider than it was before.

Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 
I really did want to be a park ranger, but God evidently had other plans. God wants to use each one of us to exercise skilled mastery and work for the day when the natural world, its human citizens, and every living creature experience a pura vida that embraces our common humanity. Wherever our travels lead us, may we be open to life-changing surprise, build understanding, and develop empathy for the millions of people the world over who attempt to live on far less than they need for a pura vida. May we always celebrate the amazing variety that is “us.”

[i] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise; An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, New York, Penguin Press, 2016, pp. 37-39