FAIRFIELD — Vicque Ebentheuer could not believe her bad luck.
Ebentheuer, a former Fairfield resident who locals may remember as Vicque Trautwein, was looking forward to returning to Iowa after 20 years. She planned to take a team of cycling friends from her current state of Idaho to participate in RAGBRAI, giving her a chance to show off her former town. Then disaster struck.
While visiting the Tower of London in England, Ebentheuer fell down the tower’s stairs. That was on June 3, less than two months before RAGBRAI was set to begin July 21. During Ebentheuer’s first appointment with an orthopedic specialist, she begged the doctor to help her get back on her bike for the big ride.
“I don’t care what you do, you’ve got to get me ready for RAGBRAI!” she told him.
The specialist let Ebentheuer ride a stationary bike with a boot on it once a day a few weeks after her fall, so she could at least keep her legs moving. She didn’t put any weight on her foot until a week before RAGBRAI, leaving her little time to train.
Luckily, Ebentheuer has kept herself in good shape throughout her life, especially since she began cycling four years ago. She’s gone on multiday or very long bike rides all over the country and overseas, in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah and as far away as Croatia.
But because of her broken foot, Ebentheuer knew she would need a helping hand to make the 427-mile journey. She rented a bike with an electronic motor to assist her in pedaling up the hills. Hills? In Iowa? Her friends in Idaho couldn’t believe it.
“It’s funny that people in the western U.S. think Iowa is flat,” Ebentheuer said, “until they come here and try to ride a bike. Then they discover how flat it’s not!”
Several of Ebentheuer’s friends from Idaho, after learning she would bike across Iowa with a broken foot, told her “at least it’s flat.”
“Even my husband, Dean Meer, who is from Oregon, told me that on many occasions. Those crazy westerners!” she said.
Ebentheuer was eager to lay eyes on her former stamping grounds of Fairfield after not having stepped foot in the state for two decades. She said the gazebo (Ron Prill Bandstand) was exactly as she remembered it.
“At first, [Fairfield] didn’t feel familiar. But as the week has gone by, I have had a flood of happy memories of when I lived here, making me sad I have to leave soon,” Ebentheuer said.
Ebentheuer’s return trip to Fairfield coincided with her 40-year class reunion, which began Friday, Aug. 2. After finishing RAGBRAI, she spent a week reconnecting with old friends and reminiscing about her youth. High school friends she was able to see included Kathy (Laux) Copeland, Deanna Clingan-Fisher, Joni Davis, Mari (Burke) Pittman and Rochelle (Martin) McCabe.
Pittman even rode one leg of the journey with Ebentheuer, from Fairfield to Burlington.
“It was just a joy having a classmate along on the ride, joining my Idaho friends,” Ebentheuer said.
Ebentheuer brought a team of 19 friends from her biking club in Boise, Idaho. The majority had never ridden RAGBRAI or even visited Iowa. They made T-shirts with the bike club’s name on the front, and on the back it read “Idaho … the other Iowa.”
They were impressed with Fairfield, its musical acts and its RAGBRAI theme. One member of the group brought glow-in-the-dark necklaces specifically to wear in Fairfield for its “glow party” theme.
“I bought the ‘Geared for Weird’ T-shirt,” Ebentheuer said. “It’s a cheerful color, and had terrific detail brought out by the black light. We could tell the town spent a lot of time and effort creating a fun, entertaining and interactive theme. Whoever was on the committee deserves a standing ovation! Fairfield was our favorite stop.”
The group “sampled their way across Iowa,” indulging in the Iowa Craft Beer tents, the Iowa Corn trailers, the maid rites at the American Legion in Stuart and the meatloaf and pie at the United Methodist Church in Fairfield.
“The meatloaf was wonderful!” Ebentheuer said. “My high school [best friend] Joni Davis’s mom Lu Ann volunteered at the church making it a treat in so many ways. We raved over the rhubarb crisp.”
Iowans might not think of their state as having many exotic creatures, but the group from Idaho sure felt that way. They were excited to see lightning bugs, which are rare in their home state.
“I saw one in our campsite in Council Bluffs, and yelled out ‘lightning bug!’” Ebentheuer said. “You should have seen the mass exodus of everyone flying out of their tents. Unfortunately, that was the only one I saw on the trip, and it was gone so quickly only one member of the group was able to see it.”
Lightning bugs prefer humid climates, and that’s why they’re more common in Iowa, a humid state. As a matter of fact, Ebentheuer said Iowa’s humidity “took some getting used to.”
“We only get around 10 inches of rain a year in Boise,” she said. “The humidity is low, and it cools down quite a lot at night. Luckily, we had great weather while in Iowa, which helped ease some of the discomfort.”
Ebentheuer moved from Seattle, Washington, to Fairfield in 1974, when she was 13 years old. She joined First Christian Church and became a cheerleader at Fairfield High School.
“[Moving here] had been a shock in so many ways, but I’m grateful we did. I don’t regret it for a minute, and I treasure my memories of living here,” she said. “I am proud to tell people I am from Fairfield, Iowa!”
Ebentheuer’s stepfather, Danny Trautwein, died in the early 1980s. Her mother, Margaret McCabe, moved to Idaho a few years after Ebentheuer did in 1997. Ebentheuer’s sisters are Angela Volden, Brenda Thomas and Dianne Sims (all maiden names were Thacker), and they now live in Montana, Newton (Iowa) and Wisconsin, respectively.
A woman named Diana Papili drove the team’s trailer containing its bikes to Omaha before hoping on one herself. What follows are her recollections of and reflections on a busy week in Iowa.
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I remember being in southern California the winter of 1980 when it rained so hard the streets became flowing rivers. This is how I saw sections of Iowa this last full week of July when the streets become flowing rivers of bicycling humanity with unofficial estimates upward of 30,000 participants. RAGBRAI is something between a cultural phenomenon and insanity.
From the very first day, despite a steady rain for the entire 63-plus miles, I noticed people sitting in their driveways, places of business, front yards, or wherever they could position themselves just watching while this circus on wheels passed by. At first, I thought they must have dull lives to want to watch people ride by on bicycles. But the other morning as I stood in a long, slow breakfast line at a roadside vendor, I found myself captivated by the unfolding drama traveling from west to east.
“On your left!”
“On your right!”
“Hey, bro! Tell me when you’re passing!”
These and other commands were accompanied by the cacophony of gears shifting, blue tooth speakers blaring, conversation ensuing, and laughter all around. This isn’t a bicycle ride, its life in all its forms, splendor, glory, beauty, and oddities.
There was a man riding around in a red speedo wearing an American flag cape. That’s something I just can’t un-see, though I’d like to. There were tutus on bikes; various costumes; all kinds of stuffed animals mounted to helmets, bike racks, and handlebars; jerseys from all kinds of tours, organizations, centuries, and events.
U.S. Air Force
The U.S. Air Force bicyclists were unofficial event sentries, assisting an injured cyclist and directing traffic until the ambulance came, helping with roadside repairs, changing flats, and offering whatever aide was necessary. I pulled over to adjust my handlebar phone mount that I bumped out of place and within seconds, I heard,
“Are you having a problem, Ma’am? May I help you?”
It was a young airman in her Air Force bicycling kit (bicyclist talk for matching jersey and shorts).
“I’m good, but thank you!”
She rolled by, but it was nice to know she and her team of active and retired Air Force bicyclists were ready to serve on a moment’s notice.
There was the family of six riding on two bicycles built for three. I’ve seen many tandems but never three! There were rolling missionaries spreading the word, a man traveling cross-country on an electronic bike whose battery was recharged exclusively by solar panels, and a young Norwegian traveling from Portland to New York on a pannier-laden bike who decided to make RAGBRAI part of his journey. There was an older gentleman who has ridden in every RAGBRAI since its inception, save the one year he received a new heart and kidney. His doctor refused to let him ride that year, darn it! (his words)
I savored watermelon from roadside stands, made selections from a traveling salad bar, enjoyed Amish made ice cream and pie, ate a little gluten against doctor’s recommendations, had a walking taco from a cut in half Doritos bag, and savored repasts from churches, tents, food trucks, childhood lemonade stands, restaurants, grocery stores, and my jersey pockets. I’m not much of a drinker, but during the week I sampled a little wine; a tiny bit of rum; and raspberry tequila mixed in lemonade to toast a man who survived a major heart attack and is bicycling today to tell the story.
I practically crawled up some hills while still in my pedals and flew past nervous Nellies pushing solidly against their brakes while I enjoyed a screaming downhill. I rode in the pouring rain, and got so sunburned I had to buy solar arm and leg sleeves for the first time in my 31-year bicycling experience. I almost bonked from hunger, and rolled after eating too much at lunch. I stood in kybo (port-a-potty) lines and used “real bathrooms” when I didn’t need to because it was indoors, had running water, and there wasn’t a line.
I laughed, then laughed some more, and heard a few sad stories. I got peeved at music rolling by from obnoxiously loud Bluetooth speakers, and sang a few tunes while we pedaled to get us up the current hill. I even had an impromptu concert with a ukulele player while a 3-year-old danced. I rode when I didn’t think I could roll anymore and “cheated” by taking the bus to our next overnight city. I found bargains and got ripped off on a few things.
Do I regret doing this? Not for a minute. Would I do it again? No. Probably not. Well, maybe. Hmm. We’ll see. Maybe if I had a camper. Heck, I don’t know. Ask me later.
Am I grateful for this experience? Absolutely! I loved it, sometimes hated it, wondered if I was completely crazy, and laughed. Lots and lots of laughter. And I got closer to my bicycling friends, observed many of their strengths, a few of their weaknesses, and felt love, admiration, and sometimes confusion. But I always felt gratitude. Still do. Lots and lots of gratitude.
RAGBRAI 2019 lives only in our memories, but oh, what memories. What an experience. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.