"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

SOMEWHERE IN IOWA

By on April 25, 2021 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
The brightly repainted gnomes, CarolAnn and the former seaman and a tribe of kids and a mom on a rainy day aboard the USS Missouri.

Chance meeting on cross-state bike ride finds a connection among the gnomes

By CarolAnn Seaman

RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is back! After a cancelation last year due to you-know-what, the famous and fabulously fun bike ride is on this July.

My husband, three friends, and I joined 32,000 other bikers on the 2018 RAGBRAI. It was a rolling party with bikers of every shape, size, age and ability. For me, in my 60th year, it was an adventure, a challenge, and a vacation all in one. 

With 900 miles of training on the roads of Leavenworth, Wenatchee, and Lake Wenatchee, we were more than ready.

We dipped our back tires in the Missouri River on the western border of the state. Over seven days, we rode 468 miles, averaged 65 miles a day, with over 12,500 feet of elevation climb. 

We passed through cities, small towns, tiny towns, but mostly, farm country. At the end, we dipped our front tires in the Mississippi River at the levy in my hometown of Davenport. 

Everyday we met friendly people that were glad we came.

Even the air had a friendly quality, the humidity softly settling on our skin.

Each morning, we would ride together for a while, then eventually splinter off to regroup later. 

On the fourth day, I was looking ahead for the meeting place when something caught my eye. 

Off to the right was a small, tidy, white house with a billowing American flag casting its shadow over a gravel garden. Red bricks lined the edge of the garden and inside it was the finest collection of concrete lawn statues I’d seen in a long time.

I worked my way to the side of the street. 

A man in a t-shirt and baseball cap was seated in a lawn chair watching the steady parade of bikes. He looked a lot like one of my brothers, with a full face, graying mustache, and a stocky build. A proud chin suggested a gruffness that his soft eyes betrayed. 

Laying my bike on the grass, I asked him if those statues were his and if I could take a closer look. He agreed.

Half a dozen or so painted statues stood on raked gravel. They were all about two feet tall and brightly painted. The colors were well chosen and had the confidence of many layers having been skillfully applied. 

Two sea-going gentlemen in royal blue uniforms and captains’ caps had gray beards. One had a pipe in his mouth and a gold sextant in his hand. The second had his hands in his pockets and was peering straight ahead. 

There was a fisherman, wearing a red nor’easter rain hat, holding a fish. Another wore a yellow rain slicker and cradled a pipe to his mouth in a thoughtful pose.

Behind them was a naked blonde woman clutching fabric to her exposed breast. I remember being confused that she was neither a ship’s masthead nor a mermaid. Next to her, a boy with a basket, then a decorative birdbath, and, finally, a Union soldier resting his arms on his rifle.

“It looks like you have a nautical theme with a touch of Civil War,” I said to him when I’d finished my inspection.

“Ya,” he answered.

“They look great,” I said, “like they’ve just been painted.”

“I did that all last winter in my basement,” he said. “To get them ready for today.”

He asked where I was from. I told him, “Washington State, the OTHER Washington,” so he wouldn’t think I meant Washington DC.

“Oh,” he said, “I lived in Washington State. I was stationed at the Bremerton shipyards, in the Navy.”

“Oh, ya,” I said, “The battleship Missouri was docked there for a couple of years. The Japanese signed their surrender papers right on the deck of that ship. Were you there,” I asked, “when it was there?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I led tours through the Missouri. That was my job.”

“I thought you looked familiar!” I exclaimed. “My Dad took us kids there when I was a teenager.”

He looked at me and we both laughed.

Giving him my hand to introduce myself, he said his name was Roger. I asked him for a selfie, and we both smiled into the screen, cheek to cheek. 

I thanked him for all his hard work to make this day special for the riders, and for sitting out to greet us. Saying goodbye, the stream of bikes carried me on to find my husband and friends. According to the time stamps on our phones, the whole exchange took four minutes. 

For months, I thought about our visit and could visualize a photo of me and my family standing on the deck of the Missouri. No one had seen that photo in decades. It had to be in one of my Mom’s 27 boxes of belongings that were in my basement and garage. 

The coincidence of meeting Roger niggled at me until I had to find it and send him a note.

Loaded with five random boxes, I headed for Thanksgiving where my siblings and I began the arduous task of sorting old family photos. 

I had a secret mission. I positioned myself to be the one to pull the photos out of the box before they were passed around. 

No treasure hunter was more pleased than I when I found that photo. Mom and eight of us motley kids were bunched, according to size, on the deck. There I was, smiling, hair pulled forward and shoulders slightly hunched, with the insecurity of a 14-year-old girl. 

The battleship’s tower rose skyward in the center of the photo, gray and ominous, just like the day. On the back, Mom’s handwriting read, “Feb 1971, Crew of Missouri, Sure was wet and cold.” 

Now, to find Roger. I knew it was day four of the ride, maybe the second or third town? I Google mapped it and rode sections of the route again through my computer. Nothing.

Scouring the photo of the lawn statues, I detected address numbers above the door of Roger’s house. They were fuzzy but when I zeroed in, they read “202.” 

AHAH! The cross street was 2nd Street or 2nd Avenue. None of the towns I chose worked, so I asked my husband to check the photos on his phone. He’d had his location button “ON” and a photo of us taken together right after my visit with Roger. We were standing next to the multi-directional sign that marks the geographical center of the state. 

“State Center!,” I said. “He’s in State Center!”

Sitting at our kitchen table, we worked our way backward on the bike route on Google maps satellite images. Fourth Street, Third street, BINGO! There were the statues, and the white house and the billowing flag.

As I dropped my letter, with photos, in the mailbox I wondered if Roger would write back. I hoped he would. 

But if not, I came away with a story and a feeling. A feeling of being welcomed. Roger had prepared for my visit even though he didn’t know it was me that was coming. 

All across the state, countless people had done the same. Farmers had parked their tractors in a neat row on the edge of their fields. Families sat out on lawn chairs waving their flags. Even a young girl on a trampoline jumped her highest as I rode by.

The air is different in Iowa, and I’m glad I got to breath it in.

For more info about RAGBRAI, sign-ups, and training schedules, go to: ragbrai.com.

CarolAnn Seaman has lived in Leavenworth for 32 years and was the original owner/creator of the Gingerbread Factory. She is an artist, writer and designer, who loves outdoor life and adventure. Along with bicycling, she  also loves to ‘up-cycle’, making useful things out of discarded items. Check out her website, crayolaberry.com

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