Sweat-Drenched First Week in Iowa

Week one in Iowa and I finally get my second day off after nine days and 440 miles of setting up the games in five different towns and cities. I had a great trip west, driving 1600 miles from Glover, VT to Des Moines. I stopped off in Troy, NY and had lunch with two friends, and then spent the night at Niagara Falls, NY. While there, I only visited the falls, once at night and then again the next morning. Further west, I lunched in Cleveland, OH and spent a night in a dingy hotel room outside of Chicago, IL.

Niagara Falls

After moving a few miles northeast to a better motel, I spent two days in Chicago. Caught a Cubs game at historic Wrigley Field (they lost). Got in for $10 thanks to a mutual friend of Todd’s. Bo also told me where to buy Old Style beer (“Always drink them in the wax cups.”), a hot dog (I only eat hot dogs at ball parks), and he spent a few innings visiting after getting a free ticket in. I spent most of the game wandering around to check out the views, and had no problems until I tried to get right behind home plate.
Wrigley Field
I also caught the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum while in Chicago. Disappointed that his sarcophagus wasn’t part of the exhibit, but still enjoyed looking at all the amazing pieces that were found in his tomb. National Geographic helped set up the exhibit so we first watched a short video setting up King Tut’s story and then went through several rooms of pieces relating to his father and relatives. I had forgotten that Tut spent his short reign restoring the pantheistic tradition after his father made the empire worship only one god, the sun. Thanks to National Geographic, the history of this transition was well-worded and backed by artifacts.

Finally, before leaving Chicago, I caught some big band jazz at a 100-year-old club named the Green Mill. Not much dancing going on, but still a fun time, especially after three mixed drinks. I also caught Richard Linklater’s Scanner Darkly in a downtown theater. A strange sense of paranoia shadowed me before the show because Chicago may be the most security-camera’d city in the USA. Afterwards, that feeling was doubled thanks to this amazing adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel.

The last leg of travel took me to Des Moines on Friday, July 21, where my bookie/advance person Jess met me at my new home. I met Finn, kenneled and skeptical of me at first. After a day the dog was my best friend and hated to be caged while I was in the house. My new roomie Amy soon returned from work. We went out to eat at an Indian restaurant and I unpacked a bit and went to bed. Had my first gig the next day and Jess helped me out. Not alot of foot traffic in downtown Des Moines, but the gig gave Jess an idea of how the games work. Sunday I biked to a health food store to buy provisions (trying to avoid GMO food and local water) and then met the whole crew at a cook out. Over chicken kabobs, grilled veggies, and caramel popcorn, I sipped a beer as all the locals compared the cultures of IL, IA, and MN. Once again, I felt like the carny vagabond that I am.

Monday was scheduled as an orientation day at the Iowans for Sensible Priorities (ISP) office. I ran errands and then went to the office where Jess showed me around. We then had a meeting about the upcoming RAGBRAI shows. The Register’s Annual Great Bike Race Across Iowa is a 34-year tradition in Iowa. Over 10,000 amateur bikers from across the country and planet come to Iowa to bike the length of the state. Every year the riders travel West to East, but the route changes annually as different towns host the event. I had no idea that this ride existed, and was astonished to hear that so many people make this their vacations.

Our meeting mostly consisted of a bitch session. Dave had caught flack from two towns, Waukee and Newton. Waukee’s Republican-led committee called us “too controversial” and “propagandists” while Morgan declined to have us attend because we were “too controversial.” Dave offered to sponsor Waukee’s main stage for over $10 thousand dollars, and give away ice cream and have Ben Cohen attend. They initially said yes and then turned us down. They chose Wal*Mart as the sponsor, taking only half of what we offered. Morgan, IA has just had a large plant close, so they were maybe being sensitive to the local businesses there.

During the meeting, Dave discussed the negotiations that were going on in Waukee. He was also working on letters to the editor in the Register complaining about the unprofessionalism of the Waukee committee. We also discussed logistics, and Jess and I realized that I needed a room for Friday night. Times were worked out, strategy planned, and we were good for Marengo on Thursday. Later that day, I got a frantic call from Jess. Waukee’s lawyer had told them, a week ago, that they had to give us a booth. After sitting on this information for a week, we’d just found out. The ISP office was a bit upset and chaotic, but we pulled things together and worked out a plan to get there early Tuesday morning.

Fortunately, Waukee is just due West of Des Moines. Each town had different organization procedures, so we arrived at Waukee not knowing where we were supposed to set up. The committee chair, the Republican thorn in our side, saw us arrive and immediately told us we were banned. Dave told her to call their lawyer. As we waited, the woman spoke on the phone, hung up, and then walked away! Incredulous, Dave found her at the GOP booth and forced her to tell us where to set up.


Usually spread out across the town, RAGBRAI culture entails bikes, free schwag, support crews, temporary emcampments, repair tents, and the ever-present corporate-sponsored main stage and beer garden. Families ride together, and groups modify and paint buses to show team pride.

Other than minor details, our three RAGBRAI stops were about the same. Many bikers stopped by to pound the high striker and spin the wheel. Kids tried to win the prize and men tried to ring the bell. We’d have the same folks stop by in the different towns and we’d give away hundreds of pens. In Waukee, highlights included nifty thunderstorms that evening, no shade in the baking sun, and awe at the RAGBRAI bike/party-centered culture. Thursday’s stop in Marengo included setting up in a typical Iowa town square, even more baking in the sun, and a night ending up in a dive bar in Iowa City. The bartender there, in the Army Reserves, called me a “hippie carny” and took a box of pens to give away.

Our final stop in Coralville, just outside of Iowa City, ended up being the best day of the run. Sweat drenched, but in the shade, we worked a friendly crowd with less energy than the first two events. I drank organic ginger ade and ate organic curry from two progressive food vendors (most food vended was BBQ, meat, meat, corn, a rare baked potato, and more meat) and watched the bikers set up camp in a field next to our booth. Two editorial letters were published shaming Waukee and Newton for trying to ban us, and we also got written up in the Register’s daily wrap-up for Marengo.

After riding the days leg, Lance Armstrong had just spoken in a panel about the government’s plans to cut $40 million in cancer research funding and spoke to the crowd on the main stage. ISP gave away hundreds of pie-chart fans to the baking audience, so I got to hear him speak. He asked for them to be his army next year and to complain to the politicians when they come through the state next year.

Ideas started flowing at the ISP booth. Lance Armstrong promised to do the whole RAGBRAI ride next year, so Dave began to plan a way to mix his nonprofit’s message to our campaign. Jess began to think of ways to get a team together to ride the ride for ISP. I instantly thought of having friends in SF come to IA for a week to be part of this amazing bicycle-cultured event and do it for a progressive cause, maybe even getting a SVO-fueled bus to support us. I kept telling folks “Ben rides a bike,” and thinking of Ben Cohen doing part of the ride too (an amateur event, riders can drop in/drop out whenever they want to).

After a hazy, worn out break down, the ISP team split up to go our own ways. I spent the night in a hotel in Iowa City and barely had the energy to shower off the day’s grime. Saturday, I drove about 100 miles to Corydon, a small town near the Missouri boarder. Other than agriculture and Mormons that dress like the Amish, Corydon’s only claim to fame is that Jesse James robbed a bank there in the 1800s. I set the games up at the Wayne County Fair and worked seven hours in the late-afternoon oven. Motocross drew the evening crowd, but I mostly had kids and teens as game traffic.

I spent the night at the only hotel in Corydon, called the Nodyroc. I paid extra to stay as late as possible on Sunday, thinking that the AC would help me avoid the days heat. The sign on the town’s bank said that it was 106 F that afternoon, but I tried to set up the games anyway. After about an hour, four adults had all said “too hot” to play the games. My contact, a nice Democratic Party member who baked me cookies on Saturday, wondered why I was killing myself in the sun. I wondered too, so ended the gig early and drove home to AC and another shower.

Week two began with errands, repairs, and restocking for the Carny Mobile. Dave and I then set up the games at the Val Air Ballroom for a preshow spin at the Ween concert. Oddly, the Ween fans weren’t too into the games. During the hour or two we had the games set up, only a handful of people tried them out. I guess they were too interested in getting into the club as early as possible to start drinking. Dave and I broke down the games and I drove the rig home. I live about five minutes from Val Air, so I rode my bike back to the venue and caught the show.

My first Ween concert in about 13 years, I got close at first, standing near a freak with a huge Ween tattoo and a paper-mache Boognish mask. I kept seeing Ween tattoos at this show, surprised that one guy in his late 40s had one and had never seen the band before. The show rocked and the venue instantly became a steamy pool of sweating bodies. I didn’t bang my head as much as I wanted, but did laugh alot. Gene’s the lead singer now, and Dean played lead guitar. Deaner certainly holds the bar high for spaced-out rock stars. Most of his amazing Strat solos were performed while he bent over, looking like he was tieing his shoes. And I think he makes the best guitar-playing faces than any other player I’ve ever seen.

They played stuff old and new. Heard “The Stallion,” “Please Help My Pony,” “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree,” “HIV Song,” “Zoloft,” “The Blarney Stone,” “The Mollusk,” “Touch my Tooter,” “Piss Up a Rope,” and many more. The encore was “LMLYP” with a strange jam that led into an intentionally horrible cover of “Crimson and Clover.” Again, LMLYP didn’t blow the roof off of the place, but I still enjoyed it. Guess that’s how the whole show was for me.

So here I am on a full day off. Not running errands, not setting up and gigging, barely checking em. A day to just sit around and veg. MMM, seems like a great way to start August.