Pie Days
When the idea of riding RAGBRAI became real, I got to thinking. If the route went by my house, I would bake so many pies. I would sell them by the slice from a card table with a checkered table cloth in my front yard.
“I’m doing it for the pie!,” I told our friend John, the trip leader who’s done it six times already.
“Why do you say that?” he said with a knowing smile.
“Well,” I explained, “If I still lived there, I’d bake and sell pie. So I figure, there’s folks in Iowa who are going to do just that.”
“You’re right,” he said, “there is. In fact, it’s a thing. You can get pie every day.”
“Well, there ya go,” I said.
“The best pie,” he continued, “is the Amish pie.”
I’ll be the judge of that, I remember thinking.
I am not an official pie judge for fairs or anything like that. My expertise comes from geography and experience. Geographically, Iowa is in the center of the midwest, it is at the heart of a lot of things homespun, and I was born and grew up there.
Pie in Iowa isn’t a special event, it’s an ordinary, everyday one. Supper is meat, gravy, potatoes, creamed vegetables, bread, butter, and pie for dessert. The next day for lunch, it’s left over pie. If you eat it without a plate, it’s hand-pie. Pie with ice cream. Pie with hard sauce. Pie with sharp cheddar cheese.
The seasons are marked with the variety of pie that comes out of your oven. First, rhubarb, then strawberry, then strawberry rhubarb. Our family is a strict ‘rhubarb only’ family. No mixing the rhubarb. My Gramma Ada’s - and therefore, my Mom’s - and therefore, my rhubarb pie is a meringue topped, egg custard rhubarb pie served cold from the fridge. Little golden beads of liquid sugar form on the meringue that are called ‘pearls’, that’s how good it is. Cherry pies are next, then peach, then the berries, then apple, and, finally, pumpkin from a can. Pear pie is a recent addition, I’ve only been making it for the last 25 years. Lemon pies are scattered in there and cream pies are a year-around option to randomly pop up in the rotation.
I have baked a lot of pies. My large family required huge volumes of food to be cooked and baked everyday. I was taught to bake at a very young age and as soon as I could reach the knobs on the stove for the oven, my apprenticeship was over. At first it was cakes from a mix because it was easy to follow the directions on the box. Later, I would make Gramma Ada’s chocolate mayonnaise cake from the recipe on the kitchen wall. My Mom wrote our most used recipes there with an embroidery pen so she wouldn’t have to look for the recipe cards anymore. The pie crust recipe was up there, too. Baking pie was on the to-do list of every holiday or family gathering. It had a respected time slot that no one dared interrupt.

I have also eaten a lot of pie. I know a good one and one that was rushed or suffered some other form of inattention. This became an unusual skill only when our family moved to the west coast where an over-riding culture of personal fitness took its place. I met people who had never tasted a homemade pie, let alone ever made one from scratch. It was not in their DNA.
The thought of eating pie everyday, guilt-free, was intoxicating to me and my RAGBRAI biking friends. It was a welcomed quest that renewed itself every waking dawn.
As we rolled along on our bikes, the search was on. The first pie booth my friend Joanie and I came to wasn’t easy to find. It was in the town of Ute, Pop. 374. It was tucked in with other, flashier booths. The handmade ‘Pie for Sale’ sign was leaning against an empty table.
“We’re looking for pie,” I said to the woman plunked in a folding chair at the back of the booth.
“I’m all sold out, sorry,” she said with a tired smile, her body still as stone.
“When did that happen?” I asked as I looked around the booth for that last pie she must be saving for herself or friends. “We rode as fast as we could.”
“About an hour ago,” she said, again without a twitch.
“Dang, we’ll have to get up earlier tomorrow.” I said. “You look pretty worn out. Did you make the pies?”
“I made half of them,” was her short answer, but her tone told a longer story.
“How many did you make?”
“Forty, but we sold 85 all together” she said.
“Wow! In your own kitchen or at a bigger one?” I had to know.
“At home,” she said, “in my own kitchen.”
“Well that is something!” I exclaimed. “You rolled out the crusts and everything?”
“Yes, I did.” And she was done talking.
I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude at being a biker instead of a baker. As we turned to walk away, we could see there were no more immediate options for pie here.
It wasn’t until almost 3 o’clock in the afternoon and 49 miles later, that we found our pie in Charter Oak, Pop. 506. It was being sold by a group of Lutherans. Two banquet tables held wedges of pie tucked into clear plastic triangular containers with the fruit written in marker on the lid. Cherry or apple was all that was left. We went with cherry and it was pretty good. The crust was light and the filling very well balanced in the sweet-vs-tart category. No ice cream, but all in all, a pie worth waiting for.
The woman behind the table made change out of a pocketed nail apron emblazoned with a hardware store logo. They needed the money for a new roof on the church. She said the six women on the pie committee were each responsible for 100 pies. They activated a sort of pie baking phone-tree where each woman they contacted called a few more and so on. Eventually, the pie baking phone-tree reached further and further out into the farmland. Ovens all round for miles and miles were fired up in the days before the ride.
On the third day, our pie presented itself from a pop-up pie booth between two towns; Dana, population 71 and Ogden, pop. 2022. There was no obvious religious affiliation, maybe this was how the secular pie bakers rolled. Somehow, they had ice cream. There were four of us so Joanie and I bought two strawberry-rhubarb and two marionberry. I got stuck with the strawberry-rhubarb, breaking my family pie rule, but it was really good. Perhaps ‘chink-in-the-armor’ good. We enjoyed our mid-day treat while our bikes lay in the ditch alongside the road with hundreds of others stretching 50 feet or more in both directions.
As for the Amish, they moved their elaborate pie making set-up each day along the route between towns. On Day 4, they were outside Melbourne, Pop. 830 and the timing was perfect for a quick pick-me-up.
Three white pop-up tents were pitched on a grassy wide spot in the road. The biggest tent had a long table, angled up, with custom made wooden slots. Each slot harbored a different kind of pie, cut in slices in small disposable bowls. Apple, blueberry, cherry, dutch apple, gooseberry, peach, pecan, marionberry, and rhubarb. (No strawberry-rhubarb to confuse matters). There were also moon pies, brownies and huge half pickles with cream cheese.
The next tent provided scoops of vanilla ice cream right out of a frosted stainless steel cylinder. A small flatbed trailer had two gigantic wooden old-fashioned ice cream makers and an engine that farmers call a ‘hit and miss’. Powered by gasoline, farm people can hook this portable power source up to just about anything: washing machines, chicken pluckers, corn huskers, threshers, pumps. The cylinders of the ice cream makers were being turned in their salt bath in a continuous motion, making gallons of fresh vanilla ice cream out in the middle of nowhere.
Once you paid, $6 for pie and an extra $3 for ala mode, there was a tent providing shade and chairs. From there you could see the inner working of the sales area. Beautiful custom pie hutches held 20 pies that had been cut into pieces. Two large tables were filled with pies cooling to be cut. A shy teenage girl in her modest dress and lace bonnet worked hard to keep the pie cupboards, tables, and slots full.
Behind all this was a flatbed semi trailer fitted on one end with a three tiered oven. A sizable baker’s bench, cupboards, and rolling bins for flour and sugar were in the middle. Refrigerators closed off the other end. A skylight roof covered it all, this portable bakery sitting ten feet from a corn field. The woman working the oven had an apron over her dress that went three inches above the floor, revealing black ankle lace-up shoes covered in flour. She said there’d be 700 pies made before the day was over.

I chose rhubarb, even if it was of the double crust variety. It was good, but I missed the lemon zest and touch of nutmeg I use at home. The fresh ice cream gave it the extra credit it needed for a better grade.
Day five was Amish again. I had gooseberry for the first time in all my 60 years. They looked like grapes but had a flavor that took a couple bites to figure out. It was a winner, especially with the fresh vanilla ice cream in a supporting role.
By day six we knew we’d have ample opportunities to pull over for pie. On the approach to one small town, there were Burma Shave styled signs to heighten our anticipation:
Feel like you’re gonna die?
All you need is pie!
Stop by our booth
And learn the truth
While you rest
You can have the best!
The Methodists put that out. There were probably some old deacons in their congregation that still use Burma Shave. We learned that the Lutherans, Amish, and Methodists had cornered the RAGBRAI pie making ventures. Never the Catholics, though. They were strictly spaghetti and meatballs in a gym.
Chance Meeting

Everyday on our RAGBRAI ride, 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 and regroup.
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 through the bike traffic 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 with equal space between them. 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 and tan overalls, holding a fish. Another wore a yellow rain slicker and cradled a pipe to his mouth in a thoughtful pose.
Behind them was a row of statues that included a naked blond 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.”
“Well,” I remarked, “You did a great job. I’ve been known to paint a few gnomes myself for my yard. Did you use a primer?”
“Yes, I did,” he answered. He then elaborated on the the kind of primer and how it was tricky to ventilate the basement for the fumes without making it too cold. It had been a cold winter. He described how he chose his paints and mixed some for custom colors.
“It was fun,” he said. “I had a good time.”
“Well, it shows,” I told him. “They look really nice.”
He asked me where I was from and 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, he agreed 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 my phone checked against my husband’s, the whole exchange took four minutes.
For months, I continued to think 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 piled 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 the table. 
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 figured out the right day, but I did not have the location button turned ‘ON’ on my phone. 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 and obscured but when I zeroed in, they read ‘202’. AHAH! Now, I knew the cross street was 2nd St or 2nd Ave. None of the towns I chose worked, so I asked my husband to check his phone. He did have 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 respond. 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, am I’m glad I got to breath it in.
Our last day, only 68.9 miles to go before Davenport and the end of this adventure. I feel strong and confident, comfortable on my bike, eager. Before the ride began, I didn’t know if I could finish and, now, it was so close to being over. I wanted to savor this day and remember everything. Cornfields swayed on one side, soybeans on the other for as far as I could see. Distant farms create pockets of color in the unending green landscape. Faded barns, towering silos, and stately homes hidden under weeping willows come in and out of focus as I pass by. Stark white puffs float above in a calm sea of blue. Simple, beautiful.

Around midday, there was a particularly long, flat stretch that I was riding without my friends. The ribbon of bicycles stretched straight ahead for probably two miles, broken only by a gentle swell on the horizon. Everything seemed to come together and transcend individual components. The music from a passing cyclist matched the rhythm of my pedals, my breathing, the yellow lines clipping by on the highway and, I swear, my heartbeat.  I felt so happy and light, and completely free. It felt like freedom. I smiled at how lucky I was to be there. Me, my bike, the corn, and friends waiting ahead and following behind me.
It was so different from last summer, which was devoted to saying goodbye to our dying Mother. At age 91, she had lived with Alzheimer's disease long past any consistent recognition of any of her twelve children. For months, we focussed on sending her off with love and dignity. I tried to help myself and my siblings come to terms with her disease and her imminent death. Every day centered upon her; her care at Mountain Meadows, the choreographed visits, and the hosting of family members in our home and small town. It was a lovely, heartbreaking time of both strength and collapse.
On my bike, on that remote country road, tears pooled in the bottom of my sunglasses. I cried suddenly and hard but kept peddling. I missed my Mom and realized my grieving for her was not over. Riders beside me did not notice as I rolled along allowing little sobs to escape, tears mingling with the sweat that dripped off my face and on to the pavement. I’d learned about waves of grief and knew to let them roll in and through me and to wait for the other side. The release, the relief, was on the other side. A smile arose as I finally peddled through this particular wave.
Freedom. I imagined the joyous release my Mom felt as she left this world and her old, worn out body and mind behind. It made me happy to think of her so free. The freedom I had experienced just minutes before was nothing, indeed, to what she now knows.
As I rode toward Davenport, our home town, each mile was closer to bringing my Mom home to her folks. One cup of her ashes were in my suitcase in the support vehicle that met us at the end of each day. I’d brought them in the sugar bowl of the family holiday dishes given to my parents at their wedding. The dishes are not fancy, but my Mom loved them. They have a country pattern with a farming theme. The sugar bowl has a maiden shouldering a yolk that balances two heavy buckets. Mom is no longer burdened by the weight of a long life devoted to her family and to her church.
At the end of the ride we dipped our back tires in the Mississippi river. It was at the same levy I had cooled my feet in as a child. The same levy where I'd bought Drumsticks ice cream treats from a little snack booth that was still there.
The next day, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Barb, and my brother Jim were with me as we mingled Mom's ashes with the dirt at the headstone of her mother and father at Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in north Davenport, Iowa. Three pink roses, my Mom’s favorite, bunched together with baby’s breath were laid on the granite headstone. There were more family members’ graves scattered around me and my father’s family plots were a few steps away. It felt good to know I had people and history and a place I could always come back to. I had brought my Mother, and myself, home.
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