When Kelly Guilbeau was still living in Louisiana, she never guessed that someday she would bike across Iowa in a butterfly costume. She never planned on planting thousands of milkweed seeds along the way, like Johnny Appleseed, to create more habitats for monarch butterflies.

But if RAGBRAI has taught “Kelly Milkweed” anything, it’s that sometimes life veers off in surprising directions.

The Register’s (43rd) Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa rolls out of Sioux City on Sunday with at least 10,000 bikes and just as many different reasons for doing it.

To mark a milestone birthday. To raise money for charity. To celebrate surviving cancer or honor a gutsy loved one who didn’t.

It’s as if riders need a way to explain to the more sensible folks back home why they’re pedaling 468 miles in seven days. Through the middle of nowhere. In the swampy heat of July.

A few years ago, one of the RAGBRAI staffers had the good idea to add an optional question to the registration form that asks riders to jot down anything about themselves that might make an interesting story for the Register. The responses are a reporter’s gold mine.

“My name is Betsy Ross,” wrote Ross, 25, of Cedar Falls.

“I’ll be coming all the way from Singapore to ride with Team Wimpy!” wrote Nicole Loffe, 44.

“Chops, a five-pound Chihuahua, will be riding on my shoulder,” wrote Fairfield rider Alan Balmer, 58.

We should probably file the database with the Library of Congress. It’s an odd — and oddly inspiring — portrait of 21st century life.

But for now, at least, let’s take a look at just 10 of the stories that caught our attention, 10 ways that riders answered the basic question: “Why RAGBRAI?”

  1. Because I like butterflies. 

Kelly “Milkweed” Guilbeau moved from Louisiana to Grinnell a few years ago to become a career counselor at Grinnell College. She befriended the manager of the college’s 365-acre prairie research site and was struck with its beauty.

So last year, during her first RAGBRAI, she and a friend decided to scatter milkweed seeds in unmowed scrub along the route. The pair was inspired partly by Johnny Appleseed and partly by the federal government’s efforts to plant milkweed along Interstate 35, one of the main corridors for the monarch butterfly’s annual migration from Mexico to Canada.

Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, and the larvae eat nothing but the plant’s leaves. So when milkweed started disappearing due to farming, logging and urban development, so did the butterflies. More than 90 percent of their population has vanished in the last 25 years.

Guilbeau traveled a few months ago to the butterflies’ winter home in the Mexican mountains.

“It was life-changing,” she said. “Today it’s breathtaking, but just thinking there used to be so many more is mind-blowing.”

For RAGBRAI this year, she plans to hand out 2,000 seed-filled balls of clay she made with help from a Facebook group called Monarchs in Eastern Iowa. She’ll post updates during the ride on Twitter (@milkweedmatters) and later on the website http://ift.tt/1MftKme.

  1. Because Mom said so.

First-time rider Mary McInnis Miller, 46, of Waterloo explained on her registration form that she was overdue for an adventure –— “and my teen boys are coming. They have no choice. Because it is necessary and connecting.

“And because I am the parent.”

So her husband, Dave, and their sons, Cullan, 16, and Duncan, 14, who are “being forced to ride by their enthusiast mother,” are all along for the ride.

The guys might have thought they were off the hook when Mom broke her left elbow during a bike-commute this winter, but she climbed back in the saddle after a two-month break. In April she even trained at a mountain-bike camp in Colorado (which prompted her to start a motivational blog at http://ift.tt/1MftKmg).

“Yep. RAGBRAI. Is. On,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “Always was.”

  1. Because Mom said “Do something I would never do.”

South Dakota sisters Katie Knutson and Emily Walther’s story about their own mother is a little tougher, but it’s filled with the same determination.

Their mother, Jana Reiss, died of cancer in December at age 62, nine years after the disease also killed her husband.

Her daughters took care of her for seven months at the family farm, north of Sioux City. They sifted through old stories and collected bits of their mom’s wisdom while they still could.

“She always encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones and try something new,” Knutson said. “She told us, ‘Do something I would never do.’<TH>”

So here they are, setting out on RAGBRAI. They had talked about it for years but finally signed up this winter, when they needed to distract themselves from the muck of estate paperwork and boxes full of old clothes and shoes.

“My sister said, ‘Come buy a bike with me,’<TH>” said Knutson, 37. “So I slapped down my credit card and bought one.”

They’ve logged more than 1,000 miles over the last few months, decades after they learned to ride on their banana-seat bikes, wobbling up and down the gravel driveway.

But they’re still a little worried about the ride. Knutson tucked a photo of their mom in a clear plastic pocket on her bike’s handlebars and wears one of the matching bracelets she and Walther bought after their mom’s death. They’re engraved with the words “With every breath” — a tribute to a woman who died of lung cancer even though she never smoked.

“For her, every breath was so difficult,” Knutson said. “So it’s a reminder: With every breath, I want to use the strength I have to honor her and her legacy. I have the ability, so I want to use it.”

  1. Because I collect video games.

At last count, Scott Ephraim had 457 of the 830-some games that were made for the Nintendo system he grew up with in Cedar Falls. His search for old cartridges last year on RAGBRAI turned into a friendly competition.

“My buddy and I were just racing from town to town,” he said. “You get into town and ask the locals if there are any thrift shops or pawn shops or antique shops around, and soon as they say where, it’s on.”

The 30-year-old graphic designer lives in Austin, Texas, where gamers have already scoured the second-hand stores. But Iowa is still ripe for the picking.

He spotted a rare light-blue cartridge — a game called Captain Comic — in a shop during last year’s ride through Oelwein.

“It was one of those moments where the sun rays were shining down and you hear the ‘Ahhhhh!’ ” he said, bursting into angelic song.

Still at the top of his wish list are rare titles like Stadium Events (the collectors’ holy grail, with only 200-some copies in circulation), Bubble Bobble II and the unlicensed “Bubble Bath Babes” — “but I don’t know if you want to write that,” he said.

  1. Because Des Moines was the punchline of a joke.

Stephen Greenwood wanted to catch one last stand-up show before he moved from New York to San Francisco last year to take a job at Reddit, the online news and entertainment site. So he headed to a comedy club and struck up a conversation after the show with two Iowa women who had hooted at an off-color joke about Des Moines (which, sadly, he no longer remembers).

“When I asked them, ‘What’s cool in Iowa?,’ they both instantly said, ‘Oh, do you know about RAGBRAI?’ ” he said.

He looked it up online, registered and started biking around his new home in hilly San Francisco. He’s discovered new neighborhoods and met some RAGBRAI veterans.

“It’s been such a great catalyst, an excuse to go out after work and spend a few hours riding,” he said. “I don’t think I would have done that had I not signed up for RAGBRAI.”

  1. Because I work for the Peace Corps.

Lots of former Peace Corps volunteers have ridden RAGBRAI over the years, but this year will see the organization’s first official team. The group includes four staffers from the headquarters in Washington, D.C., six more from Chicago, and Ankeny native Ryan Cairns, a field recruiter in Des Moines.

Cairns, 33, served the Corps in 2009 through 2011 in Bulgaria, where he often biked along the Danube River. He helped develop businesses in the town of Belene and, as a side project, persuaded the Seattle Seahawks to donate some flag football equipment to a local school.

“So now this little town in northern Bulgaria — they’re pretty big Seahawks fans,” he said.

Sixty-eight Iowans are currently serving with the Peace Corps around the world, including Cairns’ brother, who is in Nicaragua. More than 2,300 Iowans have served the agency since its creation in 1961.

Heather Mangan from the Chicago office pointed out that Peace Corps and RAGBRAI have a lot in common. They both bring people together for something bigger than themselves. They both rely on the kindness of strangers, and they both bring about “a sense of camaraderie and kinship that is impossible to duplicate in other settings.”

And they both force people to pack light. The Peace Corps team’s support vehicle, the Peace Car, is a tiny smart car emblazoned with the agency’s logo.

  1. Because I’ll see a few Little Free Libraries.

Rick Brooks of Princeton, Ill., co-founded the Little Free Library project in 2009, and in the years since, more than 30,000 “take a book, return a book” boxes have popped up in more than 85 countries around the world — Abkhazia, Brazil, Congo, you name it.

He expects to see a few of the tiny libraries along the route, but he’s not riding in any official capacity. He retired from the project a year and a half ago and wants to ride RAGBRAI for fun, with a group from Wisconsin’s Beloit College, his alma mater.

But he’s always on the lookout for connections. He led outreach programs for 20 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now does some work for a grassroots nonprofit in Sri Lanka. These days he’s brainstorming ways to set up partnerships between brick-and-mortar libraries in the United States and other countries.

“I’ve always wanted to connect small towns and urban neighborhoods with villages abroad,” said Brooks, 66. “Something like (RAGBRAI) really cements my interest in and affection for rural life.”

He and his wife moved to Illinois about four weeks ago, and he said he’s “had a fantastic time just riding through the cornfields this summer, getting ready for the trip.”

  1. Because I bought my bike 41 years ago.

Mike Forsyth was just 10 or 11 when he spotted it at the bike shop in Oskaloosa: a shiny yellow Schwinn Le Tour.

He saved up money from his Register paper route and bought the bike on layaway. He was 11 when he finally rode it home in 1974.

“It was a little too big for me,” he said over the phone from his home in San Antonio, Texas. “The seat was all the way down to the bottom, and you had to kind of throw your leg over the bar, but that was the smallest 10-speed they had back then.”

He bought the bike to ride on SAGBRAI, the Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, but it didn’t happen. And then life got in the way. And then just like that, he was 40 years older.

He painted the bike red awhile back and decided, finally, to sign up for RAGBRAI after a friend died of cancer in May.

“You just never know,” he said. “There was no way I was going to miss the ride.”

  1. Because it’s like sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Last winter Molly McGreal-Stence and her husband, Matt Stence, packed up their three young kids and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. The Des Moines family spent 39 days at sea on their 57-foot aluminum sailboat, called the Nimbus.

“Yeah, like the storm cloud,” McGreal-Stence said.

Lucky for them, they ran into rough waters only twice, first off the coast of Spain and then through the Gulf Stream about 300 miles from North Carolina. They fared just fine with a little help from an extra crew member they had hired to share the night watches and a Polish hitchhiker they picked up in the Canary Islands (who made a very cool video).

This year on RAGBRAI, the parents will leave Lilly, 12, Henry, 9, and Avery, 7, with their grandparents in Elkader. But the kids may pedal along for a few days next year or the year after, when they’re a little older.

“It just goes along with our lifestyle,” McGreal-Stence said. “It’s a way of challenging ourselves. It’s a way of seeing Iowa in a different way.”

But this journey isn’t so different from their last one.

“Inevitably, if you run into difficulties, there will be a solution,” she said. “No matter where you are in the world, there’s always someone who can help.”

  1. Because it’s easier than running.

Richard Kresser ran the RAGBRAI route in 2013. You read that right: He ran it, all 406 miles from Council Bluffs to Fort Madison.

That’s like running two or three marathons every day for a week. Most days he crawled out of bed at 2 in the morning and ran until 8 at night.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said. “They were just flabbergasted by it.”

The former Army captain from Raymond, near Waterloo, ended up raising more than $20,000 for the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown. He’s proud of that, but he felt like he missed some of the fun.

So this year he’ll bike the route — you know, like a slacker. When he listed off all the things he plans to enjoy this time, he sounded like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning: “The beer gardens and the slip-n-slides and the ice cream and the church dinners…<TH>.”

And who knows? Maybe even a turkey with stuffing.

So may God bless us — every one.


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