Iowa Accents by Bike

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 0 Comments

Learning Iowa Accents One Town at a Time

I just spent a week riding my bike across Iowa. Yeah, that’s a little crazy, but then I was joined by over 10,000 other crazy people. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to ride across Iowa on my bike because it seemed like a huge adventure to me. I don’t know the exact year I was bitten, but it may very well have been 1973, the very first year of RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Each year they plan a ride that starts at the western edge of the state and ends in the Mississippi River on the eastern edge. This year, RAGBRAI #40, the route started in the far northwestern town of Sioux Center and ended at the river in Clinton.

It’s supposed to be a little over 470 miles, but I actually put on about 550. I did an optional extension one day that made the day a “century” – over 100 miles. I’d done it a couple of times before, so it’s not as groundbreaking as it sounds, except for the fact that it was into the worst wind of the ride, and the hills were a near-death experience for me, especially since my gears were acting up and I couldn’t shift down to my two lowest gears.

About 40 years ago, my mother had heard this crazy bike ride was coming near our home – actually right by the home of a cousin of mine. Ryan and I set up a card table and made lemonade and ice tea to sell to the riders as they went by the farmhouse. When I say “Ryan and I” I actually mean our mothers. They were kind enough to allow us to think we were working and earning money, though I’m sure they spent more than we made.

These days, there are vendors all along the route – at least one every mile – selling water, Gatorade, and bananas, or the ever-present Iowa pork products. But when I was a kid, it was all new. I think we charged a nickel for each glass, letting them fill their entire bottle for a dime. Bikers kept saying we were the cheapest thing they’d seen all day, but I think our real draw was Ryan yelling “Lemolade and ice tea!” as they approached.

Since then, I’ve wanted to ride across Iowa, a big adventure.

Finally Riding RAGBRAI

Riding Through Vinton, Iowa

It took me years to work it out in my schedule, but I finally made it. I had no way to get to the start, but on a last-minute impulse I rode my bike to the edge of my small town, held up a piece of cardboard with RAGBRAI scrawled on it, and put out my thumb.

That’s how I was introduced to one version of RAGBRAI: the drink-in-every-town riders. Though I hadn’t planned it, I had a six-pack in me and had hit two bars before the rented RV pulled into Sioux Center – more than I drank on the rest of the ride combined. The weather was deadly hot, up near 100, so I was hitting the road by 5am after getting an hour or two of sleep in my sweltering tent so that I could pull into the next destination town around noon. The first half of the week was rather miserable except for the wonderful riding conditions we had until about 10 each morning – the miles on the bike were the best thing.

By the end of the week, a huge storm rolled in and cooled it down considerably. My tent wasn’t swamped like some others were, so I was grateful for the storm. I also got to spend a night sleeping on a bed and having a real shower at my nieces’ house. One of my nieces even joined me for the last two days of riding – her first long bike ride, but not her last, though the pain she felt the week after may cause her to reconsider that pledge to ride again next year. The last day’s ride of 70 miles was the best of the trip. The rolling hills and green crops were lit by the best sunrise of the ride, and the air actually had a chill in it as we started the day. It’s enough to almost make me forget the pain in my right knee and the numbness in my left hand. Almost.

Iowa Accents Town by Town

I stopped in almost every town along the way and talked with the locals. I have to admit that I missed one because I actually rode through it before I realized that I was through it – there was one table with water and about six houses. As I rode, I was able to hear some variation in accents from town to town, but it wasn’t so much that each town was different; it was more that each town had some of the same three elements.

One of the elements that was present in all of the accents was the midwest flatness. It’s probably most obvious in the vowel sound in words like pass and ask. This is that distinctly midwestern sound that I discuss in the AccentHelp download for the Central Plains Midwest accent. It’s an overall quality that I heard in the other two accents I tended to hear. It’s as though it’s the neutral version, which is what I grew up speaking. I still made adjustments to it when I began training in acting, but it’s about as close to a standard American accent as we have.

Arriving at the Mississippi River on RAGBRAI 2012

The other two accents I heard from the locals were about elements from the north and south creeping into the local speech. In a single town, I would hear that Central Plains accent, something that sounded much more like a slightly mild version of the Upper Midwest accent, and something that had just a coloring of American Southern accents.

It wasn’t about a geographic difference. Iowa is in that place in between the sounds of Minnesota and Missouri. It’s not as if accents understand legal boundaries. They tend to fade from one place to another and cross over each other. Accents can also be affected by the way people think of themselves, too. I tended to hear the hint of Southern in more farmers, for example, than from the people who lived in town.

It was hot, and it was glorious, and it was a chance for me to really take my time to see and hear the geography shift ever so slowly across the state. It’s been on my bucket list for 40 years. I’m not sure that I’ll do it again – perhaps join in for a day ride or something like that – but I’m grateful that I finally got to check it off and experience the hills of Iowa under my own power. I’m also grateful to be back in my own bed with air conditioning and wifi so that I can write this. It was a great ride – to have finished.

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