Transitions and Confluences: Six remarkable weeks, and Iowa

This will be a different kind of post, inspired not entirely by bike adventures but by our life generally since we returned from the DC trip. Sometimes, confluences are the coming together of a lot of life experiences, and in our case, these have come quickly in the last six weeks. I do guarantee some biking here, though!

Our most recent long bike adventure came at kind of a cosmic moment in our lives. You know, if you’ve read the last posts, that I turned 70 the day after we arrived in Washington. I have to admit that, while I feel great and in almost all ways am in good physical condition and health, 70 sounds old to me. I am inclined to the same ageist ideas that most of our society is, even when they apply to myself. I’m also vain, let’s be honest. They say that age is just a number and I try to believe that. But that was a big birthday for me.

I worked for nearly 45 years in the library business, the first thirteen at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library at the state capitol, and the following thirty years at the University of St. Thomas Libraries. I actually have always really loved my work – truly doing work for the common good, helping citizens, public servants, teachers, students and others sort out good information from bad, finding bits of value in the growing blizzard of words that we are living with. I also felt it was my time to step back, and to give someone else, perhaps younger, perhaps not a white male, a chance to lead and work in that environment. But retiring after you’ve had a long, interesting and fulfilling career is a huge transition. Not having an office to go to in the morning is a bit of a shock. As many people have asked me “what are you going to do?” I’ve hesitated and tried to be honest – “I’m not entirely sure!”

Lisa threw a big and absolutely wonderful party for me, in a lovely location by the river in downtown St. Paul. The evening was beautiful and lots of friends and colleagues from my entire work life came, and a few stood up and spoke and said nice things. Everyone should have that experience! It was a little like a funeral, I guess, except for the great advantage that I was alive to be there. She’d worked out a big surprise – my son Arne from Los Angeles, who we’d not seen for 18 months, flew home and was the master of ceremonies for the event. Seeing him stroll into the room was a huge and lovely shock for me.

(Photo by Doug Phillips)
(Photo by Doug Phillips)

Then, over the course of a few days, my joy was dimmed by the news that a dear and longtime friend, whom I hugged and laughed with at the party, died suddenly two days later. We were shocked and deeply saddened at the loss of a friend and someone who’d been inspiring to me for decades, a man who had contributed greatly to Minnesotan’s quality of life through his legislative work in conservation and natural resources. A few days later, another friend, who’d been unable to attend the party because he wasn’t feeling well, also worsened and then, surprisingly, passed away. To lose two lovely and longtime friends so quickly was painful and it made me wonder if that was what getting older and retiring was about – saying goodbye to old friends…

Our dear friend John

The party was a few days before my last day at work, June 30th, and I spent my final days cleaning out my office and disposing of thirty years of paper, boxed up my personal stuff (including the things on my bulletin board that I’d looked at every day) and finally went home for the last time.

I guess this board highlights what matters to me: music, dogs, poetry, family

We’d planned a long weekend at the family cabin over the 4th of July, and loaded up our old dog and headed north. It was nice that I didn’t have to cope with the shock of simply not going to work on what should have been a normal Thursday. Finn, our nearly 14 year old golden retriever, loves the lake and the woods, and we wanted to give him another chance to jump off the dock and retrieve sticks.

14 year old Finn in his element

We also did a long ride, from the cabin to Lake Park, the home town of my father, in Becker County in the northwest – where the very first Gjelten, my great grandfather Esten, settled in the late 1800’s after migrating from Norway. It is a nice 70 mile ride from the cabin to the town and back again, and we try to do it at least once a year.

It’s kind of flat up near Lake Park
Richwood Winery, Becker County, Minnesota

We returned from the north country with a few days to prepare for our next big event: our annual backyard benefit concert for the Friends of the Mississippi River. Since we moved to this house, fifteen years ago, we’ve put on 12 concerts in our amphitheater-like backyard, featuring local and touring musicians that we admire, and inviting friends and neighbors for music, potluck and a canoe full of cold beverages, with the objective of raising funds for this great organization which advocates for the protection and enhancement of the Mississippi River within the Twin Cities metro area. This year, our show featured perhaps the most famous musician we’ve ever had: Minnesota’s Charlie Parr, newly signed to a national label (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) and with a full length album due out at the end of July. Preparing for the show takes a few days, but I was now retired, so with the help of a few friends (Bernie, Cindy, Paul) we had little trouble getting the yard set up and we ended up having the largest audience ever (around 120) and listened to amazing music from this original and authentic treasure of a musician.

(Photo by Dodd Demas)

The show couldn’t have gone better and we ended up raising more money than ever before. For many people, this was the first live music they’d experienced in over a year. Even gathering in a group like this felt novel and welcome. Charlie’s song “817 Oakland Avenue” was a highlight and meaningful for all of us.

“Can you remember what it’s like
When all the world’s filled with light
Now do you have that in your sight
Then spread it around, do
Spread it all around, do
Then spread it around, do

Have you felt joy in your days
Even though you’ve had your share of pain
What does hoarding that joy gain
Then spread it around, do”

One week after the Music and the Mississippi show, we left for our second big bike adventure of the summer, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) – this time with our lovely friends Paul and Cindy. (Paul’s brother Dave, from Colorado, would meet us at the start of the ride.) They offered their son Matt and their relatively small car as a way to get to the starting town, LeMars, on the western border of the state. Amazingly, we were able to pack five adults, camping equipment and five bikes in the car. We drove to LeMars, unloaded and then Matt headed back to St. Paul.

This year the course (which changes every year) was around 450 miles and went through many small Iowa towns, with overnights in Sac City, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa, DeWitt and ended in Clinton on the Mississippi River.

For seven days, we rode with roughly 15,000 other bikers from all over the country through the countryside, camping every night. RAGBRAI feels something like the marriage of a military invasion and the circus coming to town. We’d camp in towns which grew overnight from a population of 2,000 to 17,000. It is quite an experience, and a bucket list ride for cyclists.

Subaru Impreza fully loaded
Team CLiPDD (Cindy, Lisa, Paul, Dan, Dave)
A RAGBRAI morning – on the road every day by 7:00 AM
Selfie while riding. Do not do this at RAGBRAI. Or ever.
RAGBRAI breakfast (peach pie)
Bikes as far as you can see

A friend asked if RAGBRAI was “a walk in the park” after our other, longer and more demanding, self-supported trips. My answer was no…and yes. It is a long ride – 7 consecutive days in the saddle, two of which were 80+ miles. It was HOT and there were hills. So, from a physical standpoint, no, it was no walk in the park. But it was actually so relaxing for us in that we did not have to worry about navigation, about dangerous traffic on the highways (Iowa closes the roads we ride on to most other traffic) and there are people giving you cold water every ten miles or so, and selling you pork chops and pie at the same intervals. Also, we are not carrying all our gear – the outfitter takes care of that. And provides us with hot showers at the end of the day. So, in many respects, yes, a lovely walk in the Iowa countryside.

Happy Hour
Such great biking mates
Lisa started talking to this guy thinking it was me. When I showed up, they’d all become pretty good friends! The guys were delighted, of course.

It was an unforgettable week, with great travelling companions and the whole and true RAGBRAI experience of meeting all kinds of new people, taking time to chat while riding, commenting on jerseys (the best way to start a conversation) or their choice of music (lots of people carry speakers and play their songs for anyone around them – mostly classic rock, I’m sorry to say, but I did spend a while with a guy who was playing Nina Simone and Chet Baker) or just by greeting someone (we had our name and home town on a little license plate on the back of our bike – “Good morning, Dan!”) At one small town stop, Lisa and I got separated and when I found her, she was chatting with two nice guys. She’d approached them, thinking momentarily that one was ME (we were wearing the same Toppling Goliath jersey, and I guess he looked a little like me.) It turned out they were brothers from Decorah and we had a lot in common. That sort of thing happens daily at this event.

The traditional tire dip in the Mississippi River at the end of the ride

We returned from RAGBRAI tired and anxious to sleep in our own bed. The next day, I dried out and cleaned up all the camping gear, and wondered when we’d use it again. I retrieved Finn from the kennel where he stayed for the week, and he looked a little tired – he enjoys playing with friends there, but at his age, it might have worn him out. I think we will try to not leave him alone now. At his age, as my vet told me yesterday, “every day is a blessing – give him a lot of love.” He doesn’t seem to have any imminent medical issues, but when I asked about his life expectancy, she said “Oh, he’s there now.” He is among the oldest goldens that they’ve seen at his clinic and I keep thinking he looks a little like a very well loved, somewhat threadbare, teddy bear. So we’ll stay with him, give him treats and take him for short walks from here on out.

Finn is nearing a transition, as well, I guess.

It has been a remarkable few weeks for our family.

I think I’ll go out on a bike ride now and think about what comes next.

PS: After Lisa came home from work today, she and I rode up to this new place in Minneapolis (Malcolm Yards Market) for dinner. When we checked in, carrying our helmets, the young woman who welcomed us said to me “You’ve got the same (Smith) helmet that I have” and then “You’ve got the same bicycle spoke bracelet as me, too!” and I said “Did you ride RAGBRAI last week?” and she said “No, but I’ve done it four times” and we laughed. Later in the evening, another couple came up to us and thanked us for hosting Charlie Parr. They’d been in our backyard that night and enjoyed the show. We felt like we were back in our hometown, surrounded by friends. And that, after a year of a kind of isolation, felt really really good. The world is waking up again. We have a future, all of us, together.

10 thoughts on “Transitions and Confluences: Six remarkable weeks, and Iowa

  1. Wow Dan thanks for sharing all of this! You seem to have an extraordinary ability to experience all kinds of adventures and significant life events as both participant and detached observer. Truly remarkable and inspiring. Also I have been following Charlie Parr ever since seeing him in a video performance at Matt Eich’s shop in Saginaw. I loved his playing so much and spent three months trying to get on Matt’s waiting list until I finally did and he built me a Mule resonator. What a great concert that must have been, wish I could have attended! Now that you are retired, I hope you’ll play more guitar and write about it!!! Love to Lisa. peace, pcb

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan, I just read this story with my morning coffee. What a lovely way to start the day. Thank you for sharing with all of us. I have no doubt you will have an interesting and fulfilling life from here on out.


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  3. Gorgeous photo of Finn and your backyard at the end. Thanks for inspiring me to try more adventures. You and Lisa should write a book on living the best life, and then you could bike around the country promoting it and looking fabulous and happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dan – I teared up several times reading this. First when I imagined Arne walking in to your party! I was so proud of Lisa for putting this all together for you. Loved it all, really – but your observations on the passage of time, change, loss – and the profound and wonderful life you are sharing with my lovely Lisa Kay. Glad to know you and hope to see you all soon! Enjoy every minute with sweet Finn:)

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