Pedaling Across Iowa for Pie

RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, is really all about the pie. The Amish, the church ladies, home bakers and commercial bakers alike can be found all along the 500-mile route feeding the masses their homemade goods from strawberry-rhubarb, peach, blackberry, apple and more. Sometimes they even have homemade ice cream to go with it. Which is why I just HAD to pump up my tires and join in the fun for three out of the seven days — along with nearly 30,000 other people on bikes.
 

I hadn’t planned on riding this year, but once the event got underway and I started seeing all the pictures and the social media posts of all those people smiling and laughing and exercising — and yes, eating all that pie — I developed a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) so I hitched a ride to Bloomfield and joined in the sea of bicycles as it flowed eastward.

L to R: Scott Horsley, me, Les Cook

I caught up with Team NPR — the acronym can stand for National Public Radio or “No Pie Refused,” depending on how you choose to see it — and rode a few days with economics reporter Scott Horsley and business editor Les Cook. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but oh man, I had a hard time keeping up with these dudes. I thought these guys had desk jobs! But they were motivated by — and fueled by — pie. (Scott told me that he first read about RAGBRAI in a Wall Street Journal article that said it’s the only long-distance bike ride where you’ll gain weight. He’s been doing the ride every year since.)

Special delivery: banana cream pie! (photo by Madeline King)

Some of those weight-inducing calories were provided by yours truly. After putting in a 50-mile day on my bike, I went home and baked until midnight. The next morning I delivered pies — banana cream, apple, peach crumble and key lime — to their support vehicle. When Team NPR rolled in for their daily pit stop they tanked up — and as you see in the photo below — some even did a toast with their pie.

photo by Madeline King, IPR

They all commented that you don’t see a lot of cream pie on RAGBRAI. That’s for obvious reasons — like 90-degree days with high humidity. (Great biking weather! Especially when there are relentless headwinds. Luckily RAGBRAI provides a sag wagon to transport you to the end of the day’s route if you just can’t take it anymore.)

Their favorite of my pies, hands down, was the key lime. (The recipe is below.) And guess what? I didn’t make that one! Doug did. He’s a good pie baker too. But then he had a good teacher. Ha!

I’ve done the full RAGBRAI ride three times, starting when I was 19 years old — all the way back in 1981. (RAGBRAI started in 1973 as a bet between two newspaper reporters and is now going into its 48th year.) I’ve jumped on for a few days at a time during the past nine years I’ve been back in Iowa, yet never fully committing to the whole week.

But after riding this year — after getting caught up in the contagious joy and unity of the fellow cyclists (ranging from 10-year-olds to 93-year-olds), after making new friends from all parts of the world, after getting swept up in the common goal of reaching the Mississippi River, after feeling the sense of accomplishment and freedom that comes from covering great distances under your own power, and after breathing in all of rural Iowa’s beauty on those car-free country roads…after all that, I am already planning on doing the entire weeklong ride next year.

I even have a team name already — Team Pieowa.

I posted my team name on Facebook last week. I was only half-joking, but like most of the crazy adventures that happen in my life, it gained momentum almost immediately after several people left comments. They wanted to join, someone offered to help with the support crew, and the next thing you know the idea has gone from wishful thinking to really happening.

If you want to join me, let me know. We’ll need a support vehicle (maybe a van or bus or RV or just bike trailer) and a driver. We’ll want to get team jerseys designed. (Any graphic artists out there jonesing for a project?) If nothing else, this will be something fun to focus on during the long winter months, something to look forward to and a reason to not slack off on the exercise. There will be no last-minute decision to go, no FOMO. Only miles of cornfields and open sky; thousands of happy, healthy people; new friends to be made; local communities welcoming visitors; pies waiting to be enjoyed. Like labor pains, I will have long forgotten about the trifecta of heat, headwinds and hills, forgotten a
bout the sore muscles and sunburn, and I’ll be excited to do it all over again.

Next summer — July 19 – 25, 2020 — you will find me, along with thousands of other people, pedaling across Iowa in a community effort of endurance and fun.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

For more info on RAGBRAI: https://ragbrai.com

KEY LIME PIE 

GRAHAM CRACKER CRUST  

1-1/2 cups graham crackers (about 9 to 12 crackers, at least one sleeve), crushed (increase amount if you’re using a large, deep-dish pie plate)
5 to 6 tbsp butter, melted

Optional ingredients: 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 cup sugar (I make mine without these)

Crush crackers by putting in a ziplock bag and roll with rolling pin. Mix melted butter into cracker crumbs, then press into pie plate. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

FILLING

1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (save 2 egg whites)
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice (To get ½ cup of juice will take about 6 Persian limes.)
2 tsp lime zest (optional but zesty!)

Whisk 4 egg yokes, add condensed milk and lime juice.

Optional step, but one that I always do: Beat 2 egg whites until stiff and fold into this mixture. This will make your filling lighter.

Pour into pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until filling is set. Let cool, then chill for at least 3 hours. Top with whipped cream. Store in refrigerator up to a week.

TOPPING:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp sugar

Beat cream and sugar until peaks form. Spread over top of cooled pie.

TIP:  
Instead of little key limes, you can also use “regular” limes, also known as “Persian” limes. They are bigger and juicier and thus easier to squeeze, but are said to be less tangy than key limes. However, I did a taste test with a few key lime pie aficionados in Key West, people who swear by using key limes, and they all voted for the pie made with the Persian limes. Even the experts were fooled. Go figure. (This is why I insist on questioning authority and thus dispelling myths.)

TIP:
You can use bottled lime juice. Recommended brands are Nellie and Joe’s or Manhattan (unsweetened). It’s a lot faster and easier than squeezing those mini key limes and will keep your fingers from pruning. That said, I always prefer using fresh fruit.

The (Snowy) Road to Taos

“Travel not to find yourself but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

                                                      — as seen on a plaque yesterday in a home decor store

In November, Hillary lost the election. In March, I lost my dad. A month later, in April, I lost my goat, Cinnamon. After all that I thought I was also going to lose my mind. Writing is my best form of therapy, and on his deathbed, my dad reminded me, “Words matter.” But my brain was such a muddled, grief-stricken mess I was stuck. I put my fingers to work typing “writers retreats” on Google and found one, one that I was sure could get me back on track. It was for smart, ambitious women suffering from writers block. It was in the spiritual Mecca of Taos, New Mexico. It was sold out.

I wrote to Jennifer Louden and pleaded my case. “I NEED THIS. DESPERATELY,” I implored, telling her how I had just lost my dad and my goat. “Please, please, PLEASE, can you get me in?”  I got a reply so quickly it was like a form letter. “We‘ve added you to the waiting list.” Period.

My friend Kee Kee assured me I would get in. Though she suggested I just go to Taos anyway, that a road trip might be as much as I need. But no. I wanted structure. I wanted community. I wanted someone to use their velvet whip on me to get me back in the chair.

I sent my plea on a Friday. On Monday afternoon I was told I had cleared the list but still needed to send in an application—which was a bunch of questions about why you want to write, what you’re working on, and what you hoped to get out of the weeklong workshop—a vetting process. Tuesday morning I was told I was in. Yes!

I packed my car (actually Doug’s car since his SUV was bigger and safer than my Mini Cooper) and left Iowa on Friday morning, April 28. The workshop started on Sunday, April 30. Google maps calculated the driving time at 16 hours. No problem.

When I left the farm it was raining. It kept raining all through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Doug, who as a farmer is obsessed with his weather app, stayed in close touch, giving me regular updates about the latest developments on the radar. He told me it didn’t look so good. I didn’t need him to tell me that because I could see for myself—the clouds hung so low they touched the ground, the rain was turning to snow. I called him to discuss the conditions.

“There’s a storm system that is coming up along the eastern edge of the Rockies,” he said. That’s exactly where I was headed.

“Okay, then I’m going to make a detour and head south,” I told him. “I’ll just drive around it. It will add a few extra hours but at least I will be safe.” He agreed with me that it was a good plan.

As I pointed south, weaving my way through the Panhandle’s sea of wheat fields and oil rigs, I came to the town of Canadian, Texas. I was going to keep pushing on, but when I saw the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon I took it as an omen. The goat I had just lost, Cinnamon, was one of my favorites. She was the most beautiful out of the four, with her fluffy tan coat, white underside and a black stripe down her back. More striking was her humility. She was shy and polite, and unlike the others never pushed and shoved to get more carrots. As a tribute to her, I would stop and eat lunch. Big mistake.

Inside above the bar was a big stuffed white goat, not just a head and horns, but the entire front half of the goat’s body. It didn’t look like Cinnamon; it looked exactly like one of our other goats, Mr. Friendly. I should have walked out then. Instead, I stupidly ordered a $10 burger that looked—and tasted—worse than day-old McDonald’s. As I was leaving, I passed the mayonnaise-heavy salad bar and—wait for it—there was another stuffed goat. This time it was the full body of a small goat and it was being used as a—I kid you fucking not—a bottle opener. A sign above it said, “PETA Warning: This Goat may have been harmed in the making of this bottle opener.” I have never regretted a meal more.

But I digress. I was dodging a snowstorm in order to get to a writers retreat on time.

After 16 hours of driving I got as far as Amarillo, still 6 hours from Taos, where I chatted up a couple pumping gas at the Flying J. They had come from the west, from Albuquerque—the direction I was going. They looked pale and shaken. “It’s bad,” the husband said. “We had to pull off for three hours because of the snow.” If the weather had been okay, I would have already checked into my historic inn in Taos. Instead, I sought refuge at a Motel 6 in Amarillo.

Now it was me who was obsessively studying the weather app. I hit the refresh button every five minutes to see if the Winter Weather Advisory had been updated, and ideally canceled. Instead, it was extended. It was supposed to end at 10AM. Then midnight. Then 10AM Sunday. Then 1PM, 2PM, and eventually 7PM Sunday. The workshop started Sunday at 6. I barely slept.

I woke up to see Doug’s car buried under a few inches of snow and the trees blowing sideways from hurricane force winds. The weather radar showed the storm, which was supposed to move to the north, had shifted (or a new one had developed) and it was centered right over Amarillo.

I tried to wait it out. I stayed in my room until 11 until I became too restless. I checked out and went to Starbucks, drinking a triple latte as I stared out the window at the toppled tables and chairs, the canvas of the umbrellas billowing like parachutes after a botched landing. I could see the interstate from where I sat and there were cars and semis moving down the road. Slowly. But still, they were heading west.

I examined the radar again. If I could just blast through the storm cell I would pop out the other side where sunny skies and climbing temperatures were reported.

I hate driving in rain. I hate even more driving in snow. Driving on mountain roads in bad weather is one of my biggest nightmares (after tornadoes and snakes.) In the past I thought nothing of driving in adverse conditions. But with age comes fear. My vivid—and morbid—imagination takes over and I picture myself perishing in a fiery crash, my car flipping over and pummeled, with me bloody, mangled, perhaps lifeless, in the wreckage. I never thought I would become one of those fearful people, the little old lady hunched forward in the drivers seat, gripping the wheel in terror and driving way too slow, with other drivers giving her the stink eye when they finally pass. But when the weather is bad, the rain blinding, or the mountain roads too windy and narrow, I am that old-lady driver.

I may have become more fearful but I still possess enough determination, enough grit, enough impatience to talk myself into action. It took some serious self-talk to convince myself, but I reasoned that I would take it slow. If other drivers didn’t like my cautious pace they were welcome to go around me. As Marcus taught me how to relax when faced with drivers on the German Autobahn tailgating me at 120 mph, “If they don’t like your speed, it’s their problem.”

Holding my breath, I merged with the traffic on the I-40. The pavement was covered in extensive patches of snow and ice. No one could go fast even if they wanted to. In fact, once I pulled onto the interstate, no one was going more than 5 mph, because a snowplow was up ahead blocking everyone. My GPS showed a one and a half hour delay due to this traffic, and after that Grande Latte I had to pee, so I pulled off at a random exit. Bad choice. The only restaurant at the exit was closed—due to bad weather. Wishing I was wearing Depends, I had to stay on the frontage road for a few miles before there was another onramp. The frontage road was surprisingly clear of snow and as I drove west on it, parallel to the interstate, I passed the long snail line of cars, cars and more cars. And then, I passed the snowplow, and right after the snowplow was my onramp. Ha! I wanted to be happy about getting ahead of the traffic, but the unplowed freeway could have been covered in even thicker snow and ice. Fear kicked in again. But since there was no one behind I just whispered to myself over and over, “Go gently,” and drove ever so slowly. At least 30 mph was faster than 5. The road ahead, oddly, was clearer than the road behind. And soon, in a matter of a few miles—que milagro!—the road was altogether dry. Above, I could even see a distinct line marking the edge of the storm system. I was still making my way out from under the dark grey muck, but there was a cloudless blue sky dead ahead.

I explain all this because it matters. It matters because had I not taken that exit to pee, I would not have gotten in front of the traffic, and if I had not gotten in front of the traffic I would not have arrived in Taos at exactly 6:00PM, the minute the writers workshop started. It matters because that while I weighed out the safety factors and erred on the side of caution, I was still able to push past my fear, trust my snow tires, trust myself. It matters because bad luck eventually exhausts itself.

My losing streak has been followed by nothing but good. I went on to have one of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had in years. The workshop exceeded my expectations on every level. I made new friends. I wrote like a madwoman. I explored the beauty of the town, its earthy adobe buildings, and its surrounding mountains. Everything about the week went so incredibly right, like magic. Like a well-deserved winning streak.

I look back and realize that storm cell hovering over Amarillo was like a metaphor for my life. Grief had been hovering over me, keeping me stuck in a metaphorical Motel 6. I know grief. I know you can’t go around it. I’ve muscled through it before and I found that in spite of the brokenness of my heart, I still had the courage and determination—and driving skills—to blast through again. It doesn’t change the fact I lost what I loved, what was so important to me (most of all, my dad—and I will most certainly be writing more about him later), but it did remind me to have faith, that even when you’re in the worst of storms, there are always, always, always sunnier days ahead.

This post would not have been written if not for Jen Louden and her coaching. I wanted to go to bed early instead of writing, but I heard Jen’s voice, I felt the encouragement of the group, and thus I sat my butt in the chair and kept it glued there until this was finished. Thanks to Jen and the group for an “amazing” week. I intend to hang onto that encouragement and stay in the chair as I go forward, using my words to promote kindness.

World Piece Kicks Off with an Epic Trans-American RV Road Trip

America the Beautiful — as seen through an RV windshield.

If you are ever going to drive your RV cross country and get a severe toothache in the middle of a hail storm, the best possible place to pull off the interstate is Fruita, Colorado. Or so I learned on my way to Iowa this week.

The RV trip from LA to Iowa was part of my World Piece master plan. I would move out of my Palos Verdes guest house where I had spent the past 6 months, load up the RV with all my stuff, and drive to Iowa where I would put my things in my storage unit there. I would bring my dog, Jack, and leave him at my friend’s farm where he could spend the summer while I was circumnavigating the globe making pie.

Six months earlier, when I drove the RV to LA, stressed to the max from towing my Mini Cooper behind it (and from losing Daisy, my other sweet member of Team Terrier, after that coyote attack), I swore I was selling The Beast and that I would never drive it again. Not 18 miles, and certainly not 1,800 miles.

Bwwahahahahaha. As you may recall from my book, “Making Piece,” I also told my late husband, Marcus, when he first bought the RV that I would never drive it at all. Ever.

So yeah, The Beast started up on the first turn of the engine, and off I went, heading east.

First stop was Las Vegas to pick up my artist friend, Dave. (He is the same artist who designed the gorgeous World Piece logo.) Dave lives in Iowa now and he offered to help me drive. He is great company, tells entertaining stories, and can make me laugh until I cry. Which is something that will come in handy on this trip as I try to get my facial muscles to work again. I picked him up in Vegas not because I wanted to gamble — solitaire is the closest to gambling I will ever get — but because it was the closest, cheapest one-way ticket I could find at the last minute.  


After Dave offered to help drive, he texted me, “We’ll make it a little adventure.”

That made me look at the drive as less of a dreaded task (remember, I said I never wanted to drive the RV again) and instead I began to view it more as a fun mini-trip before my Big Trip.  Not that there is anything “mini” about driving more than half way across the USA in an RV. But when Dave said “adventure,” I should have considered that the definition of adventure is when things do not go according to plan.

The plan was to drive the RV to Iowa without incident and get there in the most direct and quickest way possible. But, to quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” This is what happened:

Near Disaster #1 

Dave’s flight arrived at 9:30PM. It was dark and there was a lot of traffic at the Las Vegas Airport. The Billboard Music Awards were going on, and god knows how many conventions. I had to maneuver the RV through lines of limousines and SUVs and convertibles to get to arrivals. I managed to butt my way into the left lane for the parking lot when panic struck. It didn’t take a sign that said, “CLEARANCE: 7 FEET” to know that I was going to crash into the low overhang. I slammed on the brakes and just as I thought I was completely f**ked, a jeep with flashing lights pulled up next to me. “Follow me,” he yelled. The sign on his bumper read “Airport Security.”

I followed his jeep as he cut across three lanes of traffic, parting the seas like a modern day Moses, and drove through to a quiet, cordoned off area that was marked “Employees Only. ” I pulled in behind him when he finally stopped.

“My heart is still racing!” I told him when he walked up to my window.

“Lucky I just happened to be driving by,” he said. And then he spent the next 10 minutes explaining the nuances of driving an oversize vehicle to pick up a passenger at LAS. As in, next time don’t. It’s a red flag for security. Even if the sides of your RV are emblazoned with giant lattice-top cherry pies. He directed me up to the departures area, where the clearance was high enough for my 11-foot-tall RV, but warned me that the “brown shirts” will shoo me away within seconds if I’m trying to wait.

I circled around the terminal and wound my way up to the departure level where, sure enough, there was a woman in a brown shirt approaching me the instant I pulled up to the curb. A long, dark-haired ponytail streaked with grey, she looked Hawaiian. And she was — wait for it — nice! Dave had already called and was making his way to the terminal. “My friend is on his way,” I assured her.

“Let me talk to him,” she said. “I’ll give him the directions to come out at this door.”

The next thing I knew, Dave was peering into the passenger window, which made Jack first bark and then wiggle with excitement, and made me let out a huge sigh of relief. We waved goodbye to the nice brown-shirted lady — those airport workers in Vegas are angels — and off we went. To the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot for the night.

Near Disaster #2 

I had made it the first 300 miles on my own without catastrophe. But together we had another 1,500 miles to go, and a few mountain ranges to traverse along the way. I normally drive the southern route from LA to Iowa, along Interstate 10, then cutting up through Oklahoma and Kansas. But I wanted a change of scenery this time. I also figured the third week of May was late enough in the spring that the weather in the Rockies would be fine. I had also calculated that even a little mountain rain would be preferable to dodging tornadoes along the southern route, which I had had to do the last time I drove east.

This is what a deluge of desert rain looks like — from a safe distance.

That only thing worse than waking up in a Las Vegas Wal-Mart parking lot is waking up in a Las Vegas Wal-Mart parking lot to a sky filled with black clouds. I began checking my WeatherBug app obsessively. If there was a road that wound between the storm cells I would have taken it. Instead, we stayed on I-15 and headed northeast. Straight toward the darkness. We could see cloudbursts and lightning bolts all around us, but for most of the day we avoided the brunt of the storm. By the time we got to St. George, Utah, however, we were deluged by rain. In an RV with a leaking roof. Worse, the temperature was plummeting. By the time we got to Cedar City, we bailed on the driving and went to a movie.

The movie choice — mine —could be added to the Near Disaster List but Dave was a good sport and sat through “Hot Pursuit,” instead of “Mad Max,” which would have been his choice. I thought Reese Witherspoon could make any movie watchable. But even the stale, overpriced movie popcorn was better than the jokes in that film.

A break in the weather after the film lured us another two hours further down the road. To a truck stop near the junction of I-70. With only one restaurant, a Chinese place in a log cabin with wagon wheel chandeliers run by Mormons. There was no disaster in this, no food poisoning, no hot tea spilling on my lap. Just a really nice waitress who kept the place open 15 minutes past closing time to accommodate us. And a nice warm plate of Lo Mein before crawling into the cold RV for the night. Luckily, because I was moving all my stuff back to Iowa, I had 4 down comforters and 2 quilts between the two of us.

Last services for the next 116 miles includes pie!
Too bad we drove through on a day it was closed.

The thing about mountain driving is that the sky can be so clear and blue one minute, like it was when we woke up, and then you round a bend and see a bank of clouds looming above a peak ahead. Dave had been on storm chasing tours before and, much to my chagrin, he began explaining what was going to happen as we made our way across Utah’s remote I-70. (There are warning signs that read: “No services for 116 miles. No bull.” You do NOT want to break down out here. Or get caught in a windstorm in an RV.)

“You see those towering puffy clouds?” he asked, pointing dead ahead. “That’s called a cu-field. And you see those anvil clouds forming above them? That means the air is very unstable. It means trouble. If we were on a storm chasing trip that would be very exciting and we’d drive toward it.”

“We are NOT on a storm chasing trip,” I said without needing to.

I was driving. The road was winding between stunning red sandstone towers and rock formations, the beauty Utah is renowned for, but road construction had the highway limited to one narrow, winding lane. I could feel the tension mounting, and not just in the sky.

When you see a Runaway Truck Ramp sign,
you know you are driving on steep and scary roads.

Near Disaster #3 

As I was driving, I was chewing on licorice, and then switched to wasabi peas (from Trader Joes), to help me stay alert — and calm. The more stressful the driving, the harder I chewed. Until I hit a nerve. And I don’t mean that figuratively.


“I think I just broke the seal on my bridge,” I told Dave. Pain was shooting up into my skull. I held onto the side of my right cheek. And once the throbbing started it didn’t stop.

“Don’t catastrophize it,” he said. He wasn’t being dismissive. I know him. He meant well. He is the guy that can generate the calm in the direst of situations and he was just trying to keep me from worrying.

“No,” I said. “This happened to me 12 years ago. I know this is bad.”

My toothache was so severe I started to panic. Not only was it going to make the rest of the drive difficult, my mind was racing ahead to my World Piece trip. I was leaving in just 2 weeks. The anxiety, both physical and mental, escalated. “I need you to drive,” I told Dave.

We switched places and no sooner did Dave get behind the wheel, the sky cut loose. We didn’t have to chase the storm, the cu-field we had been watching grow had chased us. The blinding rain turned to hail. And if you’ve ever heard hail hit the roof of an RV, let’s just say ear plugs don’t even help. “We need to get off the road, Dave,” I screeched. “Take the next exit.” (I had been trying really hard not to backseat drive, but this was one time where I couldn’t hold back.)

The closest exit was for the town of Fruita, Colorado. We took it. We parked. And we plugged our ears as the hail continued to pound the roof like a musical accompaniment to my throbbing tooth. While we waited out the storm I started Googling dentists nearby. I called at least 4 places until I got an appointment just 30 minutes later. And not in the bigger city of Grand Junction just 10 miles down the road, but in this very small town (pop. 12,700) I had never heard of, never planned on stopping in.

Somewhere in between the rain, the hail, and Fruita,
a full arch rainbow appeared….An omen?!

The offices of Fruita Canyon Dental are impressive from the moment you drive up. New, modern, and made of stacked stone, the place appears immaculate. The kind of place where, if you had a dental emergency while traveling cross-country, you would be glad to find. And it only got better.

The receptionist was friendly. “Oh, you made it here fast,” she said. “I’m so sorry you are having a problem with your tooth.” I was immediately ushered to a dental chair—there must have been at least five of them, all in separate rooms, all facing out toward the one-way glass windows for a soothing view of grass and aspen trees. We passed a printing machine in the hallway that sounded like it was spewing out reams of paper, and I was told, “Sorry about the noise. That’s our 3-D printer that makes crowns in the office, so you don’t have to have temporaries anymore.” I was astounded to see such state of the art equipment so far off the beaten path. And then I was greeted by Jessie May, a young woman with her long hair wound into a top knot, her long eye lashes batting like a gentle doe. She was the dental assistant assigned to my chair.

Jessie took some X-rays of my mouth and while we waited for the dentist to look at them she probed me with questions. She asked me about my road trip, about Iowa, about pie. I gave her the abbreviated version, about Marcus, about the American Gothic House, about using the frequent flyer miles for World Piece. And then I could no longer hold back the tears. The difficult driving, the bad weather, the aching tooth….it was all too much.

Jessie handed me a tissue. “Life is about adversity,” she said, her eyes big, her smile warm. Then she shared enough of her own history with me to realize that she has had challenges of her own.

Reality bites.

Dr. Stegelmeier came in. He looked more like a snowboarder than a dentist in his bright orange plaid shirt and baggy Carhart-type pants, his face tan from being on the slopes. He looked at my X-rays, and pointing at my back molar said, “This tooth needs to come out.” The intensity of the pain had already indicated it, but to hear him say it out loud made me cry again.

“Can I call my dad first? He’s a retired dentist. I just want to get his advice.”

“Sure. I can talk to him too if you want,” Dr. Stegelmeier said.

I got my dad on the phone and then, to make it easier, I just handed the phone to the dentist. I tried to listen to their dental speak as their dialog switched to Latin names and tooth numbers. When my dad heard what would have to happen, he said, “Aw, shit.”

The dentist held the phone away from his ear, smiled and said to Jessie, “I like this guy.”

I miss having my dad as my dentist, but it meant so much to me to have him consult on my case. And anyway, from the minute I saw his high-optic glasses perched on top of his head I knew I was in good hands with Dr. Stegelmeier.

“Do you want to hold my hand?” Jessie asked as the dentist prepared to inject Novocain.

“Yes, but I’m afraid I’ll hurt it,” I told her, grabbing her outstretched fingers.

“No. I know you can’t hurt it, because my sister held my hand during five childbirths.”

After I was thoroughly numbed up, the dentist got down to business. He sawed off half of my bridge, smoothed out the remaining rough edge, and then yanked out my molar. All the while, I squeezed Jessie’s hand hard. It was over in less than 30 minutes. I would be able to go on my round the world journey, sampling food in every country, but able to chew on only one side. It was a small price to pay.

I went out to the RV and got a copy of “Ms. American Pie.” I brought it into the reception and signed it to Jessie May. “Thanks for holding my hand,” I wrote.

The receptionist looked at the cover and then at me. “Is this you?” she asked.

Biting down on the hunk of gauze inside my mouth, my eyes puffy from crying, my hair greasy from being on the road for 3 days without a shower, I nodded to say, believe it or not, yes.

The road to Glenwood Springs.

Dave and I drove straight to Glenwood Hot Springs after leaving Fruita Canyon Dental. The sky cleared so we went to the pool to soak in the mineral waters, a reward for surviving the near disasters.

“Jeez, Dave,” I said as I laid back in the steaming hot sulphur water, letting my body relax. “Can you believe it we found that dentist? I mean, if the hail hadn’t driven us off the road…” I shook my head. “It was a miracle.”

“The Universe worked it out. And it was better that it happened before you left the country.”

I tried to smile, but the right side of my face was still too numb and swollen to move. “That’s true,” I said.

Dave pulled himself out of the hot water, sat on the side of the pool and giving me his signature grin said, “And to think we are only half way to Iowa.”

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