It's about midnight on July 3, and Murphy, the wakeboarding owner of Murphy's Bar, is on the mike of his packed-out club.
"Hey, we're about 200 people over code," Murphy yells out over the throbbing crowd. "So Smitty's at the door giving five bucks to anyone who will leave."
I can't believe it - a reverse cover charge. He's paying people to leave his bar. No one leaves, but it wasn't the oddest idea Murphy had that weekend.
Picture this now: We're in northwestern Iowa, about three-and-a-half hours from Des Moines in one direction, another three from Minneapolis, MN in another. My friend Ross just flew us in his private plane over literally 100 miles of perfect 1-mile square sections of farmland to drop us from Des Moines International Airport to a tiny strip called Spirit Lake. Another mile drive and we were on the shores of Lake Okoboji - and from what I could tell from the vantage point of Ross' plane, it's the only lake in the whole state.
So naturally Iowans gravitate here in the summer to the point that Okoboji - known to Iowans as "the Lake" - is a place where Iowa's rich and famous spend their summers, a place where everyone gets around by boat, a place where the convenience stores are called Kum and Go. Naturally, the owner of all 163 Kum and Go's in the tri-state area has a place on the lake.
But that's neither here or there. The real question is what the hell am I doing in Iowa, when the closest pro wakeboarder had to be at least 1,000 miles away? Well, awhile back we got some letters from a place called Lake Okoboji, Iowa, telling us what a great party scene it was up there. We then heard rumors of a Playboy magazine article listing Okoboji as one of the top 10 places in the summer to get laid.
Enough said. But that was still to be seen. All I knew at this point was that Lake Okoboji looked like an incredible strip of water. Six miles long by a mile wide, filled with the most incredible deep blue water and surrounded by both million-dollar mansions and scrubby beach houses. Six lakes separated by thin strips of land along which marinas, bars, clubs, restaurants and a small town composed this pride of the Midwestern summers.
That night, legend started to turn into reality. Imagine a place so fun for the Fourth of July that one guy, I think his name was Mike, took a cab from Minneapolis, just to get to Murphy's bar. He gets out of the cab, runs in to pull Murphy out to witness the cab driver shut the meter off. $423. Murphy doesn't charge him a cover.
Murphy's like that - probably the most popular guy in town. Possibly because of his signature drink - the double talls, a 24-ounce glass generously poured with your favorite libation for only $5 - but also because Murphy's a focal point for all extreme sports in the area. A former speed snow ski racer (he's been over 100 mph on the snow), he's known around town for having broken more bones than Evel Knievel. He has a complete disregard for pain and is willing to try anything. He's a surfer, snowboarder, windsurfer and wakeboarder who found his niche in a bar in Iowa.
Saying Murphy owns the most happening place in town wouldn't mean a whole lot if I didn't temper that by noting his place would be the most happening place in a lot of towns. Murphy's goes off - as sick as anywhere you've ever been. It's an old barn kind of place littered with snowboards, jet skis, windsurfers, mountain bikes, skateboards, surfboards and some wakeboards. One was even signed by Billy McCaffray when he was up last year. The girls are wholesome, clear-skinned milk-maids, while most guys in Iowa (except the riders) seem carbon copies of each other - built like stumps of giant oak trees - sturdy, beefy and with necks thick as keg of beer.
We spent the rest of the night in Murphy's, pretty much met the whole crew and made plans to get out early before the zoo took over the lake
At 6:30 the next morning the riders start pulling up to Ross' dock. Murphy shows up in his Ski Ray packed with Rustys and Wake Techs and ropes and all the usual stuff trashing a wakeboarder's boat. Behind him is some odd-looking crane-on-a-barge contraption. The blue beast, a 40-foot-long by 15-foot-wide barge that can haul around the lake at 30 mph. It's normally used to put in and take out all the thousands of docks around the lake each season. But at 20 mph it's got the biggest wake I've ever seen. Murphy's been wanting to ride behind it for two years - tying off to its 25 foot crane for the biggest extended pylon ever wakeboarded.
Smitty (of Murphy's Bar fame) pulls up next on a Yamaha PWC, doing doughnuts around the dock like a drunk kid in an iced-over high-school parking lot. Oblivious to the 50 degree pre-dawn chill and complete lack of sleep, he's in a full suit, whooping it up cowboy style. Little too much coffee, Smitty?
Smitty is the kind of guy who's hard not to like - unless you're some drunk in Murphy's. And he's probably the biggest wakeboarder I've ever met. A former Chicago cop, Smitty could take a "big beefy" guy like Jeremy Kovak and snap him in half if he wanted to. He's also the kind of guy who rides with no fear of the consequences of his moves. He inadvertently does a move the guys dub the "whirly-smitty." It's the most screwed up thing you've ever seen, where Smitty's about to bust his butt, but he doesn't let go of the handle. He holds on when anyone else would have bailed, and what results is a twisted kind of Raley that looks so painful you'd never do it twice. Smitty apparently does them all the time.
Sean styles up next in his pimped Maristar 225, two Launch pads, a Skylon and eight hung-over passengers. Shaun is the best rider on the lake and probably gets bigger air than any 200-plus-pound guy I've ever ridden with. Brad, Dalton and Kristen are there, shivering under a blanket. Brad, working on an hour's sleep and a dozen beers, is willing to ride first - pretty typical of Okoboji.
John arrives at 6:45 a.m. with a weird look and some messed-up hair. Rumor has it he pulled some girl out of Murphy's but didn't close the deal and ended up sleeping in the corner of the ATM vestibule. The next night John doesn't sleep at all - pretty typical of Okoboji.
We go for a session behind Murphy's fantasy ride (the crane thing) then eventually head off in Sean's boat for another session before the water gets too chopped up. By that time, the crew was ready to hit the bar. Again. I was starting to get a feel for life at Okoboji.
The wakeboarding at Okoboji is nothing out of the ordinary. Some days are epic - the 6-mile lake is so perfect you could do one long glass pass down the center and be spent for the day. Weekends are packed - tubers and PWCs burning up the water to the point that you can't even ride - you know the scene.
What really kicks is the partying. Okoboji locals party so hard at night they don't even think about mornings. Although if they do, a breakfast of coffee and cinnamon rolls at Funky Java is the call. Iowans, it seems take great pride in their cinnamon rolls ... or anything else they do well, for that matter. Go on and say your state has better weather, better riders, better girls, better anything - except cinnamon rolls, corn, beef, pork and guys who can handle their drink.
They know their state isn't the most glamorous place in the country, and they sense that they are the butt of every state's country jokes. They know the mere mention of their home state conjures up images of corn fields and overalls. For the most part, these Iowa stereotypes are true. But Okoboji is different, and as much as they'd try to convince you that Lake Okoboji is one of the raddest places you could spend a summer, your corn-fed mind would never let you believe it. Unless you checked it out for yourself.tion of their home state conjures up images of corn fields and overalls. For the most part, these Iowa stereotypes are true. But Okoboji is different, and as much as they'd try