Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 1 – Elgin to Iowa City

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!

The drive was uneventful, unless you count what appeared to be funnel clouds off in the distance. Summer in Illinois means there’s always a possibility of a tornado, somewhere, but not this time. These formations, while ominous looking, were only a couple of clouds piled up in just the right way. I was grateful that the farms in the distance with their red barns and chartreuse fields would be safe, and our Mississippi River crossing was all blue skies and cotton balls.

Helloooo, Iowa.

Iowa, like most Midwestern states, gets a bad rap. “It’s boring.” “It’s flat.” “There’s nothing to see.” There’s even a name for the ennui: flyover country. If you never get off the Interstate, sure. The highway system is designed to be fast, not scenic, and in the plains that means you’re taking a straight shot across the state. It’s homogeny defined.

Gas stations, fast food, the occasional Adult and Fireworks stores (sometimes one and the same), semis and RVs. It’s a blur of not-much-to-see-here as you race to your destination. But just like Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and yes, even Kansas, if you take an exit, you’ll find there’s a surprising number of things to see in the Hawkeye State.

Our first exit was Iowa City and our destination, the Brown Street Inn. We parked behind a 1913 Gambrel Cottage-Style Mansion flying both U.S. and rainbow flags from the full-length porch. For the record, I did not know what “Gambrel Cottage-Style Mansion” meant. I’ve since learned that a Gambrel is a style of roof that looks like a barn. Cottage-style means it looks like a cottage. The word “cottage” implies small. We were staying in an oxymoron.

An artistic, comfortable, tapestry-hung oxymoron.

The sign at the side entrance told us not to let in the cat, so we didn’t, and Mark Ruggeberg greeted us with the signature warmth we’ve come to expect from bed and breakfast proprietors. (Except for one. But he’s in another book.) He knew we were late, really, really late, and probably quite hungry, so he gave us the briefest of tours before we left for dinner.

After he kindly let us store our bikes in his garage, we pulled out onto the literally brick-lined street and drove five minutes to the literally renowned downtown.

Iowa City is a college town, but it’s not just any college town. It’s the home of the University of Iowa, which is known for, among other attributes, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Officially monikered the Program for Creative Writing, when it was conceived in 1936, during the Great Depression, it was the first creative writing degree program in the U.S.

By that time, U of I had already established itself as a groundbreaking organization. It was the first public university to open as a coed institution, admitting both men and women in 1855. Remarkably, 41 out of the initial 124 students, a full third of the class, were female. It also opened the first coed medical school, was one of the first to present law degrees to both a white woman (1873) and a black man (1879), and was one of the first to decide it was OK for a black man to play varsity sports (1895).

This is Iowa. A state that’s known for feeding the bellies of the world with its productive farms. It also feeds the minds of the world with the words of authors fostered under its cornflower blue skies. The University of Iowa was the first university anywhere to accept creative works on an equal basis with academic research. In essence, they were the first institute of higher learning in the world to realize that a novel or a symphony or an artist’s portfolio was every bit as valid as a thesis to represent the sum of a student’s learning. On top of that, the University of Iowa created the Master of Fine Arts degree.

All of the above is why Iowa City was the first in the country, and third in the world, to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature.

UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and a summary of its goal is to spread peace through knowledge and understanding. Its Creative Cities Network, of which the City of Literature program is a part, aims to highlight cities with vibrant creative scenes that have a desire to promote cultural diversity.

Iowa City received its designation in 2008, and it’s reviewed every four years to make sure it’s still offering the programs and resources that made this august body take note.

Short story: it is.

That status is why we were there, but at 7:30 at night after a frustrating day of delays and weather tantrums, all I cared about was a stiff drink and a full dose of comfort food.

We found Clinton Street Social Club, billed as Iowa City’s only true gastropub and speakeasy, at 18 1/2 South Clinton Street. Up the stairs we trod until we came upon a wall of whiskey, a dimly lit dining room, a red pool table, and poutine.

Ah, poutine. That all-Canadian comfort food that feels right at home in the heartland of America.

We made the ill-advised choice to share this dish of fried potatoes topped with beef gravy and it’s amazing that neither one of us stabbed a fork in the other for taking more than our fair share of its creamy, savory, salty, squeaky goodness. I know Canadians are nice and they’ve got health care for all and a mighty-fine-looking Prime Minister, but I’m sorely tempted to move north solely for the poutine.

Poutine at Clinton Street Social Club in Iowa City, Iowa
Poutine. Beef gravy crave-worthy poutine.

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Or I could just move to Iowa City, eh?

Bonus: there were cheese curds in that poutine. Hallelujah, there were cheese curds. AND a cocktail made with Laphroaig, Aperol, Lillet aperitif wine, Drambuie, and house-made lemon bitters.

Is this heaven?

No, Theresa. It’s Iowa.

We split a chicken sandwich and looked at the dessert menu. Although we were ready to curl up in our don’t-let-the-cat-in Red Room, Clinton Street Social Club had beignets.

Jim and I met in 2009 right before the holiday season. We had a connection, although neither of us was quite sure what kind of connection that was, and we began sending text messages back and forth. As a professional Christmas caroler, he’d invite me to hear him sing when he had a public gig. Every time he’d invite me, I had something else planned.

Every single time. As we neared Christmas, he sent me one more invitation to hear him sing at the Elysian (now the Waldorf Astoria) Chicago. “They have orange beignets.”

It was as charming and decadent as sugar-dusted pastries in a four-star hotel can be. I was smitten.

And I had plans.

This is why we didn’t stab each other over poutine. There was something simple and sweet about our courtship. I didn’t get my beignets that day, but I ended up with much more, and now we share them any chance we get.

Raspberry beignets at Clinton Street Social Club
Ahhh, beignets

We returned to Brown Street Inn and slipped into bed with fresh chocolate chip cookies and a cup of tea, orange spice for me and raspberry royale for him. It hadn’t been the easiest of days, but it turned out OK, and we slept in the comfort of a cottage-style mansion, dreaming of the journey ahead.

Parts of this chapter were previously published with modifications at Iowa City: City of Literature.