Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
I woke up a few seconds before my alarm was scheduled to screech. I stretched, made sure I hadn’t gotten a stray chocolate chip on the pillow, and scribbled in my journal a bit before we showered, packed up, and headed downstairs.
Breakfast at Brown Street Inn was a communal affair. The sideboard was loaded with assorted breads, hard boiled eggs, and glorious cinnamon pecan rolls. Once we sat down at the large dining room table, a colorful plate of fresh fruit magically appeared next to a crystal bowl of rhubarb jam.
It was delicious, but I expected that. I’ve stayed in a lot of B&Bs and breakfast has been superb at every one. I love food, so this alone might make me choose this type of lodging over another. But that’s not the real reason I enjoy these cozy inns.
It’s the people.
That morning we met Will and Susan, who were visiting for his 55th High School Reunion at a nearby town. Dennis was a traveling businessman from Minneapolis who had an Iowa circuit. Miriam from Maine was finishing up a summer session with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
We all exchanged pleasantries and our conversation turned to travel as soon as they learned about our adventure. Will and Susan said we needed to visit Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Mark and his partner, Bob Brooks, suggested a visit to Stringtown Grocery in Amish Kalona on our way out of town. Dennis was a bit more philosophical, and we felt like he was in lockstep with the reason we were taking this crazy journey.
“If only people would get out there and meet others, they’d see we’re more alike than different,” Dennis said.
I wanted to shout “Yes!” It’s easy to judge others as a group. When you meet someone, share a cinnamon pecan roll, pass the rhubarb jam, appreciate the hosts who’ve provided the spread, you’ve made a connection.
Mark and Bob filtered in and out, commenting occasionally, never once sitting, always the consummate hosts.
“We’re going to do this ‘til we die,” Mark said.
“Could be tomorrow,” Bob replied.
I browsed their eclectic art collection. Eclectic is overused, but I’m not sure how else to describe a place that has a pearl-choked dancing pig in a dress, a meat-grinder coated with a rainbow of beads, and pastoral scenes of rural Iowa, all in the same room. There’s a grandfather clock, a gilded framed mirror over the mantel, blown glass sculptures and vases, abstract pieces lining the staircase, and gorgeous tapestries on the floor and the wall. It’s chaotic and orderly.
An oxymoron, if you will.
We collected our bikes from the garage and hoisted them back on the rack. Before we headed downtown, I peeked at the house hidden behind a couple of trees at the end of the block. Instead of a sign proclaiming “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Wrote Here,” there was a sign warning all to stay off the private property. I respected that, but I still stood in the street and stared. This was where the Pulitzer Prize-winner penned parts of Slaughterhouse Five. I imagined the click of the keys and wondered what it would be like to step inside.
I didn’t stare long, though. One, that would be pretty creepy. I mean, people actually lived there, and I didn’t want to be one of those tourists. Two, we had to get going. Our campground that night was clear on the other side of the state, and Iowa is pretty wide. (Not as wide as Montana or North Dakota or Oregon, but it still spans a lot of miles.) But first, we had a few things to see.
One of the contributing factors in Iowa City’s designation as a City of Literature was their Literary Walk. It’s the Hollywood Walk of Fame for authors. Instead of stars, in 2000 – 2001 artist Gregg LeFevre installed bronze panels for each writer that included a quote from the author’s body of work.
There are 49 in all, including Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, John Sandford, and Bill Bryson. We strolled, stopped, read; strolled, stopped, read, up and down Iowa Avenue until we’d read them all. Seeing them together illustrated the huge impact this small Midwestern town has had on literature in the last century.
We read the final tribute at the corner of Iowa and Clinton (Tennessee Williams’ lament: “We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!”) and crossed the street to the Old Capitol Building, a beautiful stone structure with a glinting gold dome. Built in 1840, it was the seat of the 29th state’s government when it was admitted to the union in 1846.
Politicians crafted Iowa’s constitution in the building, and the first governor’s inauguration was held there. The Old Capitol Building, which is now the centerpiece of the University of Iowa’s campus, was also where it was decided the state needed a public university in the first place. That prescient decision, made in 1847, meant U of I had some pretty cool digs when Des Moines became the capital ten years later.
Classes are no longer held inside, but you can still get an education. We entered through the hefty doors and browsed the Old Capitol Museum, which houses the restored Supreme Court and Senate Chambers from the building’s days as the seat of government, as well as two rooms with rotating exhibits that emphasize the importance of the humanities. Makes sense, considering the university’s history in the subject.
We caromed from room to room like we were on a scavenger hunt. Senate Gallery: check. President’s Office: check. Five minutes listening to the 1880s Mermod Freres music box: check.
We raced through the museum because, while I’d gained a semblance of calm after our restful night and convivial morning, I was still anxious. Our late start the day before combined with our nomadic state, our loosey-goosey itinerary, and my general need to do everything and see even more fostered a constant rumble of panic. I had to let go of what we didn’t get a chance to see and relish what we did.
After a quick stop at Oasis Falafel to pick up a couple of pita sandwiches and a pack of pitas to go, we drove south towards Kalona. “South?” you ask. “Aren’t you supposed to be going west?” Yes, but we needed to see some Amish about a bug spray.
Mark and Bob swear by Bug Soother and had some on their balcony for Brown Street Inn guests. Once they learned we’d be doing a lot of camping, they sent us to an Amish store south of Iowa City to get some of this magic juice. We pulled into the parking lot of Stringtown Grocery and I turned when I heard clip-clopping along 540th Street SW. Being from the Midwest, that was not my first horse-drawn buggy. It was, however, my first Amish mercantile.
The shelves were stacked with plastic containers, the kind you’d see at a deli, and bags filled with spices, candies, chocolates, flours, sugars, popcorn, and nuts. Even though it was cloudy, the sun filtered through faceted skylights that gave so much ambient light it seemed like Edison had been there. There was a refrigerated section in the back, but that was the only sign of electricity.
We browsed the aisles, amazed at how affordable everything was. I wanted to buy all of the candies and chocolates, most of the spices, and some of the popcorn, but our vehicle was stuffed with everything we needed for a month-and-then-some journey, plus last-minute detritus from our move. We had just enough room for two moon pies, a couple pieces of stick candy, and a bottle of Bug Soother.
Let me tell you about Bug Soother. Mark and Bob were, oh, so right. This stuff is amazing. Mosquitoes hang out around my freckles like my body’s an open bar, but I spray this elixir and it’s like the bouncer finally decided to do his ever-loving-job and kick their free-loading stingers outta this joint.
AND it smells like vanilla and lemongrass. It’s the Yankee Candle of bug sprays.
I’ve since discovered that you can buy Bug Soother at Amazon and Walmart, but I’d rather pick mine up at an Amish store with a side of moon pie any day.
We left Kalona a little after 1:30 in the afternoon. In my original, overly-enthusiastic itinerary, we would have been on the road by 10am because Iowa has a lot of roadside attractions and I wanted to see as many as possible. Instead, we ate a leisurely breakfast, explored the literary walk and the museum, and bought bug spray.
That’s what happens on a road trip. At least, that’s what happens when Jim and I go on a road trip. Plans change, and before you know it you’re driving through a tallgrass prairie outside of Des Moines at quarter ‘til two in the afternoon under blue skies and puffs of white.
We entered the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge on a gently curved two lane road. “These are Iowa’s version of switchbacks,” I said, giggling like a toddler who’d just made up a knock-knock joke.
Jim groaned. He does that a lot around me.
It would seem we have a thing for tallgrass prairies. We’ve been to Midewin in Illinois, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, and, now, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. All three of them have a mission to restore and reconstruct a portion of what had covered more than 240 million acres of the great plains. Less than one tenth of one percent of that ecosystem remains.
At first glance the prairie looks boring. Just a bunch of waving grass. European settlers called it the Inland Sea and the Great American Desert, and it only took a little over a century to convert the prairies that had existed for thousands of years to farmland. The transition was aided by the near-extinction of the bison and the prairie dog. The two animals worked together to aerate the soil, spread seeds, and generally maintain a natural balance in what was a surprisingly complex environment.
Fire was also necessary for these prairies. To a settler, a farmer, a town, fires are bad. But they’re the lifeblood of the prairie, clearing dead plants and adding nitrogen to the soil.
Those three elements – bison, prairie dogs, and fire – became themes of our road trip. The latter was expected. We’d chosen to visit the northwest because we wanted to see how the area had survived after the wildfires of 2017. The bison and prairie dogs were a bit of a surprise, though. We knew after our visit to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge the year before, and to Midewin the year before that, that bison were making a comeback. We just had no idea how extensive the efforts in their resurgence spread.
But I digress.
In the distance, Jim groans.
While a tallgrass prairie restoration and reconstruction may seem like it’s all about the plants, Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is about re-creating an environment that teemed with life. It protects the Walnut Creek Watershed and its prairies, oak savannas, and sedge meadows for the wildlife that depends upon that environment for survival. The refuge is home to bison and elk as well as more than two hundred bird species, about one hundred types of mammals…and “uncounted” thousands of insect species.
Good thing we had our bug spray.
We took the auto tour through the refuge and while we only saw three bison and no elk, the simple beauty of the swaying grasses captivated and calmed.
Speeding through Des Moines’ rush hour, we jumped out the other side and got off I-80 to see the road that preceded I-80.
In the early 1900s, when you wanted people to come to your town, you built a road. It was especially effective if that road connected to other towns in a fairly straightforward manner. There was no Federal funding, so you, the resident of the town, did it yourself. In 1910, the people of Dexter, Stuart, Menlo, Casey, and Adair, did just that. They connected their towns and painted the roadside poles white, encouraging drivers to take the “Great White Way.” In 1914 it was the first route certified under Iowa’s State Highway Commission Rules.
The route went through a myriad of changes, until 2003 when it became the White Pole Road, 26 miles of Iowa personality. Dexter is the “original one-horse town.” Stuart is the “Home of 1700 good eggs…and a few stinkers.” Adair has a smiling water tower.
Driving the White Pole Road is like driving the original alignment of Route 66. When you do it intentionally, there’s a presence. You feel connected to the past in a way you never can when you’re flying through on an Interstate. We drove the 26 miles and got back on I-80.
I was done with Iowa.
It’s a phrase, I imagine, oft-muttered by many a road warrior. Iowa along I-80 is pretty, in a sameness kind of way. It’s lush. Well, it was when we were there, after a heavy rain that painted the fields. But it was so much sameness. Field after field, gentle hill after lone tree after rows of corn. Pastoral, peaceful, graceful, beautiful.
I needed grit and bluffs and crags. This stretch of Iowa was a lullaby, a gorgeous, plentiful lullaby, and all I wanted was a beat that I could dance to.
Or, at the very least, a Volkswagen Beetle spider.
We’d heard that there was such an oddity in Avoca, Iowa, so we pulled off the highway when we saw the town’s exit. There was no listing on Google maps, and no sign saying “VW Bug on stilts this way.” We stopped at the first gas station we saw, and wouldn’t you know it, the cashier’s dad was on the Fair board and had taken her up into the metal arachnid when they were installing it.
“It’s really cool inside,” she said, “but nobody knows where it is. They need to move it to the main road. People come here for the spider.”
As odd things go, this was one of the oddest. There’s a cornfield (‘cause it’s Iowa) and a farm home with big farm equipment and just hanging out is a Volkswagen bug painted all black on eight legs. Talk about roadside kitsch. Except the road is tucked away like a corner in an attic. Ah. I get it now. Spider. Corner. Clever, Avoca, very clever.
The western fields of Iowa along I-80 are terraced. There’s a level plain, a short drop, and then another plain. The drops curve and flow. The system turns the land into a sculpture, molded by farmers turned artists. It’s sensual and confounding.
How? How long did this take? For miles and miles we passed these terraces, and I remembered that not only did farmers sculpt the land we could see, underneath there were drainage tiles to irrigate the soil. This is the price they paid for turning prairie into farms.
I’d learned during a previous visit to Iowa that those drainage tiles could be a hundred years old and more, installed by hand and horse. The prairies disappeared, but what replaced them produces a disproportionate amount of the nation’s food. It was a trade-off, and now there are efforts to find a balance.
We got to the Missouri River and turned north. It was 7:30 when we reached our exit and we still had to pick up propane for our campstove so we could have dinner that night. We had realized at some point in the previous 540 miles that we’d left our tanks in the trunk of our car, which was sitting at my son’s house in Illinois. Finally, at our third store, which was obviously the closest to our campground, we found a place that sold those green cylinders.
I hadn’t made a lot of plans before we left, but I did have our campsite reserved for this night. Thank goodness. When we pulled up to Blue Lake, an oxbow remnant of the Missouri River’s previous meanderings, ours was the only open spot. We unfurled our tent for the first time in more than a year. We finished setting up and the sun was nearly beyond the horizon. The RV-ers three sites down had one final roust with some kids on a speedboat. “Stop skiing! That’s so rude!” an RV-er screamed. “How long have you been here? We’ve been coming here 25 years!” a skier returned. Yada yada yada.
Dinner? We tossed the propane into the Jeep and went to bed.
Portions of this chapter were previously published at Iowa City: a Literary Destination in the Heart of the Midwest