Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 1.

A roadtrip need not be long or exotic.  There are interesting things 
nearer at hand than we may think.

Whatever will you do in Iowa?

For what seemed a good reason at the time, I was to spend a week in southeastern Iowa in the late winter, with several days of free time between meetings.  My friend Dianne, being a poet, put into words what I was thinking: “Whatever will you do in Iowa?”

Like most Americans, when I thought of Iowa I thought of godly people and corn.  A great deal of corn.  Except this would be winter, when there would be no corn.  It would be winter and there would be snow.  Possibly a great deal of snow.  Relieved now and then by ice and mud.  I imagined rural Iowa in winter to resemble someplace in Siberia in the off-season.  This may be why I saw Russians.

Early morning on Rte. 218, south of Iowa City, tired from an overnight flight, I found myself somewhere in the Ukraine.  Gently rolling fields, a sea of brown mud from horizon to horizon.  Probably bad tank country this time of year.  Heavy ground fog.  Few trees.  Some buildings in the distance: farmsteads with the clustered house and barn and outbuildings and round-topped silo, hazy outlines in the fog, looking like a tiny Russian village with its domed church.

As morning ripens the fog of Russianness dissipates.  The Russian villages of prosperous farms are replaced by smaller, older Gothic Revival farmhouses perched on top of small rises in the rolling fields.  Solitary and upright, riding the frozen brown sea, nothing but empty land and bright winter blue sky as far as the eye can see.  Dark, angular, Gothic, offset by a round satellite dish.  It was probably time to stop for coffee.

                                                                 * * *

The trip was made on short notice and I had no time for my usual research, though I wonder if I would have taken Iowa research seriously.  And so, finding myself on the ground  --  in-country, if you please  --  I turned to my most reliable source of information: the Auto Club roadmap.

I spread out the roadmap on the counter.  It was unpromising.  The counties marched in straight rows east and west, orderly and uniform as Prussian Guards.  The highways, too, ran straight  --  east and west, north and south  --  as if on a featureless plain that offered no obstruction to the works of man which, I suspected, was largely the case.  It reminded me of nothing so much as a circuit diagram.  And held out, it would seem, as much promise of adventure.

But what wonderful names there were on the little towns that lay along the state and country roads: Cylinder and Gravity and Diagonal, Badger and Beaver and Coon Rapids, Imogene and Emeline and Clarinda, Mingo and Climbing Hill and Honey Creek?  Or Morning Sun and Rising Sun, Lone Rock and Buffalo Center and Lost Nation, Confidence and Defiance and Prosper?  Or Otterville and Correctionville and What Cheer?  And where would I find so unselfconscious a name as Prairieburg?  How could I not want to visit them?

This is what would give my time in Iowa its structure.  I visited little towns with interesting names and talked to people in coffee shops and asked people in second-hand and antique shops about the things they had and read small town newspapers and listened to their radio and went into town libraries and talked to ladies at the historical society and read local histories and looked at photographs of farmers and cows and if I saw a sign pointing down a gravel road I would drive down to see what was there, and tried to pay attention to see what the people who lived there had made of their life and if I might learn something that might make my own life better.

I realize that when I describe it that way it sounds sort of grimly purposeful, but after all it was winter and the days were cold and short and I liked to pretend I was doing something worthwhile and not just wasting my time driving through desolate countryside.

(to be continued . . .)


  1. Sounds like the best kind of trip!

  2. Sage mentioned this post to me. I can't wait to read about your experiences in my neck of the woods. One note, the town is Morning Sun and not Mourning Sun. My ancestors lived there and as the story goes, some oxen got free one night and as they were searching for them, the morning sun broke the horizon. Since they were looking for a town name at the time, it clicked and that is how the town Morning Sun became to be.

    1. Aargh. "Morning Sun" I have corrected it already. How could I have made such a mistake? Quite easily, of course: it was in a list and a list is treated as a unity and not as individual items. And the spell-checker was as blind to nuance as ever.

      Why didn't they call it "Lost Ox, Iowa"? I think the name has sort of a ring to it.