ROAD TRIP: IOWA

Small Town Charm in Western Iowa

In the rush and tumble of modern life, the most satisfying road trip might be to a place where small-town America seems not to have changed all that much.

I enjoyed the movie ofThe Bridges of Madison County, yet I've never understood the appeal of a covered bridge. We go to the first one we see signs for (Cedar Covered Bridge, the one on the cover of the novel) and yes, it'd make an excellent jigsaw-puzzle image. Shawnda notices a bird's nest in the rafters, and I giggle at the dirty graffiti. Mike W. evidently loves a part of his anatomy just as much as he loves Deb Z.

Shawnda and I grew up in Orange County, Calif., where John Wayne lived in his later years; they even named the airport after him. So we can't pass up the Birthplace of John Wayne, in Winterset. It's a house, not much more. We most enjoy learning that as a kid walking to school, Wayne was asked by the workers that he'd pass what his name was (Marion); he wouldn't answer. They knew Wayne's dog was Duke, so they called the dog Little Duke and nicknamed him Big Duke. The gift shop has a life-size photo cutout of the Duke that, if it weren't our last day, I would buy and arrange in the backseat of our rented convertible.

Outside the courthouse, a sign says that prisoners' graffiti, discovered when a room inside was remodeled, is being exhibited. We take the elevator to the third floor, where another sign says the weed commissioner (huh?) is one direction and the graffiti--old jail is another. Prisoners drew all over the wall--faces, lines of poetry, thoughts, names. One scribble says ERNEST JACKSOON SALT AND BATTERY.

We drive a long stretch of Route 44, the Western Skies Scenic Byway, over hills dotted with hay bales and purple wildflowers. People tend to think Iowa is entirely flat, cornfield after cornfield, but it's not at all.

At a Days Inn--we chose it because it's near the Council Bluffs Drive-In theater--I flip through the tourist guide, looking for a restaurant. You know you're desperate for fresh vegetables when "health food" sounds appetizing. We sit on the patio at McFoster's Natural Kind Cafe in Omaha, and it feels so right to eat non-fried food that I don't care if my tuna curry sandwich is made with something called Vegenaise.

Then we go to the drive-in (which has also since closed, the way drive-ins tend to do). It's only my second drive-in ever, and I'm so excited by the prospect that I agree to seeCarswhile sitting in a car, even after we sat in a car all day.

We arrive early, and it's like a John Mellencamp song. Kids are playing catch in front of the screen, Eddie Money's "Baby Hold On" is blaring out of the speakers, and the sunset is so pretty it looks like God has taken up airbrushing. Just when the quintessential midsummer night can't get any better, a big bug drifts down between us. We start to spaz out, and it lights up. I'm in Iowa, and it's heaven.

Lodging

  • Days Inn Council Bluffs-Lake Manawa3208 S. Seventh St., Council Bluffs, 712/366-9699, from $56

Food

  • Smitty's1401 SW Army Post Rd., Des Moines, 515/287-4742, king tenderloin $5.75
  • McFoster's Natural Kind Cafe302 S. 38th St., Omaha, Nebr., 402/345-7477, tuna curry sandwich $9

Activities

  • Birthplace of John Wayne216 S. Second St., Winterset, 515/462-1044, $4

Finding Your Way
We flew into Omaha because it was easier to get to than Des Moines, and cheaper. That said, the majority of Iowa's top attractions seem to be on the opposite, or eastern, side of the state. At the Omaha airport, the only company renting a convertible--an essential on our road trips-- was Budget Rent A Car. Generally, it's hard to get lost in Iowa, as roads are well marked. If you're looking for a town, head to the nearest water tower. (Note: When you're searching for the airport in Omaha, look for signs for "Eppley Airfield" instead of "airport.")

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