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.

By Erik Torkells, Tuesday, May 22, 2007, 12:00 AM

Corn fields at night in Iowa during summer

Iowa corn fields on a summer night.

(Karrapavan / Dreamstime.com)

Madison County

(Tara Donne)

Day 1: Le Mars to Perry
Last year, my friend Shawnda and I overscheduled our annual road trip. This time, we want to wander more, in a place where we're unlikely to get overscheduled. But after studying western Iowa on the map, I'm worried that we won't find anything to do at all.

Which isn't to say there hasn't been excitement already. Late the previous afternoon, we flew into Omaha, Nebr., from opposite coasts and drove north through the Loess Hills. We ate loose-meat sandwiches called Charlie Boys at Miles Inn in Sioux City, Iowa, and continued on to Le Mars. We were enjoying ice-cream sodas at the Blue Bunny ice-cream parlor when the power went out. (Thunderstorms.) The gaggle of Lindsay Lohans on staff went into an instant freak-out. Then one dropped a glass, and they took it up at least two notches. We left money on the counter and went outside--where it was bright enough to readThe Da Vinci Code, if not something more challenging.

I digress. That was then, and now we see nothing within a hundred-mile radius. On the way into Cherokee, we pass a sign advertising indoor archery. I've hit two people with darts in my life; I'm not sure about raising the stakes. We discuss it over breakfast at Carey's restaurant. Shawnda says she'll risk it.

"Where are your bows?" asks the friendly proprietor, who built the archery range next to his house. We thought it would be like bowling, where you can rent equipment. He encourages us to buy bows ($1,200 and up), pointing out that archery is a good family activity. If he only knew that I'm fighting the urge to rescue the plastic target animals leaning against the wall.

In Ida Grove--where, for some reason, many buildings look like castles--we realize we're driving behind a truck pulling a beat-up car. "Demolition derby!" says Shawnda. "Follow him!" When the truck stops for gas, I send Shawnda out to charm the driver. She learns that the derby will be at the fairgrounds at 2 P.M.

Six cars are positioned around a ring of mud, and then they're off, running into each other at what seem like fairly slow speeds. The crashes aren't quite as satisfying as when a car sprays spectators with mud, but we're thrilled anyway, cheering when there's a good crunch.

We go southeast--or east, then south, then east, then south (driving in western Iowa is like being on an Etch A Sketch)--to Jefferson. This weekend is the Bell Tower Festival. Shawnda poses as Fay Wray in the King Kong cutout, and we briefly watch Jason the Juggler. On the ride up the 162-foot Mahanay Bell Tower, the elevator operator says that with the view, she can keep an eye on her kids.

The one reservation I made was at the wonderful Hotel Pattee, a big, beautifully renovated hotel (alas, it has since closed). A wedding reception is being held in the lobby, and during our splurge of a dinner at the hotel, we have a great time admiring the dressed-up guests as they arrive. Afterward, we test out the old-fashioned, two-lane bowling alley in the hotel's basement. It would be unchivalrous to note the score.

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Activities

Day 2: Perry to Des Moines
Shawnda has family in Manly, Iowa, and used to visit as a kid. One of the things she remembers fondly is the water-tower game: If you spot a water tower, you get to punch the other person (her sister, back in the day) in the arm. Shawnda soon starts playing by what I call crazy-lady rules--meaning that if I see one and punch her, she hits me back three times, just because. We do this for the next three days.

In Marshalltown, there's a town square with an ornate courthouse in the middle, and we have yet to realize that pretty much every town in Iowa has one. After a brief stop, we go north-then-east to Gladbrook, home of the Matchstick Marvels museum. Patrick Acton, a community college career counselor, has been using matchsticks to make models of buildings and other stuff for 30 years. They're impressive, especially the one of Hogwarts (it has since been hauled off to a museum in Spain). A video about Acton mentions his wife. "He's married?!" says Shawnda. I point out that a husband with an obsession might be preferable to one with free time. Matchstick Marvels shares space with the movie theater, and a sign says that Seat Savers rent for 50¢. You arrive early, place the piece of fabric on your seat, and come back before the show. Try that where I'm from and you'll lose the seat, the Saver, and the 50¢.

At this point, we realize that when the map shows a squiggly road, it means the road goes around hills or along a stream. We take the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway, and it's a beaut. At the eastern end, we head back west toward Des Moines, after a photo op in a town called Brooklyn.

We drive to the capitol building because it's there. Not unlike the various courthouses, it's big and dramatic, but with a shiny gold dome. It's Sunday, so we park in a Supreme Court justice's spot. An astounding memorial includes a sculpture of a woman cupping her bare breasts. IOWA: HER AFFECTIONS, LIKE THE RIVERS OF HER BORDERS, FLOW TO AN INSEPARABLE UNION, says the inscription. We take many photos.

The downside to underplanning is that you risk ending up at bad restaurants. We're at one, waiting for the host, when I pick up a paper with local listings. A restaurant called Centro has gotten a rave review, and when I see the phrase "coal-oven pizza," we're there.

Centro is a lofty space decorated with posters for Perugina and Campari. There's an open kitchen and outdoor seating (though it's too hot tonight). The restaurant has more in common with where we're from than with why we came, but it feels good. When the waiter asks where we're staying, we shrug. He offers to call the Hotel Fort Des Moines, which is affiliated with the restaurant. I figure we'll get more of the same stylishness. Wrong. It's a motel masquerading as a hotel--a rip-off, in other words--and I could kick myself.

Lodging

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Day 3: Des Moines toCenterville
Shawnda decides that we'll be wearing our T-shirts today. Every trip, Shawnda gets shirts made for us, sometimes in dubious taste. Mine says CORN DOG and hers says CORN MUFFIN.

We drive south to the National Balloon Museum. The memorabilia really make you want to ride in a balloon, or at least see one inflated. That said, we get a kick out of the photos of the two dogs who have acted as president of the Balloons Over Iowa club.

In adorable Pella, the Dutch influence has been cultivated into a tourist attraction: The town is home to a windmill, a tulip festival, and Dutch bakeries. I had read about the hot bologna sandwich at In't Velds Meat Market--five slices of what looks like kielbasa on a bun--and it's magnificent. We walk it off around the square. The day is a beautiful one, and bells from somewhere are ringing loudly.

Fairfield is a different story. There are signs of life--a gallery façade painted purple and royal blue and pink; Petit Paris, an "Organic French Restaurant"; a store called Health & Wholeness; a yarn shop selling natural and organic fibers. Some of this (and especially the Indian restaurants) is a result of the Maharishi University of Management, outside downtown. And yet except for Revelations, a welcoming café and bookstore, the town is empty, like a Mexican village during siesta.

We drive away the afternoon, admiring town squares and courthouses, playing the water-tower game. On Route 1--a pretty, hilly road--I briefly fantasize about owning a brick house that we pass. We run out of energy in Centerville. At the Double R Dairy Bar, we sit next to a fidgety Little Leaguer and eat fast food. When I check into the Super 8, I'm still carrying my malted shake. "You picked a good place to eat!" says the clerk.

The motel is next to a movie theater. There are only two other people watchingThe Break-Up, so I joke to Shawnda that we're on a double date--even though it's the worst date movie sinceKramer vs. Kramer. But she's infatuated with the kid at the snack bar. "Small corn, butter," he barked to his assistant with the seriousness one devotes to one's first job.

Lodging

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Shopping

Day 4: Centerville to Omaha
Our route, as highlighted on our map, looks like a scraggly bow on an Iowa-shaped present--it's all loops with Des Moines as the knot. Route 65 has just enough weirdness to keep us diverted, including birdhouse condominiums--long winter?--and scarecrows that resemble workers in haz-mat suits. We're heading back to Des Moines because I will not leave Iowa without trying Smitty's king tenderloin. It's formidable: a pork cutlet, flattened to 10 inches in diameter and then breaded, fried, and served on a hamburger bun. It looks like a UFO but could only have come from America.

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.

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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.")