Among the places on my semi-planned itinerary, Iowa was one of the “must visit” states, not for any specific reason other than the simple truth that I had never been there. In fact, when I crossed the border, it was my 49th state to visit, lacking only Alaska, and thus completing all the “Lower 48 states.” But once I was inside having a diner breakfast at Main Street café in Council Bluffs and thus checked the state off my list, I was scratching my head about where to go. All of the other states, there were specific towns, cities, people, landmarks or landscapes I was intent on seeing, but I had no such intent in Iowa beyond crossing the border. But that absence of a plan was a welcome dilemma, and part of Iowa’s appeal. To just head in a general direction and see what came my way was refreshing.
Though flanked by our two major river arteries, the Missouri and the Mississippi, Iowa does not have a famous port city like all its neighboring states. None of its cities would be considered metropolises. In looking over my Rand McNally atlas, there were NO highways lined with green dots, indicating a scenic route. So I chose 2 lane highway 92 headed East and drove. Almost immediately I considered it a scenic route, as I passed through gently rolling hills of farmland. Unlike the huge industrial agricultural complex I saw in North Dakota that covered the earth like a giant checker board, the fields of Iowa were woven like a jigsaw puzzle. The towns I passed through all seemed pleasant, typically with a main square with the city hall surrounded by local business. It seemed to be a testimony to the liberty of rural America. Iowa is not known for big Industrial cities, like those decaying in the Rust Belt. Neither is it known for boom town profits based around mineral and resource extraction like out West. It’s an agricultural state on a smaller scale, and does not have the legacy aristocratic land owners and slavery like in the South. I think its reputation of being both rural and progressive at the same time is a big reason it is used as a litmus test in primary voting to gauge our national conscience. For all those reasons, I feel like Iowa is one of the best states just to drive aimlessly about from town to town.
Though I started out with no planned route, I did settle on a destination when I saw that Madison County was somewhat on my route East, and I thought it would be nice to go see its famous covered bridges. I’d read the romance novel years ago “Bridges of Madison County” and while I don’t recall if I loved the story itself that much, I do remember thinking it would be nice to go see those bridge one day. The bridges were nice, but I felt like I was taking part in a form of tourism reserved for sentimental old ladies. To balance things out, Winterset also happens to be the birthplace of the ultimate “man’s man” John Wayne.
I continued through to more Iowa towns: dinner in Osceola, overnight in the State Forest near Lucas, breakfast at the wonderful Continental Inn on the main square in Centerville. The town squares started to look the same, but in a pleasing way that assured me of their authenticity. I knew it wasn’t just a few tourist towns that had the “square” but that’s the way all the towns did it then – settled in the 1800’s and developed into the 1900’s. When they make the movie that idealizes rural America, it should be filmed on location in Iowa.