Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Across the Mississippi, and the Missouri, and into the West

Typical Iowa farmhouse

After a heavy sleep, awoke at 7:30. A beautiful day! (What happened to all that "weather"?)

"Breakfast" was a joke. The "buffet" offered some cereal, a bit of fruit and tiny cinnamon rolls. I picked up a couple of sweet rolls, then made coffee from my own stash in the room. Caught up on news, some notes, and the latest Fellowship scuttlebutt.

Jerry Fallwell died yesterday. What can you say? Maybe they'll appreciate him more in that place to which he is bound. His was not a Christian ministry, but one suffused with hatred and bigotry.

Finished drying my clothes using the heater. Always the conflict caused by the desire to "extract maximum benefit" from the cost of a hotel stay, while at the same time wishing to get on the road as early as possible.

The "buffers" to which this Iowa sign refers appear to be very narrow bands of untilled soil along waterways. I guess it's a start.

Two days ago, they had a record-breaking temperature of 93 in the “Quad Cities” (Davenport, Rock Island, Moline, Bettendorf). I’m thankful for the timing. Today there was a chill in the clear morning air and it was perfect. I’m fortunate.

I was off at 10:45, crossing the Mississippi, and into the West. (There is a palpable sense of liberation at crossing this line, even though a true feeling of open space may still be 100s of miles beyond.) This is a pretty area. Wishing to leave the interstates behind, I headed north to De Witt, Nebraska where I picked up westbound U.S. 30.

West of De Witt, the road is lined with beautiful farms in a rolling countryside. It's anything but flat out here in Iowa. Not at all what I expected. South of the highway, miles of train cars stand motionless. Free from the interstate highway, my pace immediately changes. I stop frequently. Any excuse will do. Most roads leading away from the this highway are unpaved, with a yellow sandy-gravel surface.

Town names evoke memories: Kimberly (a former girlfriend), Eldridge (ditto), Calamus (Walt Whitman’s wonderful poetry).

Stopped in Stanwood for a meal. Ditto’s, with it's full parking lot, seemed the place to be in this small farming community. On the counter wall, below the cash register are crayon drawings from local kids. One with flowers states: “Golden Poppy California Flower by: Allison Blake who is from California”.

The building trembles with each passing semi. Sitting with the big farm boys (and their equally big women), a smile arises from within. “I like it.” The guys have enormous arms. They actually use them. My own vanity is so clear among these humble people.

I opted for the “broasted pork chop” lunch special. It featured a host of unfamiliar (or long-forgotten) tastes: canned green beans, "mashed potatoes" made from flakes, and gravy from a package, I suspect. I chose the cole slaw rather than the peaches (which certainly would have been canned.) There was however a real biscuit with the meal! (Served with “European Style Butter Blend Margarine”. Indeed, the strange and heavily-processed foods seem an anathema in this, the "nation's breadbasket".

I was kind of scratching my head. The sign out front drew me in with the words “homecookin’ from scratch”. It's difficult to complain though when the bill amounts to $7.28, plus a $1.35 tip. And I would take the atmosphere of "Ditto's" over that of a fast food restaurant any day.

There is such a barrage of new impressions out here. The farms to the east sprawl for hundreds of acres. Atop hillocks, the houses stand in lush tree-shaded oases that invite relaxation amidst all this toil. I try to picture myself living out here.

But what do people do, who actually reside in these small farming towns - those who do not own the farms? Do they commute to the cities for work? Are they retirees?

A common sight in towns across the East and Midwest: Dollar General and Family General stores. Obviously, they cater to low-income families. I've never stepped foot inside one. There is the unchallenged perception that "they are beneath my level."

It's windy out here! What a calming effect trees have, providing a welcoming relief to the blasting winds of the open plains. There are remnants of dense forests, mostly bordering waterways, that make me wonder what this terrain looked like before the European settlers moved in. (Many times I have looked down on this landscape from aircraft and have seen the tiny islands of forest isolated and tenuous amidst an ocean of industrial farmland.)

Towards the horizon, a yellow-brown haze is trapped between earth and clouds, soil carried on the wind.

Ames, Iowa is home to Iowa State University. It has a thriving downtown district (unlike those many ghost-like towns I passed through in Kansas.) It took little effort to find Café Diem. Like many coffee shops now, it features eclectic music, free wi-fi, art exhibits, live music, and a fun and dynamic gathering place. As with most such shops, I wonder "can they make a profit?" The coffee was just "so-so", but it's only one facet of the business.

Before leaving Ames, a refueling stop: regular gas at $3.199, the higher octane "Plus" (with ethanol) at $3.099. I'm seeing the impact of ethanol subsidies at the pump. I'll have to do a bit of research on export trends. In the past, America was highly respected for its "Food for Peace" and similar programs that exported surplus grain to desperate Third World nations. Are we now burning that "Food for Peace" in our SUVs (and motorcycles)?

Signs bordering fields advertise the seed farmers are planting: "Garst Advantage", "Choice", "Country", "Innovation", "True Blue", "Yields".

Wandered into Denison, Donna Reed’s hometown. The "Donna Reed Performing Arts Center" occupies a prominent corner downtown. Nearby, a large picture of TV's "Stone Family" from the 1960s "Donna Reed Show". They were one of several idealized TV families created in the 1950s and 1960s.

Wind has been the chief feature of the day. In order to maintain a straight course, I’ve frequently needed to lean over about 20 degrees to the right! A gully or grove of trees, or even past a train parked a hundred feet from the road can offer welcome, if momentary relief. The temperature has been about 45 degrees throughout the day.

Arrived in Onawa, where signs proclaim “The Widest Main Street in America”. Indeed, it's wide. I didn't pause to discover "why?" A toll of 75 cents(!) to cross the privately-maintained Burt County Missouri River Bridge to Decatur, Nebraska. I detoured into the downtowns of three Nebraska towns: Decatur, Oakland (home of the "Swedish Heritage Center") and West Point. Each conveyed a sense of a somewhat faded, by-gone era.

I can only believe this is just a temporary phenomena. Certainly, the population pressures on the coasts will eventually drive Americans to rediscover and reinvigorate the countless Midwestern towns that have experienced economic decline. (This is perhaps unwelcome "news" for the inhabitants of these towns.)

Found my way to Dead Timber State Recreation Area. The thick grass was freshly-mowed in preparation for Memorial Day Weekend. But the park was empty, save one other camper. Set up my tent by a small lake. It's a bird-watcher’s paradise.

Occasionally, the stench of a pig farm several miles away fills the air. Ah, industrial farming! Then there was the air traffic above and truck noise from a nearby highway. Finally, at dusk, sodium flood lights came on throughout the campground, one located quite near my tent. "How did I miss that?"

All this reminded me that I was still very connected to civilization. But I can't live without it.

My "progress" was slow today. I figured the average speed was about 35 mph.

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