In this the middle leg of the cross-country trip, we get to the meat of the matter. As in, meat we consume, yes. Also, as in those things that are essential truths: childhood memories, prom crushes, and a little insight, perhaps, into the character of the Mid-West.
Signs along the way:
Cow-shaped signs on a fence:
Urban sprawl... Ain’t too pretty... Save our farms... Build in the city.... 1000 Friends of Iowa.
- “Adult Relaxation and Truck Stop” was right across the highway from “We sell concrete blocks!!” Those two exclamation points make you think folks get as excited about concrete as they do about donuts or adult relaxation.
- Construction and rain continued and we saw signs that practically invited disaster. “Hit a road worker: $10K fine”
- Dilapidated barn, roof caving in and all, sat behind a billboard advertising “Integrity Homes.”
- Moscow, Brooklyn, the Herbert Hoover rest stop, the Mideast Conflict Memorial, Seneca, Prophetstown.
- On sale in gas stop: “Drunk Chicks think I’m Hot” T shirt and CD.
- Koolaid Museum and Hastings Planetarium (14-16 miles off highway).
- One of the most unappealing names for restaurant: Kum-n-Go. Maybe it’s all the seedy truck stop memorabilia but...eeuw.
Rain, thunderstorms, more rain.
The World's Largest Truckstop
A billboard announced “The World’s Largest Truckstop” just ahead. It was a little disappointing not to get to the Koolaid Interactive Museum (would we get to bust through a fence and sing “Oh Yeah”?) so I lobbied for the Truckstop. It helped that it was right on the Interstate, and the sign was in a graphic style that fairly screamed “amazing!”
We were unprepared for the awe that ensued. First of all, it’s just huge. Massive. Over 200 acres, and 5,000 visitors a day. You can see a dentist, buy a new truck, or anything in the world for the old one.
Breaking Bread, Hearts, Balls: Of course this is a truck stop so a large cafe boasts home-cooked meal (does this mean someone lives there?) Embroidered photo holders, singing teddy bears (who seem to favor country and religious music) and decals for the trucks are available. And trucks themselves, should you be in the market for a new "rig".
After you break bread, you can break hearts. "No Lot Lizards" stickers were on prominent display. I learned that a "lot lizard" is not necessarily a good thing - as the cashier peered over her reading glasses she answered my question: “Ladies of the night, if you catch my drift.” On the other end of the spectrum, I witnessed three girls in prom gear walk in, all business. They headed right to the customer service desk which was just out of ear shot from where I was shooting this photo:
I overheard one of them saying to the kid behind the counter:
“Seriously?! You talk to me all the time! Really?!” Then as the three were walking away together one of them declared “That sucked.”
It was ballsy to walk into the guy's work to ask him to the prom. It takes balls to do rodeo, too. Maybe there's something else about the rodeo, I don't know... At the end of one aisle, a bunch of key chains in colors from silver to neon orange in the shape of testicles caught my eye. Bull testicle key chains. Apparently, it has something to do with rodeos. I don’t know what and after seeing these:
Leaving the World’s Largest Truckstop I was floored by the vast numbers of huge semis in the lot. After all, it’s 200 acres.
Memories of my Great Uncle from Des Moines
The trip through Iowa reminded me of my father's uncle Charlie, a very sweet man who in many ways epitomizes what I think of as Mid-Western values. My great uncle Charlie ran a bakery in Des Moines in WWII. As with every business, labor was in short supply since all the men were enlisted in the war. Charlie believed that he had an opportunity to save his bakery and turn people’s thinking around. He hired two women (against the protests of the people in town) to work at his bakery.
It was quietly done, not for his bragging rights, but he thought it was a simple equation: they needed work, he needed help. Why shouldn’t it work? He was sly though, and ensured the success of his social experiment by picking two sisters from a farm. No strangers to hard work and just about as strong as any man he’d had working there.
There’s something quiet and smart, fair and progressive at work in this scenario and how my uncle handled it. His story strikes me as being typical of a mid-western approach. Maybe it’s the practical exigencies of farm life that so many come from, but they just don’t seem to have time to mince words, nor patience for grandstanding. Well, at least outside of Chicago politics.
Davenport to Richfield
What can I saw about Davenport? Happy to put it in the rear-view? A local "farm-to-table" restaurant sounded promising, until I looked at the website. By "farm" you mean "factory farm" - uh, not on the same wavelength. Oh, you have awards? From the Pork Council? So you're a feedlot backed by and reviewed by lobbyists?
The trouble with trying to find our kind of meal in Davenport is that it is neither fish nor fowl. Too big for small town charm and too small for city comforts. After a passable dinner that was heavy on the cream sauce ....Did I mention it was prom season? Apparently, the Quad City area has so many high schools, they stagger the proms. Every restaurant we went to, poofy dresses and limos were in evidence.
We got back to the Staybridge hotel. Our new favorite Holiday Inn Express was booked so we were promised an equivalent room at the Staybridge. High speed internet WiFi in the room, hot breakfast buffet.
Exhausted, I plowed through some email and work. High speed was slow as molasses and when it’s too crowded, apparently (we learned today) they just re-set the router, allowing the newer users on. My work since the last save vanished with no back up. Trying to load a photo at the speed of dial up, you can get lazy with the auto-saves.
I negotiated our full refund after it was clear that the “tech support” was useless. We had our breakfast, collected our refund, and went on our way.
We’d had violent wind, rain, thunder and lightening the previous evening and this morning, too. Tornadoes in Kansas, of course. We wondered what the heck to do if we saw a tornado coming while we were driving. (answer: abandon vehicle and find low ditch or gully, get as low as you can, lie face down, covering the back of your head with your hands/arms.)
So, with Davenport, IA receding in our rear-view mirror and the rain coming and going, we set out today for the third leg.
Me and the Mississippi River.
This was the terrific start of the day at the Mississippi Rapids rest stop and visitor center. Turns out, there was little in between that and dinner, except for rain.
Dinner: Austin’s Wood Fire Grille
Our guy at check-in handed us a list of local restaurants. We were hoping to find a small town gem. Could we get lucky again? We were one for two with the Canteen Grille and Biaggi’s.
I asked for good local food, not too fancy. He pointed out two. We asked about Austin’s. He’s not been but he said it was said to be good but “expensive”. We called from the room (giant, clean with WiFi not really high speed, but it works). I asked Austin's if jeans and sneakers were okay and if they could describe the menu. Mesquite grilled is their specialty and jeans and sneakers are fine. Off we went.
In the windows we saw "Aged Beef" - this is a good sign.
The strip mall location is a bit disconcerting but it just may be the way things are done here.
We were seated in a booth. The specials of the day included a Prime Rib 18 oz dry aged, mesquite-rubbed and $22.99. Oh, and that comes with choice of potato (baked, twice-baked or fries) or rice pilaf or vegetable. And a side salad can be ordered for $1.99. I got mine with the house chopped salad (no tomatoes) and the house garlic dill vinaigrette. Horseradish cream and au jus that was not from a can.
The meat locker, beef aging in progress.
A glass of Gnarly Head Lodi Zin and a soundtrack that included Jefferson Airplane "Miracles", Chicago, and the Eagles. "In a New York Minute" played and we laughed, sitting in a fabulous steak house in Cleveland, served by a wonderful Russian server, Oksana, eating dry aged prime rib. Would we come back again? The total bill was $62.45. In a New York Minute!