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.

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.

Food

  • Miles Inn2622 Leech Ave., Sioux City, 712/276-9825, Charlie Boy $2.25
  • Blue Bunny20 Fifth Ave. NW, Le Mars, 712/546-4522
  • Carey's115 S. Second St., Cherokee, 712/225-3215, breakfast $5

Activities

  • Mahanay Bell TowerJefferson, 515/386-8134, $2, 11 A.M.-4 P.M. in summer

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¢.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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