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.
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.
- Hotel Fort Des Moines1000 Walnut St., Des Moines, 515/243-1161, hotelfortdesmoines.com, from $99
- Centro1003 Locust St., Des Moines, 515/248-1780, pizza from $12
- Matchstick Marvels319 Second St., Gladbrook, 641/473-2410, $3
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.
- Super 81021 N. 18th St. (Hwy. 5 N.), Centerville, 641/856-8888, super8.com, from $55
- In't Velds Meat Market820 Main St., Pella, 641/628-3440, hot bologna sandwich $2
- Double R Dairy Bar715 E. Maple St., Centerville, 641/856-6838
- National Balloon Museum1601 N. Jefferson Way, Indianola, 515/961-3714, $2
- Revelations112 N. Main St., Fairfield, 641/472-6733
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.