Thody visits Iowa, the state many believe provides a window
into how America used to be: a simpler, more innocent
way of life. And while credit cards are indeed still viewed
with suspicion, Thody struggles to imagine Doris Day attending
a death-metal disco or Pa Ingalls searching for work along
a climate-controlled skywalk. Like everywhere else, the
"Tall Corn State" is changing -- and not always
for the best.
Entering Iowa, U.S. Highway 20 takes you over
the Mississippi River and straight into Dubuque, a town that
has in recent years benefited from a $188 million investment
to smarten up its riverfront area. So instead of checking
into any of the perfectly acceptable hotels on Main Street,
we head down toward the river and pull up outside Hotel Canfield,
a red brick building that has probably seen better times.
"Is this place OK?" I ask the guy with
his head under the hood of a beaten-up car. "Sure hope
so," he replies. "I live here. Have done for months.
Come on, I'll help you guys get checked in." Spending
our first night on the road in what appears to be a social
security hostel wasn't on our original plans but, being English,
the fear of offending our helpful new friend overrides any
concerns for personal safety so before we know it we're standing
The only other residents appear to be two waxwork
Indians sitting on a bench, so availability clearly won't
be an issue. But paying by credit card might. It's no exaggeration
to say that the man on the desk spends the next 10 minutes
swiping, dialling, checking, waiting, keying and reading before
finally satisfying himself that the $35 charge for our room
had come off our card. Any longer and I reckon he'd have bitten
it like a barman checking a gold nugget.
Finding the silence increasingly uncomfortable
(our friend stands watching the whole proceedings too), I
pick up a hotel brochure in the hope of finding reassuring
words like "comfortable" or "clean." But
no, right there at the top of the leaflet, our hotel advises
us that its key attraction is the fact that it's "fireproof."
A subsequent Google search reveals that in 1946, 19 people
died in a fire here, so the management's eagerness to highlight
this point is perhaps understandable.
Deciding that we've earned a drink, we make our
way to the Bricktown
Brewery on Main Street, a microbrewery bar where the quality
of beer and friendliness of service compensate for the less
than wonderful food.
Our next stop is The
Busted Lift, a cellar bar which tonight also doubles as
a disco for Dubuque's thriving under-age death-metal crowd.
Settling in, we get into conversation with a guy who expresses
amazement at our choice of hotel: "You really booked
in there? No way! Man, you could get rooms by the hour there
just a few years ago." Which possibly explains the sign
that reads, "Under 18s are not allowed above the 1st
As it happens, we sleep like logs, no one attempts
to sell us sexual services and the building resists all urges
With a busy schedule the next day, we don't have
time to visit Dubuque's No.1 attraction, the National
Mississippi River Museum. We do however set aside 15 minutes
to ride the Fenelon
Place Elevator, the world's "shortest, steepest,
scenic railway." Built in 1882 by a wealthy banker who
wanted to be able to get home faster at lunch so he could
also fit in a half-hour nap before returning to work, this
$2 ride lifts you 189 feet up to the top of the bluffs for
a fabulous view of the city.
Our first stop of the day after leaving Dubuque
is in nearby Dyersville, home of the baseball field built
for the Kevin Costner movie "Field
of Dreams." Why we divert here, given that neither
of us has seen the film, let alone a game of baseball, I can't
imagine. And after 25 miles on Highway 20, the appeal of a
cooked breakfast wins over, and we disprove the film's strapline:
"If you build it, they will come."
Our next destination is the Iowa
Valley Scenic Byway, which starts just southwest of Cedar
Rapids with a loop tour of the Amana
Colonies, a society of seven villages established by Germans
fleeing persecution in the 1850s. If the similarity of the
words leads you to expect some version of Amish communities,
you might well leave feeling slightly let down; there are
a few shops, a barn or two, but that's about it. And this
sense of the reality not quite living up to the promise continues
along the entire byway. For a road linked so closely to the
river, there are precious few views of the Iowa and, to be
blunt, nothing all that obviously scenic.
And to complete a day of disappointments, we
follow Iowa Highway 330 into Des Moines. Having loved Bill
Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a warm, nostalgic
look back on Bryson's all-American childhood in 1950s Des
Moines, this was a city I really wanted to like. But not a
bit of it.
We check into the Hotel
Fort Des Moines (established in 1919) and make our way
downtown via the Skywalk, three miles of climate-controlled
walkways connecting the city's key buildings. It sounds like
a great idea, but it has killed the streets. There's virtually
no one outside, not now, not in the evening and not the next
It's truly depressing and, apart from the hour
or so spent admiring the State
Capitol and the fulsomely-breasted statue of Mother Iowa
on the grounds outside, we're glad to be on our way. It's
a cliché but this really is a city that seems to have
lost its soul.
However, within a few miles of escaping the suburbs
of Des Moines, our faith in the Midwest's ability to inspire
and excite is restored. If eastern Iowa is merely pretty and
green, the western half is vast and golden, with landscapes
of corn, barns and silos, interrupted every now and again
by the vivid yellow Union Pacific locos hauling coal to the
Our "world's largest ball of string"
today is the birthplace
of John Wayne, in Winterset. I've never really warmed
to The Duke, believing that you should have only one Western
hero -- Clint Eastwood in my case -- but to bypass Wayne's
birthplace would be like visiting Milwaukee and not having
As it turns out, we're able to pay tribute to
both Marion Morrison and The Man with No Name. The words "Madison
County" on our map hadn't immediately rung any bells
-- most states have a Madison -- but a few miles north of
Winterset there's a sign pointing down a dirt road to Hogback
Covered Bridge, one of the six remaining bridges
of Madison County.
OK, so National Geographic photographers aren't
quite as cool as bounty hunters, and he doesn't gun down an
unshaven, tobacco-spitting Meryl Streep at the end, but as
a bit of real-life Clint-related film memorabilia this is
too good to miss.
The rest of the day is spent on State Highway
92. We loved the drive this morning and the afternoon provides
more of the same: cornfields, rolling countryside and huge
It also delivers us a real warning of how dangerous
it is to switch off. One moment I've succumbed to the soporific
effect of the gently undulating hills and empty roads; the
next there's a major intersection 20 yards ahead and no way
to stop in time. A screamed expletive, a split second of gut-wrenching,
buttock-clenching panic and then we're on the other side.
There hadn't been another vehicle in sight -- maybe if there
had I would have been aware of it -- but it was enough to
leave us both seriously shaken.
"Time to stop at the next decent motel?"
she suggests. And we do. In the dehumanising of Des Moines,
Iowa had already illustrated how badly wrong things can go
when people stop paying attention to what really matters.