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Thody's American Adventures

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Death Metal and Empty Streets: The Charm of the "Tall Corn State"

by Peter Thody

Peter 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.

The view over historic Dubuque, Iowa's oldest city. The Julien Dubuque Bridge in the background carries US Route 20 over the Mississippi to and from Illinois.

Fenelon Place Elevator
The first two Fenelon PlaceElevators, installed in 1882 and 1884, were destroyed in fires. The third, completed in 1893, continues to operate to this day and was featured in the Stallone movie F.I.S.T.

Mother Iowa
Mother Iowa offering nourishment to her children, an unexpected delight among the statues of Civil War generals and other Iowan heroes commemorated on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument outside the Capitol building

Roseman Covered Bridge
Probably the most famous of all Madison County's bridges, Roseman Covered Bridge featured prominently in both the book and film. Built by Benton Jones in 1883, it was renovated in 1992.

John Wayne's birthplace
On May 26, 1907, Mary Brown Morrison gave birth to Marion Robert Morrison in this small building. He later changed his name to one that would be remembered as one of the all-time movie greats, John Wayne.

Iowa State Capitol
The highly distinctive domes of the Iowa State Capitol. The central dome, which rises 275 feet above the grounds, was re-gilded in 1999 using 23-karat gold leaf.

Iowa Scenic Byway
The Iowa Valley Scenic Byway follows the Iowa River from Montour and the Meskwaki settlement, through railroad towns such as Chelsea and Belle Plaine, and downstream to the Amana Colonies

Cutler Covered Bridge
The author shows his feelings on discovering that one of Madison County's covered bridges has been removed from the North River and relocated to Winterset City Park -- nowhere near a river.

Union Pacific
The distinctive bright yellow livery of a Union Pacific loco, making its way slowly but surely through the corn fields of Iowa.

Middle Amana
Middle Amana, one of the seven villages settled in the 1850s by the Inspirationists, a religious sect that had fled persecution in Germany. Their communal way of life came to an end in the 1930s and the colonies are now a major tourist attraction.

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 in reception.

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 floor."

As it happens, we sleep like logs, no one attempts to sell us sexual services and the building resists all urges to self-combust.

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 Bryson's The 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 morning, either.

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 East.

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 a beer.

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 trains.

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.

Peter Thody

(Links updated January 7, 2022)


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