Myrtle’s Café still bears advertising from the days before Henry’s gasoline carriages. Under its antique tinned ceiling, hot coffee and a gratuitous wedge of raspberry pie staved off the after effects of a nine-hour flight. Across the street, my Mustang rental waited in the shade of a red brick store. Princetown, Illinois, is just one small town off the I-80. I reminded myself I had a Mustang and the whole Midwest to go play in.
It created a strong desire to hit the road again.I was back to write a story about a family and a car, but two days before the wheels of my Boeing touched down, that story fell apart. I didn’t have anywhere to be and no plan to follow. Some people would see this as a disaster. I thought otherwise. After all, what does a car guy do with two spare weeks and a rental Mustang?
Sure, it was a convertible, which for some is inexcusable, and no, it wasn’t a 5.0. I say beggars can’t be choosers. Compared to the neutered, heavily taxed, four-cylinder shopping cart I had left on the other side of the Atlantic, this car was an unexpected win, and hardly a slouch. I’ve driven a lot worse rental fodder. I’ve owned some desperate daily beaters. Well then, let’s enjoy!I
Brimmed the tank at Iowa-80 Truck Stop, pausing to admire the serried ranks of long-haul heavy metal waiting like ships in port for their next voyage. A lady trucker, looking like a wartime “Rosie the Riveter” in denim overalls and work boots, sprang up into the driver seat of a bug-splattered Kenworth. I trailed along behind her down the westbound ramp of I-80 before sweeping past, the Mustang mirrored in the chromed wheels of her rig. Unlike her, I had no destination, no timetable to follow. I chose a random exit off the highway and plunged into Iowa.
The first time I visited Iowa was early March of 2019. The state was just recovering from five months of what it called “Hell Winter.” Everything was grey. I mean everything. Trees, grass, snow, skyline. It reminded me of grainy footage of a post-disaster Chernobyl. Now it was August and everything was green. Iowa Green, to be precise. A verdant sea of corn and peas running alongside the interstate for mile upon mile, stretching down every side road for acre upon acre, punctuated at random intervals by a square of trees affording shelter to a farm house, silo, and barn.
Off the Eighty, small towns stretched out like a chain of islands amidst the corn. Each one added a fresh piece of the story of rural America. Danish towns, Norwegian farms, a miniature Holland, all united under the flag. Each barn anointed with the geometric precision of its barn quilt.
I crossed the Mississippi, stopping at Le Claire, to climb the decks of a preserved paddle steamer and stand behind the helm. The great river lay just yards away. Idle thoughts of Twain and Huck Finn were shattered by the dual-tone wail of a locomotive horn. An earlier incarnation of that wail sounded as a death knell for the steamboat’s whistle.