I even loved Iowa. Honestly. How we got there was this: Like an itch, an idea had gotten under our skin—to drive to Alaska—and despite Mapquest calculating the roundtrip at over 7,000 miles, despite our van balking, its battery dead before we’d even left our driveway, off we went. The route led us through ten states, three provinces, and one territory, and I loved almost every endless mile of it, Iowa included. Thank you, Tater’s Lawn Service. Iowa wouldn’t have been the same without you.
A friend once described Iowa as the place where every vacant lot, every spare bit of land, is covered in corn stalks. And it is that. Corn is something of a symbol for the state, from the dense, humid cornfields to the corny honesty of its people. Or so we’re told by Ashton Kutcher, who’s from there. Iowa, he says, doesn’t even know what cool is, but he says it with fondness and there could be a worse description of a state. But Iowa is also the land of rest stops, those patches of parking lot and picnic tables on the side of the highway where the state says Welcome, come stretch your legs. We’re glad to have you and y’all come back now, ya’hear?
All our route gave us was a sliver of the state, only a hundred miles or so as Highway 29 dipped in above Omaha and followed the flattest path possible to Sioux City, South Dakota. Along those hundred miles, the state had created four rest stops, an average of one every 25 miles. That’s some powerful hospitality mojo right there, even for a state as uncool as Iowa. And maybe it was the setting sun that drew me in (I truly am a sucker for those last lingering moments of the day) or maybe it was the wild flowers at the unmown edges of the rest stops, a different sort of beauty than the trimmed order Tater is contracted to maintain, but their welcome worked. I felt at home in Iowa. It was lovely in its wide open way.
There was a time when I sold radio advertising in a small town, one of those places where everybody knew everybody and a teenager couldn’t get away with squat because some adult would see what he did and tell. My business manager still wanted her credit apps, but we didn’t really need them. Everybody paid their bills because their reputation mattered. Word would get around. That’s how I imagine Iowa is. When there’s nothing between you and your neighbor but a mile of corn, it’s hard to hide. Anyone with a decent set of eyes can see what you’re doing, but the upside of that is anyone with a heart can care how you’re doing, too. My theory is that the degree of neighborliness may be in direct relation to the distance between neighbors, that a decent amount of corn separation may be good for the soul. I’m not saying the apartment dwellers of Manhattan aren’t giving people, because I believe they are, but if I ever want to become invisible, that’s where I’ll go—not to Iowa but to Manhattan, where only a wall separates me from the rest of the living beings. Anonymity is easier in the midst of the crowd.
Thank you, Iowa, for your rest stops. Ashton Kutcher may not think you’re cool, but any state that proudly proclaims its association with a business named Tater’s is pretty dang cool in my book. You made a perfect ending to the first day of our adventure.