Another Way

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 20
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

“There’s 75th,” I say, spotting the small sign among the overgrown greenery of the countryside.

“No, we’re going a different way,” Brent says, and drives on.

“We’re overshooting it?” I ask, dubious, because this is not Brent’s way.

“Yes,” he confirms.

This is intriguing. Brent has a plan—he always does—and whatever it is, he considered it from all angles. Random questions swirl in my mind and a couple even sneak out of my mouth before I stop, mid-question, remembering that I’m dealing with an introvert. Q&A with this particular introvert is much easier than this, more intuitive; the only requirement is using the fewest words possible. I instantly clam up, and just watch him and wait. And sure enough, in a moment he tells me exactly what I want to know. “There were instructions online that recommended it. The direct road is iffy, unless you’re in a truck,” he says. “We’ll only overshoot it by about a mile. I have alternative directions on the list.”

I consult the seven-page list of roadside stops and find the alternative route. “It would help if you’d let the navigator in on the plan,” I say.

“I just did,” he says, pleased with himself. We make a couple lefts and suddenly we’re on a gravel road, picking our way between Iowa fields. The road seems not quite two-cars wide, and it’s got the terrain of a well-traveled farm machinery path.

“I’d hate to see the iffy road,” I say as we bump and lurch along. Brent agrees.

We approach a tree line on our left and travel up a slight grade, but only slight. We’re scanning the horizon and stealing glances at the Jetta’s mileage gauge. “I don’t see it at all, do you?”Another Way

“Nope,” he says.

It’s not every day you find a tree in the middle of the road, and we discuss how grand, or perhaps cute, this tree might be. “Do you think it’s a hoax?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he shrugs without concern. “Seemed legit at the time, but I thought we’d see it by now.” We discuss this, and it’s not lost on me that we’re both chatting happily about being sent on this possible wild goose chase in the middle of Iowa. And really, why not? It got us off the beaten path.

Inching along, we crest the little grade and suddenly the tree we’re seeking is directly ahead of us. Now, we expected a sort of landmark tree between these fields, one that, despite the passage of time no one wanted to cut down, an interesting tree that would charm us as it must have done to the Iowans who circled the road around it. This tree is not what we expect; this tree is huge.

Another WayBrent stops the Jetta about ten yards from the intersection, just in case someone would come by, and we sit staring, blinking, then staring some more. “That’s a tree,” I say, as I stare and blink.

Brent agrees, “That’s a tree.”
We exit the Jetta and walk the distance, listening for distant signs of life but hearing only the breeze rustling in the fields and the gravel crunching under our feet. According to RoadsideAmerica.com, this is a 100-foot cottonwood tree, grown from a walking stick planted by a surveyor in 1850. I dug up this fact via the ever-helpful Google (as I searched for roadside tree hoaxes a minute ago), and Brent and I marvel that there was no telling it was even here until we crested that little slope.Another Way

The gravel road rings around the tree, making a sort of traffic circle with roads jutting off in four directions. There are even stop signs to allow for right of way, and the circle itself seems to have a lot less gravel than the straightaways, all of which suggest to me both heavy travel and roadside fun–and all with a hundred-foot tree smack dab in the center.

Another WayThe more we look around, touch the tree, and photograph it, the more it seems not to have grown up from the ground but to have landed here, set apart and at its full majesty. It seems a trick of the mind, like an M.C. Escher design. And there’s not a soul around to tell us we’re not dreaming. I breathe in the scent of sun and earth and flowers and I switch perspectives, imagining a satellite view of where we stand, like pins on a map in the fields in Iowa while friend and family pinpoints pop up all over the world, and I want each of them to share this feeling with me, the feeling of wonder and potential.

This is why we road trip. This is why a person drives into the unknown and decides to get out of the car. Here we stand in the middle of America and it seems that reality is not the same anymore. And that means we’re standing in a world where anything is possible. Another Way

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

This Side of Eerie

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 19
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This Side of EerieWe’re on the west side of Iowa, driving east toward a giant Volkswagen spider, the Jetta windows rolled down. I’m digging in my purse, and finally find what I’m looking for: the red packet of candy cigarettes we got back at Fort Cody in Nebraska. I open the pack.

“You’re really going to sit there smoking a candy cigarette?” Brent asks.

“Yeah,” I say, making a declaration of it because I’m funny like that.

He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Gimme one,” he says.

This Side of EerieI oblige, and we sit with our candy cigarettes as the wind whips around us in the car. We’re giddy and gritty and feeling like champions of the road, so I take a picture of us like this. As I post it to Facebook, a friend’s post catches my eye. “Hey!” I say. “We’re stopping in Rochester for dinner, right?”

“I hope so.”

“My friend’s brewery is opening there, today. They’ve been putting a lot of work into it. I didn’t know when they were going to open, but today’s the day. We’ve got to show our support.”

“Okay,” he says. “What’s it called?”

Forager.”

I look over our list of stops yet to make. There’s a whole page of Brent’s scrawly writing. I’m not sure we can add a deadline to the list. “Think we’ll make it?” I ask. “We can’t dawdle.” With that last part I mean Brent can’t dawdle.

“I hope we’ll make it,” Brent says. And then he says, “No dawdling,” implying me.

“Right,” I say, returning the ball to the proper court.

With that settled, we find our exit and I chomp up my candy cigarette. Suddenly I realize how tired I am. The afternoon heat isn’t helping the sleepy feeling. On our quiet side road, we look for a town and I start daydreaming about a siesta.

“Okay, now watch,” Brent says after a few glances at his mileage markers. “There should be a hairpin turn…”

This Side of EerieWe find it, curl the car around to the left, and there, under a tree in the middle of a neighborhood, is the Volkswagen spider. Someone actually took the time to remove the tires from a Volkswagen Beetle, replace them with giant pipe-like legs, then hoist the car about 10 feet off the ground. It’s neat, and creepy, but still neat. And creepy.

“You go,” I tell him, yawning. “I’ll stay here. I can’t take pictures, anyway.” My phone is still on the floor of the car, whining about being too hot and refusing to work ‘til it cools down. “I’ll watch you from here,” I say.

This Side of Eerie“Okay,” he says without hesitation, and hops out of the car. Three seconds later I follow him out, having processed multiple thoughts simultaneously, the way only computers and dreamy brains can do. My first conclusion: It’s up to me. Brent doesn’t care if I sit in the car or not, and I know he’ll never think a cross thought about it. I also know he needs someone to take his picture with the spider. Second conclusion: We’ve come this far. This road trip was never about the destination; we could have flown to Denver easily enough to see Trampled by Turtles play at Red Rocks. Instead, we drove the long way around—indeed!–in order to explore. And I certainly didn’t travel the long way to Avoca, Iowa to sit in the car.

This Side of EerieI exit the Jetta and cross the small street in four paces. Brent is standing under the spider contraption, taking pictures straight up. I sit in the grass underneath it and look up. From this vantage point, it’s especially impressive.

Otherwise, it’s quiet here in Avoca. Birds are chirping, but there’s no noise from the nearby houses, none from what looks like a trucking company down the lane, and just a few buzzy bugs from the green field to the right. Beyond the field, there are some workers tending a bonfire, but no real sound coming from that direction, either. The bugs and birds keep it just this side of eerie.

“What is this thing?” I ask. “Why is it here?”

“I don’t know,” Brent says, snapping pictures with his trusty camera. “But I like it.” Snap. Snap. “Here,” he says, handing me the phone from his pocket. “Get one of me running from it…”This Side of Eerie

Did I ever tell you that Brent was in a spider movie once? He was an extra in a Christopher R. Mihm film called The Giant Spider. He’s officially listed as an “associate producer,” but if you ask Brent, he’ll tell you he’s “screen candy.” (Brent’s part in the movie is to make out with a hot girl at a drive-in.)
This Side of EerieI get up, take his phone, and the next thing I know, Brent and I are running around the yard, striking poses and one-upping each other’s ideas. We’re yelling, “Get this! Get this!” while pretending the spider’s chasing us, that we tripped and have to roll out of its way, that we’re trying to sneak up on it. Occasionally, I steal a glance at the house closest to us, waiting for someone to run out and stop us. But no one does. If they’re in there laughing at us, they’re stealthy about it.This Side of Eerie

This Side of EerieRejuvenated, and with my sense of wonder restored again, Screen Candy and I hop back in the Jetta, ready to experience more of what myopics mistakenly call America’s “flyover country.”

“When I have a house,” I tell Brent, “I’m going to set something up in my yard and watch the tourists flop around.” He just looks at me. “It’s going to be awesome,” I laugh and roll my hands over each other, plotting.

Now if this were a movie, we’d be driving off into the sunset having escaped the spider’s clutches, not realizing that it’s watching us and readying for the sequel. As it is, we’re driving east, straight into our next adventure.

“Tree?” Brent asks, getting me back on track again.

“Tree,” I concede, as we begin our search for a tree in the middle of the road. We drive off, leaving the giant spider safely in our rear view. Or do we?

 

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Minnesota and Beyond

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 3
(Click here for previous Segment 2Segment 1)

We breakfast at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, a narrow dining car packed with people listening to the sizzle on the griddle while taking in the aromas of bacon and coffee. This place has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, one of the first diners to be a registered historic place. According to their website, the designation “helped preserve the diner during urban re-development with in the city of St. Paul.”Minnesota and Beyond

I sit next to a stranger who is a regular guest. He’s ordered his usual, without carbs because he’s watching those. My breakfast arrives: a Belgian waffle with a side of fries. The waitress looks at him and laughs as she sets down my carb-on-carb feast. It tastes so good I could cry.

Minnesota and BeyondWe finally hit the road around the crack of noon because my travel buddy Brent has this all planned out and this is actually on time to him. It’s a typically beautiful Minnesota summer day with a bright blue sky as we leave the Twin Cities, headed for a giant gnome in Iowa. I make it as far as a giant barn/tourist info stop across the MN/Iowa border where we pick up free maps before we climb back into the car—Brent’s VW Jetta that is, in a way, our living quarters for the next 2000 miles or so—and I fall asleep. I sleep through miles and miles of flat farm fields and wind turbines, and I’m grateful to my carb-on-carb-induced sleep because those wind turbines kinda creep me out.

I wake up to find myself surrounded by turbines and Brent jokes, “It’s windy here because somebody put all these fans up.” I laugh and I don’t mind if the turbines hear me. That’s the defiance of living on the road.

Minnesota and BeyondWe get to Reiman Gardens, next to the Iowa State University in Ames, and sheepishly talk to the lady at the front desk about tours because all we really want to see is the giant gnome and can’t seem to admit that. We wander the gardens, happy to be out of the car, pass the butterfly rooms, enjoy a steamy tropical room with a mini-train running through the foliage, and finally wander outside and (admittedly) we take a route off the beaten path to the giant gnome, Elwood. He’s the world’s largest concrete gnome, and he seems happy to see us.

Minnesota and BeyondAfter a quick stop for coffee in the gift shop because sightseeing is tiring work, we hop back in the car and head to a town called Kelly, Iowa, to see a haunted phone booth. Yes, you read right. Supposedly, the phone will ring if you step into the box, but we were too busy pretending to be on the phone for that to happen. While Brent takes pictures, I dial the number from my cell phone but get caught. Minnesota and BeyondI dance around anyway and tell him to answer it, that it’s ghosts. Brent then calls the number as I start to wonder if maybe a retired couple lives in the yellow house across the street, a couple who watches the booth and dials the number to welcome people to town. Mystery solved. Or perhaps it’s just ghosts.

Minnesota and BeyondWe drive to Polk City, where there’s rumored to be a tree in the shape of Mother Mary. We drive past it twice, looking curiously at every tree in a mile-long area and finding trees that look like frogs and horses and one that looked like Spock, but no Mary. And then suddenly, there she is. Newspaper articles I find somewhere online say that she arrived naturally over time. There are flowers at her feet that people have left for her. We take pictures, and I place my hand on the tree, reverently careful not to touch her.

Minnesota and BeyondBack in the car again and as our official navigator, I play around on Google. (We have a list of stops, thanks to Roadside America and Brent’s logistical obsession with trip-planning, but there are patterned holes in the agenda for off-the-cuff extras, and man, I find a doozy.)

“Where to now, Chewie?” Brent asks me.

“Stop calling me Chewie,” I say.

“Stop hiding your face in traffic,” he says. Yeah, touché. 

Minnesota and BeyondI check with Google, which I’m now affectionately calling The Googs, and find that we’re within range of a place called Chillicothe, Missouri, where sliced bread was first sold. Brent and I just look at each other. We can’t pass that up. He puts the car in drive and follows the cross-country roads I find with his paper maps and some help from my Map App, and the old VW Jetta heads us toward sliced bread.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.