I’ve been through Iowa numerous times. In the early years it was during camping trips with my family, riding the US highways. We three kids sat in the back keeping track of how many times my father rode up on the rounded curb of the narrow concrete highways, and how many times my mother did. My father stoically ignored us. My mother objected if we counted when she did it to avoid an oncoming truck that was crowding the centerline.
In my college days, I drove the interstates through Iowa on my way to work in an Oregon plywood mill for the summer. And later, when the Coast Guard sent me from New York to electronics school in California. After that school, I came back through Iowa again, this time with a new baby, on our way to my next assignment, back in New York.
I remember one winter trip when it was raining lightly. I didn’t understand why so many trucks and cars were in the ditches. I stopped and stepped out of the car, almost falling when my feet slid from under me on the ice.
About ten years ago, after riding motorcycles all over the US and southern Canada, I realized I’d never ridden in Iowa. It wasn’t that I’d purposely avoided it, it was just that my trips had always been through Minnesota or Manitoba to the north, or Missouri, Arkansas, or Louisiana to the south. On my next trip, from Wyoming to visit my almost-sister in Minneapolis, I made a point of riding across the northwest corner of Iowa, just so I could at last say that I’d ridden a motorcycle in all 48 contiguous states.
Now, ten years later, I’m married to a woman from Iowa, and it seems that most trips through the central time zone include a few stops here. On this trip, we missed Iowa on our way east, visiting ex-Iowans who are now in Kansas or Missouri. Westbound, we are in Iowa, visiting some of those who stayed or returned.
Our fist stop was in Anamosa, an hour north of the interstate. We weren’t visiting people; that’s where the National Motorcycle Museum is. This museum is the work, really, of one couple who collected over 400 motorcycles through the years. As would be expected, it was heavy in Harleys and Indians, but it also included quite a few unusual bikes — Ariel square fours, Hendersons, Excelsiors, a Scott Flying Squirrel, and plenty of others.
Here’s a Curtis with leather belt drive.
When I was a child, one of these would come down our street several times a week in the summer.
There are two replicas of what is considered to be the first motorcycle: the 1885 Daimler-Maybach creation. There was even a steam-powered version of a similar bike. [Take a moment here to imagine trying to operate a steam-powered motorcycle.]
It was a bit overwhelming.
Our next stop was in the Iowa City area to spend the evening with a woman who was a student in Andrea’s first 7th grade math class. It was interesting meeting her and hearing her story, but during much of the evening I was a fly on the wall, listening to tales of the town of 50 years ago.
Then it was across the state to Carter Lake, a section of Iowa west of the Missouri River. When the state boundaries were set, this area was in an oxbow east of the river. The flood of 1877 cut through the bight and left a little section of the state stranded on the other side. We spent the evening with another cousin (cousin-once-removed?) telling family stories and tales of this no-man’s land on the wrong side of the river. They have a 1920s house that they have lovingly and artfully restored. We joined them again for breakfast.
From Carter Lake, we drove north and east on the US highways — highways still made of concrete but wider and without the curbing of 60 years ago.
We drove past neat fields and through small towns to stay with another cousin and his wife. I love being with them. They are easy to be with, and this little town of 1,400 residents is pretty quiet.
The farmers in my family all moved to town three or four generations ago. But this cousin of Andrea’s farmed his father’s farm, then his son, and now his grandson farm the land. I always feel somehow enriched by our visits here. I could never be a farmer — I’m too ignorant of what it takes, for one thing — but farming is probably deep in my DNA somewhere.