We woke up the next morning in South Bend, Indiana. Shortly after we returned to I-80, we crossed into the Central Time Zone. When I tried to check this fact by Googling, "Time Zones in Indiana," I discovered that this is a controversial issue, because not only are some Indiana counties in the Eastern Time Zone and some in the Central Time Zone, but Indiana is also strange because it does not observe Daylight Savings Time. This refusal to line up with the rest of the country (except Hawaii) upsets some people, who feel that Indiana should just try to fit in.
It was not long before we arrived in our second "I" state, another state I'd never visited before &mdash Illinois. Somewhere outside Joliet, we sat in our first real traffic jam of the trip, precipitated by road construction. Shortly after, we stopped at a Flying-J for more shot glasses, more goofy postcards for me, and lunch at the country buffet. I actually did take pictures of this with my phone, so perhaps they still exist on my old cell phone. I remember that there was a phone on every table and that we had overcooked, mushy versions of every comfort food imaginable. Mac and cheese. Fried chicken. Brussels sprouts with butter. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Jello mold and at least ten kinds of cake. It was wonderful.
Sometime in the afternoon, we crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. Signs told of construction and road closures, a reminder of 2008's floods which had impacted my road trip at the time (we nearly had to drive to Canada to get around the flooding) and caused so much damage, as I remember it, mostly in Iowa. It was Iowa that was always on the news reports I watched from hotel breakfast rooms, feeling sorry for the people shown but also wondering how the hell I would get home.
We stopped at a quaint Welcome Center for more shot glasses and post cards. The Welcome Center was attractive, with a small gallery of local artists' work and lots of interesting things in the shop. I bought sorghum syrup made by Iowan Mennonites, which later got used mostly to make this nearly ill-fated bread. I believe it was here that we first noticed HIM.
His name was Mike Something. He was from Monroe Township, New Jersey. For much of our trip, we noticed his name in guest registers just above where we would sign. It was like he was following us, but in reverse. He knew where we were going. He even put his full address in the guest registers, so eventually we copied it down, vowing to send him a postcard. We never did.
When we met to plan our trip, Iowa seemed at first like a necessary evil. Even our guide, Let's Go Roadtripping USA, fails to mention any of its 56,272 square miles. Over three hundred miles of our trip would take place in Iowa, so we knew we had to find something to see, some reason to stop, or we would get car crazy. A simple Google search brought us here. It seemed that Iowa was a hidden gem of roadside oddities. As the weeks approaching our trip wound down, we found ourselves getting most excited about Iowa! I would tell people, "We're probably going to see Carhenge in Nebraska, and we might detour to Colorado to see Rocky Mountain National Park, but I'm really excited about Iowa!"
We planned to visit Iowa's Largest Frying Pan, the world's largest truck stop, Plow in the Oak, Tree in the Middle of the Road, and Albert the Bull. We were disappointed that it was too far out of our way to justify a detour to the World's Largest Chee-to.
Later, we stopped in Ames to take a break from the neverending cornfields that lined, in my estimation, 295 of Iowa's 303.23 miles on I-80. Ames looked like a nice city. It looked like there were plenty of things to do, contrary to our preconceived notion that Iowa was the most boring place on Earth. Just before getting back on the interstate, we stopped at a gas station and ice cream shop. Later, I said to Meg, "I don't think Iowa is that bad of a place! I don't know why people hate it so much! I don't even think it's that boring."
"Sarah," said Meg, bringing me back to reality, "we drove one hundred miles out of our way today to see a frying pan. The most exciting thing you did today was eat a frozen Snickers bar. You talked about how good it was for an hour!"
Quietly, I admitted she was right. "And I don't even like Snickers that much."
Nightfall approached as we attempted to approach the Plow in the Oak and the Tree in the Middle of the Road. Lost, we found ourselves driving with farmland on either side of us on an unpaved road.
The sun was setting. We stopped the car.
We never made it to the Tree in the Middle of the Road or the Plow in the Oak. If we had, we might never have seen this, and we both agreed that was okay.
As luck had it, we found this guy, not at all far from the exit off I-80, just before dark.
We drove not much longer, stopping in Walnut, IA, which I was disappointed to find lacked both walnuts and Wal-marts. I was charmed by Iowa's tranquil, modest beauty. I looked forward to the next day of travel. I didn't know what I was in for. I had never been there before, and there was nothing, not even three hundred miles of Iowa, that could prepare me for what lay ahead.