“Plans should be ephemeral, so be prepared to move away from them.” ~ Anthony Bourdain.
Nine o’clock on a weekday morning is never a good time to get on the road in a major metropolitan area. But, instead of following my instincts and getting out of town early I decided to thumb my nose at the traffic gods, and luxuriate in the plastic, faux opulence of the motel breakfast room, indulging in free yogurt and cello wrapped muffins. Through a layer of spilled yellow crumbs and an occasional blueberry I loitered over my complimentary copy of USA Today and swilled tepid, dishwater coffee.
To those who might call me ungrateful in my sarcasm over breakfast freebies, let’s not fool ourselves. The yogurt and muffin are not free, they’re built into the price of the room, as are the sundries you find in your room. That’s why my wife has managed to assemble the fine basketful of mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner and skin creams and little patties of soap that adorns our bathroom counter at home.
I’d resigned myself to a long sojourn in highway purgatory and when I merged onto gridlocked Interstate 35 out of Minneapolis I was not disappointed
Google Girl warned me of traffic congestion. “No shit,” I countered. “Can’t slip anything past you, huh?”
Google Girl couldn’t come up with a response. She’s like that.
My stay in traffic perdition turned out to be surprisingly short. In a mere thirty minutes the freeway was again free and I was back in farm country.
It’s September 22nd, day twelve of my road trip and I’m on my way from Minneapolis to Lansing, Iowa, via Northfield and Austin.
Lansing is a small town in the northeast corner of Iowa, tucked between the Mississippi River to the east and the State of Minnesota to the north.
Up until last night, I’d never heard of Lansing, Iowa but I’m in need of a suitable place for a two day layover before going to Abbotsford, Wisconsin. After shuffling through maps of Iowa and Wisconsin and doing a little internet exploration, I decided that Lansing checks the important boxes.
Lansing is located in the scenic Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, it’s within driving distance of the Field of Dreams Baseball Park, which I’m thinking about visiting, and it has a catchy little motto, “Where mainstreet meets the Mississippi.”
Mainstreet. Isn’t that what the Midwest is all about? And the Mississippi? That’s just an added bonus.
All of that and Lansing is going to provide the layover I need on my way to Abbotsford, Wisconsin, another town that I only learned about last night.
There’s not a single thing in Abbotsford that interests me other than lodging and its proximity to Athens, Wisconsin, which has no lodging. Prior to last night the only Athens I’d ever heard of was the original – you know, the one in Greece.
Like Abbotsford, Athens holds no interest for me at all other than being a reference point as the closest village to Stoney Acres Farm.
A couple of hours at Stoney Acres Farm is the – sole – reason for this game plan.
And why Stoney Acres Farm? It’s all because of a sign.
No, not one from God, but I will say that it was certainly a divine revelation.
The sign was a simple, homemade placard that I saw yesterday as I was driving through farm country between Mondovi, Wisconsin and Minneapolis. But for that sign I would be forever ignorant of Stoney Acres, Athens, Abbotsford and Lansing.
As I drove past that sign I couldn’t have been more dumbfounded if I’d seen the burning bush itself. This oracle advertised the wonderfully unimaginable, a holy of all holies of tomato, cheese, spices and various nitrate laden meat products – a pizza farm.
Maybe it was shock, maybe it was suspended belief or a suspicion that the sign was a cruel joke, because I must have traveled a good quarter mile down the road before the realization actually sunk in – pizza farm. Pizza – fucking – farm!
At the next turnout I pulled over to process this miracle.
Pizza – sprouting straight out of Mother Earth.
Surely this could only be a joke, a fraud, a back-country culinary scam not unlike the phone calls I get about my expired car warranty or the free hundred dollar Amazon gift card I can get just for providing all of my personal information to a stranger wanting to relieve me of the burden of my life’s savings.
Or this could be the greatest boon to civilization since Alexander Fleming started messing around with a moldy orange. Move over Marie Curie, take a seat Einstein, some genius in Wisconsin has discovered a way to grow pizza.
Should I turn around just to make sure that I’d read that sign correctly, that it wasn’t my empty stomach playing tricks on my mind? Why the hell not? I’m on a six week road trip with no itinerary. What the hell else do I have to do? If I passed up a pizza farm, then the whole idea of missing out on something so wondrous would haunt me until the day I become worm food.
I turned the car around, drove back to where the sign was and sure enough there it was – pizza farm. I followed the arrows to the pizza farm. Closed for the day.
When I’d settled into my motel room I did some research on the internet and discovered that a pizza farm could best be described as a pop up pizzeria, at a farm, usually a small, family farm. The pizzas, cooked in open air brick ovens, are made mostly of ingredients grown on the farm. I found that pizza farms dot the Midwest and it seems that most are certified organic.
The most important thing I learned though, was that Stoney Acres Farm would be having a pizza night on the 24th. And so I said to myself, in the words of Moses, “I will now turn aside, and see this great sight.”
And so, verily, I made reservations for lodging in Lansing and Abbotsford.
Austin, Minnesota is behind me, the last city or semi-city I’ll see for days, if not weeks. There are no cities in my plans. That’s because, beyond Stoney Acres I don’t have any firm plans other than pointing the car and driving – to somewhere.
Right now the car is pointing east on State Route 16 heading through a procession of small towns in the southeast corner of Minnesota.
Grand Meadow, established 1870. Population? Around 1100.
Spring Meadow, population 2500, give or take a few souls, was established in 1855, and was, in fact, cleverly named after a spring in a meadow. Why overthink it? Here’s a clear spring. Here’s a meadow. Let’s call it – Spring Meadow.
Wykoff, platted in 1871, population 418. A short main drag of brick buildings that could, but for the names and details, describe any small town I’m passing through; Shooter’s On and Off Sale Liquor, Margaret’s Tea Room, Ed’s Museum, and the Wykoff Jail Haus B&B. There’s a little family restaurant (Because out here it’s all about family. At least that’s what the local Republican Party office wants you to believe) and of course there’s a grain elevator, because any self respecting town out here, large or small, must have a grain elevator.
The Root River runs through Preston, population 1289. Preston calls itself “Minnesota’s Trout Capital,” a tall claim in a state which glories in its reputation as a fisherman’s haven. To quell any visitor’s trout doubts, there’s a twenty foot long statue of a trout alongside the highway.
Just before Preston, State Route 16 has merged with U.S. 52 and, leaving Preston, I’m on my way south towards Harmony, population 987.
At the outskirts of Harmony I’m seeing a noticeable change in the landscape as cornfields are being replaced by sprawling horse farms, and green grassy fields mounded with stacks of hay. The road has also gone through a noticeable change – it’s mounded with stacks of horse poop.
The road rolls, rising and dipping obstructing a driver’s view of what’s ahead and as I come over a hill I’m startled by a horse drawn carriage approaching from over the next rise.
This is where I decide to go below the speed limit. I don’t feel like calling Cora from a small town jailhouse to tell her that I’ve been arrested for splattering an Amish carriage and its occupants just out for a ride, and an innocent horse just doing its job.
I pass by a group of Amish children walking to school. They’re dressed in the traditional Amish garb, a throwback to another century, yet each child carries the incongruity of a modern plastic lunch box.
I would love to pull over and take photos but I’m not sure about the protocol for photographing the Amish. And I’m certainly not going to photograph someone’s kids.
At Harmony, U.S. 52 swoops east.
Tiny Canton, population 346. Off to the left is ZZ’s Tap, a little tavern that’s nothing more than a modest white slat building with a rusted tin roof.
A water tower with CANTON emblazoned on the tank, dominates an old tin roofed brick building that houses a shop advertising antiques, jewelry, gifts, coffee and books. At the corner of Main and Canton Streets is the Canton Car Wash and Laundromat where, with enough quarters, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Just east of Canton I continue east on State 44 while 52 turns south.
I skirt the northern boundary of another little town with a population of 749. In 1880, a railroad engineer named Frank Adams platted this village and named it after his daughter, Mabel.
At Spring Grove, I turn right on 4th Avenue just before Red’s IGA Grocery Store.
The Independent Grocers Alliance, founded in 1926 is a franchise of independent and family owned grocery stores, a small town thing, a good thing that allows the independents to survive in the face of the corporate giants.
You don’t see many IGA stores in the Bay Area. I haven’t seen one since I was a child. For me, Reds is a throwback, a distant memory.
Eitzen, population 249, named by the town’s early settlers after their mother city back in the “old country” – Germany.
At New Albin I’ve crossed into Iowa and hit the Mississippi River. From here it’s an eleven mile southbound wind along the Mississippi shoreline to Lansing.
This afternoon has been a journey of tiny taverns, imposing brick Lutheran Churches, tall spired white Baptist Churches, silos, farms, fields, coffee shops, and all of the independent businesses that serve these communities. It isn’t unlike most of the previous eleven days and I’ll bank that the next four weeks or so won’t be much different.
With the exception of what you might find at a filling station or a travel center, chain operations have been non-existent. Ronald the clown, the chicken colonel, Wendy and the king don’t reside here. Since leaving Austin, eighty miles ago I haven’t seen a single fat vat.
And Starbucks? Starbucks doesn’t deign to come out to small town rural Middle America. Maybe it’s because out here people would rather have real coffee than a sickly sweet, whipped cream topped thing. But that isn’t it. Rural, small town America doesn’t interest fast food corporations. This place doesn’t fit the business plan and rural, small town America is a better place for that.
In twelve days I’ve passed through dozens of towns with populations of less than 500, some with fewer than 100. Back home I’d have to travel a good 200 miles before hitting something that small.
Between those small towns I’ve driven past fields and farms, a charming canvas of agrarian beauty.
Brilliant yellow and green soybean fields under a sky puffed with bulging white clouds. At times the sky seems so brilliantly blue that it challenges every notion of blue you’ve ever had. How can anything be so damned blue?
And the clouds? So low that it seems like I could stick my hand up and see it disappear.
The tops of barns peek from behind hills that surge like waves, and in the distance, silos seem to poke up from stands of trees that blaze with autumn.
This is the America that I’ve only seen in movies and yearned to see in person. It’s a place that’s completely foreign to my own American experience.
My America is back home.
Back home in the Bay Area there’s almost no pause in the succession of strip malls. The drives on suburban interstates aren’t pretty yet I’ve become accustomed to them. There’s nothing to appreciate or gaze at during the drive on that yellow brick road of consumerism, you simply become hardened to it.
Out here in the Midwest, the continuous view of cornfields and soybean fields goes on for miles and miles, across the flats, over squat hills beyond and beyond the beyond. Some people call it boring but from my brief experience, it’s hard to imagine that one would ever get inured to it.
Yet despite the crassness and downright ugliness of the unbroken rows of McDonalds, Starbucks, Dicks Sporting Goods, Applebee’s, Motel 6, Days Inn, Target, Kohl’s, Taco Bell and boundless other houses of bright, blinding, plastic commercialism of home it’s still home and I wouldn’t exchange it, even for this quiet, picturesque land.