Ah, this is the life: wide open road, level horizon, stop whenever, sleep, drive again, just me and Merlin. Ah, endless road trip.
We cross the Missouri River into Iowa, and promptly stop at a shiny new Iowa Welcome Center. It’s like walking into the future- climate controlled glass, chrome, etched rock walls, original fine art, and motion detecting everything, including the chilled drinking fountains. Illuminated vending machines calmly hum. There’s wireless internet. A covered walkway leads to the information center where square birch islands of cheerful brochures pose beneath a parade of area maps. A perky historical society volunteer smiles and asks what she can help me find. I tell her about Merlin’s Road Trip and she thinks that sounds like a grand adventure. She hands me a map of antique shopping towns with a wink. I ask for a picnic stop recommendation. “Oh, there’s the Jesse James Historical Site.” Perfect.
An hour later we’re at the scene of the world’s first robbery of a moving train. Allegedly, the notorious James Gang had discovered the drama and ease of heisting trains. Choosing remote, unguarded locations to derail mobile cash seemed the ideal crime of the future, and a healthy alternative to getting shoot by bank guards in towns. In the summer of 1873 they learned about $75,000 in gold due to depart Cheyenne for Chicago on the new mainline Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The outlaws fortified themselves with pies purchased from the section foreman’s wife, and camped in the hills near Adair waiting to topple the train. On July 21, 1873 with a track removed and the engine on its side, Jesse and Frank James convinced the guard to open the safe, but the gold shipment had been delayed. Enraged, they ransacked the passengers, collecting only $3,000. Telegraph alerts shot around the country. Armed posses chased the gang all the way to Missouri, where they disappeared... A bit of rail is all that remains of the Adair railroad line. And it is a lovely spot for a picnic.
Iowa is America’s middle, the land between two rivers, where I-80 runs almost straight east west, like an Indian road aligned to the Equinox, or the promise of a better future. All sorts of normal people are from here, like American Gothic painter Grant Wood and U.S.S. Starship Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk. The radio choices are talk, country, sports or Christ. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by sniffing of cows as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by cows sniffing as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point.
Somewhere in the middle of the Tall Corn State, we pull into a welcome Iowa Interstate Safety Rest Area. Iowans never abbreviate. They have the time to say everything they mean to say, and they take the time to say everything they mean. In my initial exodus from Michigan to California, I stopped in a Poweshiek hardware store to get a rain tarp for my U-Haul trailer full of all my earthly possessions. I asked for a tarp. A chap in a red checkered shirt asked if I meant to request a tarpaulin that resisted wind shear and had been water proofed and was fitted with reinforced grommets and did I have a preference for dark midlands forest green or lapis lazuli blue. I stared back and tentatively said green, please. Perhaps it’s an indicator of a good life to have the time to never abbreviate. Perhaps its a side effect from watching corn grow.
Merlin and I play with the Interstate Safety Rest Area automatic drinking fountain detector while truckers surf the web. Merlin gets covered in ladybugs. For the next 50 miles, I shoo ladybugs out the windows, thinking of Jimmy Stewart’s Charles Lindbergh giving his insect hitchhiker an aw shucks last chance to escape before his Spirit of St. Louis left land for the icy Atlantic. In the movie version of Lindbergh's historic 1927 first solo non-stop transatlantic flight, an airline executive warns that the New York to Paris feat isn’t like dropping a mail bag in Keokuk, Iowa. Fifty years after Jesse James was robbing trains, Lindbergh flew airmail for the army and once hopped a night train after his plane went down in a Midwest blizzard. He said he believed in things he could touch: an instrument panel, a pressure gauge, a compass. I'd seen the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It's smaller than our front seat. Merlin and I sip our canteens and check our gauges. As we’re calculating our next fuel stop, signs announce the World’s Largest Truck Stop. We have to stop. Dwarfed by several hundred semi-trucks, we fuel up. I decline the wi-fi service. Merlin declines the dog wash service.
The Mississippi River is calm here at Davenport as dusk lifts a near full moon over the eastern trees. We drive up the bluff and romp about on the lawn of the closed Welcome Center. A jay squawks and I wonder if it’s an east of the Mississippi or west of species. Indian mounds dot the Mississippi River bluffs. During a 1990’s pre-Merlin road trip, I explored Effigy Mounds National Monument after following the Wisconsin River west with Lewis and Clark. I stood in their footsteps 500 feet above the roaring confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, now Wyalusing State Park, where they had first seen the Mississippi after hearing it for days. Their complete 1804-06 journals are now online in the Library of Congress American Memory Collections. The rivers meet at Prairie du Chien, French for Prairie of the Dog Merlin notes.
Some time later, find ourselves looking for lodging in Peru. We could have gone on to Ottawa or Marseilles, but our bums were sore from sitting. We check in to a sparse dog friendly motel and check out a huge corn field dog run out back under the stars. We’ll figure out where we really are in the morning. Ah, endless road trip.
Day Seven: Crossing the Mississippi to Peru.
Lincoln, Nebraska to Peru, Illinois. 545 miles.