Red Winged Black Bird on a fence post in a field.

Gratuitous Drive 2005


Category: General

I?ve been living in the city for sixteen years now. Sure, Cedar Rapids is not a huge metropolitan blotch on the face of the Earth, but it is still the second largest city in Iowa. Regardless of the actual size, I?m a rural person at heart and living in town leaves me feeling disconnected. To help with this, every October I set aside one day and I do a Gratuitous Drive.

There is no real purpose for the drive other than the viewing of the beautiful Iowan landscape. Harvest is going on. Leaves are changing colors. The temperatures are mild and the winds cool. I just feel the overwhelming urge to go out into the lot of it.

This year, I gassed up, gathered my initial beverage, and headed up Iowa Highway 13. This old road takes me through some of the areas associated with my childhood, going past Central City and Coggon. (Coggon is where my father took my brother and me to see movies when I was very young. Central City, more recently, was the home of my last girlfriend, though that was much more recent.)

Highway 13 also goes through partially harvested fields of corn and beans, as well as forests. Leaving Linn County, the road takes you through Manchester (a very pretty little town) and then to Strawberry Point. The latter is also a very nice town, though much smaller, but it is also right next to Backbone State Park.

I didn?t stop at the park on this trip, but it is a favorite destination. Backbone gets its name from a narrow ridge of stone that is very long. The stone sticks up like the spine of some ancient beast arcing out of the ground. At one point on the Backbone, the path is only a couple of feet wide with a sheer and deep drop on either side. The rest of the park is forests and other ridges, though not so narrow, and beautiful places to hike, camp, and cook out.

After Strawberry Point, the road took me through Elkader and then to Marquette. At this point, going from hill to valley and back makes your ears pop. Many of you may have heard that Iowa is flat. Not in the north east it isn?t. The grade is steep and there are sharp curves. It isn?t a place I would want to drive in winter.

Marquette is across the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. It is also right next to McGregor. Together, these little sits are a wonderful tourist destination where people who have way too much money can go and buy souvenirs and antiques. They make quite a show of being quaint.

I headed north on Highway 76 up toward Effigy Mounds National Park. This park is pretty cool. The natives used to build mounds in the shape of animals. We now preserve these mounds and the surrounding forest. If you want to get in it?ll cost you about three dollars for a single person with other rates for groups of special size and composition. Though I made use of their rest room facilities, the day was for driving and not hiking, so I moved on.

Just north of the park I turned onto Allamakee County Highway X52. Oh what a wonderful road. This is part of the old ?River Road? that runs mostly right next to the Mississippi River. It?s an old road with narrow pavement and no shoulder. There are signs posted everywhere warning of falling rock. The cliff wall went up sharply on the west side of the road. On the right side were the railroad and the river itself.

North I went, through a few small towns and lots of brilliantly colored forest. Eventually I entered the town of Lansing. In Lansing, the railroad and X52 move together very close. This was very obvious because a train was passing through at a slightly faster speed than I. Had a passenger in my car reached out, she could have touched the freight cars as they swayed and bounced precariously on the narrow rails. It was only slightly unnerving.

I missed my turn in Lansing and ended up headed west on Highway 9. I stopped to get my bearings at a little convenience store on the western edge of town. I was ready for a new beverage anyway. I went in and bought a carbonated beverage and a hamburger. There is always something mysterious (in a good way) about convenience store food. Not the prepackaged stuff, mind you; I mean the stuff they make locally. It was good. The clerk was friendly and beautiful, which is always a plus to a fellow like me.

A quick check of the map showed that I needed to go back into town and then turn north on Highway 26. That would take me up to the town of New Albin. Highway 26 is another narrow, barely used twisty road with wonderful views. I started to catch up a little to the train that passed me in Lansing.

Like many little Iowan towns, New Albin has a population you can fit in a high school gymnasium. There is a store or two and the other little businesses as needed. More importantly, New Albin is in the northeast corner of Iowa. That is to say that the north edge of town is the border with Minnesota while you can look across the river at Wisconsin.

I?m not sure what to call the next road I took. The highway weaves back and forth across the Iowa-Minnesota border. For most of it, the signs read Houston County 2, which is the Minnesota side of things. In any event, it ended in the town of Eitzen, Minnesota. I was through the town before I realized that I was in town.

Regardless of what the road was called, it was gorgeous. From the tops of hills one could see far off into the deep valleys. There were pastures and forests, and farms gleaming in the afternoon sun. The shadows of clouds meandered lazily across the fields. Dream-like seems to be the right word. Of course, such narrow and winding roads will instantly send you to your death in a ravine if you pay too much attention to the scenery.

From there I took Highway 76 south to Waukon, the county seat in Allamakee County. Then I caught Highway 9 west to Decorah. If you get a chance, you should try to visit Decorah for their Nordic Fest. There are parades, games, dances, and all the lutefisk you can shove down your fish-hole. The early settlers to Decorah were from Norway. They are very proud of the fact and even have the Norwegian Museum. A few years back, the king of Norway dropped by to officiate and have some lutefisk. It?s a big deal up in them parts.

From Decorah, I caught Highway 52, then 150 in Calmar. I could enumerate all the towns and explain why each is wonderful in its own unique way, but this post is getting long and I know you guys hate that. Just trust that the last bit of the trip, much of which I slept through, was just as pleasant as the first part. The round trip was 272.5 miles and cost me way too much in gas money.

If you get a chance, do a gratuitous drive in your area. Get to know your surroundings. Better yet, take a vacation to Iowa. That?s where I take my vacations.

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