Family commitments eased after Christmas, so my wife and I headed for the East Coast—of Iowa. A few hours’ drive gets us to the Mississippi River. We avoided 4-lane highways and started cruising through towns with volunteer fire departments and no stop lights. We wanted to drive by dairy barns and see tractors on small town streets rather than get sucked up in the jet streams of semi trucks on I-80.
The sun was low behind us as we pulled into McGregor, Iowa, and before booking a room at a riverside motel, we drove the bridge spanning the Mighty Mississippi. Eagles soared above, ice chunks floated in the wide channel, and brave or crazy fishermen stood above holes cut in the ice of the frozen backwaters. Both sides of the river were settled about the time Huck Finn started his odyssey, and if the river would have flowed north, this area would have provided fertile ground for Twain’s imagination.
Crowds gather for summer boating and autumn leaf viewing, but December is off season, so the motel owner gave us a break. “I’m in a holiday mood,” she said. “You can have the best riverside room for $45 dollars instead of the usual $70.” It was on the third floor, with a balcony that hung over the river’s edge. No elevator, no room service, no Wi-Fi. But the room was about big enough to play tennis in, and the views out the large picture window were better than TV.
Most of McGregor’s Main Street has been restored in the “settler days” fashion, and we were about the only folks walking the wide sidewalks at twilight. We slid into a quaint looking bookstore to warm up--and because we were happy to find a bookstore that hasn’t been sent off to a digital graveyard. This shop was like a pleasant Twilight Zone visit—orderly shelves of classic volumes, historical tomes on antique tables, and collectors’ items of various sorts—from comics to travel and map books.
“Has the e-book phenomenon hurt your business?” I asked the owner.
“Not at all,” he said. “Anything to get folks reading. Many of them will eventually get back to real books. There’s something special about having a book in hand—especially ones that evoke a different age or other worlds.” He told us about Julien Dubuque, Jacques Marquette, and other early settlers of the area.
Literary inquiry can be thirsty work, so we moved to the next open establishment, the Pocket City Pub. The sign on the door was enticing—Sorry, We’re Open. The place was only big enough for a few tables and a large horseshoe bar. Twelve patrons sat on stools while a woman inside the horseshoe served drinks. As we entered, she was obviously finishing a story that had the locals’ attention. “… so after that, of course I asked them to leave.” All eyes turned toward us, so I said, “You talkin’ about us?”
“Not yet,” said a woman to our right. Folks laughed—we took two open seats at the bar and started chatting with a couple who owned a cabin five miles down river. The place was “Cheers” without a Boston accent and nobody knew our name. That didn’t matter. The owner entered a bit later and told stories about his days as a tuba player for the Kansas State marching band. “That was long ago,” he said. “Our exotic band trip was to Omaha.”
Before returning to the motel, we had a fish dinner at a restaurant that clung to the edge of the river. The owner looked like he cast a line out the window to catch the evening special, and the waitress was friendly and helpful. “I’m a city council member,” she said. “I just like being around people in a place like this.”
Small towns are falling off the face of the map in much of the Midwest, but I have a feeling there are still plenty of spots where it’s worth hanging out with people “in a place like this.” When you take time to travel the back roads, you won’t be sorry to find that small town America is still “open.”
by dan gogerty (pic combination from pinterest.com and popeyexpress.blogspot)