I drove halfway across Iowa today, from Ames to Sioux City. The weather was warm and the day was lovely. I took US 20 through Fort Dodge. A few miles west, I came across a town called Rockwell City, “The golden buckle on the corn belt.” It got me to wondering about how small towns choose to identify themselves. Of course, we all know that Iowa is smack dab in the middle of the corn belt. But what does it mean for a town to be “the golden buckle on the corn belt?” I doubt there’s really any gold there. Does Rockwell City have a higher per capita net worth than the rest of the towns in Iowa? Not judging by appearances. Perhaps they consider themselves a treasure. If so, one might ask why anyone else should consider them so. What is there about Rockwell City that makes it “the golden buckle on the corn belt?” If anyone knows, please write.
A little further on, I stopped for lunch at an unpretentious place called Hutch’s Cafe in Sac City. It had the standard fare: burgers and fries, sandwiches, sodas. Two items on the menu caught my eye: chicken livers and chicken gizzards. Yes, gizzards. Most folks probably don’t even know what a gizzard is. You might think it’s a kind of cross between a grizzly and a lizard (T-Rex, anyone?), but you’d be wrong. A gizzard is a kind of chewing stomach. Birds, including chickens, eat grit along with their grist, and the grit in the gizzard grinds the grist into more manageable size for further processing by the rest of the digestive tract. I ate chicken gizzards when I was a kid. They were tough and chewy, a lot like clams. But I have never seen them on a menu in any establishment that sells food to the dining public. Until today. I couldn’t help mentioning my surprise to the waitress.
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t care for them myself, but we sell a lot of them. We get a lot of orders for chicken livers and gizzards too.”
I had the onion rings.
By this time, I felt I was becoming attuned to the Iowan aura. I came to the town of Early and saw that it identified itself as the “Crossroads of the Nation.” I thought, how does this little bit of a town get to be the crossroads of the whole, entire nation? But there was a big banner on a building in the fairgrounds: “Crossroad Days,” and a little further on I passed the Crossroad Restaurant and Lounge. This is a town that takes its crossroads status seriously. Early is situated at the crossroads of US 20 and US 71. Perhaps there was a real crossroads at one time, but now US 20 doglegs about 4 miles, passing through Early on the way. Still it’s more of a cross than the intersection of two interstates. You don’t get a cross but a cloverleaf. Or, in the case of I35 and I80 at Des Moines, a whole tangle of cloverleafs, shamrocks, and snapdragons. Portions seem always to be under construction.
One common misconception about Iowa is that it is Flat. The fact is some of it is Flat, and some of it is Wrinkled. There are a lot of Wrinkles in US 20 as you approach Sioux City. Some of them even begin to look like hills. The biggest Wrinkle of them all is crowned with huge, three-armed giants, dozens of them waving their three arms as if performing some stationary dance. They have an austere, haphazard beauty. Got photos of these giants? I’d love to see them.