My dad has been an encouraging voice for me throughout the years, urging me through all of my weird and daring ideas. Even when we've butted heads, he's always insisted that I am capable of anything, armed with common sense and a “damn German” sense of perseverance. He insisted to me that his side of the family – though I never had the pleasure of meeting them – dreamed big and never gave up.
I've always been fascinated with my father's past, settling in to hear his stories over lengthy card games and crackling fires. “My mom was born in 1906, my dad in 1902,” he tells me. He shares stories of a small town in Iowa where his ancestors settled and where his boyhood was played out in a time when the world was entirely different.
He vowed that one day, for his 50th high school reunion, he'd go back.
So I made his dreams come true in an Iowa road trip that I'll never forget.
I had big hopes setting out on this trip. It was a relatively short loop, but one rich with discoveries. Guidebooks promise all sorts of history and intrigue: will you walk across the Davenport Skybridge, explore the ruins of Joliet Ironworks, find mysterious meadows at Franklin Creek? Maybe you'll discover fame and fortune where American Pickers is filmed at the birthplace of Buffalo Bill. Have some tasty treats at the Candy Kitchen in Wilton. Shivering with goosebumps, you'll hear the whispered tales of Teresa Dolezal Feldevert's mysterious black angel. Bettendorf, Wheaton, Eldon. This was our original road trip map, but we actually wound up veering from it a bit – the best trips always veer off-course – and seeing what my dad called the “more iconic” spots.
I think it was a perfect balance of personal and prototypical.
My dad and I both landed in Chicago at midnight on a Wednesday, opting to rent a car and go on an Iowa road trip as opposed to trying to route our way into a smaller airport.
Our Iowa road trip was guided by a few stops to see relatives on the way to our final destination: my dad's 50th high school reunion in Cedar Rapids. After landing, we drove through the night and catnapped roadside before pulling into Rock Island Arsenal as the sun rose. The army men at the gates were super-friendly and gave us directions after we explained that we were dazed, a little confused, and very eager to see some tanks!
We skipped the locks on the island and continued on the bridge straight over to Davenport. The view on the other side was breaktaking. If you ever find yourself on an Iowa road trip, stop to see the Mississippi river at a restaurant called Waterbar. We didn't even eat there…just parked and stared for a good long while.
Finally in Davenport, I met my dad's 90-year-old cousin Warren, who lives by himself. His immaculate home abuts acres of corn fields. When I asked who helps care for the property, he said that someone started doing yard work for him a year ago but he does all the housekeeping. He then proceeded to tell me about his girlfriend, while I silently thanked the sweet lord for good genetics.
I took Warren and dad down the street to see Warren's brother, Allen, who happily showed off his shiny Corvette. I grew up not knowing that I had family on my dad's side but now that I've met them on our Iowa road trip, I'm pretty stoked at what lays ahead. Let's just hope I have half of their spunk in 60 years!
Still tracking down some history, we met up with my great aunt and uncle's family at Gramma's Kitchen near the World's Largest Truckstop. We then meandered up to her place near Wheatland where she pulled out some original documents that helped clarify some of my roots and history. Teri and her husband have actually traveled overseas and had a reunion at the German home our family last lived in before emigrating – a place called Warmkammer that is now on my must-visit list!
The farm in Iowa that she currently operates was passed down through the family. She was kind and welcoming and showed me around as I asked a million questions. I also got to chat a bunch with her daughter, Amelia, who has kids around my childrens' ages. Along the drive out of Wheatland, I commented to my dad that the meandering hills against the bright blue sky were definitely what I was expecting from an Iowa road trip. I always value side jaunts to see more rural communities, since it gives a glimpse into how a wider group of people live.
Next up on our Iowa road trip, we wandered into Wilton where my dad boldly knocked on the locked door of the Wilton Candy Kitchen. We read online that the historic shop closed last November when owners George and Thelma Nopoulos took leave to enter a nursing home. George wound up passing away in June, and Thelma has been hard at work determining how to keep the shop going. She happened to be inside, at an after-hours accounting meeting with her team, and she graciously showed us around. She remembered my dad's family from childhood, and the two reminisced about days spent drinking fountain sodas at the counter.
What really struck me about everybody on our Iowa road trip – from my relatives to Thelma to complete strangers we encountered along the way – was their kindness and warmth. Nobody seemed in a hurry to get rid of me and get back to their own lives. Several people actually kept businesses open for us, as our odd schedule had us arriving after hours time and time again.
A man I met in Cedar Rapids told me that after the massive flood of 2008, he had to go out of town but left a note on his door inviting neighbors to use his shower and other facilities. Most of us would expect to return to a ransacked property, but he had faith. When he arrived back at home, everything was in place and a small basket was left on the porch with over $400 to cover utilities.
After dad and I said our goodbyes to Thelma, we continued our Iowa road trip by meandering across the street to the most popular bar in the county. It used to be known as the Wooden Nickel, but has since been renamed “Fro's.”
The last thing to see in Wilton was the train depot, where the dedicated historical society curates items from times past.
A quick drive through rows of cow pastures led to Moscow and Atalissa, small towns where my dad's father used to keep cabins to retreat to for solitude. Or possibly for time with a lady friend.
We saw two of the family's cabins: a larger one in an upscale waterfront area, and a smaller one in a quite, undiscovered pocket. Here along the shores in Atalissa, children ran through the gravel roads ahead of my car. Each home abutted the Cedar River near the Weise Slough in a laidback, moist atmosphere that reminded me of Louisiana's bayou.
“I better not let Nate see this place,” I mumbled aloud. “He'll never want to leave.”
My dad paid his respects at a local cemetery, and we crashed for the night at a rundown hotel near Iowa City.
Home of the University of Iowa, this place is your typical college town. Lots of quaint shops and trendy pubs. The Iowa City Capitol building is definitely worth seeing if you're on an Iowa road trip and into historical buildings. The old, ornate craftsmanship is inspiring and remarkably modern-looking.
Next on our Iowa road trip, we headed to Amana Colonies where we ogled antiques and ate cured meat.
Get the jerky. It's pricey, but worth it.
The colonies are historic, known for their communal lifestyle and the eventual creation of the Amana Corporation line of refrigerators. Today, the colonies continue to operate as both tourist attraction and homestead offering immense support for the arts. I could have easily spent two or three days just in the tourist walking section.
After Amana, our Iowa road trip finally took us up to Cedar Rapids! I met my cousin, Cheryl, who is just four years younger than my dad. She took us to a shockingly good Mexican food place near her house up by Hiawatha. There are tons of suburbs and several little towns around Cedar Rapids that are interesting to explore. If you have time, check out the main street of Marion and King Chapel over at Cornell College in Mt Vernon.
If you're really just after the food on your Iowa road trip, track down a Maid-Rite. They serve a sloppy joe dish that strikes me as sort of a deconstructed In-N-Out burger. I had to resist downing three or four of them and asking for a to-go box with several more.
Next we drove through the cobbled brick streets of historic Cedar Rapids, and even found the house where my dad grew up! A pervasive hiss-whir sound filled the air like a vacuum and I rolled down my window to listen closely, then hurriedly roll it back up as a horde of mosquitoes consumed me. “What on earth is that sound?”
My dad blinked blankly and shrugged like it was the most normal thing in the world, “Oh, that's just locusts.”
Getting away from bugs of biblical proportions, I decided we should check out “NewBo,” which my dad's generation knew simply as “Bohemy Town.” This indoor-outdoor market was named for the eclectic Bohemian wares that were traditionally sold by immigrants in the area.
After night fell again, we ventured out to the town's two clubs. It may have been an off night, but I ultimately decided I was too old for the outdoor rave scene at Cedar River Landing and too young for the dive bar at Rumors, where an odd mishmash of passing-through biker dudes and townies watched passively as a velvet-clad Elvis impersonator gyrated on-stage.
We crashed sleepily at the conference center Doubletree, satiated by a platter full of complimentary cookies. If your Iowa road trip brings you here, just be sure to ask for a room away from the train tracks.
The downtown area surrounding our hotel was a bit odd. The streets were completely dead with the exception of a couple events going on. Most big city downtown areas are filled with people hustling back-and-forth between restaurants and businesses. Cedar Rapids seemed abandoned. So if you want to be within walking distance of some action, head on over to NewBo or…well…go somewhere else. For our purposes, this spot served as a nice central point from which we drove to all the attractions.
Best of all, breakfast at the trendy 350 First offered up a stunning view of the city, including the adjacent Quaker Oats headquarters.
The Downtown Farmers' Market (not to be confused with the Noelrdige Farmers' Market) happened to take over the streets right outside our hotel on one of the days we were there, and it was fantastic. Hands-down, this was one of the most expansive and ornate farmers' markets I have ever been to.
We also took a quick jaunt over the Theatre Cedar Rapids, which is a nice setting with tons of top entertainment.
Meeting up with the reunion group for a full day of our Iowa road trip, my dad and I hopped on a bus and toured his alma mater. Washington High School is the #1 high school in Iowa and #5 in the country. It's clear that this city takes education seriously. After seeing the new upgrades and marveling at the (practically endless) plaques and awards of excellence, we continued our own education at the National Czech & Slovak Museum. This stunning, sobering monument details the history of Czechoslovakia and also shares how the museum's 1500 ton structure was physically picked up and moved away from the water after the 2008 flood ravaged the building.
Our last private tour stop on our Iowa road trip took us to Paramount Theatre. This magnificently vibrant, colorful historic building is well worth the trip.
From there, we meandered on foot to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Impressive from the outside, it was a bit underwhelming once we got in. A small collection of Grant Wood art was intriguing, but most of the space was filled with local showcases and textiles.
The nearby Grant Wood Studio was more our style, and the tour guide shared hilarious anecdotes about the father of American Gothic.
Directly across the street from the studio, we enjoyed good old-fashioned Vietnamese pho at Phong Lan. We asked for strong iced coffee, and were impressed with this slow-drip contraption that appeared at our table.
Before we headed to our final reunion festivities and concluded our Iowa road trip, we wandered the grounds of the Brucemore Estate. It's awe-inspiring in the summer, and I imagine that its turrets are even more dramatic covered in snow. Just behind this property is Bever Park, an expansive facility with free-roaming deer, an ice rink, pool and a small farm. I could take up residency here, no problem!
We partied the night away with my dad's 68-year-old classmates, and then ended our Iowa road trip with a quick viewing of the Grant Wood stained glass window that stands as a tribute at the Veterans Memorial Building. It seemed a fitting conclusion to our Iowa road trip, after starting at Rock Island and spending much of our time with service members.