Road Trip 2018 #13 – American Gothic and the Battle of Athens

Our 4th of July was spent meandering our way from Iowa through Missouri and into Illinois.  Who needs parades and festivals and fireworks when you can be in three states in one 24 hours period, right?  I will admit: this driving thing was getting old.

As I was using our trusty mapbook to navigate, I spotted a couple of interesting little detours I might otherwise have overlooked.  First of these was the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.  As someone who loves art history, I had to go.  Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930 having been inspired by the house.  The figures he placed in front of it were modelled on his sister and his dentist, the pair not actually meeting each other until years later.  It’s an iconic and much parodied painting.  Unfortunately for us, the house and museum was closed to visitors because of it being Independence Day.  However, we could still view the exterior of the house so we had a bit of a wander and could not resist doing our own posing in front of the building.

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The visit to the American Gothic House was driven by my interests so it seemed only fair that I confess to Mr Pict, who was driving at the time, that I had spotted a Civil War battle on the map.  We, therefore, took a bit of a diversion to the scene of the Battle of Athens.  Confusingly, Athens is pronounced Aythens.  It sits right on the border of Iowa and Missouri which meant we bobbed in and out of both states as we weaved our way along rural roads to reach the site.  The skirmish that took place there in 1861 is notable for being the most northerly Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi.  I had absolutely never heard of it but Mr Pict was chuffed.  At the time, the town was a fairly busy port on the river.  When the railroad made the river obsolete and the town became defunct, it appeared that most of the buildings had gone with the population.  There were, therefore, just a few buildings dotted around in the landscape, including a hotel and a house that had belonged to a Kentucky slave owner.  The boys decided to stay in the shade of the trees so I wandered around while keeping them in my sights which allowed Mr Pict to wander down to the riverside to see the Benning House, which was pockmarked with canon ball wallops.

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Road Trip 2018 #12 – Iowa

There is always at least one day in any of our road trips that turns out to be an absolute write off.  We had considered our day of travelling from South Dakota to Nebraska to be that day.  We were to be proven wrong.

The day got off to a bad start when we slept in far longer than we intended.  It is essential to get up and on the move early when trying to cover as many miles per day as we needed to so being a tad tardy can throw the whole day off kilter.  The hotel breakfast was shoddy so we decided to skip it and eat on the road instead, treat ourselves to a little slice of Nebraskan or Iowan food.  That was our second error.  Our plotted route took us through towns with populations in the double digits that offered nowhere to even grab a coffee let alone a morning repast.  The kids had snacks and fruit to keep them going for a while but we parents knew that at some point they would turn into grizzly bears if not fed and watered.  So the drive was proving stressful enough before, somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa, the car hit the raised tracks on a railroad crossing a little too fast and did a Dukes of Hazzard style leap onto the road on the other side of the tracks.

We immediately pulled off the road to have a look at the undercarriage of the car.  We could see dripping.  Worried it was oil or fuel, we pulled the car forward a few feet.  It was a relief and yet not relief enough to find it was water.  While I was 95% sure it was simply condensation from the air conditioning system, that part of me with the 5% nagging doubt did not want to drive off onto the remote byways of Iowa with a dicky phone signal.  I spotted a garage not too far from where we were standing, feeling like total twerps, and decided we would head there and ask if someone wouldn’t mind giving our car a once over.  The family who owned the garage were welcoming and kind.  We were given refuge in their air conditioned office and met their cats while the mechanic raised our car and checked things over.  Thankfully the dripping was indeed just the air conditioning and nothing to be concerned about.  They told us they got a lot of business thanks to those railroad tracks which made us feel only slightly less foolish.

That little escapade had set our schedule way back.  Our day was not going at all well.  We had no big plans for the day but even those plans now had to be entirely shelved.  It was proving to be one of those days we wished we could completely do-over.

Winterset is famous for being the birthplace of John Wayne.  We arrived too late to visit the John Wayne museum and birthplace but honestly we were pretty lukewarm about the prospect anyway.  My Granddad was a big fan of Westerns which makes me very familiar with John Wayne as an actor but actually I was never a fan of his either as an actor nor as a person.  I certainly would have found it much more interesting to visit sites associated with another of Winterset’s famous citizens: George L Stout, art conservator and one of the “Monuments Men”.

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As it happened, Winterset also has an association with another famous man.  A few months previously, our 9 year old had an assignment whereby he had to research a famous African American and then present his research as if he was that individual, a project called a “Talking Art Gallery”.  Our son had chosen to research George Washington Carver so he had done his research, written up a speech, and dressed up in a gardener’s apron with a jar of peanut butter and a sweet potato as his props.  Because of his research, we knew that one of the places Carver had lived, while trying to secure a tertiary education, was none other than Winterset.  Indeed, tenuous though the connection is, the town had dedicated a garden in Carver’s memory.  Finding that garden proved to be tricky so we did the sensible thing and popped into the town library.  Librarians are almost always reliably friendly and helpful and the lady we spoke to was no exception.  She directed us to an alleyway beside the fire station and it was this little sliver of land that contained the memorial park.  It was actually a lovely, calm, shady little spot and I loved that local school children had contributed tiles for a wall that commemorated Carver’s contribution to American agricultural and botanical knowledge.

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Winterset is within Madison County and Madison County is famous for its covered bridges.  I have neither read ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or seen the film adaptation.  I know that I could, however, develop a fascination with covered bridges in the same way that I have to stifle a potential addiction to lighthouses.  Combined with a compulsion to do something actually properly Iowan, therefore, I concocted a plan to visit the area’s covered bridges.  The first one we reached was Holliwell Bridge.  It was built in 1880 and, at 122 feet, is the longest of the bridges.  I knew my plan was not going to pan out when only my 12 year old opted to get out of the car with me – and he just wanted to stretch his legs.  When I suggested visiting another of the bridges, I was laser-stared by all five of the other Picts.

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So instead we ploughed on and reached our hotel in Indianola.  The hotel was brand spanking new and was clean, light, airy and our room very spacious.  The boys loved it best because they got ice water and limitless free cookies at reception.  Our whole day in Iowa, therefore, was a bit of a catastrophe.  I felt like I had had a day of not remotely experiencing Nebraska followed by a day of not particularly experiencing Iowa.  It felt very much like our road trip was going off the rails.