Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.
— William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
Somewhere just north of Cedar Rapids, we declared our independence from the interstate and exited for the two-lane rolling blacktops of northeastern Iowa. The interstates had carried us to Iowa quickly, as we were anxious to get out of town. Now that we were finally in parts of the country as yet unknown to us, we were ready to appreciate it close up.
Yet, despite having the luxury of a whole day to cover a couple hundred miles, I was still overcome with the need to get to our destination as quickly as possible. It’s just an artifact of my habit of efficiency, and I worked hard on breaking it. The first crack came as we passed a roadside cemetery. I hit the brakes hard, and turned us around to take a few minutes to take it in.
That loosened me up, and over the next four hours, the brakes and I became fast friends. Passing through Manchester, we stopped first at the Bushel & A Peck produce stand, then the Coffee Den, purveyors of a damn fine wildberry smoothie. Stopped again in Strawberry Point to take in the giant strawberry towering over their city hall, as well as the ye olde Strawberry Point Hotel, where we browsed pictures of a July 4th parade from the turn of the last century and considered, but passed on, the goulash special.
Both of those stops were pleasant, but just simply that. The real treat was in proud Elkader, whose streetlamp banners boasted, “Life can be this good!” We stopped there just to fill up, then noticed the burger stand across the street. We asked the station clerk about it. “That’s an Elkader institution. Delicious burgers. He hand-makes them, and will put on some fried onions if you want.” Jackpot.
It’s called the Two Mit, and the story goes there was an old German regular who’d come up every time and say, “Give me two mit, and two mitout.” The restaurant is no more than trailer, the only seating is outside, and a cheeseburger costs $3.00. And damn if it isn’t one of the finest burgers I’ve ever had. He swears there’s nothing special in them, but when the meat’s fresh and the patties hand-shaped, it comes through in the final product. Add a little of their homemade honey mustard, and were a couple of happy chowhounds.
Yeesh… five paragraphs already and we’re only at noon. I haven’t even told you about the highway-side motoacross, or the knuckleheads climbing under the slow-moving train, or the Chasid at the Marquette flea market, or the book-seller-slash-Red-Cross-volunteer, or crossing the Mississippi four times, or the FEMA workers at Lock and Dam #8, or the seething mass of skin and food and live ’80s rock music that was the La Crosse Riverfest, featuring airplane aerobatics (impressive), stunt waterskiing (not), and an all-American fireworks display capper set off over the Big River.
As we got in the car to drive our hotel, Sarah looked back over this day we started way back in Iowa City, and noticed that we’d hardly been in a building all day. It was true; total time inside couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes, and only for bathroom breaks and buying gas. It was exactly the kind of day I envisioned when planning this trip. And it’s only day two.