I haven’t been to Iowa in five years.
I’m sure if I sat down with a therapist, I can find some deep reason as to why I have managed to not visit the state I’m from, but I chalk it up to me not having a reason to go back.
I was asked to go out to Ames for something on November 22, so I happily hopped in my car and headed west from Milwaukee.
I haven’t done a road trip since college and even those road trips consisted of me driving from Michigan to Milwaukee to visit my mom. I was excited for this trip and had a bag of snacks on my front seat as I pumped up the music while heading towards Madison. I drove past the exits for places I had heard of, but never visited. Oconomowoc! Pewaukee! Delafield! Jefferson! I made it to Madison, “Gonna Make You Sweat” blasting from my speakers, a vegan chocolate chip cookie in my hand. I could do this. I was going to make it to Ames and have a good time.
What most people will not tell you is the drive from Madison until Dubuque is very dull. While driving through Iowa involves a lot of going past corn and soybean fields, you will see the occasional exit where there’s a gas station or a McDonald’s or both. Driving through this portion of Wisconsin largely involves going past a lot of exits and watching the rolling hills, which does add to a little bit of nice scenery. The unfortunate thing is this seems to go on forever.
Music: “Invisible Light” by Scissor Sisters
You know you’re getting closer to Dubuque when you see billboards for the casinos more frequently. This was exciting to me because getting to Dubuque meant I could get out and stretch my legs. I crossed the Mississippi River, but not before yelling “No, you don’t,” at the sign saying “The People of Iowa Welcome You,” because the only way people in Iowa welcome you is in the style of “Iowa Stubborn.”
I stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Downtown Dubuque, where I learned Visitor’s Centers tend to be gift shops with those giant racks filled brochures on area attractions. It was nice to walk around and I was able to grab a map of Iowa and a visitor’s guide to Ames, neither of which were put to use on my trip. I then hopped back in my car and headed towards Waterloo and Cedar Falls. I decided to play the Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording of Fun Home, because nothing seemed more fitting for my drive towards the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area than a musical about coming to terms with your past, particularly your childhood.
I also wanted to cry.
For those who thought Highway 151 between Madison and Dubuque was dull, you’ll despise every second of Highway 20 between Dubuque and Waterloo. What was strange to me was I distinctly remember taking that trip multiple times as a kid. I have vivid memories of going to Dubuque with my mom so I could compete in state music competition at Dubque Senior High School, which is a gorgeous building.
Why was I finding this drive so dull? Was it because I was driving and not the person who was in the front passenger’s seat, dressed well and ready to nap at a moment’s notice? Or was it because it was dark and it felt like it was just me in my tiny Honda, belting out “Changing My Major”?
When I hit Independence, I got off at an exit to try to find a Burger King because I was hungry and dried cranberries, sesame sticks, and granola bars get old after a certain point. I didn’t find the Burger King, but I grabbed a much-needed bottle of water at a Casey’s General Store and patted myself on the back for not buying a slice of pizza.
Music: “Emotion” by Carly Rae Jepsen
I had every intention of stopping in Cedar Falls, maybe getting something to drink from Cup of Joe, and then heading to Ames, but those plans fell through. Getting to Waterloo and Cedar Falls meant I was almost to Ames and I just wanted to get to my hotel and have dinner.
I eventually called my Dad to talk to him to avoid going stir-crazy, which is inevitable when you drive for more than five hours. He encouraged me to drive at the speed limit because I had out-of-state plates, and I told him, “I know. I saw that episode of The Good Wife.” We later talked about unions and I told him about someone who asked me if I was joining a union. “I mean, is the pope a Jesuit?” I said.
“Does a shark shit in the ocean?” my dad added.
(My Dad is a car-hauler, so he confirmed to me that, yes, the route I took was an exceptionally boring route.)
I eventually got to I-35 and right as I was going on the ramp from Highway 20 to I-35, I got to the Lady Gaga part of my travel playlist. “Bad Romance” came on over the speakers and I thought, “I’ve got this. I can make it to Ames.”
Music: “Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga
When booking a hotel, booking one labeled as “new” doesn’t hurt. However, it’s best to maybe look into how new the hotel is, because otherwise you may have the experience I had when arriving at the TownePlace Suites in Ames.
The hotel, which is located in a corner where all of the hotels in Ames seem to be clustered, had an incredibly empty parking lot, leaving me to wonder if it was just going to be me and the staff at a four-story extended stay hotel. I checked in, spoke with the very friendly front-desk clerk who was from Milwaukee, and headed up to my room.
The room was very cozy and had a kitchenette that was better stocked than I anticipated–how many plates does one person need?–but it lacked a desk. I’m a weirdo, but because of how much writing I do both on my laptop and in notebooks, I truly love having a physical desk to sit at because it helps me divide leisure and business when I’m in a hotel. In fact, there wasn’t even a chair, which meant I ended up abandoning meditation because it felt weird while I was sitting on my bed.
That said, it’s a very nice hotel and I felt spoiled by the Elfa closet in the hotel room. It was nice to have a hook to hang my scarf on.
I then hopped in my car and headed to Target where I bought some mouthwash and almost started crying at the sight of Anderson Erickson Egg Nog because I thought, “I’m with my people.” (Anderson Erickson, as well as Casey’s General Store pizza and Hy-Vee Chinese food are very Iowa-specific things.) From there I went to Downtown Ames to meet an old friend.
Bar La Tosca is a cozy, but eclectic space with delicious food. I also experienced reverse sticker shock when I was reminded I was in Iowa, and most things are cheaper in Iowa. I had a nice chat with her and we then went to a self-serve wine bar with a really comfy couch, before heading to chat at another place. I eventually decided to head back to the hotel, where I contemplated my place in the universe before putting snacks from a food co-op on the counter of the kitchenette.