Matt Forney
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Notes from the Road: Little Trouble on the Big Prairie


While this is technically a hitchhiking trip, before last week, I hadn’t hitched in two months, having spent a month-and-a-half in Madison and the two weeks prior to that in Chicago. I’d been planning to hitch to Des Moines after busing to Minneapolis, but FFY texted me during my last week to inform me that Bronan was coming down for Labor Day weekend; not wanting to miss the action, I immediately canceled my last two days at the Madison hostel and got my bus ticket refunded.

Man, that was a fun weekend.

With my usual penchant for sloppy planning and questionable decision making, I stumbled out of Des Moines last Tuesday and made it to Minneapolis the following Saturday. Here’s what transpired in the time since I departed Wisconsin.

The Loop, Chicago, Illinois

Chicago outside Union Station, where I transferred buses. Little happened of importance, aside from the usual hustles from bums and a black guy freaking out because he bought a ticket to the wrong city. Five hours among the dregs of humanity and I was missing Madison already.

Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City, which I only saw from the bus. After we pulled out from the bus stop, we got a nice tour of the University of Iowa sorority houses; with all the hot girls on display, I joked to FFY on Twitter that I was going to the wrong city.

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa

Some shots of downtown Des Moines. It’s a city that manages to both impress yet underwhelm at the same time. Downtown has a very sleek, modern look; as FFY told Bronan and me, much of the old downtown was wiped out in a flood twenty years ago, forcing the state to rebuild everything from scratch. The streets are clean, the people are friendly, and outside of north Des Moines, the city is largely safe… and boring.

The bad kind of boring.

For all my distaste for liberals, I’m forced to admit that liberal and progressive cities are the best ones to live in. Bike lanes, chic cafes, elaborate downtowns; they’re what I love. Des Moines is a commuter town, where everyone splits for the suburbs after work is over. Outside the bars, the city is a deserted wasteland at night. The few coffeeshops and cafes downtown close around seven and many aren’t even open on the weekends. Public transportation is a joke and bikers are rare outside the urban core. Even worse, FFY told us that half the apartments in downtown are rent-controlled and thereby off-limits to the city’s burgeoning petit bourgeois.

Basically, Des Moines is a cleaner, cheaper version of Buffalo, Albany or Syracuse: the kinds of places I’m trying to get away from.

Des Moines, Iowa

Legends American Grill, which makes a fine burger. As far as I recall, it used to be a franchise; I clearly remember there was a Legends in the Center of Progress Building at the New York State Fairgrounds back in Syracuse. It might still be there; I haven’t been to the Fair in years, so I wouldn’t know.

Des Moines, Iowa

The Iowa State Capitol. Wisconsin better watch their asses, because they’ve got some competition in the beauty department.

Altoona, Iowa

This picture sums of 90% of the Hawkeye State: corn, empty roads, flatness, power lines, the occasional church, and more fucking corn. Walking ten some-odd miles up I-35 (it’s legal for pedestrians to walk on highways on Iowa, though I don’t recommend it for various reasons), it felt like I was going in circles. Even the town names are dull: Ames, Huxley, Cambridge, Williams, Elkhart etc.

Huxley, Iowa

Huxley, a small farming town that’s being turned into another bland suburb. Iowans are so friendly and receptive to hitchhikers that they’ll give you a ride even when you aren’t looking for one. That happened to me twice in one day; outside of Altoona, an elderly gent saw me walking north and gave me a ride to Elkhart ten miles north, massively out of his way. Later that evening, I was slogging north through Huxley when a woman did a U-turn solely to pick me up. She did take me to church first, but it was an interesting experience, and she dropped me off right at the hotel in Ames I was planning to stay at.

Ames, Iowa

Ames, Iowa

Ames, Iowa

Ames is a big college town, being home to Iowa State University and the Cyclones, the Nittany Lions of the Midwest. I’d have loved to explore the city a bit more, but I was on a time limit getting to the Twin Cities. I will say one thing though: if you pass through Ames, you absolutely must eat at Hickory Park on the south side. Think a bigger, healthier Cracker Barrel, with absolutely every kind of sandwich or meal you could possibly want. And since it’s Iowa, the price can’t be beat.

Story City, Iowa

Story City, ten miles up from Ames. There’s really not a whole lot I can write about these places.

Williams, Iowa

Williams, the shittiest shithole I’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting. It exists for one reason only: it’s at the intersection of two major highways. You’re pretty much looking at the entire town, save for the Best Western on the other side of the road. Guess where I stayed?

Williams, Iowa

Holy eighties time-warp, Batman! I thought the motel back in Scranton was bad, but that one at least had WiFi. All I got here was basic cable, and by that I mean the only cable channels were USA and CNN. The clerks were creepy, the TV on the stand was busted, the sink was cracked, and the diner microwaved all their food. I also suspected the beds had bugs because I was strangely itchy while sleeping; I haven’t had any problems since then, so I’m guessing it’s just the detergent they use to wash the sheets or something.

Williams, Iowa

Jesus ain’t anywhere near this cesspool. God forsake this town a long time ago.

Clear Lake, Iowa

Clear Lake, another generic highway town. After leaving the motel in Williams, I got picked up by a state trooper; after checking my ID, he gave me a ride thirty miles north to Hampton because, by his own admission, he had nothing better to do. From Hampton, I made to Clear Lake. Even the cops in Iowa are cool!

Freeborn County, Minnesota

North of Albert Lea, where things went to hell. I got picked up by an old guy who was hard of hearing and didn’t understand why dumping me on the actual highway, at the intersection of I-35 and I-90, was a really bad idea (highly illegal in Minnesota, and highly dangerous everywhere). Not wanting to get killed or arrested, I sprinted across the on-ramps, climbed a barbed-wire fence, then marched five miles up to the next exit.

Clarks Grove, Minnesota

Clarks Grove, where I’d hoped to get another ride. Unfortunately, the place was abandoned, it was an hour before sunset, and even worse, a pair of troopers were investigating an accident on the southbound on-ramp. I did manage to score a ride to the next town up with a couple heading to a bluegrass fest.

Steele County, Minnesota

In a situation like this, there is no smart decision: there is only the decision that is the least stupid. Faced with either walking ten miles at night to the closest motel up an abandoned rural road or guerrilla camping on someone’s property, I chose the former. I made it something like eight miles before someone had the foresight to call the police; after checking my ID, they gave me a ride, highly amused and impressed by my blog and my tales of police brutality back east.

Yep, the Midwest really is a different place. A better place.

Owatonna, Minnesota

Owatonna, Minnesota

Owatonna, Minnesota

Owatonna, Minnesota

Owatonna, a city so generic and forgettable I could barely remember its name after I left it. The motel I stayed in was really nice, though: for a mere $50, I had my own kitchen with fridge, coffee machine, toaster, stove and microwave, two beds, real basic cable, and an air conditioner.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Downtown Minneapolis viewed heading north from Eagan. I scored a ride out of Owatonna with a Mexican construction worker; he wasn’t terribly chatty, but he took me directly to the block where my hostel was.

I’m gonna be in the Twin Cities until Monday, then it’s off to North Dakota. Time to kick back a little.

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