Lost Lives Blues

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 20:  Springfield, IL, to Des Moines, IA

Monday, April 13—Springfield, IL, to Bettendorf, IA

Leaving the Illinois State Capitol around noon, we headed over a few blocks to look for some lunch.   Planning to try a nearby restaurant we had seen on Yelp, we parked on S. 6th Street.  But before we could cross the street, we saw a local woman getting into her car parked behind us.  She was carrying a take-out drink cup and looked happy, so we impulsively asked her to recommend a good place to eat nearby.

On Old Capitol Plaza, near the building that served as Lincoln's Springfield law office, Mrs. Lincoln straightens his tie.
Without hesitation, she suggested The Feed Store, just around the corner on the pedestrian mall at Old Capitol Plaza.  She was right.  Everything on the menu was fresh and made in house—the breads, spreads, and soups.  We each had a soup and sandwich combo, thick with interesting ingredients and rich with flavor.

As we left Springfield, headed north toward Minnesota, it became clear to us that we must drive to Des Moines first and check out the Iowa State Capitol.  So much had been said about it on our tour of the Illinois statehouse, our curiosity was stoked.  And Des Moines was less than 200 miles off our planned route.

Still avoiding interstates, we made our way west to US-67 and drove north on this mostly two-lane quiet road through mile after mile of flatland as far as the eye could see.  Huge corn fields lined the roadsides, ready for this year’s crop, interspersed occasionally with farm houses and grain silos.

This is MY pasture!
A beautiful blue sky hung overhead, encouraging us to stop to look for a letterbox in Macomb.  Later near Good Hope, we saw a couple of bulls jostling for dominance.  Since we are so easily amused, we pulled over on the side of road adjacent to the pasture and watched the contest for a while.  No decision had been reached by the time we left.

Another hour further north, we stopped near Monmouth to seek a letterbox at Spring Grove Cemetery/Prairie Nature Preserve.  In 1859, this site became a church cemetery, but the population declined and the church ceased to exist.  The cemetery became the province of Monmouth College, which operates it as a prairie grass preserve, including the periodic burns used on such lands.

Cemetery or prairie grass preserve?
It felt a bit odd to see a cemetery with headstones coated in soot due to intentional activity.  We weren’t surprised to find the letterbox there partially melted, but the planter knew how the cemetery is maintained, so all we could do was stamp in, shrug and move on.

Then it was on to Bettendorf, IA, part of the Quad Cities—two in Illinois and two in Iowa—bisected by the Mississippi River and I-74.  We stayed at the brand new Hilton Garden Inn, celebrating their one-week anniversary.  It was super clean, still experiencing a few glitches, but very nice indeed.  After dinner at the hotel restaurant, we retired to our room to plot our course for Des Moines.

Tuesday, April 14—Bettendorf, IA, to Des Moines, IA

On our first bit of intentional interstate driving in a while, we left Bettendorf this morning on I-74, bound for I-80, which offered a straight shot into Des Moines.   An hour west we stopped at Iowa City (pop. 67,862), home of the University of Iowa and the state’s first capital.  We were in search of a couple of letterboxes in Oakland Cemetery, which we first visited in 2012.

Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City
In addition to snagging the letterboxes, we found so many interesting stories in the cemetery.  Many of the creative headstones in Oakland offer some genuine insight into the life of the deceased.  A bit of Googling for obituaries often fills out more of the story.  The three markers here present excellent examples.  Mr. Merker was not only founder of the University of Iowa Center for the Book, but also, according to his obituary, a legendary poker player and fly fisherman.  Alan Albrecht, whose marker sweetly features a bronze relief of him in a wheelchair flanked by his parents, died at age 56 after a lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy.

And the angel on the third marker is grieving for a father—Thomas Brigham, a U.S. Air Force psychiatrist who was murdered in a killing spree by a former serviceman he had declared unfit for duty.  The angel also mourns the death of Dr. Brigham’s son, Madison.  The boy was 6 years old when his father died.  Ten years later, the son was killed when riding in an SUV operated by a 13-year-old driver, who lost control of the vehicle on a gravel road.

These kinds of stories help make our letterboxing visits to cemeteries more meaningful.  Often such a story will be included in the clue for a letterbox, but some boxes in cemeteries are placed there randomly.  In that case, we seek out stories on our own.

As we continued west on I-80, it was clear that we were in Iowa farm country.  Vast cornfields lined the highway from the roadside to the horizon.  Occasionally we saw low hills, but the land was mostly flat and flatter.

If you build it...
Near Grinnell (pop. 9,218), we stopped around noon to check out an interesting “tree” we had read about on our Roadside America app.  Leonard Maasdam, a local sorghum farmer, inventor and miller, decided at the age of 87 to fashion a tree using steel wagon wheels.  Having seen such a creation years earlier while delivering sorghum in Wisconsin, Maasdam had accumulated more than 200 wheels for his project.

By the time he finished the 60-ft. folk art sculpture in 1994, Leonard was 90.  More enthusiastic than skilled in welding, he would work all day on the wheels.  While he slept, his grandson Craig would re-weld many of the weak connections his grandfather had made, never letting the old gentleman know about his secret nighttime activity.

Mr. Maasdam's dream
When finished, the tree was raised on a corner of the Maasdam farmland, just about three miles south of I-80.  The family added a wheel fence as well as a bench and picnic table supported by wagon wheels and a grassy parking area.  Now the spot also has a letterbox called Tree of Dreams.

After planting our letterbox, we cobbled together a picnic lunch from the raw vegetables in our cooler and stretched out our time at this idyllic spot, finally departing a bit after 1:00.  Continuing on to Des Moines, we arrived at the Iowa State Capitol around 2:30.  But that’s another story for another post.

After a 2.5 hour visit at the statehouse, we found the local Whole Foods store for dinner, filled up with gas and groceries and limped tiredly into the Marriott Courtyard for the night.  Tomorrow we’ll drive north to St. Paul, hoping to visit the Minnesota State Capitol on Thursday.

Chapter 20 Stats:
  • Miles driven:  412
  • Miles walked:  6.88
  • Letterboxes:  found 4, planted 1
  • Weather:  clear, 41° to 70°