I head south into Iowa, one of the corniest of the corn states, with the looming threat of a winter storm. Big deal, I’ve been through worse. When I was in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, it snowed a whole couple of inches and we coped. Well, there was chaos and almost everything shut down, but we did it with aplomb.
My first visit is to the little town of Britt, Iowa, which is home to the Hobo Museum and annual Hobo Festival. Before we get to that, however, I’d quickly like to mention the lady who very kindly opened up the museum to let me poke around. When I told her that I was touring the US, her first response was “And you came to Iowa?”, I always thought picking on the middle states was just the natural inclination of the east/west coast, but nope, apparently the Midwest is a bit down on itself. Take pride, Iowaiaiaians, I’m sure your state is lovely.
Anyway, the Hobo Museum: a simple but charming affair, I found it really sweet. The entire place is so pleasantly sincere I can’t even mock it. There are displays with the personal effects of hobos that have been and gone, details on the history and culture of hobos and, my favourite, an explanation of “Hobo Signs”:
These were marks left by hobos to provide directions, information and warnings to other hobos, such as whether or not hobos are welcome, or if there’s work or, my favourite, that a “kind lady lives here”. As well as having the museum, Britt hosts an annual hobo festival every year in August. Although attendance is not as strong as it was in the hoboing heyday, hobos still come from all over to attend. A fire is lit when it begins and it continues to burn until the end; there is a hobo King and Queen appointed and there’s a parade with the local high school band playing.
And the most important thing I learned (read: the only thing I can remember without checking my notes) is the fundamental difference between a hobo, a tramp and a bum:
A Hobo travels and works; a tramp just travels and a bum neither travels nor works.
I’m driving down towards Des Moines and, since the corn has been harvested, the place is just flat, bare earth.
Shortly after I arrive at Iowa’s capital, a flurry of snow begins, then continues, then continues some more.
I hide out in a hotel for the evening, only for the hotel to lose power around 5am. By the morning, the hotel is mainly in darkness, as are 25,000 Des Moinesians. The lights occasionally flicker on, then off again.
This is not the furtive attempts of the electricity company to restore power, this is a loose power cable blowing in the wind, occasionally releasing a shower of sparks as it hits its erstwhile partner. Fortunately the hotel’s able to entertain its guests: if you can’t go swimming anymore, you can enjoy the mini-ice rink.
By the afternoon, there’s no sign of power and the temperature is dropping inside. The blizzard’s stopped, but the roads are still pretty dicey. I cunningly decide to drive 40 miles to a hotel further on up the road that does have power. The only problem is, I can’t find my car. It’s been replaced by a car-shaped pile of snow.
I spend a few freezing minutes digging my car out and set off. Obviously the roads are treacherous, obviously you shouldn’t be out and about unless you absolutely have to. It’s at this point that I realise that I do an awful lot of things that might get me killed. So if I do wind up taking myself out of the gene pool, don’t Into the Wild me, I want to be remembered for who I was: an idiot.
The entry to the interstate is a promising sign: an 18-wheeler casually tipped on its side in a ditch. As I slowly proceed, I witness dozens of trucks and cars all ditch-bound. Including several UPS and Fedex trucks. At this point it’s the run up to Christmas, so presumably the urgency of getting cards and presents to people trumped safety concerns. Several of the trucks have not just skidded off the road, but fully jack-knifed, their cabins and cargo now facing the wrong way on the side of the road.
Somehow, somewhy, you still get people going far too fast for the circumstances and a few of them buzz past me, wobbling as they hit a rougher patch of ice and snow.
Did I survive? To keep you guys in suspense a bit longer, I’d like to mention one of the favourite places that I’ve encountered in the US so far: What Cheer, Iowa. Now a lot of the place names you encounter make a decent amount of sense. Portland, Kalamazoo, you know, proper names. But I really struggle to see how the name “What Cheer” got started. The only thing I’ve come up with is:
Man builds new town, goes to nearby pub, says “I’m building a new town.” Bar patron replies, “Really? What cheer!” Of course, this way it was only one pint away from being called “Fuckin’ magic”.
Anyway, enough suspense: I survived the trip, got to the powered hotel, spent the night and headed on the morning when the roads had been cleared. My next destination is the most significant place in the world, Riverside, Iowa.
I assume a lot of you gasped there, I did too. It is, by far, the most important place in the history of mankind. I know I don’t need to patronise any of you by telling you what you already know, but for the sake of completeness, let’s say why Riverside, Iowa, is so important. It is, of course:
Breathe it in, this holy place. There’s a store/museum nearby, with this outside:
The model presumably so a young Kirk can get used to what he’ll be captaining. I, of course, couldn’t just experience this place by myself:
Bertie the Bear is very excited to see this historical landmark.
What’s that? Bertie’s leaving a message for Captain Kirk, isn’t that sweet?
What did Bertie tell him? “Don’t go to Star Trek Generations”?
Oh no! Bertie’s created a paradox in the space-time continuum. Silly Bertie.
Well, obviously, this is the highlight of the trip. Frankly I might as well just go home now, but Captain Kirk wouldn’t stand for that. His was a spirit of exploration (and banging alien chicks), so I must continue. And next, I boldly go where no man has gone before: the South.