Day 108/ June 14th – Rock Port, MO to Hamburg, IA: Performing arts

‘Stand on two phone books almost anywhere in Iowa and you get a view.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Mud road by I-29 in Missouri

Mud: Good for surfacing roads and growing corn

We walked all morning towards the edge of Missouri, setting off along an unsealed road choked with mud that stuck to our boots and slowly doubled their size and weight.  There were no tyre tracks, and at the edge of the road, a field of corn sprang up abruptly out of the same mud surface.  We paused for breakfast at a convenient picnic table on a long strip of wet grass between two houses; five minutes after we set off again, an Atchison County police cruiser pulled up alongside us, and a moon-faced young officer peered out.

“You guys just sitting down at a table back there?  See, one of the neighbours called it in.  You got any kind of ID?”

He seemed embarrassed to have had to stop us, and sent us on our way with some helpful advice.

“If you’re walkin’ to Hamburg, you’ll wanna take Firefly Avenue.  And watch out for the farmhouse on the corner.  They got a real mean dog.”

Lewis & Clark Trail marker in Missouri

"Behold, Lewis! Another grain silo."

After more than a month walking across Missouri, it felt like we had outstayed our welcome.  We had an invitation to dinner in Iowa, on the other hand, before we’d even set foot in the state.  Marty and Ruth were semi-retired teachers, a cheery couple who had lived in Hamburg for forty years and been married for almost as long.  They passed us on the road, on their daily 20-mile bike ride around the bluffs that ran alongside the Missouri River, and stopped to chat.

“If you don’t have any plans tonight,” said Ruth – and naturally, we didn’t – “we’d love to have you over to our place for burgers.”

We left Missouri just before noon.  A cheery sign standing in a flooded field of corn that straddled the state line read ‘The People of Iowa Welcome You’, and it was hard to argue.

A few miles further on, we came into Hamburg (‘Cornerstone of Iowa: Home of the Hamburg Wildcats’) on a concrete bridge over the Nishabotna River.  It had burst its banks, bringing dozens of the townsfolk out in their pick-ups to gawp at the curious spectacle of a second river, every bit as large as the usual one, flowing down the floodplain alongside it, divided by a line of willows that until recently had marked its banks.

View over four states from Loess Hills in Iowa

Looking over four states from the Loess Hills in Iowa

After we’d showered at our motel, Marty and Ruth drove us up to a lookout in the Loess Hills.  From the top, a few hundred feet above the Missouri floodplain, we had a sweeping view over four states: Iowa, Missouri to the south, and Kansas and Nebraska to the west.  We told them about Bill Bryson’s apparently misleading description of the landscape of his and their home state.

“Pfft,” said Marty.  “Iowa’s a lot of rolling hills.  It’s just up and down.”

“And then you get into northern Iowa,” added Ruth, “and there are places up there that are really steep.”

Hamburg was a farming town, a grid of pleasant bungalows on sprawling, overgrown yards, built around a whining, clanking grain elevator on E Street and the low metal vats of the ConAgra popcorn factory at the north end of town.  We went for a drink at the Blue Moon, a dark and convivial little dive bar on Main Street, where Marty and Ruth knew everyone and everyone knew them.  A farmer in denim dungarees was glued to coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“Looka what your countrymen did!” he said, grinning.

Inside the Blue Moon in Hamburg, Iowa

Sampling Hamburg night-life at the Blue Moon

Marty and Ruth gave us the rare treat of a home-cooked dinner, together with Marilyn and Jerry, their former neighbours, an amiable couple in their eighties.  Jerry was a Navy veteran of the Second World War, who had lied about his age to join up when he was still only seventeen.  He had happy memories of his time training in Britain in the months before D-Day.

“I got on a train across the country – just me and one other sailor – and you know who was on the train?  Three hundred, whaddya call ‘em, Land Girls!  Boy, that was some journey.”

At dinner in Hamburg, Iowa

At dinner with Jerry, Marilyn and Ruth in Hamburg

After dinner, Jerry drove us back to the motel.

“I’m not surprised you had trouble from the police in Rock Port,” he said.  “I can remember when they used to have a sign at the edge of town: ‘Niggers and Catholics: Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You in Rock Port’.  It’s a strange, strange place.”

We remarked on the friendliness of Hamburg, and that he must know virtually everyone in town.

“Well, that’s true, except I’ve reached the age where I can’t remember their names any more.”

A block south of our motel, Jerry drove us past a long, low white building called ‘Shotgun Geniez’ – one of south-west Iowa’s only strip joints.

“We call it the Performing Arts Center,” he said, grinning.  “You walk in, you gotta pay twenty dollars for a ‘parking fee’.  That’s what they call it!  A parking fee!”

Iowa had a reputation for laid-back friendliness, and we were beginning to see why.  Our planned route will keep us in the state for barely five days; it was already obvious that they were going to be pleasant ones.

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