July 3 — Fort Dodge, Iowa

July 3, 2008

Well, here I sit, writing from a hotel in Fort Dodge, Iowa, which is a small city smack dab in the middle of the middlest state in the union. We’re going to be here tonight and tomorrow, for the fourth, then onward to Illinois starting on the 5th.

I haven’t written since Nebraska, which already seems like about a million years ago. Traveling across the U.S. like we are doing is kind of a surreal experience. We constitute a road show of sorts, an itinerant band constantly moving eastward at an average speed of 17 mph. Each day brings a new set of roads, a new set of hills/valleys/mountains/plains and a new set of small towns and cities. After awhile, everything blurs into everything else.

The one exception is the land itself, which despite the slowness of our progression west-to-east actually impresses itself upon you in an immediate fashion. Because we are moving so slowly and under our own power, we are highly attuned to changes in the landscape. Part of this is practical, meaning that because our own legs rather than gasoline are doing the work we really notice it when the road goes upward, even at small grades of 2 or 3%. Part of it, however, is sensory, meaning that because we are moving slowly and exposed to the elements, we notice all kinds of things that ordinarily would be lost on the motorist, like temperature, humidity, and all the other myriad things that impress upon the senses. For instance, on the big, big ride over the Cascades during week 1, every one of us rode into Bend, Oregon full of commentary about how the landscape had changed dramatically over the course of a single day, from the temperate rainforest west of the Cascades to the snowy passes of the Cascades to the ponderosa forests just at the base of the western slopes to, finally, the scrub of the high desert around Bend. Since eastern Wyoming, we’ve noticed how the land has become steadily greener, a function of increasing rainfall (I wrote about this the last time).

Now, in Iowa, we are riding through the classic midwestern landscape of lush fields, humid skies, and prosperous farms. Grazing cattle appear to have been replaced by pigs being raised in industrial operations. Corn has replaced grasslands. Towns are still small and, for the most part, poor and dying, but they are no longer dusty. Occasionally they do surprise, however. Yesterday we landed in a place called Storm Lake, so named for an actual lake next to the town, and a real one to boot (meaning not a reservoir). Storm Lake has an odd local economy, consisting of a long tourist tradition dating to at least the early 20th century and a more recent slaughterhouse operation smack in the middle of town (devoted to ending the lives of all those pigs we see on the farms). Normally these two things — tourism and slaughterhouses — don’t go together, but for some reason Storm Lake has managed to combine them. We spent the night in a brand-spanking-new hotel/resort thing that had a rather fun waterpark. Such is life in the middle of Iowa.

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