I’ve never considered Iowa a big state. But it’s taking us a long time to get across the 13 Lincoln-Highway counties of this lengthy (and very corny) state.
Yesterday morning, I wanted to write for a while (that Day 4 entry is long) so Jarrett and Bob went back to the Mississippi River and shot some of the bridges while I typed away at this computer. It was a drizzly morning.
It was noon before we were back on Route 30 heading west.
There have been several different routes for the Lincoln Highway, and the people who love this old road have done a great job of documenting how the road used to go. The signage was superb in Illinois, here in Iowa I have a great “Iowa Map Pack” that I bought at the National Headquarters in Franklin Grove, and we have Brian Butko’s GREETINGS FROM THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY (very valuable for anybody trying to follow the old roads), and we have a couple sets of trusty state maps from the AAA. We juggle all those guides and charts, and still we occasionally get lost. And Route 30 is usually not too far away if you want to try and zip along for a while. We are easily distracted.
We were tooling along on Route 30 when Jarrett suggested we try to go on the old Lincoln for a while, and he read that there were several interesting road-related things to see near Mount Vernon, Iowa, so we turned off 30, which tends to bypass the towns, and we went in search of old roadway. Three or four blocks off the bypass, we were delighted to find ourselves in downtown Mount Vernon. It was actually familiar territory. We had stopped in this town for lunch 5 or 6 years ago while shooting another show (I’m pretty sure we were on our way to Marshalltown for the Maid-Rites that we included in SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE), and we had a terrible lunch back then here in Mount Vernon in a sort of sports bar that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
This time, the Lincoln Cafe was open, and it was a gem. A small storefront restaurant with a big window on First Street, it had specials on a chalkboard (always a good sign) and not your ordinary fare. Yesterday’s lunch specials were a wild king salmon sandwich with horseradish aoli and a shrimp burger. We all three got the salmon and it was excellent. Great fries. (Bob said they were the best fries he’s eaten in years.) And for desert we had nectarine sorbet with pumpkin seeds. (Amazingly tasty.) Who expects to find such a place in a small town in Iowa?
We met the young owner, Matt Steigerwald, and he said he has relatives in Pittsburgh, and he also claimed to be a cousin of Chuck Noll, the great Steeler coach. Matt said he came to Mount Vernon because his wife got a job at Cornell College there, and he admitted his food has gotten some national attention. He suggested we check out his website: www.foodisimportant.com. I may want to come back here when we have the time to do a restaurant story for this show. It was such a great unexpected lunch. One of the best joys of traveling without a plan.
Before we left the Mount Vernon area, we got some video of an old brick section of the highway, and the bridge next to it, which a guy in town had told me was reportedly the first bridge ever built for cars that was specifically designed to go over railroad tracks. I love stuff like that: when you have to be very specific about the distinction.
Just outside of Mount Vernon, we stopped to get a shot of the “seedling mile” that was marked with signs. Back in the early days of the Lincoln Highway (1913 to 1920), there were special sections of rural roadway that the Lincoln Highway Association paid to have paved so people could see how nice it would be if the road between towns was upgraded. The mile was just a seed, and the hope was that local governments would figure out ways to finance highway growth off of that seed, or seedling.
After that, we soon got back on 30, drove in a normal off-and-on rain for a while, got lost briefly, had to turn around and backtrack, and Jarrett was co-piloting, and he suggested we turn off 30 to see Belle Plaine on the original Lincoln which was now to the south of Route 30. I was driving, trying to put a few miles on our journey, and I hesitated, then thought, Bah! We may as well see as much as possible of the old road, and we turned south off 30 toward Belle Plaine.
As we came into town, there was a sign painted on the side of the local restaurant: EAT HERE, and in giant letters: LINCOLN CAFE. Irresistible. I wish we weren’t so full of lunch from the other Lincoln Cafe. It’s frustrating that one can’t eat everywhere. We drove around town several times, getting moving shots from the van, then stopped to get some shots of the cafe from the tripod.
In the process we noticed a farmers market was happening in a small empty lot beside the Lincoln, and we decided to check that out. We decided to see if the women who were selling would mind if we got some pictures, then some interviews, and we soon ended up with banana bread, oatmeal raisin cookies, two bags of “homegrown” popcorn, some freshly squeezed lemonade and 4 or 5 quick interviews on tape that we hope will give us a story.
Before we left Belle Plaine we also stopped on the way out of town to get a few shots of the Preston gas station that’s covered with signs. Before he died, George Preston had become a Lincoln Highway legend as a gas station owner and storyteller, and he appeared a number of times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His old station deserves to be preserved. It’s a monument to gas stations, signage, and glorious clutter.
As we got back into the van, Bob said, Let’s see if we can get another mile under our belts. We just aren’t traveling very fast.
We stopped in Tama (pronounced TAY-ma) to see the famous Lincoln Highway concrete bridge. The sides of the bridge are concrete block-letters (not concrete-block letters) that spell out LINCOLN HIGHWAY, and it’s an important landmark on the old highway. We soon noticed that the late afternoon light was fading fast.
No more stops today. We decided we had to get at least as far as Ames before stopping for the night. We zipped right past Marshalltown where we had done that story for our SANDWICHES program. And as we came into Ames, we found rooms at a Fairfield Inn.
Now it’s quarter to ten already on Saturday morning, the sun is out, it’s a beautiful day, and we’re off. I’ve never been in Nebraska, but I hope to get there today.