Amalgam, Iowa

As we left Kansas, we realized that we were now within pretty easy reach of Chicago and our flight home, so we could get off the Interstate and enjoy a slightly more leisurely drive through Missouri and Iowa. First though, we had to get around Kansas City, and find some breakfast.

We stopped in a tiny place called Holt, just off the interstate in Missouri – north of Kansas City. The ‘Daily Cafe’ was a cute ‘mom and pop’ place, with a selection of local crafts (jewelry and such) in part of the dining room, and a side-business of making cakes to order. As we ate, locals came in and discussed a possible strike at a nearby factory. They talked of the number of generations of their family that had worked in this factory, and of strikes past. It didn’t quite feel like the twenty first century had made it out here. When it came to pay, I hesitantly asked if it was ok to pay with a debit card. I often ask this, having not got used to how everywhere out here seems to take card payments – R laughs at me about this a lot. In this case, the owner gently started to say that they only took cash – then laughed me out of the store: ‘We may only be a mom and pop sort of a place, but we can take cards!’.

We drove on. And very soon we were in Iowa. This was more exciting to me than you might expect, as it is of course the home state of Bill Bryson, whose book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, had formed a great deal of the background to our trip. In this book, Bryson goes in search of ‘the perfect town’, immortalized in classic Hollywood films, which he christens ‘Amalgam’. Initially disappointed in the towns his family used to visit in Iowa, he strikes out across the rest of the States in search of his ideal. What follows is mostly a sad tale of strip malls, pollution, poverty and obesity – the story of a ‘lost’ continent. It is only when he arrives home in Iowa again that he sees anything resembling his Amalgam – because, of course, there’s no place like home…

We did not visit Bryson’s home town of Des Moines, preferring the back roads through smaller towns that he described at the beginning of his journey – Unionville, Centerville, Oskaloosa. As we drove through these little places, we had to agree with Bryson’s final conclusion: any of them could have been his Amalgam – they all looked very nice, and so spic and span compared with the more ramshackle places we’d found out in the wilds of Wyoming and South Dakota. In fact, we thoroughly agreed with his final description of his home state:

Every farm looked tidy and fruitful. Every little town looked clean and friendly. I drove on spellbound, unable to get over how striking the landscape was. There was nothing much to it, just rolling fields, but every color was deep and vivid; the blue sky, the white clouds, the red barns, the chocolate soil. I felt as if I had never seen it before. I had no idea Iowa could be so beautiful.


In Iowa we also enjoyed the signs on the side of the road, which Bryson has written about. We could have gone to see the Largest Czech Egg, or the Garden of Eden. We were also rather amused by the sign advertising a yarn shop – as the ‘second friendliest in the universe’. I loved the simultaneous grandeur and modesty of that claim.

That night, our last stop on the road, we’d picked to stay in Iowa City – it looked convenient, and we reasoned that we liked college towns. Unfortunately we had only been able to find a hotel in a suburb of the city: Coralville. This seemed to be in the process of being built. Near the university, and the site of the university hospital, it was clearly a place that people would stay – we counted at least three hotels and more short-term rental apartments. There was at least a brew pub. We were very tired this evening – the miles on the road getting to us finally. So we just had pizza and beer at the brew pub and then headed off to bed.

We took a bit of a break from the radio this driving day and talked to each other for a bit instead! But here’s one song we definitely heard at some point that day and have been singing ever since:



3 thoughts on “Amalgam, Iowa

  1. If you see a place called Oskaloosa, you’d be crazy not to visit. We have recently read Bill Bryson’s “Tales from a Sunburnt Country.” It is clear that he loves Australia in all its diversity and quirkiness…. all except Darwin, about which he, untypically, didn’t have a good word to say. Guess where we are going next.


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