America, Roadside Attractions & 4,735 Miles (Part Three)

This is the final part of a three-part series on my recent cross-country road trip. Be sure to check out part one and part two for more of the story.

When we last left off, we were tasting wine in Iowa and then making our way across the state to stay with our friends Becky and Dan in Indianola. Up until this point in my life, my experience with Iowa included a part in the chorus of The Music Man at age 12 where I uttered the line, “Good morning, Mayor Shinn”  and a college semester in London through a study abroad program put on by Central College in Pella, Iowa. My semester in London did not involve a stop at Central, but I was part of a program that included many students who went to school there and had grown up in Iowa–a childhood much different than mine growing up in the LA area. Because of this, Iowa has always been on my list of places to visit.

Indianola is home to Simpson College, a small liberal arts college founded in 1860. Our visit included a stroll through the beautiful campus. Our friends took us to an amazing local ice cream shop called The Outside Scoop. Our time in Iowa also included meeting Tim’s high school friend Andy and his family for lunch in Ames–a city I only knew because of it’s mention in a song from The Music Man (Yeah, a lot of what I knew about Iowa before this trip came from that musical). I knew they were cool people as soon as I found out we shared an obsession with Hamilton. We laughed a lot and enjoyed a tasty lunch before Tim and I headed to Des Moines for a visit to the Iowa State Capitol, which all our Iowa friends told us was one of the most beautiful capitol buildings–they were not wrong. My favorite parts were the suffrage memorial and the law library, which made me feel like I was in the library of a certain school of witchcraft and wizardry.

After a couple days in Iowa, we once again hit the road for a drive across Nebraska that would end with a night in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The drive was around 650 miles, so we made sure to plan several stops at Roadside Attractions along the way to break out the long, flat drive.

Before leaving Iowa, we found an Easter Island head hanging out in a park. Our stops included a photo op at the GI Body Shop in Grand Island, Nebraska. There’s a yard full of cartoonish cars up on polls that will bring a smile to even the most road-weary face. We made a quick stop at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island in search of more information of a story of two boys from 1864 that we read about on the Roadside America app. Nat and Bob Martin had been shot by Sioux Indians. One of the arrows pierced both of them and joined the brothers together. They tumbled off their horse and were left for dead in a ditch, but they managed to survive and make it back home. Both survived well into adulthood. In front of the museum, you can see a statue of the two boys joined together by that famous arrow, and if you drive about 15 miles from the museum, you can find a marker in the spot where the boys were temporarily joined together.

Our trip also included a quick stop in Gothenburg, Nebraska for a visit to a sod house and some coffee for me. According to the guest book at the coffee shop, they recently had a famous visitor there.

After spending the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming, we made our way to Salt Lake City, Utah via a number of roadside attractions that involved stops at two Little America Hotels in Wyoming. Little America is famous for its taxidermy Emperor Penguin. Back in the 1930s, the owners had originally wanted Emperor the Penguin to be their live mascot, but he did not survive the journey from Antarctica, and now his glassy eyes stare out at visitors from his home perched on a fake block of ice in a glass case. Our drive that day took us along the Lincoln Highway–a stretch of road presided over by the president himself.

Perhaps one of my favorite stops on this leg of the trip was the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. This was another excellent find from the Roadside America app. What drew me here was the story of George Parrott (also known as Big Nose George) and the shoes made from his skin. Back in the late 19th century, Big Nose George got quite boastful about his criminal exploits, which led to his arrest. He attempted to escape jail by attacking his jailor, but the jailor’s wife heard the commotion and was able to coax Big Nose George back to his cell with the help of a pistol. Masked men broke into the jail and “rescued” Big Nose George, but his rescuers were not really rescuers at all. They turned out to be a lynch mob and poor George met his end strung up on a telegraph poll.

The story does not end there. Legend has it that because of the size of George’s famous nose, extra pressure was required to close the lid of the coffin. Even though George was finally squeezed into the coffin, he would not yet get peaceful eternal rest. Doctor Thomas Maghee and Doctor John Eugene Osborne decided to steal George’s body to study his brain for criminality. This was not quite enough for Osborne who decided to use some of Big George’s skin to make a pair of shoes and a medical bag. You can see the shoes at the museum. Big George’s skull cap was also sawn off and presented to Maghee’s young assistant, Lillian Heath, who would go on to become the first female doctor in Wyoming. They kept his body in a whiskey barrel, where his remains were discovered in the 1950s.

Go to the museum to learn more about Big George’s story, but also be sure to check out all the other interesting items, and spend some time talking to the staff. We had a nice conversation with the museum director who told us all kinds of fun facts about Carbon County and even played the 1913 Edison phonograph for us. Local legend has it that Edison got the idea to invent the lightbulb during a visit to Rawlins.

After a night in Salt Lake City, Utah, we made our way across the Nevada desert and ended our trip in Reno, Nevada, where we visited Tim’s family and picked up his niece for a week with us in Southern California. No sooner were we back to our regular lives than we were both planning for what big road trip we would take next, but all those will have to wait for another time. The real world calls and not every day can be spent on the road, but we will head out again soon. After all, the world is full of stories, and we only saw 4,735 miles of it.

For anyone planning a road trip, I highly recommend the Roadside America app. I am not being paid to endorse their app or website; I am just a huge fun. I opted for the full version (includes attractions in the U.S. and Canada) at $8.98–less than what you would pay for most travel books. You can get just one region for $2.99 if you don’t want the full version, but I would recommend getting all of it to inspire future travels.

Pictures of the Iowa Capitol and the cars on polls in Nebraska are by Tim. All other pictures are by me.


America, Roadside Attractions & 4,735 Miles (Part Two)

In my last post I detailed the first part of my recent cross-country trip. To catch you up, I took off on a nearly two-week road trip with my favorite road buddy Tim. The main purpose of our trip was to attend a second memorial service for his mom in her hometown of Bushnell, Illinois. His mom passed away in May, and my dad passed away in June. Having both been hit with the loss of a parent within about a month of each other, we also knew we needed to make this trip to take care of ourselves and to get a break from all that we had been through. So, we put our lives on hold and took off.

When I left off last time, we were on our way to Bushnell, Illinois, but we had a stop planned in Hannibal, Missouri on our way there. Hannibal is best known for being the home of Mark Twain–a fact that becomes very obvious when you see just how much this town has formed its identity and a whole tourist industry on the famous American author. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a sucker for quirky tourist stuff, and I also love literature. So of course I had to stop in Hannibal.

One of the first things in Hannibal that came up on my Roadside America app was the Haunted House on Hill Street–part Christmas & Halloween store, part wax museum, part haunted house and 100% awesome! This rates high on the list when it comes to quirky things we saw on this trip. Perhaps the scariest part of the experience was the room full of 27 wax figures of both real and fictional people from Twain’s life and books. This part of the tour involved standing and staring through glass at the wax figures, which were lit from below–something which upped the spooky factor. A voice narration described who everyone was as well as some interesting facts about the people represented in the room. We learn, for example, that the Tom Sawyer figure contains real teeth taken from a boy’s mouth. There’s no explanation about why the teeth were extracted, and if the boy knew they would live on in the likeness of Tom Sawyer. The narration was just long enough to make you question whether or not a figure or two moved while you stood there staring. Needless to say, I was thankful that there was glass between us and them. At the conclusion of the narration, we were directed to walk through a door and into the haunted house. This was your standard haunted house fare, complete with black lights, glowing creatures, things that pop up, bursts of air and sudden noises. I laughed and screamed in turns, and had a good time.

It’s hard to top an experience like that, but we did have fun visiting Twain’s boyhood home, Huck Finn’s house and Becky Thatcher’s house. I am a book nerd, so I took a moment to whitewash Tom Sawyer’s fence just long enough for a picture, but then I figured it was time to find some friends to handle the job for me.

We gave a quick wave to the Mississippi and then drove up to Bushnell. I had heard quite a bit about Bushnell from Tim’s mom Anne. She always had a fondness for the small town she grew up in and continued to have her columns published in the local paper up until her death. Anne’s stories about the people from Bushnell and the town itself made me feel like I had already been there. Bushnell is a small town of just over 3,000 people. It was founded in 1854 when the Northern Cross Railroad built a line through the area. It’s got the quiet tree-lined streets one expects in a small, Midwest town, and there was a strong sense of community present when we gathered at the community center for the celebration of Anne’s life. I am not a small-town girl, but I can see why Anne held a special place in her heart for her hometown. I had a lovely time visiting Tim’s family in Bushnell and hearing stories of his mom’s youth spent in the town.

Before we left Bushnell for our next stop in Indianola, Iowa, Tim insisted that we stop at a local grocery store to buy some ham salad. Tim said it was one of his favorite foods on his childhood trips back to Bushnell. I use the term “food” loosely because I take issue with anything that lists the first ingredient as “Assorted Hams.” Chalk it up to my snobby California palate, but I really don’t think I can accept ham salad as a food.

Ham Salad

After the ham salad adventure, we began the drive to stay with our friends in Indianola, Iowa. We stopped at a bookstore in Burlington, Iowa that was home to a replica of the TARDIS from Doctor Who.  Aside from the TARDIS, Burlington by the Book is a delightful bookstore with a nice selection and friendly staff. We even made time to drive down Snake Alley, a competitor for the title of World’s Crookedest Street. Apparently there is much debate about which is more crooked: Snake Alley or San Francisco’s Lombard Street. I have been down both, and scientifically I am not sure which street should have the title, but I think I enjoyed the fact that there is less traffic on Snake Alley. Plus, it’s in a town with a TARDIS, so that should get some bonus points. I’m not sure, but I think that the TARDIS and the crooked street might be some kind of sign that something is off with the space-time continuum in Burlington, which makes it an awesome place to visit. I would love to go back and explore the town a bit more because we saw some interesting street art and other stores that would be worth checking out.

I experienced my first major Midwest summer storm from behind the wheel of my Honda Civic as we made our way across Iowa. We made a quick stop at a gas station as the sky opened up and thunder rattled the awning over our heads. We looked around as lightning streaked across the sky and realized that the locals were not heading for cover despite the torrential downpour, so we bravely pulled out onto the road. Fortunately the rain stopped and moved on almost as quickly as it started, but the experience did leave me asking Tim to Google the signs of an impending tornado. I am happy to report that I did not end up experiencing my first tornado on this trip.

Iowa wine

We made an unplanned stop at Cedar Valley Winery when we saw a sign advertising wine tasting. Tim and I have made regular trips to the Napa Valley, and we finally took a wine tasting class earlier this year, so we decided to put our tasting skills to the test in Iowa. Living in California, it is easy to forget that many other areas produce wines, and we were surprised to see this cute, little winery tucked in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa. The woman who worked in the tasting room was very knowledgeable and explained that the wines there were made entirely from the grapes grown on the property. She also told us that Midwesterners tend to enjoy their wines on the sweeter side, which we noticed with the wines we tasted. She asked about the purpose of our trip, and Tim explained that both of us had recently lost a parent and that we had just been to a memorial service for his mom in her hometown. It’s a tale that’s part Victorian novel and part fodder for the classic American road trip, right?

As I said in my last post, this could easily be a story of all those complicated emotions that are a part of grieving the loss of a loved one. And to be honest, when I would hear one of us start to tell the story, it almost sounded tragic to the point where I wanted to laugh in order to avoid crying my eyes out. Yeah, grief is complicated. And sometimes all you can do is get on the road and keep driving, which is why we did what we did. Maybe this is the kind of story where we find ourselves out on the road, or maybe it was just a way to try to fill in a little bit of the huge void left when you lose a parent. I don’t know yet. Even though the miles on the road are done, there are still miles to go in the grieving process, and I am lucky we had the opportunity to drive cross country because staying still was making me lose my mind.

I will leave off there for this post and will wrap things up in part three in a few weeks.

For anyone planning a road trip, I highly recommend the Roadside America app. I am not being paid to endorse their app or website; I am just a huge fun. I opted for the full version (includes attractions in the U.S. and Canada) at $8.98–less than what you would pay for most travel books. You can get just one region for $2.99 if you don’t want the full version, but I would recommend getting all of it to inspire future travels.

All pictures are by me except the Bushnell sign, the TARDIS picture and the picture of me with Tom Sawyer’s fence. Those are by Tim Pershing.