Rolling Across Iowa

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We are getting used to breaking camp, hitching up, and driving through the rain. So we knew what to do this morning when we woke up and it was raining cats and dogs. But even with all the practice, I can’t say that I like it – it’s hard work and unpleasant. The reward, of course, is that you get to move on. And by the end of the day, after a long 330 miles pretty much straight across southern Iowa, we finally saw patches of blue. Although the rain varied from spells of intense downpours to periods of just dark skies, it was chilly outside and damp. Us westerners aren’t used to all this wet cold.

We left Beatrice due east to Auburn and then headed north to Nebraska City where we caught Nebraska 2. After a short two miles, we crossed the Missouri River (makes our Rio Grande look like a trickle from a hose), and into Iowa where the road was still route 2. From there we just followed the route 2 highway all the way across the state. Stopped for lunch in Clarinda where we ate at the Ice House Bar and Grill. Since Iowa is pork country, I ordered a grilled bacon-wrapped pork fillet and I have to admit it was nearly perfect. Also ordered a Templeton Rye on the rocks. That’s, according to our source, the iconic drink in Iowa – a smooth rye whiskey with a quality I usually associate with Kentucky bourbons. Apparently it is distilled somewhere around here in a town called Templeton, and is the pride and joy of all these farmers wanting to relax at the end of a day. When in Iowa, do as the Iowans do…

After lunch, we continued east on route 2. Although the sky remained deeply overcast, which washed out the color palette of the country-side, you could tell there was a lot of green covering the rolling hills. Possibly because of all the snow they received this winter, it should be a good crop year for Iowans. Compared to the drought back home, Iowa is certainly not hurting this year. Assuming Trump’s trade war doesn’t kill the grain trade, Iowa should have plenty of corn to sell.

As we headed into Fort Madison, Joan googled a campground she had found, a city park near the rodeo grounds. We followed the directions to the park but couldn’t find anything remotely like a campground. Finally I asked some residents and they, eventually, said the campground was a mile or more further down the road. We drove to the next entry way only to find the campground empty and locked up, which was very aggravating – it was late and we were tired after a long driving day.

Regrouping, we located another campground across the river in Illinois, and decided to go there. But just a half-mile towards the new spot we saw another sign for ‘campground’ and sure enough there was the official spot for camping in the park (no explanation for what the other place was!). We hesitantly pulled in and discovered, once again, that there was no-one there – no visitors and no park personnel. But we were tired, so we simply located a convenient spot, backed the trailer in and set-up camp. Maybe this place was open, and maybe not, but we were camping here anyway. Following the signs, we looked for a box with envelopes to pay, and found nothing. The bathrooms and showers were all boarded up which didn’t really matter because there was no running water. So, although we have an electrical connection here, we are essentially dry camping again. That’s OK though, we can do that – although we don’t think we’re going to pay for the privilege. (So, legitimately or not, we get another free night on the road!

As we head out tomorrow morning for points north, we will be leaving the Great Plains and won’t return until the end of our trip. So I want to talk one last time about prairie ecology. The entire drive yesterday was through a zone called the Temperate Plains. This part of the prairie, because it is wetter than points west, used to be covered by tall grasses. The first book I read from the Homestead Monument Book Store (Prairie Ecology and Prairie Management by Chris Helzer) describes in detail how this system works. The prairie grasses actually harbor a layered system with different layers having different sets of plants and animals, even over just a couple feet of habitat. Grasses, maybe not as impressive as trees, still have quite a strategy for survival and growth. And the communities they form incorporate ants, bees and flies, small rodents, and birds as part of the integrated system.

One observation I found intriguing has to do with the ‘edge effect’. Apparently woodland animals who might prey on birds nests – and the eggs in them – will only leave their own habitat a certain distance into the grasslands before, essentially, they get too afraid to go further. What that means is that birds who make nests within that distance have a greater risk of having them destroyed or disturbed. But if the contours of the land, for whatever distance, force the prairie system to be long and skinny, then very little of the center of the prairie can be considered ‘safe’ for the birds nest. Birds may not survive in that shape and size of a prairie which will have a long term negative effect on that habitat. The healthiest prairie, then, is a larger mass, that does not have skinny appendages. That plays into effectively managing prairies and wetlands of course.

Today, most of the tall grass prairie is gone. And this Temperate Plains section is now the world’s leading source of corns and soybeans. But even in the rain yesterday, we could see that this section of the prairie is a lot wetter, and healthier than portions further west.

And, as we crossed Iowa, we encountered two sub-zones. Most of Iowa, and the western part of our route yesterday, crossed through the Western Corn Belt Plains section. About half-way through Iowa, though, we entered a slightly different zone, the Central Irregular Plains. Here there is a little more topographical relief (hills and escarpments), it is wetter, and there are, literally, more trees – more forested land. As one gets closer to the Mississippi, it is wetter, more eroded by streams and rivers, and hence less flat. Like the name says, it is more irregular. Until we return at the end of our trip, we will be leaving the Great Plains.