Iowa, my Iowa! - part 2

so near and yet so far

With the culture shock of being in Iowa subsiding a bit, I had the good fortune of getting a ride almost immediately, but it was countered by the fact that the driver sized me up as someone who was "not from around these parts" and launched into a coffee-fueled oratory about the various interesting aspects of the area. In one memorable session he recited just about every item one would ever come in contact with that was made from (or had anything even remotely associated with) soybeans. I must admit that he had a rapt audience. Just about the time that I was approaching soybean overload we entered Clear Lake, the town, he explained in great detail, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the "The Big Bopper" were killed in a plane crash. This topic immediately spawned the topic of how the music in the '50s was so much better than today, and I would have agreed wholeheartedly if I had a chance to say anything, but the driver had long ago mastered the art of continuous dialog without taking a breath, and agreeing or disagreeing was hopeless.

My prayers were answered in many ways when the big highway sign for Britt loomed up in the distance and I emphatically made the driver aware that it was where I needed to get off. Bidding him a heartfelt farewell, I walked across the road and hoped that I could find a quiet spot to hang out for awhile without having to talk to or listen to anyone but that wasn't going to happen any time soon. Apparently the Hobo Convention was the only thing that happens around here, and I wasn't prepared for anything on this scale. Kids dressed up like hoboes, dogs dressed up like hoboes... probably the only way that you could tell a "real" hobo from anyone else was if their bandana didn't have a crease ironed into it. Things were starting to get weird again. Normally walking around town in grungy clothes and carrying a backpack would turn people away from you, but here they practically tripped over themselves to ask you if you were a real hobo and where you came from and where you were going and if the Bulls had chased you and if you were hungry, etc.

My first thought was that I needed to ditch the pack somewhere and find a place to wash up. I could have probably asked a lamp post and gotten directions to the "jungle", and that's where I headed for. Again, the weirdness. Normally hobo jungles were far from the beaten path, so the irate townspeople wouldn't get all riled up and chase the bums out of town, but when I saw what passed for a jungle here I stopped in my tracks there were a few people who could pass for hoboes, but surrounding them were dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people staring and taking pictures! It looked like a play about hoboes was in progress around one of the cleanest and most well-maintained campfires I'd ever seen, surrounded by a very enthusiastic audience. A big guy, who looked more like Santa Claus than a real hobo, had a child sitting on his lap who was obviously transfixed by whatever story was being told. Several people in hobo garb sat on benches holding various permutations of walking sticks, all proudly sporting incredibly clean and well-ironed bandanas. My weirdness reached a new level, but it did look like a place that I could leave my pack for awhile, as none of the people in the crowd looked like they'd ever received so much as a jay-walking ticket.

Before I chose to kick back for any length of time, I need to get something to drink, and my inquiries as to the location of a liquor store all led to the only one in town, which I fervently hoped was open and well-stocked. A block or two of walking and I found the state-operated liquor store, which immediately rubbed me the wrong way with their wine selection. Nothing but bland dinner wines which sold for half the price in California. I couldn't hack any hard liquor in the heat and humidity that is Iowa in August, so I settled for some foul-tasting 3.2% beer instead, figuring that I would substitute quality for quantity. Trudging back to the jungle with my bounty, I hobnobbed with the new faces for a bit, then hooked up with some folks who were as dirty as I was and finally began to feel at home.

One day of the "Convention" and I was chomping at the bit for a real train ride, not to mention obtaining some fortified wine, so I walked out to the highway and stuck out my thumb, this time waiting an hour or two in the burning sun before anyone stopped. This time it was two young people in an incredibly air-conditioned car. Fortunately they weren't "talkers", but I thought that if it was any more than a 30-mile journey in that car I would have developed frostbite. As I feared, getting out of the car in Mason City at 3pm was like walking into a blast furnace after being cooled to almost unconsciousness by the air conditioner, but I was back home on a real mainline and it was only a matter of time before I was on the road again.

Seeking any kind of shade, I headed north to a gully that ran under the tracks, where I plopped down and checked out my supplies, which were disappointing to say the least. Half a loaf of French Bread that was hard enough to drive a nail, a fist-sized lump of cheese, some smashed gorditas, a liter or so of "room temperature" water, and two 16-oz beers left over from the day before. The humidity made walking to a store, even if it were 10' away, not something that I wanted to do, so I made myself as comfortable as possible and waited for a southbound.

Several hours later I was awakened from a nap by the sound of a train, and I sat bolt upright to gather my gear. It was almost dark, but still very hot and humid. I briefly thought of California, a place with no mosquitoes, warm (not hot) days, no humidity, and where it COOLS OFF AT NIGHT! I let the head end of the train go by before I climbed up the embankment to look for a ride, and saw that they were few and far between. The train broke air and shoved the front end over to some yard tracks off to the side, where I hoped that they would pick up some rideable cars. An hour or so of going back and forth and they came back out to the main with what looked like the same string of cars that they had to begin with. It was getting dark, and the steep embankment made walking the train difficult to say the least, so, realizing that it wasn't going to get anywhere near "cold" tonight, I climbed up on a flat car loaded with freightcar wheels and rolled out under the axles. Although it would have to rate as one of the stranger rides I've ever had, it certainly had a low center of gravity, and I figured that with the slow speeds on the tracks around here it would allow me a good, mosquitoless sleep.

I was wrong. The springs on the ancient flat car had bottomed out under the weight of all the wheel sets, and I had a back-breaking ride all the way down to the east-west mainline the next morning, where we turned west and mercifully stopped in Boone so that I could bail out and find another ride. Naturally, my reluctance to walk along the steep ballast in Mason City prevented me from noticing a nice properly-oriented grainer only a few cars behind me, and I quickly made it my new home as we pulled out after a brief crew change. Now I could really get some sleep, as the grainer was loaded and the tracks now were as smooth as glass. Iowa gracefully disappeared to the east and I was now in South Dakota? North Dakota? Who cares, I was leaving Oz and headed for the Best Coast...

part 3 of 4