abandon the midwest

I set my alarm to wake me up at 7:00AM yesterday morning.  I knew it was going to be a long day, and I just wanted to get the first part over with.  The night before, after taking Old Reliable to a car wash, the brakes suddenly started to malfunction.  And by malfunction, I mean they ceased to work entirely.  My mind suddenly went to worst case scenario, and that scenario didn’t even involve me sideswiping another car.  This was going to cost a fortune, and we have Forgotten Iowa to do in the morning!  

It was a long twelve miles back to the cottage, but I got us there.  Somehow.

That car, man.  I love her, I really do, but it has been the most expensive thing in our lives this year.  Old Reliable has seen this garage so many times that the mechanic knows me by name.

“Mr. Weber!  I’m sorry you have to see me again so soon.”
“Yessir.  No offense, but I’m kind of sick of you, too.”

They got me right in and examined the car.  Sure enough, the brake lines had completely snapped off.  It would be another two hours before it was safe to drive again, alongside that now familiar feeling of sinking money into that bottomless pit.  Oh well, I thought.  On to better things!

I think I might have to change her name, though.  Old Reliable is out, maybe Brittany is in.  Big Britt The Money Pit.  

A video posted by Cody Weber (@saturninefilms) on Oct 7, 2015 at 9:03am PDT

We arrived in Cedar County at about 11:30AM.  A late start for sure, but we caught a few lucky breaks. When we arrived in Downey to find a two street town surrounded by halfway-harvested cornfields, I knew the workload suddenly got a whole lot lighter.

We took a right turn and discovered what I assume to be an abandoned schoolhouse. What made this especially odd was knowing that Downey is an unincorporated community.  To my knowledge, I don’t think Downey has ever been incorporated, so the idea that there was a fairly large schoolhouse just sitting there seemed very strange.  

Loud dogs barked from both sides of the street warning one another that an outsider loomed just outside the front door.  It was fruitless.  They’d never get to me.  There was an abandoned playground covered in weeds to my left.  Giant deadbolts on both sets of doors.  Sophomoric graffiti on all available canvas.  It was warm outside, but it still felt very cold in that yard with those barking dogs.

The first three or four towns in Cedar County were either complete ghost towns or gasping for breath from the threat of it.  Large, overgrown weeds took over the foundations of demolished homes, almost as if they were never there to begin with.  These towns are always especially hard to capture because there are times that, quite literally, there is nothing there but gravel and forest.  Maybe an occasional river or bridge.

The first real town we ventured to was a little place called Tipton.  With a population of fewer than 4,000 people, the stark contrast from the ghost towns of before made it seem like a city.  It was almost 1:00PM by this point, and I was getting hungry.  We stopped at the first place we saw; a local sports bar called Rhino’s.

The food was delicious.  If you ever find yourself in Tipton, Iowa, check this little tavern out.  Try the spicy fries and the bacon cheeseburger.  You won’t be disappointed. 

The towns in this county were so small.  I don’t think I can exaggerate that enough.  It was a very quiet place, tucked away like feet under the covers, cozy and calm.  The roads were only peppered with cars every five miles or so, and navigating inside of it was especially easy.  Even with our late start, we were making real progress.  By 3:00PM, we were already halfway done.

You can always tell that you’re in an especially small part of the world when people just leave all their belongings outside.  No fear from the threat of theft, there is always an assortment of interesting objects all around.  Like this pile of old mirrors in Cedar Bluff, for instance.

The ingenuity and repurposing of buildings in this state is nothing short of amazing.  Someone had taken an entire city block of condemned buildings and restored them into an immense home.  They maintained the original structure and kept the outside in the form of a business district.  Through the windows, you could see a total renovation, though.  It was really cool.

I met Barry Roberts outside of this old general store in Masillon. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and offered to take me throughout the whole place.  He said he’d bought it years ago hoping to restore it. Up the rickety stairs, he assured me that they only appeared dangerous, an attempt to keep local kids from taking the walk up.

It ended up being too far gone to save, sadly, but he took me to his wood shop and showed me the skeleton of a bar made from the repurposed wood of the general store. It was gorgeous.

He told me his name was Barry Roberts, that he was from the Quad Cities and came to Masillon to buy a truck in 1978 and found a home instead. Stayed there ever since.  

The day was drawing to a close, Cedar County was almost in the books.  The sun hung low in the sky as we ping-ponged up and down various back roads.  Hills would rise up from nowhere and disappear, the smell of freshly cut grass permeating the entire landscape.  We would hit a couple more ghost towns as we headed south, before finishing the day right alongside that low hanging sun.

The brakes held up.  Money well spent.