We hit the road first thing in the morning on the hour and a half drive to Lucas County, Iowa. This state has a reputation of being very flat (there is an old saying that you can’t lose your animals here because you can see clear across the state from your porch top), but it actually starts to get very hilly the further west you go. The drive to Lucas County was a marriage of winding interstate and vast, soggy gravel roads.
Russell was the first town we stopped in. It was a quiet, quaint little town with a lot of old businesses turned into apartments. The whole town seemed to have one local store left to do your shopping at (appropriately named “Last Chance Market”). I didn’t come across a single person there, not in a car or otherwise, but I guess that’s to be expected when you’re waist-deep in an Iowan winter. Still, the quiet was strangely comforting and equal parts ominous.
One thing you don’t see very often in this state is an abandoned grain factory. Most of them are immediately torn down and replaced with newer versions. Very rarely does a farm-based business close up shop in this state. Russell had this sitting about two blocks away from their main street district, though.
The drive to Williamson was laden with these old farm homes pleasantly placed atop these small, frozen lakes. This house, for instance, was sitting about twenty feet away from a creek that had four or five people ice-fishing atop it.
We weren’t in Williamson for ten seconds before getting pulled over by a state trooper. Both Kat and I were instantly nervous that something was going to be out of order and we were going to be slapped with a heavy fine, and I do think that that’s the easiest way to ruin an otherwise good day.
Turns out, there was a stop sign hiding behind some shrubbery that we just totally missed. Insurance and registration was completely up to date, though, and we ended up having a very pleasant conversation with the officer. He pointed out what places were worth going to and what places weren’t going to have anything of mention. The stereotype about nice Iowans held up once again. He let us go with a business card and no ticket. Sweet score!
Chariton was the most populated town in the county, and it was quite a stark contrast to the placidity of the towns preceding it. People were crowding the city square, laughing and carrying on. We strategically stopped for lunch here and spent a little while wandering around the odd layout of this particular town. It seemed like there was two separate pieces to Chariton. One was a bustling little community, shining in the forefront like a good grade on a refrigerator.
Just behind that, though, were the ruins of what life was like there in the early 20th century. Yet another abandoned silo, old business districts lined up in harmony with the train tracks, and little department shops that seemed like they hadn’t been occupied in decades.
Lucas was a strange town. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many porta-potties in one place before, and seemingly without any reason to exist there at all. They were scattered all around the place with no rhyme or reason. I tried to come up with some kind of reasoning for it, but I couldn’t. All of them looked completely out-of-order, too. There were no fewer than five lots of porta-potties nestled together all throughout the town.
Secondly, there were no thru-streets in Lucas. To get from one street to the other, you had to drive all the way down one before you could connect to the other. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a town like that before. It was inconvenient, sure, but it was pretty interesting, too.
Norwood was a tiny one-street town with a couple homes, a church, and the same stray dog that seemed to follow us all throughout the county that day. I know that sounds strange, and I concede that it is, but it seemed like I was hearing the exact same dog in the distance of every community we photographed. It was this low, exasperated, asthmatic yowl that felt as if he was just trying to catch up with us to hang out. It was an odd sound, and I kept hearing it.
Our day ended in Derby, Iowa, a town that has the distinction of being the first total ghost town we’ve been to. The relics of businesses that once existed were still there, but nothing but grass and asbestos occupied them. There was graffiti dating back to the early 1980s still scribbled on the wall like a high-school bathroom.
I couldn’t get over this. The ornate detail on the old businesses was inviting and warm, a strange juxtaposition with its current state. I usually get so excited when I come across stuff like this, but I admit that Derby had me feeling a little sad. You could see the heartbeat of this town still beating somehow. The restaurant still had signs on the walls, likely sitting in there without purpose for thirty years or more now.
Our day ended with the loud sound of engines and a sun finally drowned under the wispy clouds of a January day. The winding interstates eventually calmed back to the flat stereotypes I’m more accustomed to. We’d finally lost the wheezing dog in the distance. Back to the ominous quiet, it started to rain.
It’s been that way ever since.