Our 2021 Road Trip #3: 4-Wheel Gawks in an 18-Wheel World

IOWA 80 Truck Stop!

YOU THERE! TURN HERE! GO ENJOY! DO IT NOW! DO IT! NOW NOW NOW!

Among the roughly six hundred million Americans who’ll tell you road trips are their specialty right before sending you a link to their blog that you’ll never click on, Anne and I are merely meek, doughy amateurs compared to the real road-tripping professionals. I don’t mean canceled Travel Channel hosts or social media influencers with sports cars or wanted homicidal fugitives. I mean America’s truck drivers. They’ve been to more states than we have, they’ve seen more horrors than we ever will, they’ve brushed off more honking and more middle fingers than I hope I’ll ever have to, though I should probably stop competing with them on that front and maybe moderate some of my driving habits.

I imagine truck drivers scoff at civilians who take too much pride in their weaksauce hundreds-of-mile journeys taken in their puny four-wheeled jalopies. Truck drivers also have bragging rights for the fact that they get paid for all that driving, extremely unlike us pretenders. But they do have one thing in common with us: they love to be spoiled while they’re on the road. To those discerning highway kings and queens, Iowa offers quite the extended roadside intermission.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

Welcome to Iowa!

Highlights of our last visit to Iowa included a giant steak, a flooded interstate and James T. Kirk’s birthplace.

Our departure from Carl Sandburg’s house was delayed a bit by road construction that stood between us and the quickest way out of Galesburg. We also had to resist the temptation to check out a town festival that just so happened to be that evening. Nevertheless we found the willpower to move on, retrace our steps the long way back around, and rejoined I-74 West where we’d left off. From there I-74 curves due north, crosses the border into Iowa and ends at I-80 in Davenport. By contrast, the mighty I-80 spans cross-country from San Francisco to New Jersey, including a stretch through northern Indiana back home, where it coexists for dozens of miles with the even longer I-90. As American roads go, I-80 is kind of a big deal.

World's Largest Truck Stop!

From a distance you might mistake this for an average travel plaza. Real shame about your myopia there.

I-80 is such a popular trucking route that it also boasts the self-labeled World’s Largest Truckstop. Dating back to 1964 with humble origins as a truck stop of usual size, the Iowa 80 Truckstop has yet to field any serious challenges to its title. It’s even easier to claim in this day and age when gas stations have been reclassified as a Not In My Back Yard undesirable in many communities, even in cities built from the ground up to favor sky-choking gas-hog life over mass-transit infrastructure (looking at you, Indianapolis). The World’s Largest Truckstop didn’t need us tiny-vehicled yokels to defend its honor, but we’ll vouch for it anyway.

Iowa 80 Truckstop!

Officially the Truckstop is in Walcott, IA. As you can imagine, it’s one of their biggest businesses.

Sightseeing was our primary objective here, but I also timed it to work out as our very first stop for gas. I kept receipts for every gas stop on this vacation and (with one letdown of an exception) tracked our mileage for what would prove to be The Longest Road Trip We’ve Ever Taken. Yes, we’re piling on the superlatives in this chapter, because we can. Thus the counter begins:

TOTAL ROAD TRIP MILEAGE AS OF GAS STOP #1: 335.2

Once my chore was out of the way, then we could go inside and investigate.

Iowa 80 Truck Stop!

Keep on truckin’ right this way.

Iowa 80 is at least five times the size of an average truck stop, encompassing 75 developed acres and a massive main building sporting a sprawling selection of gas station comestibles, fast-food court, gift shop, semi parts store, drivers’ lounge, truck mechanic, laundromat, exercise facility, barbershop, library, dentist, chiropractor, doggie groomer, video arcade, and even a 60-seat movie theater on the third floor, which was sadly closed due to COVID. Across the vast parking lot is a trucking museum, but we regret we pulled in fifteen minutes before closing time and couldn’t quite fit it in. Next time we’re in town, maybe.

As we walked and walked and walked and walked around, we tourists seemed to outnumber the truckers by a wide margin. Then again, most truckers have been there enough times that they’re well past wandering around in wide-eyed wonder. For them Iowa 80 isn’t an overwhelming oddity; it’s an upscale getaway that caters to needs and wants that aren’t easily taken care of out there on the average roadways. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have a secret meeting space for holding trucker conventions with trucker collectibles and trucker celebrities and whatnot, here at what’s basically the Mall of America of trucking.

Iowa 80 Truckstop Fun Facts!

Shout-out to the inspired artists who saved me the trouble of having to type a bunch of Iowa 80 fun trivia.

Iowa 80 Truckstop!

The food court ambiance.

World's Largest Pac-Man at Iowa 80!

Big drivers on big drives with big cargo need big games.

Iowa 80 jeep!

Wander the gift shop and debate with your family whether jeeps count as trucks.

Iowa 80 pig seat!

Ever imagine yourself sitting inside a pig whose guts have been carved out just so you can squat on it and rest your feet for a spell? At Iowa 80 your gross dream can come true!

semi accessories!

Feel like covering your big rig with lots of lights to keep other passing drivers awake at night? Iowa 80 will make you the Clark Griswold of trucking.

Iowa 80 indoor semi!

Sample semi inside, squeezed in between the racks of paperbacks and DVDs.

Iowa 80 was the first of many gas-station snack runs over our next ten days. We ended up seeing more than our share of those every morning because my son hates standard American breakfast food and finding restaurant nourishment to his liking was next to impossible in the early hours. On this afternoon we each had fun stocking up on goodies from Iowa 80’s broad selection. He’s always on the lookout for new sour candies, while I brake for Combos. We paid our dues, we loaded up our rental SUV, and then we spent several minutes trying to exit the parking lot because of all the truck traffic.

Weeks later a surprise dividend would arrive in my hands. During our pre-trip research I’d gone to their website, poked around a bit, and signed up for a free Iowa 80 catalog. In my mind I’d imagined it might be a travel brochure. But no, the July installment in our mailbox was indeed a full-size catalog of truck parts — a shiny array of semi grills, hood ornaments, strobe lights, exhaust stacks, toolboxes, loadbinders, axle covers, mud flaps, satellite radios, dashboard cams, seat covers, cleaning fluids, mattresses, and more, more, more. I do see one set of mud flaps that seemed up my alley, bearing a worried emoji in a Coronavirus mask announcing “BACK OFF!” But I don’t think they’ll be a good fit for my old Kia Forte.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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