“If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” – Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
In this episode: the part of the country where we don’t know anyone, bizarre American roadside attractions, lots of beer, and the joys of traveling with animals
So we knew that once we left Chicago, we were venturing into Unknown Lands. Going west out of Illinois was the demarcation line of “where we know people” and “where we don’t” (had we gone on a more southern route, we would have been good through Kansas City and potentially even Denver since we have a handful of acquaintances there – but we elected not to go that way for a multitude of reasons). One of my grad school roommates lives in Omaha, but we were only passing through that part of Nebraska, so we were pretty much on our own from Chicago on.
Monday morning took us to our good friend I-80 west. It is amazing how you’re in Chicago suburbs for a long time and then in the space of a breath you are in Illinois farmland. A brief weekend in California notwithstanding, suddenly we were the farthest west I’ve ever been (hence the Samwise quote). And then we were crossing the Mississippi into Iowa, the first new state for both of us on this trip.
I am sure they exist in the Northeast – I know they exist along I-95 (South of the Border is my favorite sketchy tourist trap) – but when I think of the Midwest, I think of ridiculous roadside attractions. Naturally, we had to stop at the World’s Largest Truck Stop. Y’all, this place is like a weird alternate universe. I am glad we aren’t visiting it on the day of the eclipse because I feel like it would be a portal straight to the Darkest Timeline. They have a friggin’ dentist office on the third floor. And a movie theater. And a barber shop. And a full service restaurant. And a video rental store. It is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. I am, however, very disappointed there weren’t miles of terribly punny signs a la South of the Border.
Iowa itself was significantly less flat than I expected, but pretty rural through most of it until we rolled up on Des Moines, which seems like it just suddenly pops out of the ground. Des Moines reminded me a lot of Syracuse – lots of small buildings, a bunch of old factory-looking type brick buildings that look like the one by Destiny USA/81 that I can never remember what it’s called. It also has a similar olfactory touch – where Syracuse has the lovely smells of Onondaga Lake on a hot day, Des Moines smells like straight up cat food. We both spent a solid 10-15 minutes checking ourselves for spare cat food bits until we finally just googled “Des Moines smells like cat food” and learned that there’s a livestock rendering plant upwind of the city which renders livestock to be used for – you guessed it – pet food.
Once we determined that it was not, in fact, us who smelled, we walked from our hotel to el Bait Shop, recommended to us by Max’s brother (who visited Des Moines once for work) as “a dive bar with like 70 or something taps and broasted chicken.” Oh, friend. Friend. I was excited by the prospect of 70 taps and then we got there and there are actually 220. Two. Hundred. Twenty. I was in beer nerd heaven, y’all.
(If a millennial orders avocado toast and doesn’t post it on multiple social media platforms, did it actually happen??)
All of the breakfast was incredible. If we lived in Des Moines, that is 100% a place we would eat at ALL THE TIME.
And then we headed back to the hotel to get packed up and start the day’s journey to Nebraska.
For the most part, both animals have been pretty accepting of the travel and moving and constant in and out of crates and carriers. But the cat, in typical cat fashion, decided that this was the day she should make it a little more extraordinary. So our hotel bathroom had a small nook under the sink that she had been hiding in. Okay, no big deal, she did the same thing in Boston, we’ll figure it out. Oh no. How wrong we were.
I don’t know if you have ever tried to get a cat out of a small hiding space (if you have, please hit me up with tips) but it is next to impossible. Plus, the piping under the sink made it extra difficult – so no one could get a good angle to reach her because the pipe was in the way. After about twenty minutes of “how do we get the cat out?!” Max went to the front desk to ask for a duster handle or something that we could try to scoop her out with.
I want you to picture this: two adults in a hotel bathroom, both trying to squeeze under the sink, using all methods they can think of to coax an angry 10-pound cat out of her hiding space. Max laid on the floor with a blanket to try to catch her while I tried to slide her out using the duster handle; I tried to use the blanket and a towel to get up in the nook and pull her out; we tried turning on the hair dryer to scare her out, we tried catnipping every surface we could find, and yet – two adults with three and a half college degrees between us were losing to a 10-pound bundle of claws and teeth.
So we took a walk and got ourselves and the dog out of the hotel room (after asking for a late checkout and explaining to the front desk what was happening) and I fumed my way through downtown Des Moines while I googled “how to get cat out of small space” and “how to convince cat crate is good” (spoiler alert: you can’t, you just can’t). After about twenty minutes and a lot of silent rage, we got back to the hotel where I made Max and the dog wait in the lobby so I could try to convince the cat to come out on my own. Apparently our dog is so well behaved that everyone thought she was a service dog, which was a great compliment in contrast to the PUNK ASS CAT I was dealing with.
Once I got back into the hotel room, the cat had exited the bathroom and was hiding somewhere in the mostly-sparse room. I was less than excited, so when the cat decided to hide in the tiny space between the bed and the wall, I learned that I can Hulk-rage flip a king size bed by myself (I am 5’2″ and not strong, for those of you playing along at home). I eventually had to pull all the furniture away from the wall, essentially dismantling the entire hotel room, and trap her in the corner of a flipped-over chaise lounge.
But I got her. And the best method to get my grumpy little cat into her crate is to wrap her in a blanket entirely so she can’t see what’s happening or claw me in the process – except this time I missed one of her feet, so in carrying her to the closet where her crate was located I earned myself some lovely battle scars.
All was well, eventually; I got her in her crate, she sulked for a while and sat there petulantly while I put her food in with her (seriously – I pretty much dumped it on her head and she just stared at me while I did it in an act of defiance). Max was keeping everyone updated via snarky snapchats (thanks, babe…).
So that was Des Moines. And that was cat wrangling. My advice? Make sure you cat-proof your hotel rooms.
See you in Nebraska…