Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W (And Other Iowa Adventures)

Wire have been one of my favorite bands since the late 1970s, and their latest album, Change Becomes Us, has been earning heavy spins on household and car stereos hereabouts since its issue last month. It’s one of their finest discs ever, hands down. For longtime Wire fans, this one has been a particular treat, since it returns to song sketches crafted in the aftermath of their 1979 masterpiece, 154, but only issued in fragmentary or raw form on the live Document and Eyewitness, released when the quartet dissolved for the first time as the ’80s dawned.

With a new Wire album out, I loaded up a bunch of their older tracks — including their remarkable 154-era single “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W” — onto the car iPod when Marcia and I drove down to Asheville, North Carolina last month to visit family. “Map Ref” came on somewhere in Tennessee, and Marcia looked at the title on the dashboard display and asked “Is that a real place, and have you looked to see where it is?” As a hardcore map geek, and a 30+ year Wire fan, I was embarrassed to admit that I had not, so I asked her to use her Smart Phone to look it up and see where it was.

Imagine our surprise when Marcia discovered that the point described by those latitude and longitude coordinates was about 100 miles from our home in Des Moines, down near Centerville, Iowa! When we got back here after our holiday, I did a little research and discovered why lyricist Graham Lewis had picked that point: here’s the story.

For those who know me or have been reading my writing for more than the past ten minutes, it should come as no surprise that I immediately resolved to visit this location, since that’s how I roll. A little Google Earth research showed me that it’s actually a bit to the northwest of Centerville, on the opposite side of Lake Rathbun, where Marcia and I had vacationed for a weekend last summer.

It appeared to be in the middle of a pasture, about a mile from U.S. Highway 34. I could see that a tree-lined creek bed ran from the highway nearly to the “Map Ref” coordinates, but unfortunately, where the creek crossed under Highway 34, there appeared to be a large production facility of some sort, likely a pig enclosure based on its size and shape from above. That means people, and people means trouble for the casual trespasser. I could also see a dirt road to the west of the creek that got relatively close to the spot, so hoped I’d be able to sneak down that.

Either way, I wanted to get there, and this weekend seemed the ideal time to do it, as Marcia was away in Portland, Oregon, visiting her sister, and spring had actually finally made its first sustained appearance in Iowa. I decided to mark my visit for posterity’s sake, and originally considered placing a geocache there, with my e-mail address in it, so that if any future Wire geeks arrived on the designated spot, they’d be able to share their accomplishment with me. But then, as I thought about it longer, I decided that directly announcing my trespassing tendencies was probably not the smartest course of action.

So instead, I decided to leave a Pink Flag, in honor of Wire’s seminal debut album, which also serves to this day as their website address.

I left Des Moines around 7:00 Saturday morning, and by 9:00 AM, I’d reached the nearest point on the highway to “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, and was disappointed to discover that the dirt road approaching the designated spot was barred by a locked, heavy-duty gate, necessary to keep the cattle behind it from venturing onto the roadway. Much of Iowa is corn, soybean or hog country, but this sector is cattle country, which means there is a lot of hardcore fencing, little of it easily crossed. Shucks.

The land did have a little bit of rise and fall, though, so I was able to pull my car down into a little gully beneath the roadside power line and behind some scrub trees, where I hoped no one from the hog enclosure across the way would notice it during the half hour or so it took me to get to the map reference point and back. I walked southward down the east bank of the tree-lined creek for about half a mile, trying to keep out of the sight lines of anybody in the farmhouse on the hill to the east of me, until I reached a pasture that was surrounded by a barbed-wired topped fence. I skirted the fence east to a point about 150 feet north of “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, trying to find a way to get over it, until I noticed what it was there to contain: another couple of dozen cows . . . and a bull who seemed to be watching me on behalf of his farmer owners.

I decided that this mission had gone far enough, and that attempting to climb a barbed-wire fence, place the flag, take photos, and then outrun an enraged territorial bull probably crossed the line from “entertaining adventure” into “reckless stupidity”. So I placed my flag on the north side of the fence, saluted the bull, and considered my work done. I left the flag behind . . . I don’t know how it will fare in the Iowa weather, but maybe some other Wire fan will find it, someday, and know that someone who cared was there. Here’s the photo:

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

Since I had the full weekend for exploration, I decided to investigate some other Iowa oddities, while also heading up to the northeast corner of the state, which was my favorite region when I did my Full Grassley in the winter of 2011-2012. My next planned stop was in nearby Centerville, which had seemed like a sound geographical omen for Graham Lewis when he was seeking to identify a point at the geographic center of the prairie, demarcated with its regular lines of roads. Interestingly, though, I knew that the name of Centerville had nothing to do with its location near the center of the North American continent: it was actually a misspelling of a city originally named for William Tandy Senter. Iowans are funny that way, in naming their towns for folks from other places.

Why do I know this about Centerville? Because Carl Weeks, who built Salisbury House, where I work, once operated a pharmacy there, around 1900. We have a picture of it in our archives, and here is what it looked like then:

Carl Weeks Pharmacy in Centerville, Iowa, circa 1900.

Carl Weeks’ Pharmacy in Centerville, Iowa, circa 1900.

We didn’t have any note of the address of Carl’s Pharmacy in our records at Salisbury House, but I found this video of some old postcards from Centerville, and was pretty sure that I could see the store at the southeast corner of the town square at around the 1:00 mark. Sure enough, when I got there, I was able to match several architectural features between our 1900 photo and the modern store’s facade, and was able to positively identify its location: today it is a chiropractor’s office. Here’s what it looks like now, with some significant brickwork having been done in ensuing years:

Carl Week's Pharmacy in Centerville is now a chiropractor's office.

Carl Weeks’ Pharmacy in Centerville is now a chiropractor’s office.

After making this important work connection, I turned northward, wanting to make it to Decorah, in Iowa’s hilly northeast corner, before sunset. I did make some stops for photos along the way for a few Iowa Oddities, though, including The Great Pyramids of Avery, the Stoneman of Fayette, and The Smallest Church in America. Here’s the photo record:

The Great Pyramids of Avery, Iowa. Taken while sitting on the bench its builder built to admire his handiwork.

The Great Pyramids of Avery, Iowa. Taken while sitting on the bench its builder built to admire his handiwork.

The Stoneman of Fayette, Iowa. I was in a rental car, as my own car is in the shop. Pity, because I always keep a necktie in my own car, and I would have donated it to the Stoneman, since his current cravat is a bit weather-worn.

The Stoneman of Fayette, Iowa. I was in a rental car, as my own car is in the shop. Pity, because I always keep a necktie in my own car, and I would have donated it to the Stoneman, since his current cravat is a bit weather-worn.

St. Anthony of Padua near Festina, Iowa. Allegedly the smallest church in North America, if not the world.

St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, on a dirt road near Festina, Iowa. Allegedly the smallest church in North America, if not the World.

I arrived in Decorah around 5:00 PM. It’s one of my favorite Iowa cities, though it had begun raining around the time I arrived, so I did not get to walk around it as much as I might have liked. I spent much of the evening at an excellent sports bar watching underdog Wichita State (an MMAL!) give Louisville its money’s worth and then some in an NCAA Final Four game, before retiring to my hotel room to ponder my next day’s drive. As I looked at my map, I was surprised to realize that I had been very near that point some 22 years before, under very different circumstances . . .

In March 1991, our only daughter, Katelin, was born in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where we owned a house. Two months later, my employer unexpectedly transferred me to Idaho Falls, Idaho, so Marcia, Katelin, and I had to drive across most of the North American continent to reach our new home. We wanted to visit Marcia’s family in Minnesota on the way. Prior to having our child, we had normally driven two long-haul runs to make this trip, the first from Washington to Chicago, where we had friends, then the second from Chicago on to Minneapolis.

This trip, though, we had a four month old nursing infant, so we decided that we needed to do shorter drives each day, and I was tasked with finding a nice way-station between Chicago and Minnesota. Back in the pre-Google days, this meant that I ordered a “Bed and Breakfasts of Wisconsin” book from our local bookseller weeks in advance, and then made reservations based on the information contained within, with no way to verify anything. I chose what appeared to be a lovely bed and breakfast in Ferryville, Wisconsin, right on the Mississippi River, for our overnight stay between Chicago and Minneapolis.

It was not a good choice. We had no idea, for starters, that we had arrived during the very brief period each year when billions of caddisflies emerged from the Mississippi Rover for their frenzied mating season: we could not leave the bed and breakfast without inhaling swarms of flying insects desperately trying to fulfill their reproductive prerogatives. So we hunkered down in our room with our tiny child, and figured we’d have a nice evening of talking and reading — until the entire building began to vibrate and roar, as the first of many massive freight trains on the Mississippi River Line barreled down its tracks, 20 yards across the street.

It was mind-blowingly loud, and it happened about every 30 minutes, all night long. We slept fitfully, if at all, and left our room in the morning, intent on getting the “breakfast” portion of our “bed and breakfast” experience, since the “bed” part had been a bust. But our hostess was nowhere to be found, and there was nothing in the dining room except a box of cereal and some warm milk.

I was ready to just hit the road at that point, but Marcia was damned if she was going to be cheated out of both bed and breakfast. So we waited — listening to the roaring freight trains — until our hostess, who was also the town’s attorney, drifted in, and Marcia let her know in no uncertain terms that we wanted eggs, sausages, toast and other breakfast goodies as reward for the suffering we’d endured the night before. Our hostess actually retired to the kitchen and made those things, very slowly, and not very well. We ate, glowered, and hit the road for Minneapolis soon thereafter.

So when I realized, last night, that this same Ferryille, Wisconsin was a mere 30 miles from Decorah, Iowa, where I was staying, I decided I need to make a return visit. I found the Bed and Breakfast from Hell and — surprise, surprise, surprise — it is no longer a lodging destination. Here’s what it looks like today:

Former B&B From Hell, Ferrryville, Wisconsin. We stayed in the second floor room at front right in 1991. Sleep did not happen.

Former B&B From Hell, Ferrryville, Wisconsin. We stayed in the second floor room at front right in 1991. Sleep did not happen.

Why did we not sleep in Ferryville? Because huge freight trains barreled down these lines, directly across the street, all night long.

Why did we not sleep in Ferryville? Because huge freight trains barreled down these lines, directly across the street, all night long.

I crossed back into Iowa after my Ferryville reminiscence, and took a circuitous path back to Des Moines, along many roads I’d not driven before. I particularly liked the region around Elkader, and hope to return to it at some point with Marcia. Over the course of two days, I drove 742 miles, much of  that time spent on secondary or dirt roads. Excellent! I had an amazing close encounter with a bald eagle in a bog between Monona and Volney, sitting directly under a tree with him eye-balling me for 10 minutes or so, before he decided I bored him and moved on, gliding away down the river valley. Truly awesome.

It was a fun trip, and added to my Iowa Exploration Experience. Here’s the current map of places I’ve been in the state, with this weekend’s route in red:

My Iowa Exploration Map, April 2013 Route highlighted in red.

My Iowa Exploration Map, April 2013. The black lines indicate the placed I’ve been since November 2011. This past weekend’s route is highlighted in red.

About J. Eric Smith
Executive Director, Salisbury House Foundation.

10 Responses to Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W (And Other Iowa Adventures)

  1. Bob W. says:

    Having learned how to drive on the back/dirt roads in that part of the country, I admire how well you capture the wanderlust they inspire.

    There is nothing quite like it here on the East coast…you never truly get lost driving around upstate NY. Out there, though, it felt like you could drive forever and not see a soul.

  2. Edward Graham Lewis says:

    Dear Eric,
    What a thrill to hear of your adventure to discover and mark THAT spot in Iowa which I randomly glanced upon in 1978!
    Thank you for your documentation and the expansive writings on other Iowian phenomena!

    Very best regards,
    Graham Lewis

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