Once you clear Joliet when traveling west through Illinois, you find yourself in the corn belt. I’ve heard people talk about driving through states like Iowa or Kansas: “it’s just a lot of corn.” Well, that is an understatement! We have never seen so much corn in our lives! It’s more than acres upon acres, even more than mile after mile. It’s really difficult to describe. From the passenger seat, I kept trying to capture the vastness of the corn fields through the window and it was just impossible. Even this picture, which I found on the internet, doesn’t really do it justice.
If it’s not corn growing in the fields, it’s soybeans. I’d say maybe one field of soybeans for every three of corn. There aren’t really a lot of cattle or dairy farms out here because the land is devoted to growing these two crops. In Iowa, there are currently 86,900 farms, most of which are family owned (only 3% are corporate). Around 90% of Iowa is farmland. In 2019, Iowa farms harvested around 2.5 billion bushels of corn from 13.1 million acres of land. It isn’t the sweet corn we wait patiently for every summer, this is “field corn,” primarily used for livestock feed, ethanol production and manufacturing, as well as corn cereal, corn starch, corn oil and high fructose corn syrup. Corn is in more than 4,000 other manufactured products like shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, marshmallows, crayons and paper. I won’t even get into how much corn is exported. In 2020, corn production in the United States was a $75 billion industry and in Iowa the majority of farmers are over the age of 60; only 9% are under age 35, which is a real concern — who will continue to farm this land in the future? If young people don’t become farmers, who will grow America’s crops? Will we end up buying them from other countries?
We have been traveling for a few days past the corn. Looking at this map of the corn belt, the red dot farthest to the right is Joliet, Illinois. You can follow the red dots and arrows west along our approximate route. We’ve visited Tiffin, Iowa (just outside Iowa City), then northwest to Mason City, Iowa, further northwest to Victoria, Minnesota, back down southwest to Jackson, Minnesota and finally landing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although this map illustrates the amount of corn production, you can also consider it a reflection of the density of corn fields.
The Iowa City area was a real surprise. It’s a good sized city, but there are no high-rise buildings so it looks like the midwestern city you’ve seen in geography books, sort of caught in time. It’s growing, though. That’s evidenced by the interstate construction taking commuters to a lot of new housing and retail developments in neighboring towns.
Just outside of Iowa City is possibly the most beautiful park we’ve camped in yet. I know, I said that about Letchworth! F.W. Kent Park is equally beautiful, but in a different way. This is tallgrass prairie, where the rolling hills used to grow tall grasses and wildflowers that thrived on the rain and snow melt. F.W. Kent Park is over 1,000 acres of rolling prairie with a lake and nine miles of hiking and biking trails. It’s incredibly well-maintained. There’s an accessible fishing dock, a beach, multiple private picnic pavilions, a developed walking path around the lake with historic bridges and an 84-site campground that is entirely first-come, first-served with electricity (no water at the sites) at a cost of $20 per night. It was just beautiful! I booked only one night here, and am sorry that I didn’t book a week. We’ll definitely visit this park again!
Mason City, Iowa, was just an overnight Walmart stop … a place to get some sleep for free before moving along. Just before departing the next morning, I happened to take a look at one of our favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, to see if there were any sites worth seeing nearby. Believe it or not, we were about five miles from the site of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper! There’s a memorial set up on the side of a gravel road beside the corn field, and about ¼ mile into the field is another memorial at the actual crash site. The field is still privately owned and they still grow corn, but there is a path to the memorial. We couldn’t leave Mason City without paying our respects!
You might wonder why we bothered to jag northward into Minnesota. We were here to see Paisley Park, the home and recording studio of Prince.
I’d never been a huge fan of Prince’s music … I liked a couple of songs, but most weren’t my cup of tea. Then, in 2013 some friends invited me to a concert of his in Connecticut. We ended up in the seventh row center. I have to say that Prince put on the most entertaining concert I’ve ever seen. He’s an incredibly talented guitarist, band leader, dancer and showman. I am very glad that I got to see him live.
This past spring, we caught a 60-Minutes story about Paisley Park, Prince’s studio outside Minneapolis and, more interestingly, his vault which is supposed to contain somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 songs that he has written and, in many instances, recorded. We were curious and wanted to learn more. The story of Prince is so much more than that crazy artist who dropped his real name and used a symbol — the guy really was a musical genius. He played almost every instrument on his recordings, he wrote the songs, arranged, mixed, edited and produced them all. He wrote songs under pseudonyms so that nobody would know it was him, songs for Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, Madonna, even Kenny Rogers. You wouldn’t have known it by looking at him or watching him perform, but he was only a year younger than me. He was obsessed with looking youthful and worked hard at it. It’s such a shame that he fell victim to opioid addiction as so many others have.
When I looked at Atlas Obscura a couple of months ago and realized that we would be passing just an hour or so from Paisley Park, there was no question that we would stop and check it out. This is a 55,000 square foot facility that looks more like a commercial building than a home and studio. We toured the first level which comprised 4 recording studios, offices, a basketball court/dance rehearsal studio, a sound stage and nightclub where he would occasionally invite the public for private concerts. Security was incredibly tight, with tall fencing around the perimeter, guards, etc. They even made us turn off our phones and place them into little locked bags which were unlocked just before we left the building. Needless to say, it was pretty interesting.
While in Victoria, we stayed in a large and lovely park called Lake Auburn/Carter Park Preserve. The park is huge with miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding plus a beautiful paved bike path and a 27-acre totally fenced dog park where Tessa could run free. The campground only provides electricity at sites, bring your own water or fill up at a community spigot. This is the first campground we’ve ever been to that does not provide a shower house for campers! So, while it’s a lovely park, plan accordingly!
We left Victoria and headed back southwesterly to Jackson, Minnesota, for a Harvest Host stay. Fort Belmont is a recreated prairie fort that was used by civilians in the mid 1800’s when they were threatened with attacks by Indians. This was not a military fort. We were met by Doug, who was beyond friendly and gave us a personal one-on-one tour of the museum complex. All of the buildings on the property were lifted off their foundations in other parts of town and relocated here on flatbeds except the sod house, which was built by historians. It’s a pretty cool place that I recommend to our Harvest Host RV friends, especially those interested in history.
There was a bonus to staying at Fort Belmont … a music festival! The Rhythm on the River festival was a day-long concert by various local artists. Although we had reservations at a campground to get to, we made sure we stuck around for a couple hours of live music!
And, finally, we arrived in South Dakota, which has been our first goal of this trip! We’ll be touring this state for a few weeks, so until the next blog post . . . Be well!