#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 21
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’ve been posting all sorts of pictures on Facebook, and we’re getting quite a reaction. It’s prime vacation time and our friends are checking in from exotic world locations—Paris, Rome, the beaches of Mexico–and here Brent and I post from, well, the middle of the road in America and I daresay we’re surprising everybody with the stories we’re finding. Stories of bread-slicing machines, giant ice cream cones, gold mines, happy gnomes, balls of string, underground pubs… America is full of surprises.

At the moment, we’re tracking down a smiley face water tower and a Jesse James marker before we reach Des Moines and make the turn north [toward dinner!]. It’s past lunchtime right now, so we stop for gas and find fuel in the form of pizza and sandwiches, and I’m so hungry I agonize over what to get. I finally decide on a sandwich. Then I stare at Brent’s pizza as we gorge in the parking lot.

“How’s the pizza?” I say.

“Good,” he says with his mouth full.

“Really good? Because it looks really good.”

“You shoulda got pizza,” he laughs.

“There wasn’t any plain,” I say.

“Well,” he shrugs as if that explains it, and finishes the pizza without sharing a bite.

“Well!” I scoff, and he laughs again.

“How was your sandwich?” he asks. Nice distraction technique.

“Good, but I ate it all,” I say.

“Yeah. We’ll feed you again in Rochester.”

I smirk at him, because he likes to say that to me. It’s not that I eat a lot—okay, sometimes I do. But it’s more that Brent gets so focused on the task at hand that he completely forgets to eat. A true engineer, Brent can survive on nothing but soda and chips for days. Part of our friendship has been built around the necessity for me to plan food breaks, coupled with Brent’s patience to “stop the bus” long enough to eat. As we hop back onto I-80, it doesn’t escape me that this time Brent was hungry, too. That was a good stop, even if I didn’t get any pizza.

smileyAs we close in on Adair, we again take up listening to World War Z as we enjoy the Iowa sunshine and deep blue sky. You’d think the sunny afternoon and the spooky zombie war would be a contradiction in terms, but Brent and I find them both to be rather full of hope.

When we reach Adair, as we expect, we easily find the smiley face water tower. One can’t miss it—it’s golden yellow, cheerful, and right off the highway. What Lies AheadWhat we didn’t expect are the myriad people who drive past us on the small side road and honk, wave, and whistle at us as we take our usual array of serious photos. We could be journalists at this point. Or maybe pet photographers (with a good deal of training.) What Lies Ahead

The Googs gives us the vague impression that the water tower has been smiling for decades, simply for the purpose of being cheerful and welcoming. And Wikipedia says Adair is “humorously known as the ‘happiest town on Earth.’” So, as more random cars pass us and people wave, I’m sold. Adair is awesome. (And there’s still more to see!) What Lies Ahead

We get back in the Jetta, planning to turn a couple streets according to Sally the Map App and arrive at the Jesse James marker. But when we reach the place where the marker should be, lo and behold, there’s nothing there. Sally strikes again!

We stare at an open field (with no marker!) and theorize where it could be. Personally, I think we missed it. I must have blinked at the wrong time or turned my head or something. Brent is methodical; he’s sure we didn’t miss it.

What Lies Ahead“Let’s backtrack and start again,” I say just as Brent says, “I think it’s further.” We try my way first (of course we do) and it doesn’t work (of course it doesn’t), but we’re able to rule out a strange turnoff that seemed to lead to railroad tracks. We then try Brent’s way and we find the marker. We hadn’t missed it because it was never behind us; it was always ahead.

What Lies AheadThe marker is on a little knoll and has its own small driveway off the road, which allows us to spend a little time here without worrying about being in the roadway. The marker, a plaque, denotes the first train robbery made by Jesse James and his gang in 1873 just to the southwest of Adair. To pull off the robbery, they had removed a small section of train track—the very section that has been placed behind the plaque and yours truly is lounging on it. What Lies AheadAnd the plaque itself, which is mounted on a train wheel, has a story of its own: Years ago, it was stolen. And it wasn’t until the thief’s house in Ohio burned down that the marker was found and returned.

What Lies AheadWe’re Googling this story as a Cadillac suddenly pulls up the small driveway and a man and woman emerge to join us. This is a first. We’re usually alone at these roadside curiosities.

They tell us they’re retired, originally from Boston and heading back that way, and that they’d heard about this marker and just had to stop. We tell them the story about the Ohio thief and Brent shows them the write-up from RoadsideAmerica.com on his phone.What Lies Ahead

“Now, that is interesting,” the man says.

The four of us share road and weather stories before climbing back in our cars and heading on our separate ways. I can’t help but feel a certain kismet at finding this marker a little later than we expected, yet just in time to meet some kindred spirits–or maybe, in time to meet a version of our future selves. Brent and I widen our eyes at the thought of it. It seems the road never fails to offer surprises of its own.

Back to the Zombie War, and onward to dinner!

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)