Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 19, 2004 Buses over the Rainbow, Decorah Iowa.

My mid-west schedule was organized around a Vanagon event in Decorah, Iowa, where I headed on Friday after taking my leave of Nelson – and after dropping my engine cover on my toe, causing it to bleed and hurt like hell. I limped into the local campground in Decorah to get lots of sympathy – though I gather the old air-cooled vans had steel engine covers and that would have been MUCH worse.

This event was nothing like Everybus, but for northern eastern Iowa it was big. There were around twenty vans at Pulpit Rock Campground that weekend. Jim Fritz, the band director in the local high school, had done a great job organizing. On Saturday we had a guided tour of Decorah in the morning, including the local Civilian Conservation Corps-built park overlooking the town and the all-important Whippy Dip soft ice cream spot, and a trip to several splendid parks overlooking the Mississippi in the afternoon. I didn’t want to drive, so I rode in other folks’ vans, which gave me a chance to spend more time talking to some of the other vanagonauts.

Definitely a different crew from Everybus! I didn’t see a single tie-dyed t-shirt, no long hair, no deadheads or deadhead wannabes, and no children except for Jim’s two teen-aged daughters who put in a brief appearance and the three young children of another Decorah resident who stopped by but didn’t camp with us. The mid-west is agricultural, and there were a few farmers at the event, and more who had grown up on farms even if they weren’t there still. And almost everyone was native to the mid-west.

Decorah is an interesting town. Friday night Jim told us stories about the conflicts in the town over the Walmart and the bridge. There was an ordinary Walmart in Decorah, but the company wanted to build a superstore on the edge of town. The townspeople didn’t want it – a Walmart superstore would compete with just about every shop in town, probably undercutting them on prices and putting them out of business. It would provide badly paid job with no benefits. It would reduce community sustainability by hurting locally owned shops. It would threaten the economic viability of the town’s small downtown area. But it turned out that the town council had given permission to build the Walmart before the residents even had a chance to oppose it, and the store now stands there on the edge of town in all of its glory.

The one-lane green iron bridge runs over the local river, connecting a residential neighborhood to a park on the edge of town. It teaches Decorah residents how to take turns, Jim said, since only one car can cross at a time. We crossed it in our vans, while the folks on the other side of the bridge politely waited for us to pass. The town council decided a one lane bridge wasn’t suited to their ambitions, though, and they wanted to replace it with a two lane bridge strong enough to carry trucks. The neighborhood residents fought, trying to get historic designation for the bridge, arguing that trucks shouldn’t be able to go through a residential neighborhood, seeking every means to protect their educational bridge. They lost, though, again the town council voted four to three for “progress.”

Decorah is, according to Jim, a mirror of the US and the state of Iowa – split right down the middle on politics, development, and most other issues. After the Walmart and the bridge fights, the balance shifted enough that one person on the town council was replaced, and now the votes should go the other way – but still, the community is pretty evenly divided. I’d expected that a small Iowa town surrounded by agriculture would be like Brimley or some of the other places on the eastern end of the UP, but Decorah isn’t like that. It has a college, Luther College, which, while clearly Lutheran, is a liberal arts school with a strong focus on music. The college brings in students and faculty and artists, who form the nucleus of a liberal community. The town has a food coop, where a few of us stopped at the end of our tour. The coop newspaper told of the store’s growth and changes since it was founded thirty years ago. It told about the problems in buying organic produce in the upper mid-west, because the major wholesale supplier, which had been committed to working with cooperatives, was recently bought out and was developing a more corporate culture. The newspaper included a detailed insert about the fight to stop factory hog farming in the county. The young man at the cash register in the food coop told me he had grown up in the Bronx. He came to Decorah as a youth for a music program, and fell in love with the place. So as an adult he returned there, and was part of the committed liberal community in the town.

Decorah certainly punctured some of my preconceptions about the rural Midwest!

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