One of the great things about seeking out Iowa oddities is that there is usually one pretty close by. Any regular day trip can easily be enhanced by throwing in an oddity. This is my excuse for the craziness that ensued a few weeks ago when we set off to see a couple of Iowa's notorious trees. What's that? You didn't know such a thing existed? Read on.
We were driving back from Omaha on Interstate 80 and made the spontaneous decision to take the road less traveled. We exited onto Highway 71 with plans to makes stops in three small towns: Brayton, Exira and Audubon. Brayton and Exira are home to Iowa's most interesting trees. Audubon has Albert the Bull. We never made it to Albert, so that adventure still awaits.
On our first pass through Brayton we missed our turnoff to find the tree, shocking because Brayton isn't much bigger than one intersection. By the time realized our mistake we were already halfway to Exira so we just visited that tree first. This is a tree that has almost completely grown around a civil war era steel plow. The story is that a farmer rested his plow against an Oak sapling and went off to join the war, never to return. Whether that is true or not it's always cool to see a tree eating something. There's a nice little park next to the tree, appropriately named Plow-In-Oak Park, where you could stop for a picnic if you actually planned this in advance. Alas, we are not good at thinking ahead, so we just took some pictures and turned back toward Brayton to find the other notorious tree.
The story behind Brayton's tree is that a surveyor was walking through Iowa marking lines for mapping and stuck his walking stick into the ground where an intersection should be. That stick grew into a mighty tree that now serves as the world's most beautiful and permanent roundabout. It is literally in the middle of the intersection. Should be easy to find, right? My book, Oddball Iowa: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places by Jerome Pohlen, told us the tree was at the intersection of Akron Rd and 710th St. We were also to follow the signs leading us to a "Landmark Tree."
One issue: The book was published in 2005 and, like my life has changed a lot in 10 years, so have street names! Akron Rd no longer exists! We followed the "Landmark Tree" signs until they stopped and then wandered somewhat aimlessly down gravel roads looking for this tree. It had been raining all day so the roads were soft and, of course, we were in the Honda Fit, all of this was a recipe for adventure/disaster. We soon found ourselves stuck tire-rim deep in sticky Iowa clay on a low maintenance road, because a low maintenance road and rain = mud. After an hour or so of car pushing, mud flinging, mild cussing and child reassuring we got ourselves back onto the gravel and surrendered our quest, the tree would have to remain a legend... until we topped the next hill and encountered the tree.
For the record the tree stands at the intersection of what is now Nighthawk Ave and 350th St. It is a very large and very impressive Cottonwood, very much in the middle of the intersection. I am so glad we found it. If you're a tree hugger or tree nerd at all, you should definitely see this tree. Had we updated directions, both of these trees are just minutes off the interstate. It would definitely be more interesting, in my opinion, to plan a rest stop at the Plow-In-Oak park than at an actual interstate rest area. But having learned our lesson this time I do suggest the following when seeking out an Iowa oddity.
First: Have a map. A real one, not just your phone.
Second: Have current information. I picked up a second book, Iowa Curiosities 2nd Edition by Eric Jones, Dan Coffey and Berit Thorkelson. Both now ride in the car. The books aren't exact duplicates in their list of items, but I feel more confident about the newer one, published in 2010, giving me accurate directions. Also keep in mind that many of these attractions are in small towns and most people are friendly, so you can always just roll down your window and ask for directions. That's a very Iowa thing to do.
Third: It's nice to have a good pair of shoes. You never know what environment you might find yourself in and I'd hate to miss out on something because I only packed Birkenstocks (which are not good for pushing a car stranded in clay). If a pair of good shoes can just live in your trunk you'll always be ready for whatever adventure awaits.
And now to find that bull in Audubon...
Author's note: After my last blog post some requested more photos. I have created a companion site to this blog for the sake of sharing pictures. On it you'll find an album for this entry and for the previous entry about Viking Lake. Please continue to comment and suggest at will.