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Consider this quote from Abe Lincoln

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."



     For many of us, the ability to travel far and distant places isn’t in our grasp due to the economy or our relentless work schedules. It is in these times that many of us are choosing “staycations” and finding places around Iowa to spend those few precious days of vacation that we have.

     Sometimes along with a short weekend away, one has the opportunity to cross a few things off their “Bucket List” as I had the chance to do recently. My traveling companion, who shall remain nameless to protect them from the shame and ridicule that certainly would be heaped upon them for falling for one of my great Iowa road trips, loaded the car one recent Saturday morning and headed out to see the world and find some good food along the way.

     Departing early on Saturday morning it was a quick trip through the Iowa countryside to LeGrand where we found citywide garage sales. Although this stop wasn’t even remotely considered part of the itinerary we stopped and drove through town anyway finding a few treasures mixed in with all the baby clothes and Anne Murray CD’s. I’m still not sure that I really walked away from an honest to goodness honey knife for a dollar, but one really has to draw the line somewhere so we hopped back into the car and punched in our destination on the GPS which I have named “Sally” and talked to almost non stop throughout our journey.

     Pulling into Waterloo I could feel the first few rumblings of hunger and guessing that my companion could use a rest I found a treat that really said Iowa. There is nothing better on a Saturday than a quick stop at the local Maid-Rite and after a Maid-Rite basket we were off in search of our first stop, the sleep little town of Clermont, and the site of the first of my bucket list stops that day.

     The landscape of Iowa is diverse from its plain gently rolling farmland to its bluffs and valleys. Being flatlanders there is something about turning the corner and running the highway along top of the ridge, looking off into the distance over fields and farms. There is a peaceful beauty there and I found it harder and harder to keep my eyes on the road and we started our descent into the valley that held Clermont in its grasp. With a population of 800 it’s much like Dexter, not much going on the main drag through town, but filled with interesting buildings and history. We drove around the town just a bit to get our bearings and were tempted to crash the Schrader wedding that was going on, complete with and Elgin fire truck to escort the bride and groom away. But as much fun as it would have been to eat a little cake, have a little punch and fill our pockets with nuts and mints we had a goal in mind and started the climb north out of town along a steep little incline that led the way to Montauk.

     A true Iowa treasure, Montauk, named after the famous lighthouse, was home to Governor Larabee and his family. Built in 1874, the mansion rises up through the pines, high on a hill overlooking the town. The driveway and parking areas are generous and one is greeted with little plaques, which give a brief history of both the building and the family. Tours are provided of the house on ever quarter hour and we were fortunate to have arrived behind a kind family of “locals” who allowed us to join their small tour. They had obviously pulled some strings and knowing the proper secret handshake ended up with a wonderful tour guide. Mary T., as her embroidered shirt read, reminded me of my own grade school teachers, or what they would have been like outside of class. As she lead us from room to room, the speech wasn’t canned, which we found a refreshing change from so many tours, and was interspersed with family stories and a real humbleness that not only made me feel welcomed in this home, but also kept my attention throughout the tour.

     I’ve been to hundreds of historical sites from open prairie to the White House, and yet I can honestly say that I’ve never quite enjoyed myself as much as I did for that hour at Montauk. Partly because the house was furnished as it had been with the Larabee family lived there; the youngest daughter occupying the house until her death at 96. We have all been on tours where we get to see how the family “may have furnished their home”, but from the books on the shelves to the long outdated but wonderful antique 1960s dishwasher, everything in the home belonged to the family that lived there and used it. Mostly though, because Mary took the time to answer all of our questions, even if we weren't sure the answers were really the "real" answers. She was frank with information about the home, the family, and wasn’t even ashamed to tell us when the “as it has been told forever stories” weren’t really true. It was really refreshing to hear how personal this family and this home are to the people around Clermont. As though they owned it and took pride in it being there. She was quick to make us laugh with a tongue-in-cheek wit that made me remark at one point that I could walk outside and come back in for a completely different tour!

    The home is a real Iowa treasure, and I surely hope that the state continues to fund it for many years to come…and if you get up that way be sure to stop in and ask for the other Iowa treasure, Mary, and tell her the newspaper guy sent you.

     We left Montauk and headed back into town, stopping briefly at the local museum where the most interesting object was a section of tree trunk from the Shiloh battlefield. Just down the street in a small storefront sits Alvin Straights lawn mower. You may remember him from the movie the Straight Story that chronicled his journey from Laurens, Iowa to Wisconsin on his lawn mower to see his brother who was ill. After a quick poke around and giving directions to an out of town limo driver who couldn’t find the wedding site we marked Montauk and Clermont off of our list and headed across the Iowa hills to the small village of Festina. Two miles out in the woods stands the World’s smallest church, with its beautiful altar and seating for eight. Oh sure, it’s no Little Brown Church, but still and interesting and moving place just the same.

     After leaving some money in the unlocked poor box we headed out to the last thing on my bucket list for the day and fought Sally as she worked hard to figure out where the town of Gunder, Iowa was located. Now let’s be perfectly honest here folks. Gunder Iowa is about the size of Wiscotti and it’s another one of those wide places where the dead in the cemetery outnumber the living most days. We happened upon the Irish Shanty, which was home to the famous Gunderburger. If you venture up there don’t let the number of cars in the parking lot scare you as seating is ample and roomy, although the service was a bit slow and getting an ice tea refill was like asking the Pope to become Protestant.

     The Gunderbuger, one of Iowa’s top ten burgers, is a one-pound behemoth that can be ordered a few different ways. I chose the loaded version complete with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon and about a half pound of grilled mushrooms. It comes with pickles and choice of potatoes on the side and since I was feeling exceptionally American that day I chose the American fries, which is Gunder speak for “fried potatoes in lard”. Now if you know me well, you know that if it’s cooked in lard it’s gotta be good and I wasn’t disappointed at all. The fried taters (as my brother calls them) were good, but not like Grandma’s and the burger was all it was cracked up to be. Hot, cooked clear through and thick. The downside was the bun it was served on, as though they had run to the supermarket and bought a package of buns. My one and only suggestion would be to give it a bun that it deserves. It’s reasonably priced, and with an ice tea added was around $12.

     Upon paying the check, the owner greeted us and when he found out we had driven four hours to try it, from the home of the world famous Duck had to ask how the Gunderburger stacked up with the “Best Burger in Iowa”. I looked at the floor and shuffled my feet a little as I tried to just get my check paid before the locals started after me. He interrogated me like I was a POW who held all the Duck’s secrets, but I held true to my hometown and just mumbled that the Gunderburger was good.

     I chuckled as we made it back out into the parking lot and started on our way south out of Gunder, noting that yeah it was good, but it was no Duck burger…not by a long shot.
It was a great day, filled with great sites, wonderful people and darn good food. I’ll probably go there again someday exploring but for now I’m kind of tired and could really use some more Rolaids…there really is no place like home.

See you next week…Remember, we’re all in this together.