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Hidden gems of the interstate

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | DECEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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What makes a good public rest area? Are they simply places for you to pull off of the interstate, stretch your legs, and relieve yourself of the pressures of natural urges?

Or are they an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture and history of a state, to really admire everything the great people of said state have accomplished? You might be surprised.

A few miles out of town, heading toward Des Moines, there sits a rest stop at mile marker 240 fitted with copper sculptures of books shining like new pennies, fixtures on pillars and, surrounding the perimeter of the main building in a single line, a shelf stuck in brick. Education is the area’s theme, and inside is displayed various mosaic murals of Iowa’s rural beauty. In the dead of winter, a fairly snowless one, the view out the back windowed doors is a sea of gold, dead stalks crushed and glimmering in the sunlight. Despite the smell from the restrooms, it’s almost easy to forget the rest area’s intended function. 

The Iowa Department of Transportation certainly knows what it’s doing. Online, it has catalogued every public rest area of interest and their artistic focus. They’re like mini Living History Farms, except they’re a stone’s throw away from the nation’s busiest interstate, and they’re built around bathroom stalls. 

After driving down the interstate a few klicks to turn around at an exit, heading back toward Iowa City, you’ll encounter Tiffin Westbound’s sibling stop, Tiffin Eastbound, a stop that simultaneously serves as a place of relief and a tribute to Iowa’s historical writing prowess. 

Names, chiseled in brick, list many of the state’s greats, natives and visitors. Kurt Vonnegut — Fiction, etc. There’s a scrolling LED display with passages and quotes from various works. 
Outside there are shelters with quotes and passages punched into their sheet metal walls, and, perhaps most magnificent of all, a giant metal quill set smack in the center of the building’s cement courtyard.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, there are, in fact, Yelp reviews for rest stops—long, descriptive, almost romantic essays about how nice it is to roll down the ramp and into these wondrous worlds of rest. They’re right.

One of the passages punched into a shelter house at the Tiffin Eastbound stop comes from Ames-born U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006 Ted Kooser; it reads: “There’s no money in poetry because most of my neighbors, and most of yours, don’t have any use for it." Sitting on a fairly ignored and rusting slab of metal, this is perhaps a fitting notion.

The Iowa DOT recently began seeking private company sponsorships in exchange for advertising at rest areas, marketing investments that, according to the website, would help to maintain the quality of rest areas while also freeing up money for other transportation needs. The Tiffin stop is still up for grabs. 

While they’re still around (and still very nice), it’s worth asking: Can a public rest stop be more than a collection of toilets and motion-sensing sinks and vending machines? Can they serve as a beacon of pride in what this great state has accomplished? Take a drive. See for yourself.


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