Pose for a portrait in front of one of the most iconic backdrops in American art
While you’re there: Not far from Eldon is the small town of Ottumwa, where you’ll find the state of Iowa’s signa-ture sandwich at Canteen Lunch in the Alley. Inside this squat yellow building, there’s a horseshoe bar wrapped around the restaurant’s centerpiece: a freestanding metal steamer that cooks over a hundred and fifty pounds of ground beef daily, seasoned only with salt. Loose-meat sandwiches here are available with cheese and “everything” (ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion). They’re four dollars and ten cents, and they’re utterly satisfying.
There are not stoplights in Eldon, a tiny town nestled deep between the rolling green hills and golden cornfields of southern Iowa. There’s a small grocery store ten miles away; you’ll have to drive an hour and a half to Iowa City if you want to find a Starbucks. All things considered, it’s a surprising place to find the inspiration for one of the world’s most iconic paintings.
You don’t need to be an art savant to recognize Grant Wood’s seminal 1930 masterpiece “American Gothic.” The portrait of a dour farmer father and his daughter (Wood’s sister and his dentist, in fact, both of whom he asked to pose for the painting) in front of a humble white house with its osten-tatious gothic window has been parodied countless times in editorial cartoons, advertisements and magazine covers. When you visit the original American Gothic House in Eldon, the visitor center happily provides costumes and props for you to recreate your own portrait, from the overalls and patterned apron down to the cameo hayfork and necklace.
Most of the time, the house is closed to visitors. There is something surreal about seeing the small home in person, though you’ll have to content yourself with posing in front of it and walking around the well-kept lawn. The visitor center, open a few hours each month, contains a compact room packed with information about Wood’s life and work, as well as the history of the house—it was built in 1881, and Wood only visited it twice.
“American Gothic” is often inter-preted as a satirical work, but that was never Wood’s intention. Rather, his aim was to exalt the Midwestern spirit: There is admiration in the fine lines of his subjects’ faces and fastidious attention to detail in the pattern on the window curtains. —Natalie Gallagher
GO:Eldon is 225 miles from KC. From I-35 north, take exit 92 for US-136 east. US-136 east merges with US 63 north after 90 miles. Continue on US-63 and follow for 12 miles to Floris Road. Take Floris Road to downtown Eldon, then take a left on Ninth Street, a right on Elm Street and a left on Finney.
Northwest Arkansas has some of America’s finest mountain biking
While you’re there: As home to one of the world’s most successful corporations, Bentonville has an embarrassment of cultural riches. None are more impressive than the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, home to everything from Gilbert Stuart’s definitive portrait of George Washington to modern icons by Warhol and Rothko. The museum is free.
You don’t have to be in Bentonville long to realize that biking isn’t just an afterthought; it’s become integral to the culture of this thriv-ing northwest Arkansas community. The energy and passion from the locals (and the Walton family) have helped grow this town into a biking destination for cyclists of all pursuits and skill levels. Trails here serve as a network of roots, which are all interconnected and lead back to the town as a central hub. The accessibility of these trails, both in location and degrees of difficulty, is impressive.
Bentonville has employed professional trail builders to build miles of trails that are not only enjoyable to ride but easy to work into daily life. You can commute to work by bike without leaving the trails. One of the most unique features of the system is that trails are integrated into the infrastructure, allowing riders to explore all of Bentonville by bike. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is located within pedaling distance from the downtown square and features a bikeable art trail that meanders past sculptures and waterways. Hotels, restaurants and coffee shops are all within riding distance of mountain bike trails. Phat Tire, a full-service bike shop located on the town square, offers everything you need to get your bike on the trails, as well as guided tours, shuttles and bike rentals.
Here’s the lowdown on three trails to get you started. —Kim Horgan
Slaughter Pen is a twenty-plus-mile, mod-erately trafficked loop of flowy singletrack mountain biking trail that runs past Crystal Bridges Museum and includes difficulty levels from beginner to expert.
Color Preserve trails are built on land desig-nated as a mountain bike preserve but located only two miles from downtown Bentonville. Coler features miles of flowy, technical, rocky trails with several jump features. It is one of the state’s most challenging enduro-style trails.
Razorback Regional Greenway is a collection of nineteen interconnected bike trails covering thirty-six miles and connecting Bentonville, Fayetteville and their suburbs. It’s entirely off-road or protected bike lanes. The Lake Springdale section is particularly scenic.
GO: Fayetteville is 225 miles south on I-49.
The most impressive native American ruins north of Mexico
While you’re there: Once the largest train station in the world, St. Louis’ Union Station is now home to attractions including the new St. Louis Aquarium, a massive aquatic attraction with 13,000 animals including a massive shark exhibit and adorable otters. The aquarium opened last Christmas and has quickly risen to one of the top tourism destinations in STL.
There was a time when St. Louis was the largest city in the country. Well, not St. Louis, exactly, but Cahokia, the Native American settlement on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. Archaeologists believe it was as large as London during the High Middle Ages, around the time William the Conqueror was leading the Norman Conquest of England.Monk’s Mound is the largest Native American mound north of Mexico and one of only two dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the United States. It rises a hundred feet over East St. Louis, offering views of the arch and the city skyline. —Martin Cizmar
GO: Cahokia is 258 miles east of Kansas City. Take I-70 east to exit 6, then go east on Collinsville Road to the mounds.
Little Sweden, USA, is in Kansas
Walking down the street of Lindsborg, Kansas, is like walking through a storybook.
Sprinkled throughout the cob-blestone-street town are Swedish boutiques, herds of painted Dala horses, art galleries and colorful dollhouse bed and breakfasts.
The town of Lindsborg was settled in and built up by Swedish immigrants in 1869. Today, thirty percent of Lindsborg’s three thousand-resident popu-lation are natively Swedish. So don’t be surprised if, when walk-ing down the streets of Lindsborg, someone wishes you “god dag” (for non-Swede folk, that means “good day”).
Across the street from Lindsborg’s Smoky Valley Roller Mill, which once operated as a national flour mill in the 1880s, is Heritage Square, a photogenic fenced-off plaza of colorful historic buildings including a one-room school-house, a railroad depot and the first McPherson County Court-house. The Swedish Pavilion that sits at the north end of the square was brought over from Sweden for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
If you’re in town and in need of a pick-me-up, I recommend stopping by the Blacksmith Coffee Shop, which is in a century-old building that once operated as an actual blacksmith shop. The almond-flavored cafe latte is divine. —Nicole Bradley
GO: Take the scenic route on this one—drive two hours south-west on I-35 until you reach Emporia, then hop on US-50 to pass through Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, just north of Strong City. Take US-150, which turns into US-56, until you hit I-135 and go north. Get off on the Smoky Valley Road exit. Take a right on 14th Avenue, then a left on E. Lincoln Street, which will take you into town.