A Roadside Shrine

The best thing about Almost Iowa is the view.

Out here on the prairie, the rising and setting of the sun fill the entire sky and thunder storms reveal themselves hours before they strike – which is nice.

But what is best about the view, is that you can always see who is coming.

Because of the dust.

Our township insists that our roads are made of gravel but gravel consists mostly of pebbles. Our roads do not. They are comprised mostly of dust. It is what the sand pit people call the fines. That’s the powdery stuff that remains after they sell the pebbles to someone else.

And the dust gets on everything.

Car dealers around here sell only one color of vehicle: light brown. It is futile to aspire to any else. The minute you leave the blacktop, it doesn’t matter what color you brought with you.

And every vehicle on those roads drags a plume of dust – at least fifty feet high and a quarter mile long. So you can see them coming from a long, long way away.

But here is the curious thing:

Whenever you watch the contrails of dust work their way across the horizon, they always hesitate for an instant at one distant intersection before continuing toward the other side of the world and you have to know something about that intersection to appreciate how remarkable this is.

It is in the middle of a ghost town.

It is, like so many other prairie ghost towns, nothing more than the remains of a handful of weathered sway-backed buildings scattered around the foundation of an abandoned creamery – though, to be fair, it is a bit more metropolitan than most ghost towns because it proudly hosts an intersection with a stop sign. It’s where all those dust plumes pause for an instant on their journey.

I have traveled much of the world and I have never seen anything like it. When you drive across the prairie on gravel roads, you can see cross-traffic from ten miles away, so there isn’t much reason to brake at a lonely stop sign – yet people do.


You have to wonder what makes people do that?

In many places, people obey the law out of fear – but not here. The county seat is a half-hour away and the sheriff’s deputies rarely come around and when they do, we smile and wave because most of us are related to them.

We don’t stop for fear of an accident or that someone will see us and spread gossip.

We don’t fear any of that.

We do it because we respect the people who make the laws – which in a democracy is us. If we didn’t want the sign there, we would ask the county to remove it – but nobody would do that.

People new to the area often remark how silly the sign is and we nod politely in agreement. It is silly.

But we keep it there as a shrine.

It is a place to stop, if even for an instant, and remind ourselves of the things that are greater than ourselves and if we take a moment to honor that – well then… we are all just a little better off.

Author: Almost Iowa


40 thoughts on “A Roadside Shrine”

  1. Beautiful. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of writing about how the stop sign at the end of our shared private road has been mysteriously sawed off…

  2. Yeah, the views in Iowa are amazing! Try going to Dubuque sometime, they have attractions built around the Mississippi River. They’re to die for

  3. I lived in a small town from kindergarten to 8th grade just blocks from the country road which was part gravel but mostly dust. No cops so that’s where we all learned to drive with no permits or minimum wages. We just got behind the wheel and blew dust everywhere.

  4. Well said! A certain amount of respect for authority and others is necessary in our society. And I say this as someone who has to walk dogs in a shelter on a street near a community college. Yes, we have stop signs. But no, most people do not obey them. It’s beyond annoying!

  5. I really needed to read this post today, Greg. There are some things we need to do simply because they’re the right thing to do. Preserving our democracy is one of them.

    1. This topic of preserving democracy came up on the sidewalk outside of our local pizza place as we all waited for our orders on a balmy November evening.

      “It’s all about sports,” one lady said.
      “Yeah, school sports.”
      “How so?”
      “Well, it teaches you how to lose and more importantly to win – gracefully.”

      Can’t say I disagree.

      Now all we need is something to teach compromise.

  6. Great story as always and well written. We have the same issues with dust when it is dry. Dust fills the air, even though you can see it. If it sprinkles a little, the vehicles look like they had a dust bath. Some of the back roads here don’t have stop signs and the county doesn’t mow the weeds. If you come across an intersection with weeds over 6′ tall, you definitely have to stop. A couple of years ago I slowed down at one such intersection before proceeding… I was almost across it when a vehicle came and ran into me. Be thankful for stop signs and a view to see the dust of oncoming traffic…

    1. There is this similar thing called Iowa Roulette, it is when people blow through intersections when the corn is high and planted right out to the road.

  7. And here I thought this was going to be a humorous ghost story, with Stan leaving something in your garage!
    Lovely, Greg, and oh so sweetly and aptly expressed. Good reminder of basic human rights & responsibilities. ❤❤

    1. If I would have slipped Stan in there, the piece would have been very different. Stan holds that rights are what he gets to do and responsibilities are what others have to do for him. 🙂

      1. Yeah, I got that. 😏
        Your message would’ve been lost in the guffaws & complexity of calculating the contrast.
        Really well-expressed, Greg.

  8. I just gave a book talk in Guthrie Center, Iowa. I don’t think there’s a stoplight in the entire county, but what a beautiful place to bask (and share stories).

      1. It’s the only place I knew my Grandma Leora. “Guthrie County Roots” is the subtitle to this last book, about the beginnings of her long life (97 years). Five sons served in WWII. Only two came home. That was the first book, so it’s a trilogy written backward. Yes, we saw some dirt roads!

  9. What a wonderful approach to a difficult issue. This may be my favorite of all your posts. Apart from everything else, it reminded me of my growing up years in Iowa, when the speed limit signs along the highways didn’t say ’55 MPH’ or ’65 MPH.’ They said, “Reasonable and proper.” The assumptions behind that are marvelous to contemplate.

    1. There are more than a dozen prairie ghost towns within 10 miles of here. Most were centered around a store or a creamery. Here is a list of Freeborn County ghost towns.

      To place Freeborn County on a map, it is roughly were I-90 intersects I-35 in south-central Minnesota.

  10. I lived in Kansas for many years so understand ‘flat,’ but I still wasn’t quite sure where you were going. I got it, I agree, and I applaud the way you circled around to something very important but lacking in areas in today’s society.

    1. As I noted to Shoreacres, civilization is what we do when no one is looking.

      Case in point, on Halloween some kids, I presume, sprayed graffiti on the tombstone in a Rochester, Minnesota graveyard. The damage was extensive. On the other extreme, after a storm, someone walked through our little cemetery and tidied up all the flowers and vases that had been tipped over by the wind.

      The thing is, they might well be the same people – separated by a life-time of experience and maturing.

  11. I enjoy rolling hills and mountains too much to fully appreciate the open plains, but I hope you and your stop sign have many more happy years together.

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