This 'road geek' has visited all 947 Iowa towns and driven every highway mile but 1
TRAER, Ia. — Statistically speaking, he may be the Iowan that the greatest share of you have encountered on the road.
Not that you noticed as Jeff Morrison whooshed by in utter contentment at the wheel, in relentless pursuit of his goal while listening to a “Star Wars” podcast or blaring a musical soundtrack that ranges from Alabama to "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Morrison is a proud “road geek” who has driven every highway mile in Iowa but one. (Keep reading and I’ll tell you about that remaining mile.)
Through more than 13 years — from March 20, 2003, to Oct. 4, 2016 — he embarked on epic, methodical treks to every nook and cranny of the state. He has visited every town, a 2010 Census tally of 947 from Palmer in northwest Iowa to Klemme in Hancock County.
In 2015 he circumnavigated the state, driving the perimeter of 1,700 miles in eight days.
But his road miles haven't stopped at the Iowa border.
In his life he has traveled to all 48 contiguous states.
This map illustrates Jeff Morrison's driving around the United States, which includes all but one of the highway miles in Iowa, half of the interstate miles nationwide and nearly half of the counties.
He has surveyed half the interstate mileage in the U.S., and all of it in six states (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Nebraska).
He has visited 1,470 counties in the U.S. (101 short of half).
He has driven to the ends of Highway 92, in Wyoming and Illinois.
He traced the length of U.S. Highway 30 from Laramie, Wyo., to Pittsburgh, Pa. (except for a 12-mile gap in western Nebraska that was closed for construction).
No, he's not a truck driver. Morrison, 35, lives in Cedar Rapids where he’s a mild-mannered newspaper copy editor and page designer for the Gazette. He was raised on a farm near the small town of Traer where, as he once wrote, he “grew up on a stoplight and a half.” The half stoplight was an occasional signal triggered to heavy traffic at the start and end of the school day. The full-fledged stoplight is downtown at the intersection of U.S. Highway 63 and Second Street/Iowa Highway 8.
The downtown intersection also happens to be where Highway 8 ends — a foreshadowing of how mapping and transportation would become the dominant hobby in his adult life.
I first got to know Morrison when he spent a decade as a copy editor at The Register, where he routinely saved me from embarrassment. So I quake in my boots as I write this, not only worrying what detail about his extensive travels I may mangle, but which grammatical errors he may ferret out.
But then this guy has seen enough of the American roadside landscape that if our culture’s vicious abuse of the apostrophe on signs hasn’t already melted his copy-editor brain, I'm unlikely to do the job in a single column. I hope.
Solo windshield time galore
Morrison accomplished his feat with four different cars. One of them, a 1986 Chevy Caprice Classic, was stolen from its parking spot beneath the Interstate 480 bridge in Omaha.
He has shot some 34,000 photos along the way with three different versions of the same Olympus camera.
He has fueled his passion with “a lot of Casey’s pizza.” Although there was a memorable “Gunderburger” in northeast Iowa. And a delicious pizza burger in Lake View.
He has found himself in the middle of small-town celebrations such as Whoopee Days in Brighton.
He tracks his stats meticulously online at his website, iowahighwayends.net. At the dawn of the 21st century, Morrison was an enthusiastic member of online user groups where fans of niche passion topics convened from around the globe. This was Morrison's ideal tech era: He’s no fan of Facebook or social media.
That's why this bachelor's solitary hobby has been perfect for him: He gets a lot of solo windshield time and enjoys it.
Dilapidated, abandoned school buildings are heartbreaking eye candy as he explores a sparse terrain that he cherishes. His interactions with other people tend to be incidental. While photographing the incredibly scenic Black Hawk Bridge at the end of Iowa highways 9 and 26 near Lansing in northeast Iowa, for instance, a passerby shouted, “You start taking pictures around here, you’ll never stop!”
He happened to meet a fellow road geek at the western edge of Nebraska in the small town of Lyman. They both disembarked from their cars at about the same time to photograph a school building. The other man said he was in the middle of a quest to visit every town in Nebraska and at that point had hit 120 of them.
The currents of the universe sometimes jostle us together in beguiling ways.
Morrison recognizes that he’s in the same ballpark as other empathetic chroniclers of our fading rural landscape, such as “Forgotten Iowa” photographer Cody Weber of Keokuk. But he also sees the difference: Weber looks at rural Iowa with the eye of an artist, emphasizing mood and feel as he works to instill crackling emotion into each photo.
Morrison is more the obsessive, statistical chronicler. His statement becomes apparent only as he amasses more and more data. His mom claims she triggered his road-geek ways during a family road trip when she handed her 5-year-old son a map and told him to follow along.
He has driven all these miles simply because he cares. In November 2015 he wrote lovingly about his farm roots as his dad exited the cattle business: "This land has shaped me and my family as much as generations of farmers have shaped it."
As early as 2001, while still a student at Iowa State University in Ames, he wrote an op-ed for The Register that more or less revealed the emotional spine for his eventual project: "Whatever town you come to, you are certain to find a story. No matter how small it may be, there's someone who called this place home, or just passed through and said 'Hi' before they made it big. Artists and scientists, U.S. Cabinet secretaries and a president. Maybe Dwight Eisenhower stopped there while taking his caravan on the Lincoln Highway; maybe a future president dished soup or spoke in the gym. Donna Reed and Grant Wood, John Wayne and Glenn Miller: Today, names known across the country; then, names known down the street."
In other words, Morrison's mere presence in every town and highway mile of Iowa is a statement — maybe even a low-key protest.
His accumulated miles are a defiant shout that each one of these communities is worthwhile as long as somebody still calls it home.
And whenever there's an open road, who wouldn't be curious about where it ends?
"Just about any sunny day," Morrison said of his ideal day on the road, "when I’m out and there are no cars in front of me, and I can just drive. ... It makes me feel good."
Is it a state of calm, I wondered, or meditation?
"It’s a rhythm," he said, whether his tires thump along cracked pavement, or there's more of a steady hum from a freshly paved road.
Up next? More travel. A family vacation to New England is in the works.
And there's that final, nagging mile calling his name: a new stretch of Iowa Highway 31 built near Correctionville.
A road geek never can content himself for long with a sense of accomplishment as the highway itself shifts beneath his feet.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or email@example.com. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson) and on Snapchat (@kylemunsoniowa).