Checking off Boxes

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A Harley zipped by me at an Iowa rest stop, and this is how the woman on the back saw me: Face full of sandwich, gazing affectionately at the bottle of barbecue sauce in my hand. She was heavy-set and covered in leather, and waved. My cheeks were stuffed like those of a squirrel, and all of my clothes were sweaty, and I answered with a half-toast, half-wave gesture. Or maybe I just nodded my head. I don’t remember.

I shoved my sandwich into a murky, visceral puddle: All 20 ounces of a Coke I was instructed to share with Ashley; a Red Bull, 8.4 oz — so, the small wings (and they felt small right about now); and one of those two-foot-tall Starbucks drink silos. I couldn’t tell if I was sick from exhaustion or exactly sick to my stomach. That murky puddle kept me awake, though.

It was about 10 p.m. I’d set off driving again soon. I’d spend the last two hours on an otherwise empty highway, yawning, twitching, and seeing foxes run down my windshield wiper control stick. I’d trudge through my front door, drop my bags on the dining room floor, and repeatedly crash a light fixture against our bathroom mirror while trying to kill a moth. I’m home, Honey! Did you miss me?

For now, though, I caressed my barbecue bottle like the back of a pet. After years of talk about Kansas City, I finally made the trip. Dreams of foot-tall triple cheeseburgers and breathtaking rib racks were at long last fulfilled. Was a soggy, squished-up, two-day-old sandwich a proper conclusion? Probably not, but oh well.

I made space in my mouth for the final corner, crammed the last bite on in, and hit the road.

Inches away from me, in a cooler, was Growler Number 20.

Behind me was Des Moines.

The plan was to obtain my 20th growler from the world-renowned Topping Goliath Brewery in Decorah, but it was too long a detour at the wrong time of day. Instead, here I was backing my car awkwardly into a diagonal parking spot on the Court Avenue bridge.

What’s Court Avenue? Think uptown Minneapolis, but slightly less. The courthouse is on one end of the street, the Des Moines police station on the other. About smack-dab in the middle is Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co.

How did I know I’d have the best beer of the whole week here? I didn’t. I found this place on Beer Advocate maybe 15 miles beforehand. It was my last shot at coming home with my 20th growler. Otherwise, I knew nothing about Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co.

It’s subtly-designed, as most brewpubs are, dominated by wooden surface tops and richly-colored walls. Lighting was dim, really dim, enough that I was anticipating a lap dance proposal. Speaking of stripping, how about $6 for a flight of three 4-oz. pours? Satisfaction didn’t come cheap, but it came.

Their 21st Amendment celebration model, brewed with malted rye and aged in a whiskey barrel, I’d say was better than anything I’d had from Toppling Goliath anyhow. It was smooth, elegant, and resilient: Four hours in a car didn’t wreck it, nor did two days of sitting in the fridge after opening. Most of Minnesota’s beers can’t do that. This was easily the best beer I had on the trip. It might be my beer of the year.

I set the Court Avenue growler in the cooler and stayed a while, basking in my little achievement. Besides getting home in one piece, it was the last one on the list.

Behind me was Kansas City.

You know how, when you’re driving around the Twin Cities, you always seem to be by a highway? That isn’t the case in Kansas City. Instead, I spent my three days dodging road cones and metal sheets on the city streets.

You know how, when you’re driving around the Twin Cities, it kind of always feels like rush hour? That isn’t the case in Kansas City, either. I approached the city as the clock struck four, with nervous tics starting to set in. The nerve-stirring congestion never came.

Speaking of which: You know how, when you’re driving to the Twin Cities, you begin to feel its presence 40 miles away? That isn’t the case in Kansas City, either. I’ve never felt so snuck up on by a city as when I approached Kansas City. Twenty miles away looks almost exactly like 200 miles Away.

I’m lying. Downtown Des Moines is 200 miles away.

Behind Kansas City were years of hesitation. I kept holding off, scared of overspending, scared something bad would happen the second I left, scared of sub-optimal timing in general. This should’ve been my PT Cruiser, but the perfect time I sought never came. The Cruiser is now in a storage garage, senile and awaiting tow-away. I vowed not to repeat that with my 200. She was sent down the second I had the chance. Any chance is better than no chance, right?

I covered 1,100 miles in three days. I saw two sides of Des Moines. Six miles into Missouri, I passed a freeway exit with three Walmart-sized fireworks stores … and an archery range wedged between them. I gassed up at the Phillips 66 right across from the municipal building in Pattonsburg. I gave the road workers a brake, and outran my bladder, on I-35. At long last, I left my doubts at home.

And you know what? I did overspend, something bad did happen the second I left, and the timing certainly was sub-optimal … but, if I had the chance to eat legendary meal after legendary meal but punctuate it with a two-day-old sandwich again, I would. If I had the chance to celebrate an achievement with a jug from some anonymous brewpub again, I would.

It beats the hell out of just talking about it, that much I’ll say for sure.

But how was the food? Funny you should ask. I’ll be spending roughly the next six weeks telling you — in case you were worried.

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