Welcome to Between Two Rivers

“One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver — not aloud, but to himself — that ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey…” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Iowa is “The Land Between Two Rivers.” The Mississippi and Missouri, which combine to form one of the world’s most important river systems, frame the place I have called home my entire life.

The rivers have been adjusted and reshaped to become conduits of commerce and recreation. But while the rivers may be domesticated, they are not tamed. Rapid snowmelt and/or excessive rain turn the rivers loose, and then it’s a battle of water against whatever flood-control measures have been installed in the last 30 years to fight it.

There are so many places, both geographical and metaphorical, where I grew up or now find myself in the in-between, on the edge. I can start with being a child of the Midwest, but there’s so much more.

Between the central and eastern Iowa TV markets.

Between the 319 and 641 area codes.

Between the small town of my past, Traer, and the city of the present, Cedar Rapids.

Between the analog and digital lifestyles.

Between Generation X and late millennials, in a state dominated by baby boomers. More recently, this has added the dimension of being between youth and … not-youth. (Perhaps you heard about my people being referred to as “geriatric millennials.” We’re not necessarily thrilled.)

Between a way of life that has been diminishing for decades and whatever comes next. Personally or professionally, you ask? Yes.

The brutal reality of that last one hit me on June 29, when I was laid off from the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Now I face another “between”: Between a state I consciously made a commitment to stay in as long as I could, and a state whose trends and turns test that commitment.

I can tell all the rivers of my life to go here or go there. But I cannot make them obey.

For more than two decades I have run a website called “Iowa Highway Ends.” It does what it says on the box: I offer up pictures of the signs and sights one sees at the endpoints or state line crossings for each state, U.S., and interstate highway in Iowa. Some people made bread during the pandemic. I dove into reconstructing the routes followed by every primary highway when the system began in 1920. (That index is on my website’s main page.)

In 2016 I became the first person to visit every incorporated community in Iowa, as far as I know. Perhaps you read about that in the Des Moines Register in 2017, in a column by now-Writers Collaborative member Kyle Munson. My travels have also taken me to more than half of the counties in the United States and more than 60% of the total mileage of the interstates in the United States, including the entirety of I-80, I-35, I-29, and more.

I wrote in the Gazette in 2015 about my dad’s decision to stop raising cattle. I wrote a few pieces in the Register during my time there, including in 2014 about the closure of Manilla’s school. (I updated some information on it in 2020.)

The blog on my website has a lot of posts about highways and schools, often with connections to my travels and research. It also carries other interesting tidbits I might find. In my view, searchable newspaper archives are the greatest thing to happen to the Internet since tabbed browsing. Using those archives, along with 21st-century news stories, I have compiled what I believe is the most comprehensive timeline of changes to Iowa’s school districts dating back to the 1950s. (There is a similar site that is specific to high school sports, and such changes aren’t always related or in sync.)

I am thankful to have received an invitation to the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. I hope you will appreciate my work.

Jeff Morrison is the writer behind the website “Iowa Highway Ends.” He grew up in Traer and now lives in Cedar Rapids. This column was originally published in the Between Two Rivers newsletter on Substack, betweentworivers.substack.com. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. Please consider subscribing to the collaborative at iowawriters.substack.com and the authors’ blogs to support their work.