Day Two

What do you wear when you're about to meet a retired beauty queen?

In the living room of our friend JM's house, I dug through my duffel bag. My wrinkled road-trip clothes seemed hardly worthy of meeting someone who almost became Miss America. I couldn't wear anything too old, or anything mismatched, or anything with holes in it. Because she might not talk to us. She might look out her peephole and think we were a couple of hitchhikers looking for a place to use the bathroom.

It had to be over 90 degrees outside, so I needed to balance looking somewhat adult with not being miserably hot on the way there. I finally settled on a pair of not-too-stained khakis and a yellow tank top. This would have to do.

Sarah and I left Des Moines around noon. This would put us in Elwood by 2:30, solidly after church hour, when Darcy Benton and her family were sure to be home.

We had a list of questions to answer: How had winning Miss Iowa changed Darcy's life? What did she do now? How did she feel about being the most famous person in town? How did she fit -- or break -- the stereotypes of being a beauty queen?

About halfway there, I turned to Sarah with a start.

"What if she doesn't live there anymore!" I said.

Somehow, this idea hadn't occurred to us.

We looked at the digital picture of the town's welcome sign that we had taken the day before: "'Home of Darcy Benton, Miss Iowa 1986,'" I read aloud. "So either she lives there now, or she was just born there."

We recalled how paint-peeled the sign had been, and how old-looking, and kept driving.

Just west of Davenport, we exited I-80 onto a small country road heading north. We drove through Dixon and Wheatland and Toronto, and past miles and miles of corn. The road narrowed and curved, and in a town called Lost Nation, we turned right, onto county road 136. We had been here before, the road that led to Elwood.


Day One

We are about to eat greasy biscuits and eggs at a diner in Des Moines before we hit the highway, curling east from this city through miles of cornfields and big blue sky.

Yesterday, my friend Sarah and I drove west from Madison, WI, to Des Moines to see an old friend. Today we backtrack, heading east for a three-day drive to Vermont. But before we leave Iowa, we have a beauty queen to track down.

Some back story: Sarah wants to go to a radio conference in Chicago later this year. They're paying the airfare and waiving the conference fees for the person who submits the best three-minute audio piece inspired by one of the following subjects: a package of mouse traps, a bike horn, or the quote, "Well-behaved women rarely make history."

We were brainstorming ideas while we drove yesterday, somewhere in eastern Iowa, when we missed a turn. We didn't realizing it right away, so we had to navigate some very small roads that cut through even smaller towns, to get back to the highway.

One of those small towns was a town called Elwood. And at the entrance to Elwood stood a sign facing the main road that said, "Welcome to Elwood! Home of Darcy Benton, Miss Iowa 1986."

And we thought, well, Darcy Benton apparently made history (at least in Elwood) -- wonder if she's well-behaved?

So today, we're retracing our steps to find Darcy Benton.