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Roadside: Welcome to Iowa

Maps, pie, and song greet travelers
at the state’s northern gateway

Story and photography by Tim Ackarman

Dressed in a bright red button-down and standing behind an equally bright red counter that sits strategically at the top of the stairs, Norlyn Stowell is hard to miss. His greeting is delivered with a broad smile for each new arrival. “Can I get you to sign the guest book?”

This day, travelers from 17 states, three Canadian provinces, and two different regions in Australia will oblige.

Some visitors seek travel information. Others plan to do a bit of shopping or grab a bite to eat. A few are there to simply enjoy some friendly banter during a brief respite from the road. Norlyn offers guidance to all, and few leave the rest area disappointed.

The Top of Iowa Welcome Center and Rest Area near Northwood is not the spartan roadside pit stop of generations past.

Sure, there are outdoor picnic tables, obligatory restrooms, and a collection of vending machines dispensing cold drinks and snacks.

But the second floor of the two-story, 80- by 40-foot red barn sets this rest stop apart.

Those charting a course for the next leg of their Iowa journey will find hundreds of maps and brochures from nearly every community and attraction in the state.

Visitors to the Barn Boutique can browse a selection of regional wines, home-style canned goods (from apricot preserves to sauerkraut), and an array of jewelry, baskets, quilts, objets d’art, and other quality gifts handmade by Iowa artisans.

When hunger (or a sweet tooth) strikes, a thick slice of homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie served à la mode is only a few feet away.

The Cow Pie and Coffee Shoppe offers fast, friendly service to travelers; it also regularly hosts locals stopping by to sip coffee at a leisurely pace as they catch up on each other’s news.

(Read more Welcome to Iowa)

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