Some contextual thoughts on driving down the I-35 corridor

I grew up in New York City; until I did Teach for America down in Houston in 2003 (the year I graduated from college, also on the east coast), I had basically never left the I-95 corridor. I-95 is its own beast. The corridor’s economy is basically the size of Germany and has America’s financial hub (New York City), America’s political hub (Washington, DC), America’s college and university hub seemingly (Boston), and it stretches all the way down to the glorious part of America that no one really considers to be America on face (Miami). I can say that last joke; my wife is from there.

Now, across the past two years most of my life has been in the I-35 corridor. Last summer I worked in Houston despite really living in Minneapolis, meaning I drove it twice. I just moved to the Fort Worth area for a gig, so I just drove it this past weekend. If you count another trip I took in 2010, I’ve pretty much driven most of the north-south run of I-35 four times in four years. It’s definitely very different from how I spent the first 18-22 years of my life, to be sure. I was talking to a guy at a bar in Minneapolis a few weeks ago (as one tends to do) and we were talking about the notion that the I-95 corridor is “America’s wealth corridor,” whereas the I-35 corridor is “America’s value corridor,” because there you see a lot of cities where you can get a bunch of land pretty cheap (Minneapolis, Des Moines, KC, DFW, OKC, even Austin, etc.) I think that’s a good way to look at it.

Anyway, here are a couple of thoughts from this recent Minneapolis-DFW drive, which we knocked out in about 1.5 days:

Minneapolis: Wrote about this a little already; in many ways, I will miss it. Life is all about the timing of opportunities, though, and I think Minneapolis and I may have missed each other on that front.

Iowa: I’m surprised that Ames is only a two-exit town, because Iowa State is fairly baller in terms of their approach to their faculty. When we were driving (I didn’t snap a pic), we passed the USDA Vet Labs at the same time as an Army convoy was passing it. Whenever you think “US government” plus “lab animals” plus “Army convoy” plus “huge complex off freeway,” you start thinking about super-villains in Harrison Ford movies. It was terrifying.

Got down to Des Moines and managed to see a bachelorette party downtown, replete with requisite dildos, then grab a few brews and some food at El Bait Shop (recommended). Cool thing about that process: I have a smartphone, and I know how to use it (effectively sometimes, I might add!), but my battery was kinda low and I was lazy as shit, so I messaged a bunch of my friends to get some recs on Des Moines, as I knew we’d be there around dinner-time. One of my friends hit me back with a bunch of stuff, all based on Google, Yelp, message boards, etc. It’s just weird to think that something like that wasn’t even possible 15-20 years ago.

Missouri: Wrapped the night in Kansas City at the Ambassador Hotel (recommended, if pricey). Got it off Hotel Tonight (the app), which is also recommended. Ambassador is near Power and Light, which I once heard a Kansas City 25 year-old tell me should be renamed “Depression and Blight.” Not wholly inaccurate. We rolled up probably 10pm — not even that late for an immediate post-college crowd — and there was en masse drunkenness everywhere. Just kind of a shit show down there. I’ve heard KC is doing cool things with the millennial population, like First Fridays, and that’s awesome; it’s a cool city with some big employers (Hallmark) and they have Google Fiber, which I’m sure helped attract other small businesses.

Hit the bar at the Ambassador Hotel late night and met “a sales executive” (generic) who had on an impeccable suit and appeared to be in the company of … a call girl. They were both in their 30s (I’d reckon) and were straight up making out at the bar. A bit awkward, but it underscored the idea that there is almost no greater place to witness humanity than an American hotel bar.

Kansas: I find it interesting that it’s nearly impossible to drive through this stretch of country without seeing a ton of exits / road signs / other points of interest related to Dwight Eisenhower. That isn’t interesting, on face — he’s from the region. What is interesting is this: between Eisenhower and Truman, you have 16 crucial years of American history — a time when America was essentially being built into what it is today — where the Presidents were from Kansas and Missouri, i.e. true “middle-America” states. That’s kind of logical, relevant and interesting, no? If the Presidents for those 16 years had been from Boston and Chicago, or New York and Boston, would how America came up after WW2 be different? Weird to consider. Also: the rap on Eisenhower is always how boring he was, which was a stark contrast to Kennedy (who ultimately came after him). Could you make the argument that the end-of-Eisenhower to the beginnings-of-Kennedy was when politics changed from “values-based” to “marketing-based?” I’m not saying Eisenhower and Presidents before him didn’t have issues, but … is that the moment where America shifted in terms of what it wanted from leaders?

Oklahoma: Oklahoma is hot. That is pretty much the primary word for it. We entered the state from Kansas and it was about 93; within minutes, it was about 102. I don’t think it dropped below 102-105 the entire time we were in the state. When we exited Oklahoma for Texas, it instantly became about 97. It’s like Oklahoma had a monopoly on the triple digits.

Oklahoma City is cool, but from the freeway it can look cluttered — you see a ton of chain restaurant signs everywhere, rising above from the left and the right. I suppose in some ways that’s America as a whole on the freeway (by the way, that’s another thing we have Eisenhower to thank for!). Based on timing, we ended up watching the World Cup final in Norman — Boomer Sooner! — and I honestly do enjoy Norman (third time I’ve been there, I think). Like I said, it’s hot as balls in the summer, but they do have a couple of good bars (I’ve been to 4-5 now) and the people seem legitimately friendly.

Seattle bemoans the loss of the Sonics all the time, but I really think the Thunder are great for this area. They don’t have a ton in terms of “attractions” (no pro sports previous to the Thunder) so really, Seattle, sit down for a second and enjoy your NFL Championship.

Texas: Literally the first thing in Texas on 35 going south is a massive adult video superstore. (It’s basically just over the Red River.) About 20 miles after that is a massive Wal-Mart distribution center with 15 miles of conveyor belt and 1.3 million square feet of space. ‘Merica. I only went as far as Fort Worth, so I just hit Denton and then FW, but I did cruise past the Texas Motor Speedway in the process, which — like the adult video store and the Wal-Mart distribution center — is massive. Cue line about Texas.

A quick trip down I-35. Hope you enjoyed my somewhat-truncated and off-task re-telling. I actually like the corridor a lot; I think Des Moines and Ames are cities that could become a mini-Columbus of sorts (melting pots of young people that companies want a foothold in), and I think Kansas City and Oklahoma City are places you could see develop as mid-America hipster hotspots with time. As for Fort Worth, I’m only on Day 2, so give me some time for context there.

Ted Bauer