I get the irony of a Midwestern convenience store chain claiming that it’s Famous for Pizza. You are not supposed to order a gourmet pie surrounded by grab bags of Funyuns, Grandma’s cookies sleeves, scratch tickets and Camels. And yet, I feel confident in Casey’s General Store's self-assessment; their pizza is Taylor Swift-level famously good. In fact, it was so good during our first day in Iowa -- where the c-store hails from -- that three delectable slices of their beef cheesy goodness prevented us from shoving off I-80 and waving goodbye to Iowa forever.
We were pushing to get to the Army Corp of Engineers’ Acorn Valley Campground outside of Des Moines. It was Wednesday, early enough, we believed, to secure a walk up campsite at any number of state parks off I-80. But as we cruised from the Land of Lincoln into endless miles of cornfields, we kept coming up short. Campground after campground reported that good weather predicted over Labor Day weekend had convinced locals to cruise in on Monday, park their fifth wheelers and squat on every electric site available. Acorn Valley was our last chance, and they had just two spots left if we could get there.
It was then that our right trailer tire blew into shreds on I-80, just 8 miles east of Iowa City. Having survived our share of tire problems already, we were prepared, resilient even. I had AAA on the line in a matter of minutes; Carson was writing down the tire size and stats; we prepped the area like a pit crew.
An hour later AAA sent a sandy haired, be-speckled, Midwest-friendly technician our way. He gifted us his spare boards -- not easy to come by, he assured us -- to help us jack the trailer high enough to squeeze in the new tire on our own. We don’t have a spare (I know, save us the grief), so we sped into town just as the only tire shop in town with our size in stock closed. We were back at Elsie as the sun was starting to set, Carson wrestling the tire into the wheel well, MacGyvering extra firewood into a fulcrum to finish the job.
By now, the Acorn Campground was full. Luckily we were back in the land of WMAs and county parks, and Carson located one just north of Des Moines. We plugged Chichaqua Bottoms, one of Polk County’s finest parks, into the GPS and pushed on. By 9:30pm we were starved, ready for a pick-me-up to carry us through that last hour of driving. My comfort food reflexes kicked in, and when we surveyed the fast food options ahead, there was only one thing I wanted: Casey's pizza.
I’ll admit that I’m not a fine connoisseur of Italian food. My pizza exposure until college included Casey’s and Pizza Hut, the latter being the less preferred option. Yet I feel I can judge Casey's pizza on the four main tenants of any good pie:
- CRUST — Carson is more of a pan pizza kind of guy; I prefer a thin and crispy. Casey’s offers something right in the middle: hand tossed. In fact, it’s the only kind of crust option you have.
- SAUCE — Casey’s sauce game is on point. It’s lightly seasoned, neither too heavy nor too sparse. More of a medium glaze if you will.
- CHEESE — The real cheese on a Casey’s pizza tends to melt into an amorphous conglomerate that turns a little toasty at the peak of any large topping bundle. What more do you want?
- TOPPINGS — You can get a sausage pizza in NY, Canadian bacon north of the border, and ground beef — aka hamburger — in Iowa and Nebraska. Fellow Midwesterners know this importance of this.
We’d each downed a slice by the time we eased back onto I-80 when Carson noticed sparks flying in the rearview mirror. We pulled onto the dark shoulder, me waving my iPhone light at passerby and motioning them to the left lane while Carson assessed the damage: my bike. Our bike rack completely broke and unhitched, slamming my vintage Galaxy II into the pavement. If not for the bike lock, we’d have sent both bikes spiraling onto I-80. Disgruntled, we tossed the wreckage into the ditch and considered giving up. We were just a short 5 hours from home, why not call it a night and a trip?
If not for that Casey's pizza, hunger might have just driven us to that option. Instead, we stayed at it. But problems always happen in threes, as they say. When we pulled into Chichaqua Bottoms just before 11:00pm, we spent 30 minutes struggling to turn the tongue jack so we could park Elsie. We called upon our fellow FAN Facebook group of experts and the consensus was clear: the inner gears were broken, and we'd have to replace it.
Over the next few days we admit it: we went home. My family picked us up a day later at the Cornstalk Cafe in Shelby, Iowa and hauled us back to Lincoln for a little R&R. When we returned 48 hours later, Carson’s dad in tow to help us fix the jack, we were thankful to close the chapter on Iowa.
Iowa may have claimed our tire, my bike, our tongue jack and a little piece of our souls. But we got the prairies and oxbows of Chichaqua Bottoms, hamburger on our gas station pizza and HyVee Chinese (we’ve already expounded on the virtues of grocery store General Tso’s, so I won’t waste your time here).
We called it even.