I have lived in the Midwest all of my life, 90% of which was spent in the Central Iowa region. I’ve traveled the roads and byways from Toledo, Ohio to Denver, Colorado and from Minneapolis, Minnesota to St. Louis, Missouri, and more. Most of this was via the Interstate highway system, so I can’t comment too much about what is too far off of the main road, except in my immediate region. It must be noted that there is a specific reason why the original Lincoln highway (Hwy 30) and Interstate 80 go right through the center of this part of the country. Look at any map of the United States with the highways marked. The early settlers knew that the quickest path to anywhere was a straight line. You can still see this today,1 from the highways to the jet trails in the sky to the railroads. You have to go through here, if you are coming from the eastern part of the country and going west. Notice also that Interstate 80 and Interstate 35, which roughly divide the country into quarters, meet right in the middle of Iowa.
I am a novice when it comes to survival tactics, but hopefully I can help someone who is coming through this part of the country, so they aren’t totally blind on what to expect. I’ll confine this to the area between Chicago and the mountains.
Obviously, a good strategy would be to stay off the main roads. This is relatively easy until you get further away from civilization and roads of all kinds get scarce. If you have Google Earth, this is a big help. Otherwise, you may be able to utilize some weather programs with satellite features, real estate search engines, or mapping sites like Yahoo maps or Google maps. Here is another good site for planning a trip through the Midwest. (This site is intended for historical aerial views, but it can be used like Google earth. Click on “Basemaps”, then click on “World Imagery” with or without labels. It even has measuring apps to gauge distances.) In the satellite views, you can actually see the roads and small towns forming a grid across the countryside. Depending on the area, you may not be able to get more than a mile before coming across another paved road. My current location has a paved road one mile away on three sides of me, and I am several miles out into the country. While a paved road makes for easy walking or riding if you have some sort of transportation, everyone else will have the same idea. I would stick to the unpaved roads, or as we call them, gravel roads. These should be fine for travel for awhile, but they will deteriorate as times goes by without maintenance. Remember the old photos or movies of Model T’s going through the ruts with mud up to the axils. This is what will happen to unpaved roads without regular maintenance. This will help those of us out in the country to keep people away from us. It will be a hindrance, unless someone has horses. Some roads could be a problem, because they may not always follow a grid pattern. Even some county roads or “blacktops” will wind along rivers, and some are probably remnants of old stage coach routes. There are even some county line roads or “low maintenance” or “minimum maintenance” roads that are nothing more than dirt. Even in today’s world, without proper maintenance by the county “maintainer” or road grader, just a few days of wet weather will turn the gravel roads slimy until the sun is out for awhile to dry them.
The terrain in this region varies considerably. Just because it is called the “plains” doesn’t mean it is flat. Mostly, it is gently rolling hills, but it can have much steeper hills and even ravines and bluffs near major rivers. The larger rivers in Iowa tend to be running diagonally in a northwest to southeast pattern. As you can see, the major rivers also go right through the big cities. Hilly areas can create “bowls” in the landscape. You could easily top the crest of a hill and come across a small town or farmstead or encampment of people down inside the bowl. It is also strategic, because someone else may go right past you and not know you are just over the hill. In some cases you can see for miles. At the same time, you can be seen for miles. The glaciers went through the Midwest several times thousands of years ago and left their marks. There are places where there are huge valleys, and you can see for several miles. There are also ridges of hills that go on for miles. One near Marshalltown is actually called “Mormon Ridge”, and it is said the Mormons followed the ridge on their trek west. There is another in the Belle Plain area that runs north and south for several miles. The eastern edge of Iowa along the Mississippi River has steep hills and bluffs at various points along its length. Along the western edge are the Loess Hills. These provide beautiful views as well as places to hide and camp out. If you get to a place with a good view across the farmland, I can almost guarantee anywhere there is a small clump of trees, there is a farmstead either occupied or abandoned. The early settlers knew to plant trees around their farmsteads as a wind break. A great tool is a county plat map and directory. These are more detailed than a regular map because they show where all the city boundaries are located, as well as the farmsteads and who owns them. They also break down the counties into townships. If you know anybody in the area who owns land, ask if they can send you their copy. I believe all landowners receive a free copy. They are fairly expensive otherwise, and you would need one for each county in which your travels take you.
People might consider traveling in the more hilly, tree-filled areas rather than the farmland. To this I would suggest the area where the states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin meet, as well as the Southern portion of Iowa. If you divided Iowa into thirds lengthwise, the least populated areas as well as the most hilly would be the upper and lower thirds. Most of the major cities are located in the middle third, because the major roads run right through the middle of the state and right through the center of the Midwest. In the Belle Plaine and Chelsea area there is a huge marsh area along the Iowa river that is very popular with hunters. This will be difficult to traverse and impossible during flooding.
Again, if you look at the satellite imagery, it is easy to see the grid pattern, except where it is too hilly or rivers or wooded areas or lakes change the pattern. By design in the early days, there was a town or village at least every five to ten miles. This is because the old steam engines needed water or wood placed there ahead of time. Over the years, these towns or villages have shrunk and some no longer exist at all. There may be a few buildings, houses, or a school building, or there may just be a grain elevator. A lot of the old train tracks are gone or plowed under, with only the trestles remaining, or in some cases they are being used for walk/bike paths. There is a main Union Pacific double track that is still in use and that parallels Highway 30 fairly consistently, but it goes right through the major cities on its route.
Again, please use satellite imagery to plan your trips. It doesn’t take long to see that wooded areas are few and far between. You may find a nice forested area that is several miles in area, but then you have to make it to the next one over miles of open ground. The Midwest is mostly farmland, which doesn’t make it easy to cross. Any farmer will tell you how difficult it is to walk across a plowed field. Even a field of freshly picked corn can easily twist an ankle. Corn or bean stubble can trip you. Ever try to get through a barbed wire fence with a pack on? What about walking next to a steep ditch? These are also great reasons not to travel alone. Someone can hold your gear and/or keep watch while the other climbs through or over the fence. There are fewer fences than when I was a kid as more and more farmers have given up raising livestock.
It depends in part on when the SHTF. If it happens at the peak of the growing season, there will be fields of corn that can hide you or at the same time, block your view. A nine or ten foot tall field of corn can completely block your view of the horizon, even at quite a distance. At the time of this writing, my acreage is surrounded on three sides by tall fields of corn. During this time of the year, some people construct corn field mazes. Believe it or not, people get lost in them. On a cloudy day, it is even more difficult to get a sense of direction. Conversely, you can hide in corn fields and have some protection from the wind. Obviously, if the SHTF after the harvest season, you will be in the open. You may be able to find leftover grain for food. Someone else will have to talk more about how to make this grain edible. Seed corn and sweet corn are totally different. My mother and other people say that if you get the seed corn at the right time before harvest, it is comparable to sweet corn. They say to poke your fingernail into a kernel and if a milky liquid comes out it is good to eat. Obviously, the Native Americans used corn to grind up into flour.
There are a variety of lakes and reservoirs in the Midwest. Some are quite large. Lakes Red Rock and Rathbun are the largest, and in some places are up to a mile or more across. As a child, my family camped at many of the smaller lakes and state parks. It is possible to use these as places to stop over on your trek through the area. Here are three great websites for references:
The caution point is that there are regular warnings of bacteria. One recent example of fecal bacteria alert was issued for 14 state park beaches warning to avoid swallowing water, which was linked to diarrhea, skin infection, and other symptoms. There are news reports of even possibilities that streams and creeks have been contaminated with farm run off and sewage spills resulting in fish kills. Here is some additional information about Iowa water. While your LifeStraw or other filters will help you for drinking water, there is no way to know if the water is safe to swim or bathe in or even wade through to get across it. If you are in the area of water for an extended period, you might be able to wait until you see fish swimming in it without problems or other wild animals drinking from it.