Shopping the big garage sale


I got to be part of an Iowa institution last week: the famous Highway 144 garage sale. You may have heard of it. The sale runs along highway 141 for 177 miles, involving some 20 towns. Believe me, the sale lives up to the billing.

As crazy as it may sound, a friend and I decided to step up and take it on. And we had a perfectly lovely day as we headed west across the Iowa country side. It was the ultimate summer day in the weather department, and I was with an old friend who shares my love for the hunt, so how could anything be wrong with that?

We agreed on our approach to our day trip: we would skip the suburb towns at the east end of the route. After all, we can see those places any time, and there are so many sales in these towns that we could spend the whole day there. So off we went to discover treasures, find the bargains, check out what was going on in the little towns along the route, and enjoy the Iowa countryside.

With that many sales in that many places, I think we saw everything. My favorite? A foot-long pink plastic lobster. (No, I didn’t buy it.) The best sign I saw at a sale? “Old roosters: $7.50. Young roosters: $7.50.”

And, of course, there were all the common garage sales items like clothes and books, toys and bikes. Some of the sales were very organized, with everything neat and tidy and priced, so they were a pleasure to peruse. We spent a lot of time at a huge sale in the country that, I was told, had 200 people who contributed to it.

The day was an education in what’s going on in small towns out in that direction. Just like the sales, there was great variety: some communities that appeared to be struggling to survive, others that felt like they had given up. We saw tired-looking houses and empty main streets, but there were also places where pride was evident, even in the smallest towns.

Thanks to declining population, little towns have been losing their schools for years now, but not always the school buildings. It was sad to see the deterioration in buildings that used to be the centers of their communities, but now have broken windows, crumbling bricks, weeds growing in the sidewalk cracks and up from the foundations. In one town we went to a garage sale in the former school that now houses a tavern in one end of the building.

We spent 11 hours on the road and traveled across about 90 miles of the Highway 141 sale on Friday. It was a great way to see a section of our beautiful state. And we scored a few bargains, too!