Iowa: The birthplace of Hollywood's legendary cowboy

Leonard Doyle experiences winter in Winterset, Iowa which is also home to some modern-day gunslingers

It was going on six in the morning and so cold that even in longjohns and several outer layers I couldn't bear staying outside for more than 15 minutes at a time. In the dead of winter, I was roaming around rural Iowa looking for hunters. What had seemed a good idea the night before was fast becoming a foolish one.

Winterset, about an hour south-west of the state capital, Des Moines, is a picture-postcard town that calls itself the covered-bridge capital of America. For many, it will always be associated with John Wayne, who was born here. The tiny home he grew up in is now a museum. But I was in these parts to find some real Iowa gun-slingers.

It was four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the first test in the 2008 presidential election, and I wanted to get to the bottom of the Mike Huckabee phenomenon. An electric-guitar playing Baptist minister who is taking rural America by storm, he was on the brink of a huge and highly unlikely victory in Iowa. (Since then, he had won several more states and – much to the annoyance of the Republican high command – is refusing to quit the race for the White House.)

Hunters, it emerged, were among his biggest supporters, which explains why photojournalist Shiho Fukada and I were out in the before dawn looking for some to talk to and photograph. Those we managed to track down were unfailingly polite – or "Iowa nice" – but more interested in getting to the woods than talking. They accepted our request that we be allowed to follow as they prepared for the hunt, but as soon as we started to follow them, their pick-up trucks disappeared like wills-o'-the-wisp. It suddenly seemed it was going to be a long, cold and fruitless day.

Iowa's short deer-hunting season had just opened and the hunters needed to be in position in the woods before sun-up – but first, they'd need to eat breakfast. We found them in Rudy's, a diner a hundred yards from Wayne's house. Dressed in work clothes, with orange safety vests, they graciously welcomed us to their tables as they wolfed down biscuits '*' gravy, a steaming mid-western speciality of corn bread, chopped-up sausages and cream. Taciturn to a man, eventually one older fellow broke the silence to volunteer that he was "for Huckabee". There was a chorus of approval. Then, in a heartbeat, they were gone, gathering up their shotguns and cartridges as they headed for the frozen woods.

For reasons not fully understood, the American hunting fraternity is in steep decline. With 12.5 million hunters still around, they're not about to become an endangered species, but their reduction in numbers is being mourned, oddly, by many conservationists. Hunters have always represented a bond with the land that is being eroded as America becomes a more urban society. And it is a great irony, but many species would probably not have survived, but for the hunters who are trying to kill them.

Whatever they may think about hunters, environmentalists are keenly aware that the very people who enjoy blasting away at birds and deer are the strongest supporters of land and wildlife conservation in America. They pay more than $700m (£370m) a year for special "duck stamps" (waterfowl hunters are legally obliged to purchase a stamp for each bird they kill). The proceeds go towards protecting vital wetlands – which has added 5.2 million acres to the US National Wildlife Refuge System. The hunters also pay tens of millions of dollars for hunting permits every year, which pays for park wardens and conservation officers.

Back at Wayne's birthplace, I asked the curator about the life of the boy who, for me at least, would go on to become The Quiet Man. How did such a huge a man like Wayne fit inside such a tiny house? Did he ever return after becoming a star?

At the museum, the life story of the boy born Marion Robert Morrison in humble circumstances in 1907 is simply but effectively told. His family left Winterset in 1911 and he got a decent education thanks to an athletic scholarship. While working in the prop department of a film studio he was talent-spotted. Nobody knows whether he ever came back to Winterset, but in 1979, the month before Wayne died, the curator confided that a large black limousine stopped outside the house. A man in a cowboy hat was seen in the back seat. Subsequent inquiries revealed that Wayne had indeed taken a trip "back East" around that time, although whether the man in the hat was The Duke remains a mystery.

Winterset is a town that "progress" has passed by. The movie The Bridges of Madison County was set here. One of Clint Eastwood's shakier directorial efforts, it was memorable for the sense of alienation and missed opportunities in 1960s America it evoked. Along with John Wayne's house, the film may well be what keeps people coming back to Winterset. Even today, the town square, settled around the county courthouse, seems set in aspic; farmers come by in pick-ups with hay in the back and shotguns in the rear window. Thankfully, Winterset has escaped the bulldozers that have ruined so much of small-town America.

In the film, Francesca (Meryl Streep), an Italian immigrant and farmer's wife, meets Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), who is on assignment from National Geographic magazine to photograph the covered bridges. Their four-day affair is set against the background of these exquisite structures, a throwback to a frontier world of horse-drawn transport, when bridges were built with roofs and timber sides to withstand the elements.

Some original bridges were burnt down by arsonists. One was torched by a man who is now the town's plumber. Apparently, he was dumped by his intended and wanted to get rid of graffiti he had scratched on the bridge. Happily, the Roseman covered bridge, built in 1883, still stands astride a stream. (Locals call it the "Ghost Bridge", after a tale of a posse that was chasing a prisoner. He jumped off the roof of the bridge and the fact that his body was never found was deemed proof of his innocence.) It is here that Francesca first falls for the man who would change her life.

All the bridges have been restored. Even the Cedar covered bridge, built in 1883 and which another arsonist destroyed in 2002, has been rebuilt using original plans and appropriate materials. Today, there are plenty of sentimental love notes to be found, despite annual repainting. One bridge is set in a park, down the road from the Wayne museum. Others are scattered nearby, down dirt roads and marked by signs pointing the way just as you think you have become lost. Uncluttered by gift shops, they survive like quiet sentinels from a time when progress was measured in planks of hand-hewn wood or bushels of corn.

Back on the trail of the hunters, we ran into farmer David Gilmore, who was lunching in the town of Truro. He revealed that he was one of the first conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War in Iowa. Even his current political leanings were off-centre. He confided that, "people like Huckabee make me nervous, when they wave a Bible and a flag at the same time". He was one of those Iowans smitten by Barack Obama. "I just think he's sincere," he said. For his part, Farmer Gilmore is happy raising quality beef. He also had some good advice on tracking down the hunters before the light faded.

Soon we found ourselves charging up a narrow track with the windows of our car wound down so we could listen for shotgun blasts. A pick-up truck approached and the driver, Ryan Horn, rolled down the window to say hello. He then pulled down the tailgate of his truck to reveal his bounty. Under a black plastic bag was the head of a deer which Horn had killed a few days earlier; he was taking it to a taxidermist so that it could be mounted on his wall. There were also pheasants, flushed that morning by his hunting dog.

It was 3pm, and we had finally found our quarry.

Leonard Doyle is US editor of 'The Independent'

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE:

Getting There

There are no direct flights between the UK and Iowa.
Chicago is around a five-hour drive from Des Moines and is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870 574 7747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk), United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.united.com) and Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) from Heathrow. American Airlines and BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) also fly from Manchester.

Connecting flights to Des Moines are offered by United via Chicago.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying There

Wildwood Lodge, 11431 Forest Avenue, Clive, Des Moines (001 515 222 9876; www.thewildwoodlodge.com). Doubles from $156 (£82), room only.

Visiting There

Rudy's Restaurant, 419 South 1st Street, Winterset (001 515 462 3160).

John Wayne's birthplace, 216 South 2nd Street, Winterset (001 515 462 1044; www.johnwaynebirthplace.org). Open daily 10am-4.30pm; admission $4 (£2.10).

More Information

Iowa Tourism: 001 515 242 4705; www.traveliowa.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

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