Quick Stop at American Gothic House

American GothicYou have probably seen Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting on a jigsaw puzzle or a mug. Or one of the many riffs on it by other artists. If you are fortunate you were able to view it in person at the Art Institute of Chicago. I knew that Grant Wood found his inspiration in Iowa but I couldn’t say for certain where. I’d also read Beth M. Howard’s memoir, Making Piece, that she wrote while she lived in the American Gothic house. (She has since moved on and you can read what she is up now in her blog.)

I was zipping along the highway, pushing my rental car to the speed limit on the Iowa state highway to get to my cousin’s in time for dinner. Then I saw the sign to American Gothic House. It was honest–it is a 6 mile detour (one way) off the highway. Plus whatever time it takes to view the house. So far on this road trip I had underestimated that amount of time I’d want to spend seeing an attraction.

What the heck! When would I be in this part of Iowa again?!

Google maps seemed to have a hard time selecting a route once I got into the town of Eldon, Iowa. I don’t think the phone service was consistent. I did find it though. There is a good size parking lot and a new visitor center. Then a lovely wildflower lined walkway to a viewing area. It was past 5 p.m. and the visitor center was closed. There was one other person who had the same impulse as me. He was heading north to Minneapolis eventually. We both absorbed the information and enjoyed a respite from driving.

Was it worth it? Heck yeah!


Falling Under Pella’s Charm Spell


Pella, Iowa is a charming town built around a square, as many communities in #MiddleAmerica are, with architectural distinctions from its Dutch founding families. There is a historic portion of town where the buildings are preserved as they might have been in the 1800s. I focused on the more modern parts of town during “Thursday Night on the Square.”

This particular Thursday had an agricultural theme with Vermeer tractors, NRCS soil health booth, and the Iowa Corn trailer explaining the many wonders and uses of corn. There are also a number of fun stores to browse (including a quilt shop), but a must is Jaarsma Bakery where I tried the Dutch Letters for the first time. The only letters are an “S” and they are a light flaky pastry around an almond filling similar to that used in bear claws. It was delicious.

My cousin Lori lives in Pella, but because the other six siblings and families live closer to Stuart and Des Moines, she’s always been the one to drive to our gatherings. I decided on this trip to satisfy my curiosity about Pella. It is famous as a Dutch town with a tulip festival. It is a sister city to Holland, MI (where I visited in May). It is also the headquarters of the window manufacturer. It is a prosperous and friendly community. It is definitely worth the drive, even if you don’t have a cousin to visit.

#Bookstrong: The Book Vault in Oskaloosa

Book Vault, 105 S. Market St., Oskaloosa, IA

I love saying the town name Oskaloosa! The locals shorten it to Osky. So fun. They have a beautiful town square and a bank that that has been transformed to an independent bookshop. The Book Vault is wonderful. Lucky Oskaloosans. I found a classic hardback version of Clifford the Big Red Dog. I had not read The Wonky Donkey and my fellow grandmas/cousins pressed it into my hands.

I also discovered a map of independent book stores: The Midwest Indie Bookstore Roadmap. I was excited to see there were two indie bookshops in Omaha, NE plus one in Des Moines.

I am supporting the arts on this #MiddleAmericaTour. Big time. I mailed an entire box of books home!

Finding Mark Twain in Hannibal, MO

Jim Waddell ?, actor, plays Twain in performances hosted by Mark Twain Museum

Finding Mark Twain, literally, sort of. (haha)

I pulled off the highway expecting to scoot through Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home and Museum in about 30 minutes and continue on to my cousin’s home in Pella, Iowa. I didn’t expect to spend several hours visiting two different museum locations and walking up and down North Main Street completely charmed by this historic village. It was a lovely surprise.

Parklet at the end of North Main Street with statue of Tom and Huck

I found the exhibits very helpful in explaining Hannibal, MO 200 years ago and Mark Twain’s family background. I started at the Twain’s boyhood home, then walked past other landmarks on my way to the Museum where the illustrations for Huckleberry Finn by Norman Rockwell are on exhibit. They are on the second floor and worth the effort to see.

IMG_8590It was a very hot day, made warmer by the humidity. By the time I was done walking around I wasn’t hungry for lunch so much as needing an ice bath. I settled for a milkshake at Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream.

This area could easily be a day’s outing for a family. I left with the feeling that I could have dived deeper and longer. Next time I’d explore more of the Mississippi River and I didn’t visit the caves.


Magnificent Missouri Botanical Garden


I love going to superb gardens like the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis because I come away with so many ideas. This succulent design was one of my favorites and completely doable in my garden. Less practical is the spectacular specimen of the corpse flower (due to bloom any day and release a really big stink) below. You can find it in the Linnean House.


I first visited the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis during my Ag Leadership national trip in 1996. I always wanted to return, so when I was planning my #MiddleAmericaTour I made sure to have time to visit the Garden again.


There is so much to see over acres and acres of gardens, so it is good to linger over botanical prints and other art on a hot, humid afternoon in the air conditioned museum building.

I loved the giant koi in the pond, the maze, the center for home gardening and more. I remembered a specific garden with beautiful tiles and a fountain from my visit long ago. I thought maybe it was the Ottoman Garden, but alas no (and this was the one neglected looking garden in the whole vast expanse of garden). I finally found a postcard that matched my memory and asked where it was located. It was in the Temperate House, which I had skipped because I was overheated. I braved the humidity to see it. Worth it.


The garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. Admission is $12 per person over 13 years of age. Children enjoy free admission. Local residents have a reduced entrance of $6 per adult, $4 for seniors. The garden is accessible for people with mobility issues.

Swooning Over the Saint Louis Zoo

There is no admission fee for visiting the Saint Louis Zoo. There are extra fees for experiences such as feeding the Galapagos tortoises. Even though I did not pay to feed them, I got to watch from very close by.

I found watching the people visiting the Saint Louis Zoo almost as fascinating as the animals. There were Amish families in their traditional garb, families with multiple strollers, and lots of different parenting styles. This zoo is ranked in the top five zoos in America, and rightfully so. It really is a marvel.

There is so much to see and do at this zoo. It doesn’t advertise itself as a botanical garden, but it is also beautifully landscaped. There is plenty of signage and I still found myself getting lost looking for giraffes. I thought I’d spend an hour walking around and several hours later I was hiking back up to the south entrance without seeing it all. I so wished I had my grandson with me.

They have enough space to house Asian elephants.

I enjoyed my visit to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden so much that I decided to also visit the Saint Louis Zoo. It won out over other options in part because it had good reviews on Trip Advisor and because it was so close to my Hampton Inn in Forest Park.

IMG_8519One of the features of the Saint Louis Zoo is how close you can experience many of the zoo residents. This hyena was just one of the animals that I felt I could reach out and touch. This experience was most thrilling with my favorite penguins. By the way, if you do break the rules and try to pet the penguins, remember they bite with their VERY sharp beaks. And even more harmful than feeding them our food, is sharing our germs.

There is no admission fee for the zoo thanks to the taxpayers of St. Louis; however, the closest parking lots do charge $15 a car. While a family can divide that by 4 or 6, I was driving alone. I also needed to save time because I had a long day of driving to Pella, IA via Hannibal, MO, so I decided to make the donation for convenient parking. They have various options for saving money, especially with kids. For example the Adventure Pass for $12.95 includes the Zooline Railroad, the Children’s Zoo, Conservation Carousel and more. If you are a traveling with children and you park on the street, and bring your own sandwiches, you can make a big day of it for little more than the cost of the Adventure Pass.

Instead of eating from the Hampton Inn breakfast buffet, I walked next door to Comet Coffee to enjoy one of the tastiest bear claw pastries I’ve eaten in a while. Little did I know that I was going to see real bear claws on two grizzly bears later that same morning.


Crazy for Hippos at the Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo is delightful. It is one of the top 10 zoos in the USA and so much bigger than my hometown zoo. It is also a botanical garden and attracts lots of butterflies. I drove directly from Louisville to the Zoo and began my wondering and wandering with a big smile plastered on my face.

I learned a group of hippos in a pile is a bloat. It has a been a long time since the Sacramento Zoo hosted Jewel the hippo. I was delighted to meet baby Fiona and her mom. I watched them while listening to the keeper tell us about hippo habits.

A big motivation for my #MiddleAmericaTour is to visit states I’ve yet to visit to reach all 50 states in 2020. I stayed in Louisville, KY because Google maps said Cincinnati, Ohio was close (1.5 hours away). It all sounds so doable when you are at your kitchen table researching options. And it would have been much easier if it hadn’t rained cats and dogs while I was driving home. I pulled off the freeway to a McDonalds to get a diet coke and wait it out.

I revived enough when I got back to Louisville to research a place for desert, pie specifically. I drove to Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen. It was yummy, yummy ice cream and the pie was above average.