One of the biggest blessings of my road trip from Greensboro, AL to Omaha, NE is the realization, again, that the United States of America is a beautiful place. Of course I started my trip thinking that my home state, California, is the most beautiful. I might have even expected that other places were going to be a little bit ugly. This is not based on lack of exposure. When I’ve driven from say Boston to Washington, DC, there are long stretches of unattractive industrial landscapes.
Not so in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. First, it is super green. The snow and rain that flooded the Missouri and Mississippi rivers also keeps middle America verdant. Wow! The planters at gas stations and strip malls were bursting with coleus and flowers–plants that couldn’t survive outside in our Mediterranean climate of California. There are also great swaths of trees along most highways. The dead animals along the roadways are a kind of confirmation that there is a lot of life in the woods of middle America.
There are ways we can be better in taking care of the land–especially our soil–and water. America is still so open, so rich in resources, with relatively little population pressure. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to see. I have two states left to visit and I will have been to all fifty! Montana and South Dakota in 2020!
If you add up all the hours I spent in West Des Moines and Des Moines it totaled about eight hours (minus sleeping). Of that time, half was spent eating well. My son Tevis and I dined at Barn Town Brewing for dinner one evening. We enjoyed our food and smiled at the popcorn brought out to every table instead of bread (see below). With our cousins David and Diana (and friends) we also enjoyed an Italian meal at Billy Vee’s.
On my last day in Iowa, I had a later flight so I met up with my cousin John at a local coffee place (while a chain, still very much an Iowa place). The Smokey Row is a great place for coffee, ice cream and breakfast and lunch items.
I made a quick trip to Beaverdale Books to check out my last Midwest Indie Bookstore from the Roadmap. Then I went to the Des Moines Art Center. Admission is free, so it easy to spend as little or as much time as you like. I lingered over a special exhibit, “Lea Grundig’s Anti-Fascist Art.” Then it was time to head to the airport and return my rental car. I was worn out from driving but happy with the amount of time I had with friends and family.
I was blown away by the talent of my cousins Kathy Fitzgerald and Geri Pieper. Geri has entered her quilts in the Iowa State Fair and won third overall! These cousins live walking distance from each other in the countryside outside of Stuart, Iowa. They both love to select the designs and fabrics, piece the quilts and add the backing. But then they both send their quilts to be quilted by someone who loves machine quilting. This allows them to piece more quilts!
I enjoyed going through Kathy’s quilts with her. She is hand quilting one of her pieced quilts. It is going to take a long time, compared to machine quilting, but this particular quilt turned out too thick for machine quilting. Kathy is going to yell at me for including this photo of her since I dropped in and she wasn’t expecting to be on camera!
The quilting on the left is done by machine. And it is very impressive. But look at the quilting below. Kathy and my great/grandma Mildred quilted this one by hand. And it is far more intricate. We just shook our heads with full respect for how much time and talent that takes!
I dropped in on my cousin Kathy for a visit. I found her in her garden and she gave me a tour. Her garden is very intuitive. She moves plants where she believes they’ll thrive. Some are seeds from family or friends.
She grows enough food for herself and shares with many in the Pieper clan. That day she was baking a couple of pies for the family gathering and putting a couple in the freezer. I was jealous of her space, and not jealous because I know how much work it entails.
We met our cousins in Menlo to enjoy a train ride on a steam engine one Saturday morning. It was a fundraiser for the local fire department. We watched the train pull into the village. There is no station for the Central States Steam Preservation Association to stop, but there were plenty of people in town to watch the steam engine arrive, or to photograph it as it passed through the countryside.
It is fun to ride the train, but it is loud and dirty. We thought because the smoke was blowing away from the windows we were fine. We quickly realized our mistake as everything was soon covered with a fine layer of soot. The conductors explained that if we got a cinder in our eye to cry it out, not to rub it.
The Chinese built QJ steam locomotives that pulled our train are truly global in design and construction with connections to USA, Soviet Union and China. They appear so romantic in Harry Potter movies and so on, but the experience gave me renewed admiration for my great grandparents who traveled by train across country to California in 1900. Easier than covered wagon, still, I’m glad to fly Delta home from Des Moines.
Whenever I travel I brake for pie. When I travel in Iowa I make a special effort to seek out pie. Before I left I found an on-line feature by Michaela Kendall, “10 Places in Iowa Where You Can Get the Most Mouth-Watering Pie.” (February 21, 2016) I looked these restaurants up on Google maps to see if I’d be going near on my road trip. Alas, only one was close enough to ask my cousins to go with me to try the pie.
The Coffee Cup Cafe in Sully, Iowa is somewhere my cousins know well. We made it part of my tour of Pella and surrounding countryside. We had to work up an appetite for lunch before we got to Sully. I learned a lot about the Vermeer tractor manufacturer, and Goalsetter basketball hoops. It was great also to see the golf course where my cousin Jerry plays and the reservoir where the Army Corps is retrofitting hydroelectric power. (With wind power, Iowa is getting very green!) .
Then we arrived for pie in Sully. Sully has another claim to fame: a Freedom Rock by Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II. The artist is creating a rock painting to honor veterans in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
The Coffee Cup Cafe had a group of Vermeer employees arrive for pie just before we walked in. These hungry gentlemen almost wiped out the white board of pies available. We quickly ordered pie, whew! We enjoyed our lunch and pie and continued on our way.
Cousins also recommended that we try the Menlo Cafe in Menlo, IA. It is a cafe owned by the city and leased to a caterer so the town will always have a breakfast and lunch place for people to gather. Fortunately, the caterers also bake good pie. Tevis and I tried their breakfast buffet and I ordered a slice of rhubarb pie. It was excellent and the waitress complemented me on my breakfast choice of pie.
RAGBRAI is going to roll through Menlo and Stuart in a couple of weeks. I highly recommend you try the pie at Menlo Cafe. My cousin Kathy bakes a terrific pie and she lives in Dexter/Stuart. I thought for sure she’d be baking for a pie fundraiser for her Catholic church when RAGBRAI rolled through. Too bad for the cyclists, the church as decided to bake and sell cookies. Lucky for me, she brought a gooseberry pie and her famous black raspberry pie and I got to try a small slice of each at our family reunion.
You 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.
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.
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!
I am writing a guide for riding your first RAGBRAI so I am doing more research. I found a terrific movie, A Million Spokes, that follows a half dozen riders and tells their stories over the 7 day course, plus short profiles of lots of other participants–riders and townspeople. I was teary-eyed over and over again. Please watch it and tell me if you teared up too and if you have ridden RAGBRAI. I also laughed, winced and grimaced. I plan to use this video to recruit/educate potential team members for next year, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Note: I only found the DVD at Amazon–not available on Netflix, iTunes or Google Play.
I read Rumble Yell over the weekend. It is a memoir of Brian David Bruns first and only RAGBRAI ride. He is a travel writer by trade and does a fine job of telling his story. It is a quick read and gives you a taste of what your experience might be from the perspective of a small team that used an RV for their support vehicle. He emphasizes the characters you will meet on RAGBRAI and how a team may bond over the seven days.
Dumbest book title goes to RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong. The author John Karras co-founded RAGBRAI and this is a history of how RAGBRAI became the biggest, longest, oldest bike ride in America (when you factor in all three). By the way, it is pronounced Rag-Bri (long i), not Rag-bray. Think “i” for Iowa.
RAGBRAI is also featured in Ian Dille’s The Cyclist’s Bucket List. It is one of 33 rides listed in the United States. It gets a whopping three pages of prose and no photos. Most of the other rides are longer on photos and shorter on prose. Just a taster though, no real information on how to participate.
The good news is my RAGBRAI Virgin book idea is going to fill a niche currently not fulfilled in the marketplace. Now I just have to write it.