Category Archives: Iowa adventures

My first time caucusing

Four years ago, I was lugging camera equipment (weird role for me, but other duties as assigned!) around the State Historical Building following an undecided Democratic voter named Frank during the 2008 Iowa Caucus for a short video chronicling his experience. That undecided voter later went on to become a good friend, and I was able to witness a caucus firsthand, but I wasn’t able to participate as a voter. This year, I donned my Obama shirt for the first time in public in anticipation of my first experience as a caucus participant. My mom bought it for me after I attended Obama’s campaign announcement in Springfield, Ill., (Joe likened it to wearing the band T-shirt to the concert).

First caucus state!

It was strange to see so many people flocking to Roosevelt High School (which is gorgeous, by the way) after dark. Everyone seemed subdued but excited/proud at the same time. I was totally surprised by how many Democrats caucused even though Obama is an incumbent and we wouldn’t be standing in different corners to select a candidate. (Check out this Register graphic on how the caucuses work.)

It was a full house in the Roosevelt cafeteria. This isn't even everyone!

It was neat to run into so many neighbors and be in a room of people who were excited to be feel part of the political process. President Obama even addressed us Iowans via a video chat to help kick things off.

Then, we split up into our precincts — shuffling off to different high school rooms where citizens from our nearby streets presented resolutions that they wanted to be brought before a larger committee. I didn’t take a picture inside our classroom because it was such an intimate-feeling gathering, with 45 or so of us bunched into desks, though most gave seats to the elderly and stood. I felt like it would be invading privacy. A few people brought their kids and babies, and it looked like one had rolled in an oxygen tank.

We decided to hear one minute of presentation on each resolution (10 in all, I think) and then voted as a group whether or not we wanted them to pass to the larger committee. Topics ranged from immigration to underwater mortgages to big bank bailouts and regulations for genetically modified organisms. It made me catch my breath, the bravery of Iowans to stand before their neighbors and stump for issues near to their hearts. The whole thing felt a little bit like being in a boat in one of those life or death scenarios, where you have to choose who get to stay in and who must tread. This wasn’t life-or-death, but it was thoughtful and cramped. The proceedings were orderly, with just a few small outbursts of disapproval. Not everyone agreed, but civility reigned.

Here’s a peek into another precinct, through the windows:

Joe and I walked the mile or so home in the crisp Iowa night and I felt happy to be a part of the community. Glad I’d spent the evening listening to my neighbors because, whoever wins the election this fall, these are the people whose values make up the place I’ve chosen to live.

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Filed under I love Des Moines, Iowa adventures, Life lessons

Crock-pot crazy, Lacey-Keosauqua State Park style

Stevo (Joe’s dad) turned the big 6-0 this week! To celebrate, Joe and his sisters and their families planned a cabin camping getaway to Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in southeastern Iowa.

And in the divvying up of camping weekend cooking duties, the cake fell (pun not quite intended) to us. We would be birthday-ing on Saturday night, but driving down Friday after work and we wanted our cake to be fresh. So instead of making a dutch oven cake (because we don’t have an outdoor dutch oven), we googled around and found a recipe for a chocolate crock pot cake. Baking dilemma, solved, right? I now introduce you to the ugliest cake on the planet:

I should re-create it this summer to win a ribbon at the state fair. It tasted OK (it actually got burnt on one side, but I was able to cut that part away) but might be better suited for some lame birthday year, like 37.

Aside from my cakewreck (well, and a second crock-pot breakfast strata fail), the rest of the weekend was great. The park rents out delightful little cabins that come with two futons, a range, microwave, table, sink and bathroom.

They’re all in a nice little cluster, close to the beach! Just a few hundred yards from the cabins there’s a sweet whitewashed beach house (boat house?) that was in the midst of a renovation. There’s a little stone balcony that overlooks the beach, and stone staircase that trails down to the sand. Stevo and I both said it would be a lovely place for an outdoor wedding. I could just see the bride and groom canoeing away and the wedding party all hiking around and setting up a picnic feast at the cabins. You’d really have to keep your fingers crossed for weather as perfect as ours was! Mid-October and we were all lounging around in the sand and wading into the water.

We also took a big (looong) family hike on another trail that meandered alongside the Des Moines River.

Can’t you just hear the crunch-swish-swish-crunch of all of the leaves?


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Picture this: American Gothic

Very near the top of the living in Iowa bucket list — probably right after sweetcorn stands and the I-80 truck stop (ha) — would have the be a visit to the American Gothic House. You know, the one in the background of the second most famous painting on the planet (behind the Mona Lisa):

Well, Joe and I drove through Eldon on a camping trip (more about that in another post) and on the return route we stopped at the house, which is by far the biggest attraction in town. There’s a lovely little visitor center/museum, where the mayor of the town was doing a Sunday volunteer shift. She helped us into one of the dozens of pairs of costumes provided for visitors to re-create the iconic image — complete with pitchfork and glasses!

The grounds to the house/museum include a cement staging area that marks exactly where you should stand to get the photo framed properly. We relied on some kind strangers to take ours. Then I lent Joe out to be a stand-in male for a girl who had visited by herself. The randomly cool thing about the American Gothic House Center is that the little park next door to the museum is a small disc golf course! Iowa is such a funny state sometimes. They were even selling souvenir disc golf discs in the gift shop. (We opted for a Christmas ornament.)

The American Gothic House visit was definitely a fun little stop after camping. The only downside is now my iconic photo is of me after having not showered for about 72 hours. Gross! We’ll have to send our photo in for their wall, although I doubt we’d replace the Klingon couple:

(Fun fact: My co-worker showed me a painting Grant Wood did of her grandfather! Apparently the work is up at the Muscatine Art Center.)


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Eastern Iowa camping adventure

There are sunrises worth waking up for. Like a crisp, fall morning overlooking the Mississippi on the way to see your two dear friends say “I do.”

Sunrise at Pike's Peak, Iowa

Joe and I took the long route to Dubuque a few weeks ago, camping in Backbone State Park and Pikes Peak State Park on the way to a wedding. We got to Backbone around 5 p.m. on a Thursday and three of the four entrances were closed off to cars. I was a bit worried we’d have to set up a camp outside the gates, but luckily we were able to enter from another side.

Joe almost fell off the dock trying to take this.

Backbone had a sweet little lake (that’s me trying to balance on the swaying dock), but I’d say that it’s comparable to the much closer Lake Ahquabi for Des Moinesians. If you’re traveling to Backbone, though, you have to go into Strawberry Point and take the obligatory tourist photo:

World's largest strawberry?

Leaving Strawberry Point (where we had some morning coffee and chai at the old hotel in the center of town), Joe and I took a lovely scenic leaf-peeper kind of drive past small towns. I’m so enamored with Elkader. It seemed like the Stars Hollow* of Iowa to me. My heart stopped as we pulled into town, passing a cemetery just as a funeral honor guard of sorts pointed and shot their guns at the sky. The funeral party wore all black, in contrast to the brilliant trees and I was overwhelmed by the moment. In town, a group of red hat ladies and a motorcycle club shared space along the main strip. I didn’t really get many photos here, but you’ll have to trust me that it’s quite scenic with bridges over the Turkey River and an old-time looking movie theater, bakery and quilt shop and Opera house on the main street.

Elkader, Iowa

* Obligatory Gilmore Girls reference!

… Next up, lunch with a brewmaster (which was definitely one of Joe’s favorite parts.)


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Pitch black on the High Trestle Trail

My, my, this blog is becoming a little bike trip log, now isn’t it?!

Aside from getting to eat more of my buffalo chicken strata than expected, another plus of missing the tailgate on Saturday was the fact that we were able to conserve energy for a night ride across the High Trestle Trail. Joe and Andy rode from Des Moines (they got a bit lost, but the one-way was about 40 miles) and Ellen, Miss Caroline and I drove up to Madrid, where there’s a good checkpoint. (And a bar called the Flat Tire Lounge, which I did not experience this time around.)

One thing I’ve noticed about my more frequent rides is that they tickle my sense of smell in a way that makes the seasons more vivid. You forget in a windows-rolled-up kind of world what autumn smells like. The darkness also sharpens the other senses, with only your bike lights and the moon to guide you. It was pretty crowded on the trail on Saturday and although the point of the full moon ride is obviously to experience the moon, next time I’ll definitely go before dusk so I can see the valley underneath the bridge.

Aren’t these lights trippy? It’s like riding into a time warp. I half expected to launch into hyperspeed and end up in the year 2087 or something.

There are so many cool shots of the bridge on Flickr: here and here and here (what a cute bike bump!).

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Garage sale crawl

Does the thought of rifling through strangers’ things on a misty morning in the rural outskirts of Des Moines sound good to you?

Then we would probably be friends.

Last Saturday, I got up early, mad a trip to La Mie for coffee and perfectly flaky French pastries and joined my friend Gretchen and new garage-saleing friend Marcie for the Highway 141 sale, which is essentially a neighborhood garage sale on crack. Towns all along this ribbon of road are dotted with sales in garages, yards, alleys, barns, etc.

We learned that those who took Friday off to treasure hunt probably took most of the stuff that was worthwhile, but we had fun exploring and chatting and got a few nifty things out of the deal. (Note: Neon signs that advertise a “HUGE/AWESOME/WON’T BELIEVE IT” sale are not as good as the small white ones with old person handwriting.)

Some of the stops were busts, but the joy of the even for me was the chase.

I got some decent items for not spending more than $10 on a morning worth of entertainment (Madeline books via a “Mrs. Anderson” not pictured, nor is the guy who asked us if we wanted to make some money after telling us the banjo he had for sale was $450.)

If we come back next year, we’re going to create a garage sale bingo card to add to the fun. On it will have to be: creepy clown figurines, baked goods, T-shirt or sweatshirt with the name of the town and that town’s festival on it, things people got as freebies that they’re selling for a dime, etc.

(This weekend involved a bachelorette celebration, so no photos of THAT!)

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I-80 remedies: Miniature Barn Museum

There is nothing fun about the drive from the western suburbs of Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa. It’s a painfully boring route, punctuated by the occasional cloud that looks like something funny, or made tolerable by a broadcast of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” On a generally gray Easter Monday, Joe and I could rely on neither as we traversed the less than inspiring landscape after a weekend of wisdom tooth removal, bridal showers, margaritas and egg strata.

So we turned to Tina Fey, and her new (audio)book, “Bossypants,” which was perfectly timed for the trip, and which was so hilarious as to protect us from highway hypnosis. Recommend. I’m sure this is a delightful read, but it’s even better to have Tina Fey read it to you. Except her whispering parenthetical asides were kind of hard to hear in our noisy Subaru.

The other highlight of our trip (the inaugural in the BSintheMidwest series of I-80 remedies) was a stop in the Amana Colonies. This time, we checked out the Miniature Barn Museum, which is an example of what makes Iowa Iowa.

The museum is, as stated, a museum of miniature barns. It is located in an unheated barn. Very meta. “Museums” in rural Iowa are code for “shrines for weird stuff.” I experienced this for the first time when Joe and I traveled to Villisca a few years ago to check out the Ax Murder House for a story I was writing about fun Iowa road trips.

I applaud older small town Iowans for their preservationist spirit. I cringe at their use of the word “primitives” for antiques and am delightfully dumbfounded by the instincts that guide homemade exhibit curation. The museum is $3.50 per adult, which is basically what you’d spend on a gas station snack.


Crazy? Yes. Kind of sweet? Definitely.


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