Tag Archives: adventures

Prairie Party at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Pick a blue sky day when the clouds are extra fluffy, pack a picnic and head to Prairie City, where the buffalo roam and butterflies flutter freely.



I can’t believe it’s taken me 8 years of living in Central Iowa to experience the beauty of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. We went to their Concert on the Prairie fundraiser on Friday night, and it was such a treat to explore the visitor center (after hours-ooh) and wander the paths nearby. (Joe, with local wine in hand, of course. Pretty picturesque happy hour.)


We learned about conservation efforts and there was a casual dinner and a concert by the Big Blue Sky project, and Emmett mostly entertained himself by touching plants and throwing clods of dirt into the air.

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The visitor center has lots of classroom space, interesting exhibits about prairie habitats and restoration, and a sweet little kids puppet theater, among other features.  DSC_0075  .





Emmett was too scared to go into the cave maze area, but I was all honey badger don’t care.



We also drove through part of the 700-acre enclosure that is home to bison and elk, which felt like being on a special little safari. I definitely poked my head out of the sun roof to get a few more photos.




As part of his job at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Joe is learning more about ecosystems like the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that are native to Iowa, but now rare after European settlement. I’m glad he’s teaching us, in turn, and that Emmett is getting opportunities to be in nature.


I kind of wanted to wear a Laura Ingalls Wilder bonnet and sing the Dixie Chicks “Wide Open Spaces” at the same time. There’s enough land out here I could probably do this without anyone seeing, but a nice lady offered to take a quick family photo, so I kept in the crazy this time.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge features miles of trails, and I can’t wait to go back when we’re able to do some more ambitious hiking. Also, we’ll need to work in a stop at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is owned by a friend-of-friends and is supposed to be pretty amazing.

P.S. In further evidence that I’m turning into my mother, I picked up a flier for the NSNWR’s 1st Annual Pollinator Fest happening Saturday, June 20 2015 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.. It’s a free, family friendly event that will feature some special kid-oriented activities (bug hunts! storytellers! crafts! pollinator seed packet giveaway!) 

Find the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook.


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NYC afternoon

This week capped off what’s felt like my year of conferences with a trip to NYC!

I got to meet Eugene Lang, who founded the “I Have a Dream” Foundation 30 years ago, and got a taste of city life last week during the organization’s national staff conference.

We stayed in the NYU dorms (which were huge and had great views!) and our days were packed with group workshops and activities, but I had a few chances to break from the pack and this is what I did:

Thursday morning I went with a couple of people to start the day at Yoga to the People off St. Marks with a power yoga class that was for all ability levels and featured a sound track that brought me back to my college days. (“Into the Mystic” and “Hallelujah” were part of the playlist.) I don’t do yoga very often, but now I’m inspired to fit it in on a much more regular basis. I spent the rest of the conference sore, which is a definite sign I need to get myself in shape!

Our workshops overlooked Washington Square Park, where I stole a few moments to read our TEDxDesMoines book club pick. (Our meeting is Aug. 15, so you have time to read it, too.)

After the sessions were over, I scooted down to Purl Soho and did a little damage fabric shopping. It was exciting to actually be in one of the magical places that I only experience via the blogosphere. Plus, there was a 20% off everything sale going on!

Saturday was a free day; I just needed to be back to the dorms in time for a 3:30 p.m. airport shuttle pickup. I didn’t do much research in advance or really make any plans, but I ended up being able to meet my friend and former London flatmate Maggie at Westville in the East Village for brunch, which was delicious and lovely despite the fact that I kept accidentally flinging my silverware at the people who were at the table next to us. (Teeny tables really close to each other.)

Then I went on a solo excursion to the High Line. My Parks and Rec friend Teva had recommended I check it out, which I remembered after looking up Joanna Goddard’s NYC afternoon NYC Guide recommendations. I knew I could count on Cup of Jo to steer me in the right direction! The High Line is a converted above ground rail line that’s now a (free-to-access) park with great wildflower landscaping, art, food trucks and views! I can imagine it would be even more amazing at sunset, and when you’re not lugging a heavy purse and a carry on:

I did the whole 1.45 mile length, then doubled back to the start and walked there from the East Village, so I earned a cucumber lime popsicle, right?

I lounged on the sky lawn, stopped to smell the flowers and was super excited to see this art by former TED prize winner JR along the way.

It felt so great to walk in the sunshine and keep my eyes and mind open. Thankfully, I made it back to Des Moines last night after a nail-biter of a tight layover and got a seat next to some awesome strangers who might even put together a fundraiser for “I Have a Dream”!


Filed under BS outside the Midwest

Back in the Midwest!

Jet-lag hasn’t yet set in after a nearly 24-hour return trip from Middle East back to the Midwest.

In one of the "unconference" session tents

Much more on the experience later, but this “Why We Travel” essay shared by one of my new TEDxSummit friends resonated.

So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet can “place” me — no one can fix me in my rsum –I can remake myself for better, as well as, of course, for worse (if travel is notoriously a cradle for false identities, it can also, at its best, be a crucible for truer ones). In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.

TEDxSummit, 16 April - 20 April, 2012. Doha, Qatar. Photo: James Duncan Davidson.


Filed under BS outside the Midwest, Life lessons

Smiling into the wind

Early Friday morning, I’m bound for an adventure I never expected, chased after or planned for. In a few short days, I’ll be standing in a desert, surrounded by some of the brightest, most inspired strangers I never thought I’d meet. If all goes as the itinerary outlines, I’ll be engaged in workshops and explore art museums and lean into the warmth of a camel and cruise on the sea in a region I know only by news reports of unrest. In the coming days, I will undoubtedly travel beyond my comfort zone and I’m welcoming the opportunity to unbridle my imagination and ride it to the edge of the world. I’m excited and anxious and blissfully free of expectations.

The theme for the opening night talks is “The Power of Reframing.” It looks like you might be able to watch the stream, too!

I’m sure I’ll have lots to share when I get back. Until then, I hope the winds are fair here and there!


Filed under BS outside the Midwest

True/False film fest recap

The True/False Film Fest in Columbia is like homecoming weekend for liberal arts and journalism majors. Instead of tailgating and a football game, it’s all about buskers and documentaries. I’d never turn down a crisp fall afternoon at my alma mater, but the spring film fest crowd is more my scene.

photo from Bully Q&A via Lucy Hewitt

We got down to Columbia on Friday night and in the span of less than 48 hours, we saw eight films. This is by no means a comprehensive recap, but I’ll let you know what we saw in case you’re looking to spice up the documentary section of your Netflix queue:

Queen of Versailles — From the description, I was worried this would be a vapid portrayal of the super rich. The filmmaker set out to chronicle the construction of the country’s largest private residence, but the 2009 financial crisis added unexpected depth to the storyline. The film does show some pretty ridiculous consumerism, but it also gets down to the truth of money’s inability to buy happiness (or good taste!), the psychology of greed and how not even the 1% came out unscathed.

Gypsy Davy — This movie chronicles the filmmaker’s deeply personal quest to understand who her father was and why he abandoned his family (families, really) for Flamenco music. How much of ourselves do we owe our children after we bring them into the world? How do our parent’s paths help us make sense of ourselves? Also, after watching this movie, I will never hear the Counting Crows song Mr. Jones in the same way again.

<Title redacted> There were a number of “Secret Screenings” of documentaries that haven’t yet had their official premiere. The T/F fest organizers asked everyone to abide by a code of silence as to what the films were, and I’ll honor that. In short, it was like this trip, but seen through the eyes of a boy under the age of 10.

¡Vivan las Antipodas! — If human beings packed a satellite with information about Earth and shipped it off in the hopes it would be picked up by some other intelligent life, this is the movie they should include. The documentary felt like being inside of a National Geographic magazine, with breathtaking visuals of four antipodes (places diametrically opposite each other on the planet.) The cinematography was unbelievable, and there were moments of quiet humor and heartbreak, too. The oppositeness of some of these parallel places was striking, but the strange similarities were more so. Joe and I both would have awarded this movie the best of the fest (that we saw), even though it was so hard to compare them, since everything was very different. Filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky won the “True Vision” award at T/F this year, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to track this film down because it’s not on DVD or anything.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope — This was by far the most lighthearted of the films we saw. Directed by Morgan Spurlock (although this movie doesn’t feature him at all), it follows some pretty likable geeks through the annual Comic-Con excitement. The tension comes from how genuinely these people want to be a bigger part of this fantasy/sci-fi world, and how the convention is evolving into more of a pop culture phenom than simply a celebration of comics. The crowd was super into this one, especially since a local guy is featured as one of the main characters and a few scenes were shot in Columbia.

Detropia– Go inside the crumbling walls of a city and see for yourself the challenges that globalization, race relations and sprawl have heaped upon Detroit. The retired schoolteacher/ nightclub owner in this movie was one of the smartest and most entertaining characters in any of the films we watched.

The Island President — Will climate change submerge the Maldives? This movie follows Mohamed Nasheed, the island nation’s president (who was recently deposed) in his brave attempt to bring about real change at the Copenhagen summit. Nasheed is a political prisoner turned president turned global gadfly whose compassion and tireless work for his people is admirable, even against insurmountable odds.

Bully — Kids cruelty to other kids, up close and personal. Hardly an eye in the packed house was dry after this movie, which hit home a lot more than many of the other issues. Families (one of them in Sioux City, Iowa), grapple with how to protect their kids, and with suicides prompted by the torment of their peers. This is a must-see for educators, parents and anyone who works with kids. Currently, it’s rated R, due to foul language and violence (coming from the mouths and at the hands of pre-teens), but this movie would be a great conversation starter for families. You can sign an online petition to get the rating reduced to PG-13.

We didn’t see everything (full list here), but that’s my recap from the eight we did get to watch!

What’s your favorite documentary?

Leave a comment

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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.)


Filed under Iowa adventures

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.)


Filed under Iowa adventures