Travel Report: Iowa Nostalgia.
I think I can state, as an absolute fact, that I would never have gone to Iowa if it hadn’t been for Bill and Mary. Forgive me for being a touch hokey, but they really are wonderful people. Salt of the earth types if you will. We met in Slovakia back in 2002 while working in Bratislava as English teachers. Twenty years later, we still keep in regular touch.
We shared so many incredible experiences that year in Bratislava. Many of which I’ve detailed in my short story collection The Slovak Files. And while there had been several brief reunions over the years (in Nashville and Belgium of all places), it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally got to see Bill and Mary on their own turf.
Back then they lived in the tiny city of Nevada in Story County, Iowa. Really, I would have mistaken it for a town rather than a city. According to Mr. Google, there are just 7000 residents.
I remember taking a stroll one afternoon and boy oh boy, the place was dead. In fact, I recall little more than the water tower, a general store, a diner and the local newspaper building, The Nevada Journal. At one point, I wondered if I might actually bump into Gilbert Grape. “Match in the gas tank, boom boom!”
In any case my favourite Nevada spot was Bill and Mary’s place on South I Avenue. They insisted I stay with them, and I’m certainly glad I accepted. After all, this had been their home since 1992, so I was keen to see all their old photos and travel treasures.
There was plenty of time to hang out. We reminisced over the Slovak days and I lapped up their stories of life in 1970s Nevada. Moreover, I was left in awe by Mary’s barbecue skills and the resulting feasts we dispatched on their outside decking.
One afternoon, we took the fifteen minute drive to Ames, where back in the day Bill and Mary studied at Iowa State University. They met in 1975 in classes for high school journalism teachers. It was lovely to tour the campus grounds, handsome and peaceful on what was a beautiful day.
The city itself sprang up in the 1850s and 60s as an agricultural college and railroad depot. It is named after the Massachusetts congressman Oakes Ames, who put the town on his famous railroad line. The university is America’s first land-grant college. And, to this day, holds a fine reputation nationwide for its agricultural interests.
There are some wonderful old buildings peppered across the campus. One of these, Beardshear Hall, is a gorgeous Neoclassical Beaux Arts structure completed in 1906. It is home to the university president’s house offices, in addition to that of the secretary, treasurer and provost.
Keen to embrace Ames’ agricultural and botanical history, we paid a visit to Reiman Gardens, a 17-acre green space owned by the university. The first horticultural garden here opened in 1914, though today’s attraction began life in 1995.
The gardens came about due to the generosity of Mr. Roy Reiman and his wife Bobbi, who donated $1.3 million to its construction. Roy is the founder of Reiman Publications, the world’s largest private subscription based publishing company. His empire focused on country oriented magazines and books, hence he was always a good fit for the project.
That afternoon, guided by my local hosts, we spent some time in the thoroughly charming Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing. This was my first time up close and personal with butterflies. It was wonderful, with dozens of the creatures flying around me and settling on my legs, shoulders and head.
Opened in 2002, they say around 800 live butterflies inhabit the space, representing up to 80 species. Reiman named the butterfly wing in honour of his mother Christina.
I wish I’d taken more photographs that day. Particularly inside the tropical plant house and across its award winning rose garden, where there are 2000+ plants. However, I did manage to get some shots of the Nature Connects exhibit and its quite brilliant lego sculptures.
As luck would have it, the exhibit had opened just a month before I arrived in Iowa. Certified LEGO builder Sean Kenney (one of only 11 people worldwide) put together the 27 sculptures on display. What an undertaking it must have been, especially when you consider he used half a million bricks!
The largest of Kenny’s creations is this mother bison, pictured above, made from over 45000 bricks. I was surprised to read about how incredibly durable the sculptures are. Indeed all the works comfortably survived fierce winds, rains and thunderstorms on the exhibit’s opening weekend. Phew!
Speaking of bison, I got to see some real life beasts at the picturesque Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Located in Jasper County, this federal project does excellent work with its efforts to restore the tallgrass prairie, oak savanna and sedge meadow ecosystems that once flourished throughout Iowa.
Home to around 50 wild bison and 220 elk, the 800 acre refuge opened in 1990. While it does have a small area of protected native prairie, in truth the land is seriously degraded and much of their success has been in restoration. They do this with a local ecotype seed harvested from native remnants.
Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge’s name comes from its primary champion, Neal Edward Smith, an Iowa born politician who was a member of the United States House of Representatives for the Democratic Party.
This guy wasn’t just any old politician. Active between 1959 and 1995, he is the longest serving Iowan in the house. At 101 years old at the time of writing, Smith is also the oldest living current or former member of Congress. What’s more, he seems to have achieved this with not a trace of political or personal scandal. Much respect.
Once you’ve breathed in the landscape and spotted some bison, it’s well worth popping into the visitor centre for an overview of Iowa’s prairie history. There are also exhibits on the local birdlife, life-size model bisons and even a puppet theater. I did showcase my puppeteering skills that day but what can I say, it’s been nine years and they still haven’t called back.
Wherever I go in The United States, there is always a memorable diner. Tick Tock in NYC, The Diner in DC, Noshville in Nashville, to name but a few. Bill and Mary took me to my first on-the-highway, in-the-middle-of-nowhere diner, located on the so-called new Highway 30, just outside Colo.
From the moment I stepped inside Country House my heart skipped a beat. Ah man, it was so damn authentic I could’ve laughed out loud. Picking our table, I found my eyes drawn to the huddled group of men sat in a corner whispering conspiratorially. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear one of them was the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country For Old Men.
Our waitress that afternoon was a no-nonsense country gal by the name of Debbie. She was the best old fashioned waitress Bill knew about. Thus to Country House we came, armed with full wallets, empty stomachs and much anticipation. Debbie definitely delivered, quickly taking our orders and personally serving our delicious breakfasts. And all with a country smile.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see her chewing out any of the old guys. From what Bill told me she did not take crap from anyone. Happily, she was on hand to take this photo before we dove into our dishes. Bill later claimed that Debbie was really impressed that his friends “from Amsterdam” had come to eat at Country House.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I have always adored the movie The Bridges of Madison County. Consequently, I just had to go and see Roseman Covered Bridge, the centrepiece structure at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s moving 1995 drama. But of course, in Bill and Mary’s capable hands, I got to see way more than I’d expected.
We set off for Madison County one hot and sticky afternoon. It took just under an hour and a half from Nevada in the car and provided plenty of opportunities to drink in the rural views. They have corn fields in Iowa, y’know.
John Wayne Birthplace & Museum.
Our first port of call was the little city of Winterset, Madison County’s quaint historic seat. We were heading to the picture perfect town square, but along the way got distracted. “Oh, that’s where John Wayne was born” announced Mary casually.
Ok, I wasn’t the world’s biggest John Wayne fan. But come on, this was pretty cool! Wayne (real name Marion Robert Morrison) was born here on South Second Street on May 26th, 1907. He lived within these walls for nine years, until the family relocated to California.
Today’s restored building, the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum, contains a lovingly maintained exhibit on the man’s life and career. Guided tours take 15 minutes and go for $15 per person. You can see an 11 minute tribute film, a collection of eyepatches he wore in True Grit and, needless to say, a giant gift shop pedalling just about anything they could fit Wayne’s face onto.
On Winterset Town Square we took a stroll and breathed in the pleasing sleepiness that oozed from the place. First, I stopped to admire the elegant Madison County Courthouse, a native limestone structure built between 1876-1878.
Next, on John Wayne Drive, I just had to photograph the pretty Iowa Theater. The building used to be a grocer’s and meat market and dates back to 1899. It transformed into a cinema in 1914 showing silent films. The first movie with sound followed in 1930.
Since then, The Iowa Theater has become one of the state’s most loved entertainment venues. Nowadays they put on movies, live theater, comedy and musical performances.
The old girl underwent a grand restoration in 2017 and, after a pause, is now back in operation. How I would love to return one day and catch a classic flick on one of their Way Back Wednesday nights.
And then we arrived at The Northside Cafe on Jefferson Street. The diner appears in The Bridges of Madison County when Robert Kincaid (played by Clint) offers Lucy Redfield a seat next to him at the bar.
He is the only one to show her any kindness after she is ostracised by locals because of her affair with Mr. Delaney. Naturally, I wanted to go inside, park myself on Clint’s seat and maybe grab a milkshake.
But of course the bloody place was closed that afternoon. I was gutted, and had to make do with a ropey photograph through the dusty front window. Clint’s seat is the fourth stool down from the start of the bar. Disappointingly, I realise that I’ll never get my chance to sit there, as The Northside Cafe is now permanently closed.
From the town square we went for a drive through a series of dusty country lanes towards Roseman Covered Bridge. In order to build up the tension, Bill and Mary treated me to a number of warmup acts along the way. Our first pitstop came at Cutler Donahue Bridge, a 24 metre structure built in 1870.
The Bridges of Madison County.
We also took a walk through Cedar Covered Bridge, a structure with an unfortunate history. Originally built in 1883, it features prominently in Robert James Waller’s novel, The Bridges of Madison County. It is also the bridge that appears on the book’s front cover.
But in 2002 arsonists burned the bridge down and it was subsequently rebuilt a few years later. Which means the bridge I visited was actually its second incarnation. But alas the story doesn’t end there.
In 2017 some boneheads destroyed it for a second time. Police eventually charged a trio of teenagers with second degree arson. And so Cedar Bridge was rebuilt a second time, reopening in September 2019. It now stands fitted with a fire suppression system and surveillance cameras.
Finally, our explorations took us to Roseman Bridge, the gorgeous creation that had most captured my imagination when I first saw the movie. Built in 1883, it occupies an idyllic position over the pretty Middle River.
In the movie this is the bridge Kincaid is looking for when he stops at Francesca’s (Meryl Streep) home to ask for directions. Later, they visit the bridge together and he photographs her in the structure. Francesca also leaves a note on the bridge inviting him to dinner.
And of course (spoiler alert!) Francesca states in her will that she wants her ashes scattered off Roseman Bridge. It was a magical moment to photograph the bridge myself that day and wander through the interior without having to share it with other visitors.
Across the lovely wooden latticework, people leave their mark with scribbled visit dates, declarations of love and quotes from the movie. My favourite, pictured below, is a powerful line that has stayed with me over the years.
My final few days in Iowa played out in the state capital, Des Moines. One afternoon we ambled through the fascinating Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Opened in 2009, it features thought provoking artwork by 25 of the world’s most acclaimed artists. That’s Thinker on a Rock below, a Rodin-referencing bronze creation by the Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan.
The park came about after a local venture capitalist, John Pappajohn and his wife Mary, donated 24 sculptures for the display. The pieces are worth a staggering $40 million. But that’s just a drop in the ocean for the Pappajohns, who are among the world’s most prolific art collectors.
One of our favourites was the arresting Nomade sculpture by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The crouching human form, made of white painted steel letters, is an exploration of communication challenges between people and their different cultures.
We also swung by the majestic Iowa State Capitol. Constructed between 1871 and 1886, this renaissance revival building houses the Iowa Senate, Iowa House of Representatives and offices of the Attorney General, Treasurer and Secretary of State.
Looking back, it seems amazing to me that we simply wandered in that day off the street. The interior is just stunning, with grand marble staircases, a dramatic domed roof and tasteful wooden furnishings. In fact, all the wood, including walnut, cherry, butternut and oak, comes from Iowan forests.
I got to see my second live baseball match in Des Moines. Principal Park is a smaller and more intimate stadium than Nationals Park in Washington D.C., where I’d seen my first game. The Iowa Cubs play here, a minor league team that exists simply as a feeder club for The Chicago Cubs.
I got to see The Iowa Clubs play The Tacoma Rainiers. Much like my first baseball game, it was all about the atmosphere rather than what was happening on the field. Indeed I can barely recall anything from the actual game. Even Bill couldn’t be of assistance. “Was I there?” he asked me over email.
Like Bill and Mary, I’m a big fan of Mexican food. Hence we ended up taking dinner at Tacos Mariana’s one afternoon, an understated but highly authentic eatery on University Avenue.
Unlike the details of the baseball game, there could be no forgetting the tastes and smells of that wonderful meal. Some online reviews claim Mariana’s has “the best Mexican food in Iowa”, so it’s great to see that they’ve survived the difficulties of the pandemic.
One evening, I was lucky enough to catch a show by one of Bill’s favourite musicians, Bob Pace. Specialising in American roots and blues, Pace has been performing to audiences across America’s midwest for over forty years!
He’s also a member of the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame. We saw him and his band live at Zimm’s, a legendary Des Moines bar and restaurant which, sadly, is no longer in business.
I’ve left what was possibly the most memorable experience of my visit for last. I had never seen a U.S. president in the flesh before. Nor frankly was I ever expecting to. Thus when Mary excitedly informed me that President Obama would be in Iowa during my stay, I knew I had to go and hear the great man speak.
Obama in Iowa.
I have never been much of a political animal. But to see Barack Obama address a packed house at The Iowa State Fairgrounds had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Even before that day I’d considered him one of the greatest public speaker’s I’d ever heard. Happily, all his trademark skills were in full evidence on that Iowan afternoon. From his warmth, empathy, eloquence and clever use of metaphors, to his sharp wit and employment of the rule of three, it was a masterclass.
A few weeks later, when I was back in Amsterdam, Bill and Mary got in touch to share a photograph of the event from an online article. The shot shows then current US Secretary of Agriculture (and former Governor of Iowa) Tom Vilsack speaking before Obama took to the stage.
Cast your eyes to the back row and you can see me sat just to the right of the Forward banner. Seemingly the tallest person in the row, brown t-shirt, head tilted to the side, probably asking Bill something. It’s a treasured memento, truly one of my favourite pieces of Iowa Nostalgia.
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