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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Another very interesting read Leighton. Loved the butterflies and the Lego sculptures also the Iowa State Capitol building. It’s so good that you’ve kept in touch with all these fascinating and kind people you’ve met whilst working overseas. Marion
Thank you Marion. Bill and Mary are the best of people. We are considering visiting them in Mexico next year. Happy Birthday to your husband!
Thanks so much Leighton. Mexico sounds amazing, I’ve never been but my golf mad sister in law goes every year and plays on some courses. Pitch and Putt is enough for me! M.
You are so lucky to have visited the Bridges. What an absolute treat and a smashing read.
I knew you would love this one! The bridges are just idyllic and Roseman is the most treasured of all.
What a great post. Love the book, movie, the bridges and the tranquility of that piece of Iowa you visited. Nice to have met up with your friends Bill & Mary I know they mean a lot to you. Good Job !
Thanks. It was great to see Bill and Mary in their natural habitat so to speak. Definitely the most understated non touristy part of The U.S. I’ve visited so far.
There is always something special about the United States, even in the most seemingly empty places. Nice read, thanks.
Thank you very much. Iowa has much to offer, though much of it is delightfully understated.
Iowa is definitely a place I would never think to visit. You sure did immerse yourself there, sounds like you learned a bunch about the area’s history and so cool for you to have seen Obama speak!
Hey, thanks! Iowa has so much to offer but of course it gets a bit lost in the mix when you consider the competition around the country. I did a lot but there are still a few things I regret missing out on. The annual Iowa State Fair for example and driving through the state to go and see the Field of Dreams. Thanks for reading!
It’s hard to relate to the level of patience and focus necessary to build sculptures out of half a million Lego bricks… imagine having that resource in your armoury!
Yup, those LEGO builders have some serious skills. Thanks for following my adventures in Iowa!
I was thinking … how do you become a certified lego builder (and 1 of only 11 world wide) … you will never be without a job ever! Well, he’s good for sure – love the lego butterfly! It’s great to have friends like Bill and Mary – and to still have contact after all these years … hats off to friendships like these!
Absolutely! Here’s to great friendships! How one becomes a certified LEGO builder is a great question. What a fun and presumably well paid job. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!
What can I say? Absolutely love this piece, but, of course, I’m more than a little prejudiced. I love Iowa and I’m so glad you loved your time in Iowa. We were really busy, no? I’m so happy to be reminded of all we did. Now, we need to make the same kind of memories in Oaxaca. Thanks, Leighton, for your wonderful depiction of what Iowa is really like.
Mary, it was so much fun FINALLY getting this written up. “Good times!” as Mr. Richard Kessell was/is so fond of saying. We have not forgotten about Oaxaca and are still plotting the right moment to come and spend some time with you guys. Thanks for being such great hosts.
Well written, detailed post on Iowa. So nice to know people in these places that can show you what makes it special to them. I am with you on the diner food. When you find a good one with a sassy waitress, you are in for a treat. We found one in Escanaba Michigan called Rosie’s. When I dared to question how Rosie made her corned beef hash, she took a dislike to me and vowed I would never taste it. At the end, she relented and gave me some. P.S. It was not great, but, the floor show was. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
Ha ha good stuff Allan. Have never heard of Escanaba, but I love the name. What’s the main draw? Is it lake country?
Escanaba is right on the shore of Little Bay de Noc, part of Lake Michigan. It was a port city, but seemed pretty sleepy when we were there for a night in 2018. Only a one night stop on our drive across the continent. A
Great post!! As always interesting read Leighton!
What a wonderful tour of a lesser known area. I would love to see the John Wayne museum! I love all of his movies, but the original True Grit will always be a favorite. 🙂
Great to know you’re a John Wayne fan! I have always meant to watch a selection of his best films, but never got round to it. Just seen one or two. A real American icon!
That was surely a busy visit to the Iowa sites that never see that many visitors. It is a testament to your quest to see the world. And you never visited the Iowa State Fair, the most famous site of all in Iowa – subject of books, movies and song. Love it when you visit those off-the-beaten path spots.
Not seeing The Iowa State Fair will haunt me forever. All those fried things on sticks, I should have sampled them all. Oh and Field of Dreams. They built it, but I did not come. #regrets
Wow, there are interesting, fun things to do even in Iowa! Who would have known?😊 Its a shame the diner closed. Great post Leighton.
Ha ha thanks. The next time you hear “There’s nothing to Iowa but corn fields”please refer them to this article. Hope you’re well!
I forgot all about the Vilsack photo. I knew there had to have been a reason for the photographer to position himself on that side of the podium. Now you have actual proof you were there.
Ha ha ha. Indeed!
How neat to have stayed in touch so long and be able to reconnect!
Yup, considering visiting them in Mexico next year. By then it’ll have been ten years since the Iowa trip.
Wow, such a tour, you found so many interesting places, I guess especially for your local guides😊
So nice you’re still in touch with Bill and Mary!
Thanks for reading Christie! Was fun to give Iowa some much needed blog love.
If one were to describe what the “true America” was, Iowa would be the epitome of that. The Midwest atmosphere of the whole state goes to show the slow, laid-back roots kind of living, with all the vast, open landscape that enables freedom to ring. Iowa is miles away from what I’ve grown up with, literally and figuratively, and it’s very impressive you’ve been to this state that I’ve yet to visit. I’ve heard that Des Moines is becoming somewhat of a trendy place to live, as it seems from the artsy exhibitions all over town; a friend of mine grew up here and has stated that the younger generation are moving back to Iowa after stints in the big cities, to bring a bit of cosmopolitan culture to it. We’ll have to see what Iowa becomes in the near future, but at least during your visit, it appears to remain very Americana. Thanks for sharing, Leighton!
Thanks Rebecca, indeed Iowa felt like light years away from any other place I’d seen in The U.S. And I never felt it more keenly than when I stepped into that diner. Your home state remains very high on the list should I ever get back.
Let me know when you come to California. I’ll give you all of the tips! 😊
Wishing you a very Happy Birthday Leighton and all good wishes for Sladja tomorrow!
Thanks Marion! I guess your husband had a great evening last night, unbelievable scenes!
Yes, he loved it, the only slight issue is that we are booked back on a train from Edinburgh on Sunday evening but he’s going to set the match to record and not look at his phone. If we win, there will be so much jubilation that I think he’ll find out!
Oh wow! Yes I think staying away from the result will be impossible. Maybe accessing iPlayer through the phone is a better option?
Good idea, if LNERs wi-fi is strong enough we might be able to watch it on our iPads
What a special trip to see special people! Those Lego builds are incredible!! And to see Obama speak – wow what an experience. Thanks again for sharing your adventures 🙂
Thanks for reading Han!
Who knew there was so much to see in Iowa? You have truly sampled some of the great diversity of America – the south, iconic cities, breadbasket. And seeing Obama, amazing!
Cheers Ruth! The Obama event was in the stars. A case of perfect timing and knowing the right people.
Another great read about a state I knew almost nothing about – including the fact that it’s home to Madison County! I confess I’ve never seen that film but you quote from one of my own favourites, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ 🙂 And wow, to have heard Obama speak in person must have been amazing – I’m completely with you as regards his speaking skills (and his wife is pretty nifty too, from what I’ve heard!)
Thanks Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed it. If I ever make it back to The U.S. I’d love to visit another one of those states we don’t really know anything about. Let me know what you think of Bridges of Madison County if you ever get round to watching it.