And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around

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A Tuesday Off With a History Buff: Iowa Backroads to Des Moines

The great thing about working at a museum is that every day is different, and not just your workdays, but sometimes your days off, too. So, with an unexpected Tuesday off, my friend Jerry, who works at another local museum, and I took off for Des Moines from Iowa City.

It’s an easy trip. All you have to do is shoot across I-80 and blammo, pass a few scores of semi trucks and commuters and you’re there. Or you could take the back roads, winding your way down Highway One, onto Black Diamond Road (Where did that name come from? we wondered), and along a slew of hard-to-follow county roads. You know the kind that say F67 or F53 on the map, but the real deal is noted by more unique names.


Names like..Orval Yoder TPK SW. Hold on. What is TPK supposed to stand for? Trailer Park? Turnpike? Tupac spelled wrong?

Jerry and I got an early start at 7:30, and I actually TOOK PHOTOS (something I am horrible at), which means that this blog will be more photo-heavy than most or any that I write.

Less than an hour in we found this beautiful old church in a little town called Windam. Well, I say town. It’s listed as a town on a map, and maybe a row of houses with a church they can claim is enough to make it so. I can’t imagine growing up somewhere so small, surrounded by nothing but farmland. And yet, the rush of I-80 is only a few miles north. The interstate doesn’t even feel in the same era, let alone the same county.


Look at all those history on them there stones.

The church has an adjacent cemetery, full of Civil War-era tombstones, all with Irish last names. We walked past rows of McKillins and Kellys, O’Donnells and Ryans. Beyond the tombstones, endless green, the gentle rolling hills of crops still less than a foot tall. It was a great find. Jerry pointed out the G.A.R. stars placed for Civil War soldiers. My history knowledge is lacking, and his encyclopedic. But I pack snacks and bring good tunes to listen to, so we make good road trip buddies.



The tallest statue in the cemetery by far. This family had it GOIN ON. And I captured a nice lens flare. 

Except when I got us really lost not soon after this stop.


Your intrepid navigator with the (mostly) trusty Cherokee Jeep and a REAL ACTUAL MAP. (No cell phone reception out in these here parts)

We ended up doubling back on our route, getting closer to Kalona as I cursed my rusty map skills. The delay was worth it, though, as we got to another small town, Wellman, and discovered the AWESOME CORNER. It’s at the corner of Awesome Corner and Awesome Corner, don’t you see. So I guess that makes it the Awesome Corner Corner. …Don’t think about it too hard.


Fact: Hanging underneath the Awesome Corner sign increases your awesomeness exponentially.

We were back on track before long, admiring the rolling countryside and listening to an old Violent Femmes tape. We stopped at an historic site in Lynnville, Wagaman Mill, a scenic little spot for a picnic.


The actual mill was closed, by a guy across the way was enjoy it as a fishing spot, and we probably ruined his hour with our WASP-y picnic across the way.

At this point, we were nearing Des Moines, but we had one more stop along the way before we got to the capitol city: A trip to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, where the bison roam! 62 bison, to be exact. The refuge was HUGE, acres of untouched prairie, and neither Jerry nor I even knew it existed before Jerry spotted it on his Iowa map. We had good fun driving along the road tour trail, and at each crest of the hill I belted out the Jurassic Park theme, waiting to spot a herd of bison, or even just one little guy…


Oooo, sounds exciting. Cue the John Williams score!!

…But no matter how loudly I sang (or maybe because of the loud singing and the rickety old Jeep), no bison revealed themselves to us. Stay hidden, you elusive, endangered beasts of the prairie.

Jerry did get to bond with one bison at the (very modern and impressive) visitor center, though.


Jerry, becoming one with (stuffed) nature

At this point, it was nearing 1:00 and we were ready for the big city. Des Moines truly felt like a metropolis after all those small towns and opens fields, and we flipped a 180 by visiting Terrace Hill, an historic mansion and residence of the Iowa Governor, Terry Branstad and family. Jerry also works in an historic house (the impressive Brucemore Estate), so he wanted “to compare the Victorian style to the Second Empire style.” I shrugged violently at him. Second Empire, when was that? Ah, okay, right, the second French Empire, Napoleon III, all that stuff. …I swear I know things, just not all the History Things.

Terrace Hill was appropriately fancy, inside and out.




Ahhhhh. (My Huawei didn’t take this picture, obviously- no interior photos allowed on the tour, so I did an image search.)

But, you ask, how do they give tours of an actual residence? And why does the governor of Iowa live somewhere so fancy? Doesn’t he fear a peasant’s revolt the likes of which unseen since the French Revolution??

Well, no. Terry and his family live in a modern but not crazy-royal apartment on the third floor, the former servants’ quarters. I was kind of bummed by this, because seeing the servants’ quarters is always my favorite parts of house tours like these, maybe because it’s the only part of the house I can imagine actually living in. The tour was mostly about architecture and the history of the artifacts in the house, and Jerry was twitching and cringing as the tour guide touched every object on the tour. I didn’t notice, and after the tour, Jerry and I debated if this had been a bad practice or not; at Brucemore, nearly every artifact has a rich history and connection to one of the families who lived there. The furniture in Terrace Hill, though, is still used for events sometimes and there’s only one piece of furniture original to the first family who lived there. Still, I wound up working at a museum through good timing and stars aligning, so my knowledge of artifact handling procedure is woefully lacking.

We left Terrace Hill (no Brandstad sightings- Our governor is as elusive as the bison) and headed to East Village, Jerry grumbling about how to the tour guide handled the artifacts without even any GLOVES.

I dragged Jerry to the tea store, Gong Fu, and got my chance to shine in the nerdy sun for a while, going foamy at the mouth over Yixing clay teapots and aged Puerh tea. Jerry nodded politely and read the newspaper, muttering about the Templeton Rye controversy (up until recently, the label said it was a “Prohibition-Era Recipe” and that it was distilled in Templeton, Iowa, when it’s actually switched to a distillery in Indiana, where it is made in considerably larger batches. Scandal! It is a shame, though. It was highly-lauded Iowa whiskey, and now it’s not even Iowan. What a waste.

Speaking of Iowa, what trip to our fair capitol would be complete without a trip to the State Capitol building? Then again, the last time I was in the Capitol, I had a disposable camera in hand. I probably still have my horribly underdeveloped picture inside the library, with its spiral staircases and symmetrical levels that reminded 5th Grade Me of the library in Beauty and the Beast. The only problem with it, I had decided, was that all the books were law books. Now THAT is a terrible waste.



Oh, so fancy! The only fact I remember from my 5th grade tour of the capitol is that if you took all the gold leaf from the dome and wadded it up, it would be about the size of a baseball.


I didn’t lie on the floor to take this, but I bet if I worked here, and I had a dime for every time some tourist did lie down with a big old camera… well, I would have several dimes, I’m POSITIVE.


The library, just as fairy tale-esque as I remembered! Except for all those damn law books, of course. We’ll pretend they’re forgotten fables and lore.

IMG_20160607_160558Ooooo, ahhhh. It truly is some astonishing architecture. Vertigo-inducing, even, if you’re me. But I have a soft spot for the less-impressive corridor with some cabinets that don’t get quite as much attention and care… Behold!

IMG_20160607_161303 Yep. Someone, somewhere, made China doll replicas of each Iowa First lady in their inaugural ballgowns! The thing is, they all have the exact same face, only with different hairstyles and gowns. *shiver* A truly wonderful collection for any creepy doll afficionado.

Right across from this “Case of Doll Clone Horrors” is the “Case of Lame Presents That the Governor Clearly Didn’t Want To Keep But Has To.”


“Oh, Wow! A book about a volcano I can’t pronounce! That’s so sweet.”

“A picture of me with some other people? How did you know??”

“Wooden shoes? What a unique gift from the Netherlands!” (Plot twist: They were from Pella. At least I hope so.)

But best of all was this gift:

IMG_20160607_161521I give you: Things Made of Corn! A present fit for a state governor! (But c’mon, no Everclear?)

We left the Capitol as it neared to five, and at this point I was DROPPING. We’d been all over the map and I was ready for some respite. But we still had one final stop, one piece of unclosed business.

Jerry had to check and see if he still held the high score on Ms. Pacman at Up/Down, the arcade downtown. We waited until it opened, then went down the staircase and into the basement that was a 90’s arcade dream…with local beer. Jerry raced with baited breath to the locked display case with the high scorers displayed on Polaroids. Everyone was listed with their initials, except for Sean Lennon, who has a score of over 1,000,000 (yes, One Million) points on a game I hadn’t heard of. Yes, John Lennon’s son is on the wall of the Up/Down Arcade in Des Moines. And you said famous peoples’ kids never did anything noteworthy.

“NOO!” Jerry wailed.

Poor Jerry. A local young woman had beaten him substantially, with over 300,000 points. He resolutely pulled out his game tokens that he’d trucked all this way and I ordered us a couple of pilsners.

Did I mention that I’m really terrible at arcade games? I played a few rounds of regular Pacman and a few on Tetris, cheering Jerry on as he collected slews of fruit (and a pretzel?) and dots upon dots. He finally submitted defeat, though, and he asked for his old Polaroids back, relics from his glory days.

“If I was here for hours, I could beat it, but I have to step away.” A wise choice. Fame is fleeting, especially if you only ever get to Des Moines once a year to compete against some local woman who can saunter in any time and beat the score with one quarter.


Gone but not forgotten: These high scores will be remembered. 

So it was with bittersweet solemnity and hungry stomachs that we left Des Moines for Grinnell, where we had some delicious food at the Prairie Canary and stopped to look at the exterior of a beautiful historic bank.

IMG_20160607_183308Then we relented to I-80 to get home. By the time we reached Iowa City, we had been road tripping for nearly 14 hours, had put around 400 miles on Jerry’s Jeep, and had listened to 5 episodes of the radio show Cabin Pressure. When he dropped me off at my house, I could only grunt a tired thanks and stumble out. But it was a day well-spent- I got to see a corner of Iowa I don’t usually see, and there’s nothing so satisfying as falling into bed exhausted from a full day.