And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around


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Find your state park: Solo adventures in Palisades-Kepler

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t worked at a regular, full-time office job for very long, so the concept of getting paid holidays like President’s Day off is still a novelty. I decided to use my unplanned-for day off for a staycation, and finally explored the nearby Palisades-Kepler State Park.

It was an overcast, drizzly day, and I had the park nearly all to myself.

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*hums “Into the Woods”*

It’s funny, I used to explore the outdoors alone all the time. After you fall out of the habit, though, and are constantly amusing yourself with your phone, your books, your friends, your stuff, your local restaurants and bars, your Netflix, your to-do list, your craft projects, you view an unstructured, unplugged chunk of time in the outdoors as a bit daunting.

“But what will I do?” you ask yourself. “I’ll get bored of walking around for an hour, probably.”

Then you drive far enough that your phone signals weakens and dies, you step out of the car, zip up your rain jacket, and you fall back into yourself. You listen to the geese. You admire the bluffs and the leafless trees. You climb a large, fallen tree. You get to a point where you can’t comfortably turn around to go back down, so you sit and pretend to admire the scenery until the dude walking his dog gets out of view, then you can butt-scoot down past the knot until you can stand and balance-beam-walk back down to the sandy shore.

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Obligatory, stuck-on-a-tree-limb selfie

Palisades rewards curiosity. The narrow dirt paths wind past green, mossy boulders and meld into stone steps, taking you up a hill to a river overlook, or down along a root-twisted path right above the river’s edge.

The park is a good example of nature and human-made structures working in harmony. The steps leading up the steep hills seem as natural as the bluffs beside them, and pretty stone or wood bridges guide hikers over ravines. I have to wonder if this park was the work of the CCC (The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the best things to come out of the New Deal during the Great Depression), if these sturdy bridges and scenic limestone shelters have stood since the 1930s.

It rained off and on during my visit. As the rain went from a light patter to a heavy downpour, I sought shelter in the shelter pictured above. And yes, it did smell like piss and was heavily graffitied, marked with deep grooves in the woods and the stone, marked with Sharpie art and scribbled pencil. Please enjoy this photo collection of some of the shelter’s graffiti highlights:

You could tell by the graffiti the nighttime use this spot gets. A lover’s nest, a Wiccan ritual site (it’s hard to see on my photo of the compass etching, but some teen witches had attempted to turn it into a pentacle/magic circle, with the words “Love”, “Peace”, “Goddess”, and “Integrity” written between each of the four directions), a stone sketchbook for erotic fairy art, a Stoner Palace, a corner to piss in, a scenic outlook…the choice is yours!

As the rain died down, I was able to wander once more, contented wind down trails and slowly find my way back to my car, getting lost several times along the way. It turns out getting lost in a state park is a perfect way to spend a holiday afternoon.

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Tuning In

It happens to all of us. We live on our phones for the day, pocketing them to grab cans off the shelf or put a load of laundry in, then pulling the phone out again, mindlessly opening and closing and re-opening Instagram or Twitter. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m trying to write more often (NaNoWriMo is right around the corner!!), or maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about how to live intentionally, but today I found myself tuning in to life more.

At the grocery store, I paid attention to my grocery clerk’s hands as he rang up my purchases. He had the most fascinating, agile hands, hands I would like to draw. They were long and slender, slightly knobby, and they’d deftly spin a can through the scanner or toss an apple up and roll it into the bag, a subtle dance. And I would have missed it if I had been looking at my phone or spacing off.

I took a walk in Hickory Hill Park after I got home, admiring the leaves. I had thought they were at their peak a few weeks ago, but I was dead wrong. This afternoon they were a raucous, joyful display, oranges and reds against the blue sky- my very favorite sight of fall.

I took out my headphones as I entered the forested area, tuning in to the sound of leaves and insects. In the woods at this time of year, it’s impossible for the forest animals to walk with stealth. Squirrels might as well be elephants for all the rustling and crackling they make as they skip through the leaves and skitter up trees. Deer, however carefully and slowly they tread, make a steady shuffing noise, white tails up and flicking.

I pass a woman on a bench, and a toddler, who is all blue sky eyes and autumn leaf red hair. He is learning that if he waves, then he can make this stranger wave back. He is discovering his power over the creatures around him, and he is all smiles.

I am all smiles as I walk home, too. I have observed things, and I have things to write about. What a thing to remember- that those little moments are always there, if I just tune in and look.


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On the Road: Our State Fair is a Great State Fair

The Iowa State Fair might be the most famous in the country. Hey, the state that’s most famous for corn, soybeans, and pigs ought to at least have that. Every year the fair creates the next fried innovation – fried Twinkies and Oreos being a standard now, along with fried Snickers and Milky Ways. This year, the fair debuted fried apple pie and fried fruit kabobs drizzled in chocolate sauce. Let’s not forget all the meat: Long stretches of people waiting for a pork chop, or a tenderloin the size of their face, or maybe a dubiously-named Hot Beef Sundae (don’t worry, the “ice cream” is mashed potatoes, it just looks like a sundae). Good thing you usually have to park far away and walk a good deal in the fair.

I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, yet the state fair is where every Iowan gets to be a tourist in their home state. Do you want to see the USS Enterprise carved out of butter? Want to pet a tortoise? Want to sample some Iowa wines, sweet to the point of being medicinal? Want to ride a spinning ride until you almost throw up those fried Oreos? You can. You can do it all.

I haven’t been to the State Fair since I was a teenager, dragged along with my parents and our bemused foreign exchange student from Bangkok. What must she have thought of the spectacle? In many ways, it’s a big conglomeration of Midwestern stereotypes. Overweight people in scooters eating fried dough. Blue ribbon pigs, napping in their pens. Ranch dressing and hamburgers.

These rural stereotypes are all alive and well at the fair, but even though I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, the whole thing is foreign to me. I watch 4H teenagers give their cows showers and hold their sheep’s heads up for a judge’s inspection, and I know their understanding of the world and life experiences are so different from mine. We come from the same state, but we are worlds apart. But this is our State Fair.

I saw a woman in a rhinestone Confederate flag baseball cap, right by a man who had a shirt with a deer on it that said “I like ’em with long legs and a big rack.” I do not understand them, and if we stopped to chat, they probably wouldn’t understand me either. We would probably shout and continue to not understand each other, but we don’t, because right now we are all in line to get a corn dog or a paper bowl of tater tots. Women on scooters cool themselves with Trump-Pence paper fans. I do not know where they have been and what has led them to be right here with these items. I don’t know how I got here myself. But here we are, at our State Fair. We are Iowans together, even if that is our only commonality.

I sound so bemused and alienated, but we had a great day, my friend and I. We rode the gondola, our legs dangling over the parade crowds. We  watched animals being judged for criteria beyond our understanding (all the sheep looked like nice sheep to us). We ate adventurous foods and walked around with wobbly plastic cups of beer (something I definitely couldn’t do as a teenager). We made it to nearly every corner of the fair, looking at the many exhibits (baby ducks! miniature houses! photography! gourd displays!), and left sated.

The tagline for this year’s fair was “Nothing compares to my State Fair.” Can it be mine, even though I pass through it without understanding the ins and outs of agriculture, of sheep bone structure, of what makes that tenderloin different from this one? Maybe I’m overthinking it. We’re all tourists here, Iowans and outsiders. Pass the fried Oreos- I might be able to stomach just one more before I go into diabetic shock.

 

 


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Ooooo.

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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.

Ok, PHOTO DUMP!!

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

 

 


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Convenience Store Dialect

Do you ever feel your dialect start to kinda mosey one way or the other, depending on the situation? Jeez, see, I’m doing it already. “Kinda mosey”–straight up rural Iowa. 

About a month or so ago, I started working at a gas station part time to supplement my bakery job and my standardized patient job (more on that job in another post, because it is a fascinating job and there are entire blogs dedicated to being an SP that are well worth a read). It’s a little gas station on the edge of town, around a cluster of blue-collar business, across the highway from Menard’s and close to some farms and the road to smaller nearby towns. As a result, we get a lot of regulars in who like to stay and chitchat. They know the cashiers’ names or some have house accounts at the store. You also get the travelers: truckers, families, couples, business trip folks. Most of the customers, though, are from pretty rural or working class backgrounds. As I started falling into the groove of selling them beer and lotto tickets and cigarettes (I’m still learning what color the different brand of “lights” are since they can no longer write “light” on the packaging), I noticed that my voice started slipping more and more into the Midwestern twang. My g’s started slipping off the ends of my words, I catch myself saying “It works pretty good”, making my inner bespectacled English teacher cringe, and my inner flannel-wearing small town gal stretch out comfortably. 

 

I don’t know if my voice is a natural parrot, but I tend to subconsciously sponge up whatever dialect is being tossed around the most. When I went to school farther north, my voice acquired that slight Minnesotan stretch, the Norwegian “oooahs” and “yas”, so much so that when I visited my brother in Oregon he said, “You sound like a Minnesotan. It’s freaking me out!”

 

At any rate, I’ve done a pretty decent job of assimilating into the gas station culture. I banter with the customers and wanted to share some of the more entertaining characters and moments.

About every day my favorite customer comes in. I don’t know his name, so in my head I call him the Grumbly Cowboy Guy. Ol’ Grumbles has a studded cowboy hat, a jean jacket, and palms dark brown with dirt. He comes in and starts muttering things, a long narrative in a voice so gravelly that it seems like a joke or a cartoon character. Yesterday he was talking about everything from gardening to pizza. “Grumblemumble went to the pizza parlor and got a Canadian bacon pizza with sardines, I don’t know if you like fuggin sardines, but I love ’em, and they put some fucking pineapple on it. Grumblemumble fuggin tomatoes you can take ’em, I hate ’em, fucking Wal-Mart parking lot, fuggin old tires to grow potatoes. Oh, and a box a’ them USA Golds, will ya, darlin’?” I turn around to get the cigarettes and try not to crack up. 

 

This weekend an aging lady came in and immediately asked me, “Do you have kids?”

“Errr….no.”

“Don’t. Don’t do it!”

A few minutes later her surly teenage son came in and ignored her as he resolutely looked at the pop bottles in the cooler, and again I had to keep myself from laughing.

 

On one of my days during training, my coworker Leslie was helping me out, then she frowned out the window at something poking its nose out of a horse trailer. “Hold on… is that a camel??” It was. We both stared in shock and started laughing. You don’t see that every day.

 

Then there’s my coworkers. Oddly enough, it’s all women who work at this gas station, and usually there’s only one person working at a time. 

The first woman I met was Polly. I got to work on my first day and found her, middle aged, dyed hair, skinny, leaning against the side of the building and smoking. She greeted me, then put out her half-smoked cigarette against the brick wall and then showed me inside. “You’re working with Leslie, huh?” Then she gave me one of these knowing looks that says, “You don’t know what you’re in for.” 

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing!” she said breezily. “I’m not saying anything. You can judge for yourself.”

I nod and shrug.

“The thing is,” Polly continues. “She’s so scatterbrained sometimes…I like her a lot, I really do, but….well, you’ll see.”

Once Polly took off, I met Leslie, a long-haired woman who was, surprisingly, passionate about organic and healthy foods. Odd for someone who works at a convenience store. “You met Polly?” I affirmed that I did. “I like Polly a lot, I really do, but she gets so nervous sometimes. She got into a bad car accident a while back and I think it  did some damage–she gets such bad anxiety now.”

There’s a few other ladies as well, some in their 50s, one is 16, and then there’s Grandma. Not my grandma, but everyone’s Grandma. She’s in her eighties and makes most of the homemade food in the store. Her potato salad is the shit, and I told her so, though maybe not with those exact words. “How does your mom make it? Does she make it with big chunks of potato?” 

“Yeah, she cuts them up into cubes.”

“See, I don’t like that, where you bite in and get a big bite of potatoes with no dressing. So here’s what you do. Take your mom’s recipe or whatever you like, but then you shred the potato up. Cook it and then rub it lightly over the grater. That’s what you gotta do. You gotta shred it.”

 

Sometimes I sit in the gas station and think about what a loser I am; 23 with a teaching degree that I refuse to use…working late on a Friday or Saturday night instead of “partying” like I’m “supposed” to do. I hate that phrase, “supposed to.” Because sometimes, something truly weird will happen at the gas station and I’ll realize, this is where the stories are.