I’ve lived in Ames, Iowa, for four months now. By myself. Next week, my wife and younger daughter finally will join me amid the vast fields of corn and beans. I’ve been living in a townhouse not far from Iowa State University. On August 1st, we will move into a house in an established neighborhood close to the center of the city — half a mile from the high school, a mile and a half from my workplace, the Ames Tribune, in the historic downtown district.
Over the past four months, I’ve learned a lot about Iowa. I’ve driven around quite a bit, visiting various towns and cities. I’ve read the papers voraciously, picking up all sorts of information and history. I’ve gathered a modest collection of books about Iowa and done a little reading in them. What’s most interesting, to me, so far, is how unsung Iowa is. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that has happened here and that is going on today, but you don’t hear much about it beyond the state’s borders. Iowa seems to be easy to overlook, to pass by with an eye on getting someplace perceived to be more interesting.
This appeals to me, actually, because it’s something I might be able to take advantage of. As a journalist and historian, one looks for stories that have not been told, histories that have not been fully explored. If I were to move to Chicago, say, it would be difficult, I think, to uncover some great story there that no one else noticed. Iowa, by contrast, seems to contain a lot of stories that could be told for the first time.
Iowa probably is neglected in part because it doesn’t do much to promote itself. In general, Iowans are modest and don’t seem to feel it’s appropriate to boast, so they go about their lives without a lot of fanfare. This is exactly the opposite of Las Vegas, of course. Everything about Las Vegas says, “Look at me! Aren’t I great?” That can get tiring, especially when reality doesn’t live up to the hype.
But Iowa actually has a lot to boast about, if it were to do so. The economy is strong, resilient. It’s not just the corn, either. It’s manufacturing and wind energy and medical and banking and technology. The schools are very good. In addition to the three fine public universities, the state is full of small, private colleges, some of them very desirable. I’m most familiar with Iowa State, which focuses on the sciences, especially agriculture and engineering. But there’s also the University of Iowa in Iowa City, which has the medical and law schools, as well as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Des Moines, which is 30 miles from Ames, is emerging as one of the more interesting and desirable midsized cities in America. It’s constantly being ranked highly in surveys of the best places to do business or to be a young entrepreneur. At the national level, few people give Des Moines a second thought. They’re thinking about Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, or the Twin Cities, or whatever. But they would be smart to consider Des Moines. It’s on the move.
To be fair, parts of Iowa are in decline. I’m speaking of the small towns that no longer have a good reason to exist. Over the past couple of decades, they’ve been losing their schools, post offices and retail establishments. A good number of them — not all — are dying. It’s sad, but in this age of interstate highways, it’s no big deal to drive 30 or 60 miles to get the things one needs or enjoy a night out. Regional commercial and cultural centers — big towns, small cities — have emerged to take the place of each small town providing all the amenities to serve a small group of people. Driving through some of these towns can be depressing. Lots of empty, rusting buildings suggesting glory days long past.
It’s been incredibly hot and humid the past few days. Iowa is part of an extreme heat wave that has struck the country’s entire midsection. If you combine the temperature with the humidity, it feels a lot hotter than the actual temperature suggests. The “heat index” here is well over 105. Supposedly the heat index is going to hit 115 tomorrow. All I can say is it’s a stifling heat. If you walk out of an air-conditioned building into the moist air, your glasses fog up, as if you’re in a steam room. It’s not pleasant but it’s no worse than an actual 110-degree day in the desert.
This heat wave comes at an unfortunate time for Iowa teens who earn money during the summer by “detasseling.” What the heck is this, you ask? The Des Moines Register summarizes:
“Farmers plant two varieties of seed corn in a field, and the workers remove the tassels of certain rows. That allows one line of corn to fertilize the other, producing a high-yielding hybrid, and prevents the plants from self-pollinating and ruining the hybrid line.”
By law, Iowa kids can start detasseling at age 14. (In Illinois, they can be as young as 12.) It’s a hot, exhausting job, so lots of kids drop out after just a few days. An iPod is recommended.
My wife and I are curious about how farming works. We just don’t know much about it. It’s not that we want to become farmers, but we want to have a certain modest level of understanding of the state’s primary industry. We’re thinking it would be interesting to take a Farming 101-type class, or maybe just spend a little time on a nearby farm and get a basic explanation of what goes on there.
I fly back to Las Vegas on Friday, marking the end of my bachelor-esque period in Iowa. Then we drive back to Iowa next week and start our adventure here in earnest. I feel good about it, even with winter not too far down the road.
Last week I drove to Minneapolis to take in a baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers. I met my Las Vegas friend Steve Guiremand and his son, Kyle, at their hotel near the Mall of America, and we took the light rail to the stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
The drive from Ames to Minneapolis is a little more than 200 miles. It took me slightly less than 3 1/2 hours. It’s a simple route. You get on U.S. 35 in Ames and take it all the way to Minneapolis. There’s not a whole lot to see along this route, other than green fields.
Iowa has some amazing rest stops. In a previous post, I discussed one outside Iowa City dedicated to the writing art. The one I stopped at en route to Minneapolis is a two-story structure in the form of a barn. Inside, there are numerous vending machines, and upstairs there’s a coffee shop. It was not open yet when I stopped there fairly early in the morning.
Across the way from the rest stop is another of Iowa’s casinos, the Diamond Jo. I didn’t go inside but thought I’d document its existence anyway for those who are curious about casinos outside the state of Nevada.
Minneapolis’ light rail is very nice and easy to use. It’s clear that it gets a lot of use. Las Vegas really ought to think harder about building one. We joined literally hundreds of others who parked at or near the Mall of America, in a suburb of Minneapolis, and took the light rail to the game, thereby avoiding the hassles of navigating traffic in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. It’s also not very expensive: We paid $4 for a roundtrip ticket.
Target Field, just a little more than a year old, is a fine baseball stadium. It seems like there’s a great view from every seat, including ours. The food is good, and the prices are surprisingly decent. I had a brat, of course. I’m eager to see a few more major league stadiums in the Midwest.
After the game, which the Twins won 1-0, and a return trip on the light rail (packed with baseball fans), we checked out the Mall of America, or part of it anyway. I bought a hard-to-find style of baseball cap and T-shirt (Brewers) in a sports apparel store. Wandering over to the Barnes & Noble, wouldn’t you know it, but Sarah Palin was there doing a book signing. Hundreds of people were lined up, or snapping pictures from afar. I managed to squeeze through the hordes to get a decent photo. It wouldn’t have been decent if I didn’t have a great zoom capability on my point-and-shoot Kodak.
Once the family arrives later this month, I could see us taking a trip to the Mall of America, which has every store on Earth, plus many other amenities, including a roller coaster. It’ll make for a long day, but it’s doable.