Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Time flies

February 5, 2012 4 comments
Sara and Erin

This is a picture of our daughters, Sara and Erin, probably taken in 1996. They are 21 and 17 today, and doing great.

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A piece about my neighborhood

January 22, 2012 2 comments

My column from today’s Ames Tribune can be read here.

New column in Ames Trib

Had some fun writing this column.

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Midwest Adventures #9: Our First Winter 2011-12

November 9, 2011 5 comments

And so it begins . . .

Nov. 9: Woke up to about an inch of snow in the yard and on my car. Yesterday’s rain turned to snow overnight. The roads were wet but not particularly slick. The snow is expected to melt off later today. This aspect of our adventure has started a little earlier than we had hoped or expected, but maybe there’ll be another period of clear weather before winter arrives in earnest.

Nov. 14: We had great weather the past few days while we moved into our new house on Clemens Boulevard. Highs in the low 50s, lows in the low 30s, and no rain. Anybody can cope with those numbers. We’re really pleased with our new house. It’s big, comfortable and in a great neighborhood. Two different neighbors have brought over cookies. Lots of kids playing outside. The only downside is we’re quite a bit farther away from work and school than we were in the rental house.

Nov. 23: It’s the day before Thanksgiving. Overall, the weather since the Nov. 9 snowfall has been really quite good. Very little precipitation. Just a few cold days. One morning I got into my car to go to work and it was 20 degrees. That’s pretty cold. A few evenings ago, Tammy and I attended the city’s Christmas tree lighting downtown and a bitterly cold wind put a damper on the festivities. But there have been many other days, like today, when the daytime temps have been in the high 40s and even low 50s, while it barely dropped below freezing at night. There has been talk of snow next week, but as far as November is concerned, I can’t complain.

Dec. 1: It snowed today. Nothing serious. It didn’t stick, at least not in Ames. Tammy and I drove in to Des Moines this evening, and we did see some lingering snow on the patches of grass in the shopping centers and on some of the cars driving around. Must have snowed a bit more there. Significant precip (rain or snow, or both) is forecast for Saturday.

Dec. 3: It rained all day, finally turning to snow about 10 p.m. But the snow came at the tail end of the storm, so Ames got, at most, half an inch. Northern Iowa got a lot more. I hardly needed to shovel anything, but I did anyway because it was easy.

Dec. 5: Bitterly cold today. High in low 20s, but wind making it feel like mid-teens.

Dec. 6: Even colder today. It is 9:22 p.m., and the temperature is 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dec. 8: Snow this evening. We saw little rabbit footprints in the snow covering the back porch.

Dec. 9: Shoveled driveway and sidewalk this morning. About half an inch, so pretty easy work. Sara drove to and from school today without incident. Although it didn’t get above freezing today, the sun managed to melt a lot of the snow. Very cold this evening at 12 degrees. Supposed to get down to 3 or 4 overnight but warm up considerably in the next two days.  A high of 40 is considered to be quite warm.

Dec. 11: It warmed up, as expected, and most of the snow melted today. I leave for Las Vegas tomorrow evening, so I won’t be here for a few days. We’re supposed to get some precipitation while I’m gone, but the good news for Tammy is it likely will be rain, not snow, so no shoveling will be required.

Dec. 18: Fifty degrees, sunny and no wind today. Beautiful day. We sure have been lucky. December has been a little colder overall than our mild November, but the snow has been minimal so far. We leave this evening for a week in Las Vegas, and the forecast for Ames is mostly clear and not too cold while we’re gone. There’s a chance of rain/snow in a few days, but it doesn’t look like much, especially if it’s all rain. It’ll be just a little warmer in Las Vegas!

Dec. 25: No white Christmas in Iowa this year. It’s been unseasonably warm, and the big holiday was no exception.

Jan. 1: Very windy overnight. We were supposed to get a quick shot of snow but it never materialized in Ames. Just big wind gusts that kept on through the day. Cold today but it was the wind that made it uncomfortable. The warmer, drier fall and winter are being attributed to the La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean. The Des Moines Register reported yesterday: “Almost no snow has fallen. The ground is bare, and winter seems an abstract concept. Ice melting tools crowd the shelves of Porter Hardware in Des Moines. The store’s snow blower inventory is full, and shovels are plentiful.” And guess what: Dry conditions are forecast throughout this week, with temperatures warming back to 50 or so by Thursday. Some winter!

Jan. 5: It was warm and sunny today. Wait, that’s hardly a worthy description of this deep-winter day in Iowa. It was 63 degrees in Ames, and 65 in  Des Moines! High-temp records were set all over the state. People didn’t wear jackets in the afternoon. They golfed. Kids played outside. Longtime Iowans marveled at the highly unusual weather pattern. Some cynics figure this means that when winter finally comes, it will extend into April or May. Certainly hope not.

Jan. 16: Winter finally arrived last week. We got several quite cold days and two moderate snowfalls. However, a warm day (in the 40s) over the weekend melted all the snow. Today was pretty decent but it’s supposed to get cold again tomorrow and maybe snow. Still an unusually warm, dry winter overall.

Jan. 19: It is 7 a.m., and the temperature is minus-1. The wind chill is minus-17. This is the point where the TV weathermen warn people about the grim prospect of frostbite if their skin is exposed to the elements for more than five minutes. Significant snowfall is expected here tomorrow. If so, it would be the first time we’ve gotten more than an inch or so this season.

Bitterly cold in the early morning.

Jan. 22: It was a fairly warm day today, with a high of about 35. But it wasn’t sunny at all. So some of the snow melted but not a lot. Today’s relatively balmy conditions followed several days of bitterly cold temps. We got up early one Saturday morning and it was minus-6. With the wind chill, it felt like minus-20. I think the high that day was about 8 or 10. So it’s late in the evening right now and it’s raining. The rain is likely to convert to snow sometime in the night. Recipe for slippery conditions in the morning, I expect.

Jan. 23: Yep, we got a pretty good dose of snow overnight. Major shoveling in the morning. Quite a workout. Some neighbors used their snow blowers. The roads were a little slippery in the morning. At a four-way stop near the high school, Sara’s car was bumped from behind. No damage or injuries. It turned out it was Sara’s friend who slid into her car. Then, the snowplow nicked our garbage can and knocked it over, spilling garbage. I had to go pick it up.

Feb. 2: We have been having phenomenal weather. Record-setting warm temperatures. The high a couple of days this week was around 60. Almost no precipitation and little wind. It has been such a mild winter here and across the Midwest that it’s big news. According to USA Today, “the jet stream has cut off the cold air for much of the winter, shoving it north of the USA.” Despite the unusual warmth, an elderly couple near Des Moines went ice fishing. They drowned. We’re supposed to get some rain and snow this weekend, but already the forecasters are pulling back on their predictions about the storm’s severity.

Feb. 13: Awakened to a pretty healthy snowfall. Continued to snow during much of the day. Probably about 2 1/2 inches total.

Feb. 14: Warmed up nicely, and most of the snow melted today.

Feb. 19: Very nice today, sunny with the high in the low 40s. Can’t complain.

March 7: We got more than three inches of snow a few days ago, probably the most we’ve had in one day this winter. But then, the past couple of days, we’ve had wonderfully warm spring weather that melted the snow. It was about 70 yesterday and 65 today. It’ll be maybe 50 tomorrow but then warm up again, hitting the 60s by Monday. So this Iowa winter, which we dreaded, has been remarkably mild, and it’s almost over.

March 25: Let’s put a bow on this endless blog post. It’s been warm and nice, if a little breezy, since that snowfall almost three weeks ago. Highs in the 70s. Some rain, but no thunderstorms yet. The grass is green. The trees have buds on them. Birds everywhere. On March 20th, the Des Moines Register had a headline declaring, “One More Freeze Remains a Possibility,” with the state’s climatologist saying it would happen by the second week of April. A hard freeze is defined as 28 degrees or lower. I would bet against it. The Register article also offered some interesting statistics about this winter past. It’s been the warmest winter in a decade, and the ninth warmest winter in 139 years of Iowa climate records. Snowfall was well below normal. We set records for warm days in March.

Long story short, we survived our first Midwest winter. We’re very grateful it was a mild one. No car accidents. No painful falls. It could have been a whole different story if it had been a lot colder and snowier.

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Midwest Adventures #8 (and preview of #9)

September 30, 2011 1 comment

The eighth installment of Midwest Adventures was published recently as my column in the the Ames Tribune. You can read it here. I’ve been told there’s some funny stuff in there.

The next installment will be a little different. I intend to document the experience of winter day by day. All of this material will be contained in one blog post, so I will update it as often as I can.

It is not winter yet, thank goodness, but fall is in the air. The leaves are turning and falling to the ground. The mornings are cool. However, we still are seeing some warm days. It’s expected to hit 80 again early next week.

The Des Moines Register had a front-page story the other day looking at the long-range forecasts, trying to determine what kind of winter we will have. Long-range weather forecasts are notoriously difficult but there are legitimate climatological signs that can be read. This is what we know:

– Iowa has had five straight winters with more snow than usual. Iowa received 40.8 inches of snow last winter, and 49.2 inches the year before.

– Iowa has had four straight winters with below-normal temperatures. The average temperature last winter was 18.7 degrees. It was 16.6 the year before.

The forecasts are for these trends to continue. That’s not great news for this thin-blooded family.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and have a winter like Iowa enjoyed in 2005-6, when the average temperature was a balmy 25.4 degrees and there was only 26.3 inches of snow.

Of course, the winter experience can differ depending on where you are in Iowa. The state’s northern half tends to see a little more severe winter than the southern half. But not always. It depends on where the jet stream is flowing. Ames is right in the middle of the state, so it could go either way.

I will post the first part of #9 as soon as signs of winter emerge.

Midwest Adventures #7

August 19, 2011 4 comments

Tammy puts the final touches on the Las Vegas house in preparation for our new tenants.

Lots to catch up on. After the Allied moving truck packed up our house, Tammy and I departed Las Vegas in late July. We drove Sara’s Ford Focus 1,500 miles to Ames. We took our time, especially at first, but it was a fairly smooth and uneventful trip. We slept over in Beaver, Utah, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Kearney, Nebraska. The mountains of Colorado were beautiful. We made good time through the flatlands of Nebraska. Tammy was dismayed that not a single place we stopped had disposable toilet seat covers.

The moving truck leaves Las Vegas.

We had just one cat with us, Brett, and he was quiet as a mouse most of the trip. Unfortunately, our other cat, Reggie, Brett’s brother, was put to sleep just two days before we left. Long story short, he suddenly couldn’t walk. We took him to the vet and after several tests,  it was clear that at his age, there was no certainty any treatment would be effective. Nerve damage in his spine. He was put to sleep after more than 13 years of good living. He could be feisty with visitors but Reggie brought our family a great deal of enjoyment and companionship.

Brett relaxes in the back seat during drive to Iowa.

We arrived in Ames several days before we could take possession of the house. We got the keys on the morning of July 31st. The moving truck arrived that same morning and unloaded our stuff. It went quickly and they did a good job. Sara, our younger daughter, flew in to Des Moines a few days later.

Ron Paul works the media at Ames Straw Poll.

I attended the Ames Straw Poll as a reporter. I was there for about three hours, and tweeted my observations for our paper, the Ames Tribune, and later filed a short story. It was sort of a county fair for the politically minded, with all sorts of things going on in addition to voting for your favorite Republican candidate. About midday, the social media record will show, I predicted Michele Bachmann would win, and she did. Her tent had the longest lines. But Herman Cain had the most popular food: Godfather’s Pizza.

Tammy starts in on a deep-fried Snickers.

The next day, Tammy, Sara and I attended the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It was good weather and we had a lot of fun. We got the full flavor of the event, including seeing the biggest bull, biggest pig and biggest sheep. We also saw some really big and really small horses, and all kinds of frilly chickens. The standard fair fare. We didn’t go into the snake tent. We ate lots of stuff on sticks, including a deep-fried Snickers. We took a gander at the fair’s most famous attraction, the butter cow, and bought a butter cow Christmas ornament to honor the occasion.

Geoff tackles some fresh sweet corn at the Iowa State Fair.

Homework already? Sara digs in to her homework after two days of school.

Sara started school yesterday at Ames High. She drives about half a mile to school. She’s a junior. She really likes some of her teachers.

Tammy started a new job. She is an administrative assistant in an American Family Insurance office. She enjoys her four-minute commute, and her office is just two blocks from the newspaper office.

Tonight, Tammy and I attended Ames High’s first football game. It was packed with fans. All the parking spaces were filled, and most of the bleachers on the Ames High side were full. The Little Cyclones led 24-0 midway through the second quarter. They seem to have a pretty good team, though it’s also true that the team they played, Des Moines North, was not good at all. Ames will have tougher challenges ahead.

An extremely large bull at the Iowa State Fair.

An extremely large sheep at the Iowa State Fair.

Our older daughter, Erin, will be coming home from her summer in Europe early next week. She lands in Las Vegas and then almost immediately turns around and flies here to visit us for a couple of days. We’re looking forward to seeing her and hearing about her European adventures. Then she returns to Las Vegas, and she and her husband, David, will drive to Reno to resume their lives as college students there.

Big crowd for Ames High's first football game of the season.


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Midwest Adventures #6

This is the house we are renting starting August 1.

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.

The Ames Tribune building. This picture was taken a few months ago, in the early spring before the grass turned green.

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.

An old bridge crossing a river in Story City, a small town 10 miles north of Ames.

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.

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Midwest Adventures #5

Geoff at Target Field.

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.

Barn-themed rest stop in northern Iowa.

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.

Casino in northern Iowa.

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.

The light rail approaches.

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.

Light rail pulls into the station.

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.

Sarah Palin, with husband by her side, greets fans and signs books at the Mall of America.

Midwest Adventures #4

Yesterday, I took a trip to Iowa City. It’s about 135 miles southeast of Ames. This is a trip I’ve wanted to make ever since I got this new job and moved to Iowa. Some might ask why visiting this particular city was important. It’s a fair question with a fairly simple answer. Iowa City is a literary mecca. It’s the home of the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the country and still regarded as the most important. Faculty and alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are among the most important writers of the past six or seven decades. Here are just a few:

• Faculty: Nelson Algren, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Robert Penn Warren, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Frank Conroy, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Irving, Barry Hannah and Marilynne Robinson.

• Alumni: Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Denis Johnson, Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, ZZ Packer,  Jane Smiley, John Edgar Wideman, Steve Erickson, Andre Dubus, Sandra Cisneros, Tracy Kidder, Kent Haruf, James Hynes and A.M. Homes.

Furthermore, I happen to personally know several graduates of the program: Doug Unger, author and chairman of the English Department at UNLV; Richard Wiley, author and associate director of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute; Vu Tran, a creative writing professor at the University of Chicago; Josh Kryah, a poet and English professor at UNLV; and Amber Withycombe, outgoing assistant director of the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV who soon will be starting a new job at George Mason University. Another alumnus of interest is Glenn Schaeffer, who did not become a writer but instead got into the casino business, where he did very well and is responsible, among other things, for the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas.

So, Iowa City is a place closely identified with writers and writing. My interest was further fueled last year when I read a great memoir by Tom Grimes called Mentor. Grimes, a Workshop graduate, writes movingly about the late Frank Conroy, who is probably the Workshop’s most famous director.

Naturally, Iowa City has quite a few highly regarded new and used bookstores, so those were my primary destination. I was not disappointed. Here is a rundown on my trip:

Bruegger's Bagels on Lincoln Way in Ames.

1. I started the trip, as I do many endeavors, with a visit to the bagel shop. I don’t like Bruegger’s quite as well as Einstein’s, which dominates Las Vegas, but it’ll do.

Kum & Go store on Dayton Avenue in Ames.

2. Next stop was the convenience store to stock up for the trip. What is noteworthy about Kum & Go (besides the jarring name) is that the soda-dispensing machines offer either cubed or crushed ice. It’s nice to have the option.

3. It rained much of the way down to Iowa City. Not a heavy rain, thankfully. On a recent trip to Des Moines, I ran into a heavy rainstorm that suddenly turned to hail. I, along with most (not all) other drivers stopped on the side of the road because we couldn’t see five feet in front of us. Not fun, but mercifully brief.

Marshalltown courthouse

4. I stopped in Marshalltown, which is about an hour east of Ames. It’s population is about 27,000, but it feels bigger. It has an old downtown that I want to explore further. The county courthouse (1886) is just amazingly interesting. Marshalltown has quite a few other historic buildings to check out down the road.

Indian casino near Toledo, Iowa.

5. I didn’t go in, but I had to take a picture of the Meskwak hotel-casino, east of Marshalltown near Toledo. Iowa actually has quite a few casinos.

Tanger Outlet Center, Williamsburg, Iowa

6.  I had a little business to conduct at the Tanger Outlet Center, which is a big, busy outlet mall on Interstate 80 at Williamsburg, Iowa.

7. I am saving the Amana Colonies for another day. They are arguably one of the most interesting attractions in all of Iowa, worthy of a full day trip.

Each covered picnic table has a quotation from a writer associated with Iowa City.

8. One of the most interesting stops on my trip was a rest stop on the approach to Iowa City. It is completely writing-themed. Here is what the state’s website says about it: “Entitled ‘It Has Iowa Written All Over It,’ this integrated public art installation speaks to the importance of writing in Iowa and its significant contribution to literature throughout the world.”

Public art at the rest stop near Iowa City.

It’s about the coolest thing I can imagine: a rest stop dedicated to writing and writers. Of course, the large majority of visitors to the rest stop just want to stretch their legs and use the restroom, but still.

9. Prairie Lights Bookstore is one of the nation’s great independent new bookstores. Many book tours have Prairie Lights on the schedule, though nobody was signing on Saturday. A fine store.

10. The downtown area of Iowa City is incredibly cool and beautiful. Classic pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

11. The Haunted Bookshop is an excellent used bookstore just a couple of blocks from Prairie Lights. It’s a very good used store, with sophisticated and well-organized stock.

The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City.

12. I was even more impressed by Murphy-Brookfield Books, which, again, is just a few blocks from Prairie Lights and Haunted. This converted two-story house has to be a place frequented by writers and faculty of the Workshop, as it has the largest collection of literary criticism I have ever seen in one place.

Downtown Iowa City.

I didn’t stroll around the campus, unfortunately. Seems odd, I know, but by the time I had hit the three bookstores, it was getting late and I knew I wanted to get back before it got too late. Next time.

13. I had a late lunch at Bennigan’s at the Coral Ridge Mall. Decent burger.

Bennigan's bar and grill at Coral Ridge Mall outside Iowa City.

On the way home, I made a pit stop in Newton, which is where they recently held a NASCAR race. I could hear cars racing around the track, which was at least half a mile from the convenience store where I stopped.

Ironically, I don’t have any pictures of the scenery along the way between Ames and Iowa City. That, of course, is because I was driving. But what is so striking to me — someone who has lived in North America’s driest desert for more than 30 years — is how incredibly fertile this place is this time of year. It’s ALL about growing things right now, and it makes for beautiful landscapes. The cornfields are turning green, the trees are leafy green, the rivers are flowing with purpose. The cows and sheep in the fields look like they are enjoying the spring weather. There’s a lot to be said for a fertile land — for plants, animals and writers alike.

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Midwest Adventures #3

AMES, Iowa — I’m still in recovery.

I arrived home around midnight on May 1. I was very tired, worn out from my three-day trip to the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. But when I got into the condo and dropped my things, I decided for some reason that it was time to take out the kitchen trash. I tied up the bag and walked to the dumpster, which is only about 40 feet from my front door. As I reached for the dumpster’s lid, I had a sensation — one of those sensations that novelists always have trouble describing, a feeling that something isn’t quite right, that what I’m doing might not work out exactly the way I expect.

Indeed. As I lifted the lid to throw in the bag, there was a noise, the frantic scrabbling of a beast within. I was startled — okay, I freaked out briefly. I let go of the lid and leaped backward with a shout as what turned out to be a raccoon scooted through the space between the dumpster and the descending lid. All would have been fine except that in my haste to back away from the animal, I tripped and fell awkwardly to the blacktop.

I tore up my left elbow, as well as the palm of my right hand. I also bruised my hip. Nothing serious, but the row of scabs on and around my elbow is a hindrance to getting dressed and such.

My wife thinks this is pretty funny. “Watch out for Ricky Raccoon!” she’s said several times since. My younger daughter thinks I’m a wuss for being afraid of a little raccoon. She’s right and wrong, of course. She’s right that there’s no reason to be afraid of a raccoon. He’s more afraid of me than I of him. But she’s wrong in the sense that I didn’t know what was in that dumpster. Having moved to the Midwest just a couple of weeks before, I wasn’t familiar with the notion of wildlife of this sort rooting around near your house. It’s very unlikely that anything other than a sad human will be found in an apartment dumpster in Las Vegas. Plus, it was past midnight, dark, and cold, and I was tired as hell.

Anyway, I’ve been leery of that dumpster ever since. I’ve opened it trepidatiously probably five times since then, and no raccoon has jumped out. It probably won’t happen again, but that experience will come to mind every time for a while.

Keeping with the animal theme, let’s talk about the armadillo. You read that right. Armadillos are commonplace in the South, but it’s unusual for them to make an appearance this far north. But it happened this week in the small town of Cambridge, about 15 miles south of Ames.

According to a story in today’s Ames Tribune, a man named Wade Kahler noticed some sort of roadkill on the shoulder of his driveway. He called a city maintenance employee, Dale Hennick, who came out and discovered it was a dead armadillo. He tossed it in the back of his pickup.

Apparently, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources receives “a couple of armadillo reports a year . . . but they are always roadkills.” It’s not clear how the armored creatures get to Iowa, but I would speculate that they somehow end up here by catching a ride on some sort of vehicle, kind of like roof rats in Las Vegas. Otherwise, it’s an awfully long walk.

For the record, it’s illegal to transport an armadillo into Iowa. I don’t know why. (I wonder if Nevada has a similar law.)

Here’s the kicker, from the final two sentences of the article:

“Hennick has no idea what he will do with the curious carcass. ‘I guess I’ll just put him in the refrigerator for now,’ he said.”

Wait: Why does Hennick think the thing to do is to put this dead animal in a refrigerator? Why would he do that? When you don’t know what to do with a dead animal, your plan is to put it in a refrigerator? That would only make sense if he . . . he . . . planned to cook the thing and eat it!

Surely that’s not what he intends to do. Surely.

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