In less than two months, I’ll be leaving Iowa City, my home of three years. Due to my lack of (car) wheels, my knowledge of this city consists of a one-mile radius, and I know even less of the state. So I was thrilled when two dear friends from Washington DC swept me up for a three-day road trip.
Our first stop: the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library. (Did I mention these friends were from DC? Yes indeed: one is a political biographer and the other works for the Obama campaign, so presidential libraries are their thing.) As it turns out, this man Hoover was orphaned in West Branch, Iowa at the age of 10, educated at Stanford, honeymooned in China during the Boxer Rebellion, became a wildly popular president without ever having run for political office before (and then became a dreadfully unpopular one after the Great Depression), and then retired at the swanky Waldorf Astoria in NYC. After getting our history fix, we romped around Main Street, which consists of a Pink Pony Ice Cream Parlor (where ice cream bars dipped in chocolate cost 85 cents), a classical guitar maker/tuner/seller, a quilting store, a wine bar, and a number of abandoned buildings.
From there, it was off to El Patio in West Liberty, aka site of the best Mexican food for 75 miles in any direction. West Liberty has the distinction of being the first town in Iowa with a majority Latino population, and is always hosting cool events I can never seem to catch a ride to, from midget lucha libre to musica Norteña concerts. Then we sped back to Iowa City for dessert: a pie shake at The Hamburg Inn. You read that right: a pie shake, as in, a slice of fresh pie (in our case, chocolate bourbon pecan) thrown in a blender with ice cream (in our case, vanilla) and served in a very tall glass (in our case, three). There, my friends treated me to the perfect MFA graduation gift: The Burg: A Writers’ Diner, an anthology of short stories, poems, and essays about the Hamburg Inn by some of our city’s best-loved writers, including Allan Gurganus, Marvin Bell, and James Alan McPherson.
We rose early the next morning for a quick stop at Prairie Lights, our renown independent bookstore, and then headed north and east to Dyersville, which baseball and/or movie buffs might recognize as the site of the Kevin Costner flick “Field of Dreams.” It might be one of the least touristy tourist-traps I’ve visited, with almost no promotional signs, gravel roads, and a porta potty. Even better: they refuse to rent out the baseball diamond, so it is free for the playing. The surrounding area is the epitome of pastoral: undulating cornfields with an occasional red barn or white house with a wrap-around porch and swing.
We made it to Dubuque in time for a steamboat ride down the muddy but glorious Mississippi and then explored the city’s handsomely renovated riverfront, which includes walking trails, casinos, a water park, a resort, and a museum. Downtown, meanwhile, hosts a surprisingly good indy bookstore called River Lights (a nod, perhaps, to Iowa City’s Prairie Lights?) and a downright fantastic coffeehouse/pub called Monk’s (where the sign above the bar reads “I’ll have a Café Mocha Vodka Xanax Latte to go, please”). I opted for the yerba mate latte, which would undoubtedly have offended my Argentine friends, but fortunately none were around to protest.
By the time we found the little cable car/elevator that zips you up the side of a cliff with the pull of a lever and deposits you on a platform overlooking the domes and spires of Dubuque, a swath of the Mississippi, and untold border towns of Illinois and Wisconsin, I was raving to anyone who would listen, “Why doesn’t anybody hype this place up?” It’s charming as can be (or, as the city’s welcome sign puts it, “The Masterpiece of the Mississippi”).
Dusk was drawing near, so we headed on to Galena, Illinois. There, we found an excellent restaurant called One Eleven Main, where we devoured Creole-style pulled pork, roast duck, gnocchi, and ginger gimlets under the gaze of local farmers in black-and-white stills (a tribute to “the people who put the food on the table,” the menu noted). Exuberant over the day’s finds, we then set off for our hotel—only to get very lost in a labyrinth of unlit farm roads, GPS be damned. Thirty miles and nearly as many panicked calls to a hotel receptionist later, we finally found the Irish Cottage, perhaps a five-minute drive from where we started.
Much shopping ensued the following day, though we bought only Great American Popcorn—great big sacks of it in crazy flavors, from “Texas Tornado” to “Raspberry Cheesecake” to “The Kitchen Sink” (white chocolate-encrusted popcorn mixed with M&M’s, pretzels, toffee, and quien sabe what else). Then we returned to Dubuque for sites we missed the first time around. First up was the Museum of Arts, where we marveled at three tributes to Iowa artist Grant Wood: a satirical take on “American Gothic” by sculptor Seward Johnson on the grounds of the museum, and then two of the painter’s own heralded works hung inside: “Appraisal” and “Victorian Survival.” With only a few minutes to closing, we then jetted over to St. Luke’s Methodist Church, home to a remarkable collection of Tiffany windows. A very nice woman not only let us inside the church but invited us to touch and photograph the art (which recently underwent a million dollar cleaning). This is one thing I will truly miss about the Midwest: the unstinting kindness of its people.
The last stop on our Gran Midwest Viaje was Mount Vernon, known to many an Iowan as home of the lauded Lincoln Café. There, we dined on ever more roasted duck plus a fresh-peaches-tort-and-ice-cream number that sent us reeling.
Farewell, querida Iowa. Forgive me for ever referring to you as an acronym for I-Otta-Went-Around. I’m glad I stayed a while.