For my sister’s final day in Des Moines, we finally got half way decent weather (high 40s!, some sun!) so we took a day trip with our sweet Lab mix rescue dog Millie northwest about 40 miles to the High Trestle Trail. What a treat to have the entire bridge to ourselves on an early spring day — and always a spectacular view and surprising structure to find in the middle of Iowa. (It was recently dubbed by the BBC as one of the world’s eight spectacular foot bridges.)
The good news is that it’s now easier to walk to the bridge quickly along the trail, thanks to a handy sign along highway 210 just west of Madrid, Iowa that helps you clearly find the dirt road (QF Road) that leads to the trailside parking, which is about a ten-minute walk to the bridge.
We stopped at Picket Fence Creamery in nearby Woodward,Iowa and tried a little tub of ice cream and some chocolate milk (that we earlier saw being bottled in the little shop beside the dairy that is on a largely unpopulated dirt road in the country). From there we drove ten minutes further west to the Hotel Pattee which is still hanging in there (last I heard it was for sale again) and is still incredibly impressive, with one-of-a-kind rooms, each decorated with art and artifacts to honor a specific aspect of small town Iowa life. The desk clerk gave us the key to the 1913 farmhouse room but several other rooms were also open so we wandered in them as well (the southeast Asia room, the Irish room, the Russian room…unfortunately the RAGBRAI room wasn’t open)…
Anyway, the three stops made for a perfect half-day road trip from Des Moines, perfect for visitors.
I didn’t doubt for a moment that Provisions would be a good place to eat in Ames because it came recommended by my friend Veronica, a longtime resident, superb cook and discerning diner. But without Veronica’s recommendation, I might have dismissed Provisions out of hand because of its unpromising location in a nondescript land of bland office parks, on the side of Loop Road, no less.
But the food was fabulous — and I am already longing to return for the salmon sandwich I had on a dark brown brioche roll. The salmon was lightly grilled but moist, full of flavor, on that gorgeous slightly sweet roll with slices of cucumber and a light dill sour cream sauce. The hamburger (which the two Iowa State University students we were visiting ordered) also looked superb and the Cuban sandwich was also good. My sister was very happy with her grilled salmon atop greens – which is a go to entree for her but still managed to be special. My only regret is that I could not take home one of the homemade breads (especially cranberry pecan) from the to-go counter which was closed by the time we left. We’ll be back! Thank you Veronica!
Impressed, as always, with developments in Dubuque. At the recommendation of our host at Four Mounds, we drove to nearby Convivium a cafe/event space/urban farm headquarters in a somewhat gentrifying north Dubuque neighborhood. Impressive place that opened recently, with a light airy dining area including a coop with fresh chicks, a mural from a world-class artist (part of a broader mural project of murals scattered throughout Dubuque) and artwork by locals on the walls. Convivium, as I understand it, is the headquarters of an urban farm project with an interesting model — the gardens are in borrowed space in the backyards of people living houses neighboring the cafe.
We also stopped at a bakery and shops in wide open space in the Millwork District, a gentrifying warehouse district near the River. Dinner the night before was good at L.May downtown. (Excellent pork shanks).
The weather was gloomy when we woke up at Four Mounds but we had an excellent breakfast and chat with the caretaker (who sent us to Convivium) and I got a chance to walk around the grounds and wander around the other lovely house on the property (the White House…we stayed in the Grey House.) I learned that Four Mounds was part of the “gentleman farmer movement” (1880s to 1930s). The owners were a wealthy Chicago couple who also lived part of the year in California. I’ve heard about gentlemen farmers but not of an actual movement. (And why no mention of gentlewoman farmers?)
On Highway 151 and then 1 to Iowa City (a rare diagonal route!) we stopped briefly in Anamosa to see the famous reformatory there (a prison that was intentionally designed to be attractive with the idea of providing an environment conducive to reforming criminals. Sadly, I don’t believe it worked.) and then drove through Stone City, a tiny hamlet where Grant Wood lived and through pretty Mount Vernon (Home of Cornell College, which is older than my alma mater Cornell U.).
As I suspected we are the sole occupants of this arts and crafts mansion on a bluff in the wood high above the Mississippi on the outskirts of Dubuque, which is a little spooky but also kind of fun because we wandered through all the bedrooms, admiring the heavy wood craftsman furniture, the pretty bedspreads and elegant rugs, the little window seats and well-appointed living spaces. I can add the Four Mounds estate in Dubuque to my list of sort of creepy inns where we have been the sole occupants. Others include a b&b in Mendocino with Dirck and an inn in Eureka Springs with Francine. My sister Laurie is being the good sport tonight.
I picked her up at the Quad Cities airport where the Megabus/Windstar from Chicago dropped off and we drove up the Great River Road along the Mississippi, which I haven’t traveled in years.
Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque
It was grey, chilly and still brown on the ground but there were sights worth seeing including huge barges and riverboats on the river, the hipster Antique Archaeology store in LeClaire (owned by the folks who have the popular American Pickers show on the History Channel); the view of the lock and dam from on high at Bellevue State Park, the old stone church and cemetery and Way of the Cross in the tiny Luxembourger village of St. Donatus and the one of a kind Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque.
What a treat to see the NYC Ballet for the first time in ages – and the first time in Iowa. Apparently, this was the company’s first visit to Iowa City, so I’m guessing it’s the first visit to Iowa since Iowa City hosts the state’s best dance performances (although Des Moines is improving!). The company was superb, as always, and it was a particular treat to see Iowa City native Miriam Miller dance – including in a sensational, sensual duet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon (who choreographed The Joffrey’s new nutcracker, which we saw last year during our first visit to the new Hancher.) Speaking of which, the new Hancher is stunning — I like it better than the old one. It feels smaller, more intimate, more vertical than horizontal, more peaceful with calming colors (seafoam green, grey, tan wood) and plush upholstered seats. Having sat in the balcony and on the floor, close to the stage, I’m not sure there is a seat with a bad view. (Our floor seats were way off to the side but we saw the vast majority of the stage.).
Dinner was a Takanami– for sushi and tempura, which was a nice change from all the heavy food we ate in the Deep South. We couldn’t deal with more burgers, ribs or fried chicken. We were tempted to try the new (or new to us) Szechuan Chinese restaurant, Bashu, that opened where the Linn Street Cafe used to be but it looked a little too authentic for a before-theater/meal. Didn’t want to get an upset stomach. Locals seem to be loyal to Szechuan House.
We drove an hour south of Des Moines on what turned out to be a lovely fall day (after a few initial sprinkles) for the 11th annual Farm Crawl — a driving (not crawling) tour rural in Marion, Lucas and Warren counties of five farms plus a local pottery place and a sale on the grounds of an 1850’s country church, where FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids set up shop, selling their iron works and meat from their “Cattle Project.”
Such a great way to see the Iowa count side and out-of-the-way small family farms, driving up and down hilly gravel roads, tire wheels kicking up dust, flocks of birds suddenly flying in formation from a telephone line, lots of open land and then suddenly, a rare round barn or a tidy red barn or a ramshackle farmstead or the sun-dappled lawn of an old country church at a rural crossroads.
To my surprise, I was awestruck – and humbled – when I witnessed the great solar eclipse yesterday in Humboldt, Nebraska.
Staring into the sun with my special eclipse glasses, I was amazed to see the bright orange blob (the sun) being slowly but steadily overtaken by a black blob (the moon) – and at the same time, down on earth, to feel my own environment changing, with the wind picking up, the sky darkening, the confused birds flying by and sounds of night at 1 p.m. When it got dark and stayed dark for a minute or so and then brightened my friends and I were stunned. We’d been told to expect this – so that shouldn’t have been a surprise – but maybe what was stunning was that it happened, just as expected.
The journey was half the fun! Four of us left Des Moines in the dark during a downpour at 4:30 a.m. and headed south and west on back roads toward “the path of totality,” hoping to avoid the crowds expected on the major interstates — which we largely did (until our trip home). En route, we bumped into the occasional fellow eclipse chaser – two women from Minneapolis; a bunch of young Mennonite guys from somewhere in Missouri – and made a few stops, including at the infamous Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa (one of the state’s stranger tourist attractions) and Brownville, Mo. (a pretty old town along the Missouri River that I’d like to explore more). Our original destination – Falls City, Nebraska – had rain and cloudy skies so we drove further north and east until we found clearer skies in what turned out to be Humboldt, Nebraska.
We joined a few other cars parked on a gravel service road above the county road, next to the Humboldt water tower. Like other groups, we unloaded our lawn chairs and picnic goodies and waited for the show in the sky. It was fun to meet fellow travelers from Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota and especially a nice young guy from Japan who had come to the U.S. for three days, specifically to see the eclipse. (He had some serious binoculars, spoke good English and was fun to talk with.) We hit some traffic on the way home but the Nebraska state troopers helped when and where they could and switching to back roads in Iowa helped. Such an adventure!