If I stumbled upon Des Moines’ East Village in another city, I would be all over it, excitedly popping into one interesting shop after another but because this East Village is so nearby, I tend to take it for granted. Big mistake. I don’t shop there (or anywhere) often but when I do I always find something new and worthy, and visit several standbys that have withstood the test of time. So today’s visit was great. We were originally going only to Raygun, our favorite witty-snarky T-shirt shop, to buy gifts, but ended up wandering around on an unexpectedly balmy December day when more stores than usual were open, for a Sunday, due to the holidays.
At Allspice, I used up the gift certificate I received last Xmas, refilling my bottle of fig vinegar and buying a few spices and rubs as gifts. Then onto petal and moss, which was like entering a tiny jungle full of mossy plants (we bought an unusual orangish-pink poinsettia). And we finally tried a “Dirt Burger” at the restaurant of the same name, which specializes in veggie burgers. The dirt burger looked like a meat burger and sort of tasted like one. I liked it. Dirck, the unrepentant meat eater wasn’t quite as impressed. We both liked the crispy pencil-thin fries a lot and I would like to try other menu items. Certainly preferred the place to zombie Burger, which used to be our favorite burger spot in the East Village but during our last few visits we have been disappointed by the service and the food.
We decided to spread our holiday shopping dollars around, beyond the Internet, and found a pleasant outing in the process. Earlham is a small town 30 miles west of Des Moines, with a still viable little downtown, about 2 blocks long and one block deep with well-preserved old one- and two-story brick buildings. There’s also some entrepreneurs, the two best known being RJ Home which used to be a vintage/salvage store and now is also gussied up as a gift shop with reasonably-priced ceramics, furniture and other housewares. It’s only open one three-day weekend per month except in December when it’s open two Friday-Saturday combos. (The last one in December is 10-11; check its website.) And there are two locations, south and north, one on each of the two blocks downtown.
The other highlight is Beans and Beignets, a sweet coffee shop/cafe in a lovely old two-story redbrick corner shop. The coffee and beignets were good, as was the Cobb salad and chicken salad sandwich. It shares space with another little gift/home goods/floral shop. The breakfast and ice cream options looked good too.
We skipped the Interstate on the drive there and part of the way back, driving on backroads and sometimes dirt roads, past tidy old farmsteads, exurban mansions and, increasingly, burgeoning subdivisions rising from former cornfields.
Such a gorgeous fall Sunday in Central Iowa. We went down to Winterset in Madison County to cut flowers at the lovely PepperHarow Farm and realized midway that the annual Iowa Barn Tour was happening across Iowa so we drove west to two lovely old barns along gravel roads the first in Madison County, the second in neighboring Adair County.
if I’d know it was happening we would have visited more barns. I also found out, too late, that Madison County was having a “fall crawl” today, featuring 12 stops (farms, ag-venues, shops, state park) welcoming visitors to wander around (PepperHarrow was one of them, which explains why so many more people were there than during our first visit in July.) Even though we missed it I was glad to see this fall crawl happening since the farm crawl we enjoyed several times pre-Covid in Warren County south of Des Moines is no more. (So many things Covid has ended, livelihoods and pastimes as well as far too many lives).
We also stopped briefly at Howell Tree Farm en route to Winterset which was packed with families with children doing all kinds of fun pumpkin patch things. Our Two-year-old grandson would love it, including the merry go round where kids ride ponies.
Note to self: Return to the town of Earlham in mid-October when the cool upscale vintage store RJ Homes on the well preserved main drag are open. They are open one three-day weekend a month.
We have never had much luck finding a good bike trail in Iowa City — especially compared to the many well-laid out trails in Des Moines. But maybe this story will help. (I’m not a huge fan of “sponsored content” stories in the Register but this one may be worth a read.)
Iowa City offers a wide variety of urban and rural bike adventures
Michelle Martin, for Think Iowa City
Biking has grown in popularity over the past year, and that’s expected to continue as the weather warms up this spring. But finding the right cycling route — whether it’s a leisurely countryside trek or a thrilling gravel ride –– can be challenging. Iowa City, however, is a cyclist’s paradise.
Whether it’s in the city or country, on paved or bumpy roads, or along flat or hilly paths, Iowa City has excursions for every biking enthusiast. At BikeIowaCity.com, riders can find maps, points of interest and special alerts for their biking adventures. Cyclists can even easily locate brewery and winery stops along the way of their planned ride!
“The Iowa City area is the perfect destination for cyclists of all styles,” said Jennifer Horn-Frasier, Iowa City resident and cycling enthusiast. “The community is designated as Bike Friendly, and that’s reflected in the hotel and restaurant amenities. Iowa City and Coralville have so much diversity in the biking options available. From mountain biking along the river to cyclocross in the woods to gravel grinding across the country roads to paved routes with conveniently placed taverns, this area really is the hidden gem for cycling destinations.”
In addition to customized excursions, the city will host the granGABLE powered by Scheels cycling event on May 1 in honor of legendary wrestler and coach Dan Gable. Cyclists can choose from the 60-mile gravel grinder, 60-mile road ride, or challenge themselves in the honor of Gable and ride the full 100-mile fondo.
Looking to ride your own adventure in Iowa City? Here are some biking excursions for people of every experience level.
Road Ride and Paved Trail Adventures
Whether it’s a short 10-mile ride along city streets or a 66-mile excursion through Amish communities, Bike Iowa City has identified road and paved trail adventures for beginner, immediate and advanced riders.
The 10-mile Lake and Fields excursion takes beginner bicyclists on streets and paved trails to ride around the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area and a soccer park –– and even makes a recommendation for a taproom stop on the way back. Meanwhile, the Peaceful Roll, also geared toward beginners, is an easy 14-mile spin over gently rolling hills and includes a recommended stop at one of the eateries in downtown Solon.
Intermediate riders will enjoy the 23-mile To the Bridge excursion, which takes them over the historic Sutliff Bridge and provides picturesque views of the Cedar River. Buggy Traffic Jam, also for intermediate riders, offers a 30-mile trek through the local Amish community.
And while Bike Iowa City’s 27-mile The Wall might not sound too taxing for advanced riders, it has 1,305 feet of climbing. For an even higher climb — and to boldly go where no man has gone before — the Everything from Buggies to Starships, a 66-mile, 1,921-foot climb, goes through the Amish communities and past the Star Trek Museum in Riverside.
Gravel Bike Adventures
The 25-mile beginner excursion Pancakes, Anyone? is named for its flat-like-a-pancake roads –– but it also offers three miles of minimally maintained dirt roads that are a lot of fun in good weather (use caution when riding in wet, muddy conditions). Another great beginner gravel excursion is the Octagonal Barn Loop, 25 miles of riding through farm communities –– including riding past the 1883 Secrest Octagonal Barn, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. About 18 miles into the ride, you’ll come to a 1-mile stretch of gravel road.
Intermediate riders will enjoy Westward Ho!, 53 miles and 2,506 feet of climbing through western Johnson County and along the edge of Kent State Park. And Let’s Go to the River, a 47-mile and 2,060-foot climb that begins and ends in downtown Solon, offers plenty of options for after-biking refreshments.
For advanced riders, the Gritty –– 105 miles and 2,430 feet of climbing –– takes riders from the Johnson County Fairgrounds into Riverside, the future home of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk. It continues through Amish farms and into the town of Tiffin before ending with a relaxing descent home. And although October is when gravel riders test themselves with the Iowa City Gravel Event, advanced riders can do it any time along the Iowa City Gravel Imperial Century excursion. The ride goes from River Junction across the Sutliff Bridge, past the Secrest Octagonal Barn and past a few small, but highly recommended, watering holes.
A short six miles, the Woodpecker Single Track is ideal for beginners and intermediate riders. It starts at the Tom Harken Trailhead and travels through a wooded area along Clear Creek in Coralville. (It’s also popular with beginner and intermediate fat tire bike riders.) There are a lot of wooden bridges, sandy soil and families of deer along the way –– and in winter, local riders often enjoy a stop to go snowshoeing.
Another great off-road excursion is Sugar Bottom, appropriate for all experience levels. The Sugar Bottom Recreation Area offers 12 miles and 1,400 feet of climbing along hand-built trails. Camping is also available in the recreation area.
Cyclocross and Fat Bike Adventures
Cyclocross riders of all levels will enjoy Coralville Creekside Cross, a 2.6-mile single track course in the featuring scenic views, wooden bridges and flow features. The path is open July 1 through winter, and again when the spring thaw begins.
And for cyclocross enthusiasts, the Jingle Cross Cyclocross Festival –– scheduled Oct. 15-17, 2021 –– is a must-experience event as it is once again a stop on the UCI World Cup circuit, bringing the best in the world to the Midwest. More information is available at jinglecross.com.
Those who are new to fat bike riding will enjoy visiting the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area at the site of the annual I AM FAT Fat Bike Enduro. The recreation area offers three miles of trails and 12 feet of climbing.
“When visiting cyclists leave Iowa City, they are already planning their next trip back to see what else they can try,” said Nick Pfeiffer, vice president of marketing at Think Iowa City, the local visitors information center. “That’s the beauty of the area. It constantly reinvents itself.”
For over a year (a pandemic year), we grandparents here in Des Moines have been searching for mid-way meeting spots to rendezvous with our 18-month-old Chicago grandson and his parents. Until this week, Iowans were on Chicago’s quarantine list, discouraging visits there. And last I heard, our grandson’s child care center still requires him to NOT attend for two weeks after stepping foot into Iowa. Hence the search, in particular, for meeting spots on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. I had high hopes for the John Deere Pavilion and Tractor & Engine Museum in Moline (Illinois) which has cool combines, tractors and other heavy farm equipment laid out (presumably safely) for kids to explore. But it is still closed. It’s part of the four-building John Deere headquarters. which I’ve long wanted to see for reasons that would not excite a toddler — its architecture (designed in 1964 by Eero Saarinen) and stunning art collection. At one point, I was desperate enough to consider the Quad Cities Airport (also in Moline) as an indoors meeting place during the bitter cold winter . This PR list below offers a few other options although most are in Iowa — which still may be an issue for us. It does mention that the John Deere “family mansions” are open but again, not so much fun for a toddler.
#1. If you have littles, the Family Museum is a great place to explore. Besides interactive exhibits, their newest addition is the Luckey Climber. It’s the first in Iowa, and the Quad Cities. The Luckey Climber reaches two stories high. The custom-designed vertical maze of climbing platforms is both a jungle gym and work of art. The vertical maze is enclosed inside a seamless netting made from handwoven vinyl-coated, steel cable. In addition to the fun of climbing, kids have a great destination once they reach the second floor — The Imagination Studio consisting of the Think Shop along with art and clay studios welcome the climbers. For more information, contact 563-344-4106 or www.familymuseum.org
#2.John Deere is an important part of the Quad Cities legacy and economy, and the Deere-family mansions are a popular stop for visitors. Spend some time in the afternoon on a free tour of the Deere-Wiman and Butterworth Center homes—the first being built in 1872 and the latter in 1892. A special feature of Butterworth Center is the library, built in 1917. The room was designed to hold an 18th century Italian ceiling painting originally found in Venice, Italy. Believed to have been painted by Gaspare Diziani, the painting is one of only six known Venetian ceiling paintings existing in the U.S. today. Tours include both homes and begin at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Preregistration is required on the website at www.butterworthcenter.com or by calling 309-743-2700.
#3. Live Action Games will keep your throwing arm in good shape as you try to hit the bullseye with an axe. Sounds easy enough right? Not really. This adventure is for ages 10 and up. The challenges do not end there. You’re trapped and surrounded by enemies. The clock is ticking on your survival. Can you keep your calm and find your way out? Put your skills against the clock at the Live Action Games’ escape rooms. They have a variety of breakout games for you to try and conquer. Make reservations online at www.lagqc.com or 563-594-1952.
#4. The Quad Cities is known for its many local flavors and ice cream is certainly one of them. Indulge in a culinary ice cream adventure and dip into places like Whitey’s Ice Cream, Here’s the Scoop, Country Style, Lagomarcino’s, and Carnevale Gelato. Find more information at visitquadcities.com.
#5.For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design is a new, world-renowned exhibit at the Figge Art Museum. For America features over 90 works made between 1810 and 2010 by some of the greatest American artists, drawn from the collections of the National Academy of Design in New York. For America presents a unique history of American art and the country as seen through the lens of artists. You can visit in person and purchase tickets in advance or take a virtual 3D tour on www.figgeartmuseum.org. Plan for their March Free Family Day on March 13 featuring an introduction to the For America exhibit. A free registration grants your family 2-weeks of access to a virtual line-up, which means you can choose your day to play.
#6. Explore the role of toys and play in society through Play: The story of Toys at the Putnam Museum, one of three exhibits currently in place at the museum. For all ages, Play takes a look at toys that are educational, creative, and meant for the outdoors. Visitors will be able to reminisce about favorite toy fads and dangerous toys they may have had growing up as well as view new inclusive and technological toys. Faces of the Past explores portraitures around the world and across time. Visitors can expect to see faces representing 20 countries and 35 cultures. Birds and You examines the role we all can play in protecting and preserving the birds we see every day in our backyards and fields. Visitors can expect to see a variety of taxidermy mounts, eggs, and nests from the Putnam’s collection while learning about the issues facing birds today and the simple things they can do to help. For more information, contact 563-324-1933 or www.putnam.org
#7. You can plan a photo scavenger hunt contest with others or do one on your own. How it works: use your phones to take pictures as guided by a list. Upload photos to a Google photos album shared among the others participating. Do a screen share on a Zoom call and look though the photos together while sharing stories. Here’s an example of a QC family scavenger hunt. Or go searching for public art murals in the Quad Cities. It’s a chance to explore and see the murals in the QC up close. It’s fun whether you are a Quad Citizen exploring your own backyard, or you can make it a family event when visiting the QC. Here’s a list of murals in the QC
#8. Try a slice or two of Quad Cities’ style of pizza. There are several hallmarks of “Quad Cities-style” including the hand-tossed malt crust, crumbly sausage with fennel, toppings hiding under the deliciously, gooey layer of mozzarella cheese, and scissor-cut into strips. Locals have their favorite QC-style pizza places whether at the long-time establishments like Harris, Frank’s, Clint’s, Gunchie’s, or newer ones such as Benny’s or Quad City Pizza Co. You can tell we’re into pizza here because over 40 years ago, Happy Joe’s founder Joe Whitty invented the taco pizza here. Yes, it’s just like it sounds with sauce, spiced up meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and crushed taco chips on top.
#9. Immerse yourself in Native American history. Listed as one of the 7 Wonders of Illinois, Black Hawk State Historic Site takes you back through history beginning with the Sauk and Meskwaki Native American Indians and the warrior Black Hawk to woodland trails and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Explore the museum, lodge, amazing history of this site, and miles of wooded hiking trails. For more information, visit www.blackhawkpark.org.
#10. Take in the heat and humidity at the Quad City Botanical Center and explore the tropical plants and trees, feed the Koi fish, enjoy the waterfall and venture outdoors to see the conifer gardens. You can check out their website to see what’s blooming at www.qcgardens.com.
#11. Get outdoors and stroll or bike the trails along the Mississippi River, pull out the Mountain Bike and take a challenging ride on trails at Sylvan Slough and Sunderbruch Park. Green space is abundant in the Quad Cities and Scott County Park, Loud Thunder Forest Preserve, Illinwek Park, and Wildcat Den State Park offer trails to hike and get back in touch with nature through forests, hilly terrain, rocky outcroppings, and amazing views. Start exploring at visitquadcities.com.
It’s been about 25 years since I last visited “the Grotto” — a folk art masterpiece (if you choose to look at it that way) in the small northern Iowa town of West Bend.
And it was warm during that long ago visit.
This time it was winter cold but with stunning blue sky and sharp sunlight so the bazillions of precious stones and crystals and gold leaf mosaics embedded into mounds of sharp rocks to form a strange compound with little caves containing Jesus stuff dazzled even more. The grotto was painstakingly constructed for religious purposes by a priest decades ago. The paths were almost cleared of snow but the ice left behind was treacherous so tred carefully.
We spent a cozy three day holiday weekend in a yellow cottage overlooking frozen West Okoboji Lake, staying with friends. It was cold and snowy, glorious when the sun came out and the sky was blue. Fishing huts on the ice, a patch of snow cleared from the frozen lake for red-cheeked kids to skate, geese alighting, deer in the woods and the occasional cross country skier, snow shoer and ski-doo.
I’ve been to okoboji (part of the Iowa Great Lakes, a resort since the 1800s for visitors from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota) in the summer, when it’s packed with partying boaters and swimmers, crowded bars and beaches and amusement rides. But never when it was so cold and quiet.
My friend grew up here so she took me on a great driving tour through various beachside neighborhoods. We only went in one place, the very cool Fish House near Arnold’s park, a rustic shack on a floating barge (that in the summer sets off into the lake.) it was full of families in winter gear, some taking a break from ice skating, eating popcorn and drinking. Some fishing poles rested beside a rectangular fishing hole in the lake’s ice, with murky green water, in the middle of the shack near a wood burning stove. No masks worn except by us, despite a sign requiring them. Oh well.
Gulf Point State Park (near our friend’s place) with a cool CCC stone lodge
Abbie Gardner Memorial and cabin; Pillsbury Point, O’Farrell Sisters (old cafe) near the Fish House; Omaha Beach, Pikes Point, bar near Pioneer Beach Resort on east okoboji Lake; hike at Kettleson Hogsback near Big Spirit Lake, consignment store in Spirit Lake.
The Iowa countryside was a welcome tonic yesterday after a few weeks of being cooped up in my office. The hills of central and west-central Iowa were covered in a thick blanket of tall green corn and looked lush against the blue sky.
I took a tour of the spanking new distillery in the small town of Templeton that makes the famous prohibition-era Templeton Rye Whiskey. We got to up close how the whiskey is made (with a whole lot of rye and malt barley that is made into a mash and mixed with yeast and water and fermented). The small museum is equally interesting, telling the somewhat sanitized story about how much of the town made and sold bootleg whisky during Prohibition in the 1920s. The priest, the sheriff, prominent townspeople all seemed to be in on the town’s big secret and “the good stuff” was stashed in hollowed out gravestones, wooden fence posts and corn cribs.
We also saw how the barrels that the whiskey are made in Ohio out of white oak wood that is intentionally set on fire inside so the interior develops a char that helps give the whiskey it’s caramel color and smoky flavor. We all go to sign a barrel before stepping o into the “speakeasy” got a tasking of special reserve whiskey. I forced myself to take a few small sips. Not my drink.
The nice clerk at the little post office in town suggested Deb’s Corner Cafe for lunch, seven miles west in the German town of Manning, which turned out to be a perfect spot. I sat at the counter and had a tuna sandwich ($3.50), and a bottomless glass of iced tea and homemade cherry pie. I went across the street to a “marketplace” with gifts and fancy drinks and looked briefly at the old barn from Germany that the townspeople transplanted here. I drove back on Highway 44 (and outbound on Highway 141), both scenic two-lane country roads.
I wouldn’t normally go to the Iowa State Fair on a Saturday — too busy. But I wanted to catch Elizabeth Warren’s brief stint on the Des Moines Register’s famous political soapbox, so we went. It was hot, although not as hot as it could have been, and very very crowded but we did get to see Liz, who performed well and apparently had the largest crowd of all the 2019 Democratic political candidates, to date. (I couldn’t tell – -we were in the thick of the crowd, standing next to a young documentary filmmaker from L.A. who was shooting footage for a film about the Iowa State Fair’s role in presidential politics, or some such.)
We also happened to hear former Colorado Governor Hickenlooper, who seems like a good guy — and although we skipped the Cory Booker soapbox appearance, we passed him and a large entourage, reportedly in search of vegen-worthy fair food. Speaking of non-vegan-worthy food, I fell hard for the maple syrup cured-pork belly on a stick sold at the Iowa Pork Producers tent.
While Dirck had a proper pork chop, I went full stick — with what looked like a thick piece of well-cooked bacon, with a brown chewy gooey sweet glaze, twisted around a stick. Delicious. We double dipped in the ice cream department — getting a cone from the Iowa Dairy Producers early on and as we were leaving, a Bauder’s peppermint-hot fudge bar that we split.
The fair always makes for exceptional people watching but even more so this year because of the political campaign workers/reporters (telltale signs: a Princeton T-shirt, the DC regulation gear – blue button down shirt and khaki combo, etc), the unnerving folks wearing NRA T-shirts, camouflage gear and/or Trump 2020 shirts (Dirck had to restrain me from shooting them dirty looks. Probably best to ignore them.) Also, the hard metal band Slipknot (internationally-known, Iowa-born) was playing its first ever state fair concert to a sell-out crowd so there were some 20,000 maggots (slipknot speak for “fans”) — many wearing menacing black Slipknot t-shirts or other weirdo Slipknot gear (bright orange jumpsuits, creepy face masks like the band members). Many waited in a long line outside a trailer dubbed the “Slipknot Museum” that was parked in the middle of the Grand Concourse (fair speak for the fair’s main drag). It all added a little je ne sais quoi to the fair…
Yes, it was hot midday at the Hinterland Festival, a bucolic venue carved into a cornfield south of Des Moines. But not as hot as it could be in August and the music yesterday was worth the sweat and sunburn. We finally, finally, got to see and hear Brandi Carlisle live and she was great! Full of energy and what a voice. She belted out one song after another with a crackerjack band and chatted warmly and confessionally with the crowd, making us feel special. (And maybe we were…) After singing her poignant song about motherhood, her young daughter Evangeline (the song’s namesake) ran onto the stage to give her a hug. That was a moment, especially for a rocker like Brandi. I always managed to be away during her previous visits to Des Moines so I was very happy to see her at last and hope to do so again soon.
Young and gorgeous Maggie Rogers also put on a high-spirited show, dancing exuberantly across the stage during almost every well-sung song. The folk rock group Dawes (a favorite of our son’s) and The War and The Treaty — a wife/husband soul group and one of the few Hinterland non-white groups — also threw everything they had into their show. Well done!