Back from the heartland

Last week I spent a long weekend visiting my good friend Ryan in Iowa. Ryan is an “all but dissertation” PhD student in Iowa State’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Interdepartmental Graduate Program. My (admittedly vague) understanding of what he does is “stuff with plant genetics.” He’ll finish up sometime in ’07 as well. He lives in Ames, near ISU, in a fantastic one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the downtown area.

Anyway, I flew out on Thursday and we stopped to visit his horses, Foxy and Corona, on the way to his apartment, where his cats Otik and Diaz greeted us. The fish said hello, too. We went out to dinner and then hung out and split a bottle of wine at his apartment. I didn’t take a ton of photos, but you can see what I did take here. I saw a lot, but we were in the car quite a bit.
On Friday, we headed out to Iowa City where we visited his friends Janelle and Tim (and their dogs, Murphy and Bailey, as well as Janelle’s horse Killian). On the way we drove through the Amana Colonies, a collection of villages settled by German farmers about 150 years ago. Since it’s currently their off season, the historical buildings were closed, but we drove around visiting some of the boutiques — we got some great chocolates, and Ryan picked up three bottles of fruit wine (apple, cranberry and rhubarb). We also stopped by a woolen mill, where I was disappointed to discover that, aside from the fact that a lot of the stuff we looked at wasn’t made in the mill, they didn’t sell yarn (well, they had a tiny selection of Paton’s, I think). They did have a huge loom, which was not running, where they weave woolen blankets, which were lovely.

While there, we had one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent memory. We stopped into the Ox Yoke Inn, which serves German food, family-style. We both got the same thing — a place with weiner schnitzel and another German sausage I’m forgetting at the moment — and gorged ourselves on those, mashed potatoes, corn, bread . . . oh, it was so good.

Dinner that night was pretty much exactly the opposite from family-style German fare — sushi! I’d never had sushi before, but Ryan, Janelle and Tim eat it fairly often, so I was finally able to give it a try. We at at Takanami (warning: the site plays music) in Iowa City, which was delicious and had a great atmosphere. We got a bunch of different things, including yellow tail, salmon, salmon nigiri, a spider roll and a couple of other things. I really enjoyed it — the flavors are so completely different from anything else I’ve ever eaten; they were very clean and pure. If you’ve wanted to try sushi, you should definitely go for it!

We stayed overnight with Janelle and Tim (who have a lovely, GIANT house) and had brunch at the Iowa City Sheraton (Marriot?) the next morning, after which Ryan and I headed off. Not before he got a parking ticket for not feeding the meter — $5! Can you stand it? Anyway, at brunch, I confirmed something Ryan had been telling me about Iowa: that coffee at most places is basically dishwater — it’s really weak. Yuck. I didn’t even finish half a cup at breakfast, and was a little fuzzy headed on the drive back.

We stopped again during the drive back to Ames, this time at Riverside and then Kalona. Riverside is the Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk. I kid you not. This little town was tiny, and there was basically nothing there except a couple of small shops and a diner — and a replica of the Enterprise. As Ryan tells it, one of the Star Trek movies or an episode of the show mentions that Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. This town decided it was them, contacted Gene Roddenberry to get his permission, and set themselves up. Shrewd.

Anyway, we moved along to Kalona, where we wound up antiquing. I was looking at baskets (um, my yarn basket is a little full . . .) and also looking at braided rag rugs. I found a gorgeous rug in bright, sherbet shades that I really liked. I managed to leave Iowa without a basket or the rug, which is just as well. (An aversion to checking luggage in order to have another carry-on will help with that.) Thus, added to the list of things to do this summer is think about making a braided rug, for use where I do not know.

We got back to Ames in the late afternoon on Saturday and went immediately to one of Ryan’s favorite places, a coffee shop called Stomping Grounds, where we had big, strong cups of coffee (I was amazed by how quickly I felt like myself . . . what, I’m not an addict!) and wolfed down two appetizers — an olive tapenade on little crostini, and a great bruschetta. We hung around the apartment for a while, then went out and got pizza at The Great Plains Sauce & Dough company (on a wheat crust — delicious) and rented “Requiem for a Dream,” which is probably the single most disturbing movie I have ever seen.

On Sunday we got up and got breakfast at a little diner called The Grove, where we avoided the coffee. After breakfast, we drove half a block to Cafe Diem, one of Ryan’s other favorite places, where we got coffee for the road.

I had a really great time with Ryan — he is one of my closest friends, and I don’t get to see him very often. It was nice to have a whole weekend to spend just with him. Iowa was interesting — obviously, it’s very different from Massachusetts. There’s a ton of open space, mostly farmland. It’s very flat (though not as flat as I expected) and we drove through a lot of small, small little towns. The cities felt small, too, though I didn’t really see any of Iowa City. The main downtown section of Ames was overwhelmingly made up of small, independent businesses — I saw a Subway and an H&R block. There are other chain restaurants and stores in the city, but they’re in shopping plazas. The downtown had a lot of character.

I think the biggest shock was how friendly EVERYONE was. We went in and out of a lot of little shops over the course of the weekend and didn’t buy much, though we’d look at just about everything. The shopkeepers always said hello, frequently engaged us in conversation, and no one seemed mad or exasperated when we didn’t buy anything. This is in direct counterpoint to going into small stores around the Boston area, where you’re lucky to get a hello and there’s a feeling of “I can tell you aren’t going to buy anything, therefore you aren’t worth the time of day” that the employees generally give off.

Anyway, I know I wouldn’t be happy living out there, but it was a very refreshing change of pace.

One thought on “Back from the heartland

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Iowa! I always feel like Iowa City is a contradiction; on one hand, it seems like a big city to me (I’m from a town of 8,500). I mean, you can get a burrito at 2am! At the same time, though, it’s really not a city by any stretch of the imagination, unless you happen to be an Iowan. It’s really just a big small town where things are open late.

    And about the parking tickets; it’s almost impossible to have a car in IC and not get a ticket… in 5 years, I’ve probably had over a hundred, and that’s not many compared to some of my friends 🙂

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