Dear Oscar, Here’s How It’s Done . . .

I plan to watch the Academy Awards show tomorrow, even though I’m largely disiniterested in the results, given the lame slate of films competing this year. As much of an epic jerk as director Lars Von Trier is, the Academy voters’ collective decision to leave his Melancholia (and its star, Kirsten Dunst) out of the running is a mind-boggling creative snub to me, since I consider it not only the best movie of 2011, but also one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Here’s my updated faves list (in alphabetical order), which I will mull and ponder while watching lesser fare feted on the idiot box tomorrow. Feh.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
Black Swan (2010)
Blade Runner (1982)
Brazil (1985)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Dead Man (1995)
Do the Right Thing (1989)

Don’t Look Now (1973)
Eraserhead (1977)
The Fountain (2006)
The Great Dictator (1940)
Melancholia (2011)

Mulholland Drive (2001)
Network (1976)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The Piano Teacher (2002)
The Princess Bride (1987)

Seconds (1966)
WALL-E (2008)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
When We Were Kings (1996)
A Zed and Two Noughts (1986)

Famous Houses of Southwest Iowa

One thing that I’ve really liked as I’ve been exploring Iowa is the fact that most of the State’s cities and towns have some thing, place or fact by which they define themselves, and they’re generally pretty good about letting you know what it is. Welcome signs, historical markers, street names, and other approaches make it easy to just roll into a town and figure out what you need to look at while you’re there.

I did a day trip down to the Southwest corner of the State yesterday, taking my counties visited tally to 89 (out of 99), and saw several houses of historical note, most the birthplaces of legendary entertainers, but one the site of perhaps the most infamous cold case in Midwestern history. I visited the smallest incorporated community in Iowa yesterday, and even there, I learned something impressive from the signs and markers erected by its citizens. I also saw an absolutely incredible WPA/CCC mural in a post office, praising Iowa’s most famous export. Here are some highlight shots:

Birthplace of John Wayne, Winterset, Iowa.

Birthplace of Johnny Carson, Corning, Iowa.

The Villisca Ax Murder House: eight people were bludgeoned to death in their sleep here in 1912. The case was never solved. The house is available for overnight stays now, for those interested in the macabre.

Amazing post office mural, Mount Ayr, Iowa. This one is worth clicking to enlarge, as it is an extraordinary work of art, merging populism with surrealism in quite unique ways.

Pensive barn under big prairie skies.

Birthplace of Glenn Miller, Clarinda, Iowa.

Downtown Beaconsfield, Iowa, population 15. The smallest incorporated community in the state is, remarkably, the home of Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, and also the location of the very first Hy-Vee grocery store. Wow!

The Northwest Iowa Tour

I spent Thursday and Friday this week driving 740 miles through Northwest Iowa, bringing the number of counties I’ve visited in the State to 81 (out of a total of 99). The Northwest has beautiful lakes, immense farms, the highest point in Iowa (elevation 1,670 above sea level), a chunk of the Blarney Stone, and the Ice Cream Capital of the World, among other destinations of note. Much of the Northwest is also culturally part of the Sioux Lands, and looks more toward Nebraska and South Dakota for influence, commerce and connection than toward the State Capitol in Des Moines. Having experienced 16 new counties this week, here is my current Iowa tour map, with the remaining unvisited counties in white:

81 counties visited, 18 left to go.

By fluke of coincidence, the two regional blocks I have yet to visit are radically different from each other. Far Southwestern Iowa includes four of the ten smallest (population-wise) and several of the poorest counties in the State, as well as the smallest incorporated city in Iowa (Beaconsfield, population 15 in 2010, up from 11 in 2000). The unshaded block in Eastern Iowa, on the other hand, is cosmopolitan in comparison, featuring four of the ten largest (population-wise) counties in the State, as well as two of the State’s three public universities, and three of its ten largest cities. I’ll be travelling with Marcia when she visits clients in Dubuque and Clinton, and will dispatch those ten Eastern counties on those trips, while I can visit the eight in the Southwest on a long solo day trip from Des Moines. I might complete my Full Grassley by March 1, if weather and schedule cooperate. My sense for and appreciation of the State is greatly enhanced by having seen so much of it from the ground, but I’ll wait until I’ve hit all 99 counties before expounding on that. Suffice to say it’s been a tremendously enjoyable undertaking.

For some views of Northwest Iowa with explanations as to what you’re seeing, click on the wind turbine below. Have you ever stood directly under one of these monsters when they’re spinning? I have now, and it’s disconcerting. If you’d prefer to just see the pictures and figure out what you’re looking at on your own, you can click here for the slideshow version.

Planes, Golf Carts, and Automobiles

Marcia and I took a somewhat spontaneous trip to San Antonio, Texas last weekend, for a little warm(er) weather rest and relaxation. It was a bit rainy and cool by local standards, but still beat being in the middle of the blizzard that blew through Des Moines that weekend. We stayed in the great Contessa Hotel (right on the River Walk), visited the Alamo and the historic Missions, got in a nice round of golf at the Hyatt Resort, and did a lot of walking: around the downtown River Walk, and as far north and south as possible on the Museum and Mission Reach extensions of the walk along the San Antonio River. We had a nice dinner at Las Canarias and a great brunch at Cappy’s. I took fewer photos than I usually do, though I was particularly pleased with the one below, drawn as I always am to dying industrial sites. Click the photo for the captioned rest of the collection, or click here for the slideshow version.

When we got back from San Antonio, Marcia had some business up in Mason City, in the north-central part of Iowa (which we’ve visited before). I chauffered her up, then took her car and headest east toward Wisconsin, crossing over the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, then working my way back to Mason City and (ultimately) Des Moines. In the process, I increased the total number of Iowa Counties I have visited to 65, about two-thirds of the way to a Full Grassley. A few snaps from this trip below, along with the updated conquered county map.

Morning sun over Native American ceremonial mounds, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Mississippi River in the background.

Mississippi River bluffs over Marquette, Iowa.

All God’s children, we all gotta die. (Gunder, Iowa).

River gorge, downtown Mason City, from the middle of the Meredith Willson Footbridge.

65 down, 34 to go. Probably one more day trip and two overnighters to finish. Not too bad.

The Southeast Iowa Tour

I spent Monday and Tuesday this week in Southeast Iowa, driving 640 miles through 21 Iowa Counties (17 of them new to me), bringing the total number of Iowa counties I’ve visited to 54; more than half-way to a Full Grassley. Highlights of the trip included seeing dozens of bald eagles in and around Keokuk and on the lower reaches of the Des Moines River, unexpectedly visiting the northernmost Civil War battlefield, finding a few geodes in Lee County, watching sunrise over Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, and staying in a classic $30/night motel at the edge of a tiny town, under extraordinary winter stars, with a cornfield outside my window. I also visited the “American Gothic” House in Eldon, Iowa, which features in Grant Wood’s iconic painting of that name. Click the image of it below to view the full photo gallery of this trip with descriptions of what you are seeing, or click here for the silent slideshow version.