Into The West

You might have noticed that it has been a little quiet here at the website for a couple of days since I completed my big Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands writing spree. But not quiet in real life for me at all, as Marcia and I spent the last two days driving from Des Moines to Las Vegas, helping our daughter Katelin and her beloved John move into their new home here. John’s dad drove a moving truck, we rented and drove a (fully loaded) SUV, and Katelin and John drove their (fully loaded) car with their two cats. (One of whom, The Bumble, may be familiar to long-time readers here).

It was a long trip, but we traversed some truly stunning countryside, and everyone and everything arrived safe and healthy, most importantly. Katelin and John are going to be living in a great house in the Summerlin community at the western side of the Vegas metro area. Their surroundings are stunning, mere minutes by car from home to Red Rocks Natural Conservation Area, a perfect place for such avid rock climbers and outdoorsy people to spend their time. We are excited about their new adventures, and look forward to experiencing them vicariously through their reports in the years ahead.

Marcia and I are going to have our own little adventure for the next couple of weeks, heading up into the Yosemite and Lake Tahoe area once we finish helping here, then back over to Utah to visit the Logan and Moab areas for a spell. We are still hunkering down, masking up, and doing all the on-our-own things we need to do during this our national time of disease (in both literal and figurative terms). Safety first, even on the road. Maybe most especially on the road.

In any event, posting may be a bit sparse here through July, but I’ll eventually do my usual photo journal for those who like such things. Today I close with a pair of snaps taken of John and Katelin this morning when I went for a ramble with them in Red Rocks. Marcia and I are most happy for and proud of them as they begin this next new exciting chapter of their lives!

Supplemental Music Nerd Adventure

We were driving from our rental cottage yesterday to do another hike, still thoroughly enjoying our change of scenery trip to Western Minnesota, when I spotted this directional notification:

A normal person with no particular business to conduct in Hanley Falls, Minnesota would probably not notice the sign, or would just acknowledge it mentally for a second or ten and then forget it by the time the next town rolled up. But, of course, normal isn’t my default operating mode, so my brain instead went: “Oooooo!!! The Fall are one of my very favorite musical groups ever! And beyond group leader Mark E. Smith (RIP), one of the longest-serving, most influential and beloved members of The Fall was bassist Steve Hanley!! Whose brother, Paul Hanley, also played drums and keyboards for the group during arguably one of their finest creative periods!! And the Hanley Brothers each wrote books about their experiences in The Fall, and they are among the very best books ever written about the group!! I love The Fall and the Hanleys are amazing!!! So I must go to Hanley Falls and take pictures and pay homage!! Because of course I must!! And this makes sense!!! Huttah!!!!!” (My brain gets very enthusiastic about things).

When I got back to our cottage, I looked at the map and noted that it was just a 3.75 mile drive up a gravel prairie road to get to Hanley Falls from the cottage’s grove, so I told Marcia that I planned to get up and head over there this morning, while she relaxed and slept in. (My brain does not allow me to do that relaxing thing in the morning, ever). Marcia nodded and smiled and patted me on the head, knowing well after 30+ years together that these are just the kinds of things that I do, while being my very best me. Or at least my very weirdest me.

So I got up at about 5:45 AM today, sun up in the east, birds happily chirping around the cottage, made some coffee, did my morning reading, and headed out to get me some exciting music nerd pictures. Zoom zoom! But then, about a half mile away from downtown Hanley Falls on its east side, I made a left turn, and suddenly encountered this:

Hmmm. Well, not all that big of a deal. The old joke is that the Upper Midwest has but two seasons, “Winter” and “Construction,” so you see this sort of thing a lot. Because the region is also predictably platted on the grid system, when you encounter a block like this, you generally just go a mile up the road to the next numbered cross street, and then you can come at your destination from a different angle. So I turned around and headed back toward the South, intending to enter the town on that side. A few minutes later, though, there was this:

Double whammy!! Well, once again, there’s the grid system, so all I needed to do was to head west and turn back north and, voila, I’d come into town that way. It seemed so simple and obvious, but, of course, we have a theme going at this point:

By this time, I’m starting to wonder just what’s going on. Has Hanley Falls been overrun by zombies or CHUDS? Is it a hella contagious COVID zone? Has the corn become sentient and militarized? Or is this where they moved the Roswell alien after its autopsy? Curiouser and curiouser, for sure. There was one more road coming into the town from Wood Lake in the east (where I took the original “Hanley Falls, 4 MI” sign photo above), so I doubled all the way back there and tried once again, presuming that maybe the signed, paved road would be the one that got through. But, uh, nope:

At least this time I could finally divine the nature of the problem: a major piece of highway construction that actually requires drivers to go way north to Granite Falls, then turn back around way on the other side of Hanley Falls, approaching it from the northwest, while I sat at the southeast. I didn’t really want to drive that far, but I also didn’t want to bail on my mission, so I noticed a cemetery near this road block, parked my car there, and decided that I would walk into town. Seemed a reasonable approach. I just needed to get over this:

Sure, it was a little marshy and wet at the bottom, and a lot muddy and slippery at the top, but I made it up, and enjoyed the scenic view of my lonely car sitting by itself below me:

Onward I pushed, sliding down the mud on the other side, where I was greeted by a sign welcoming visitors to Hanley Falls’ greatest attraction for normal people, even though it wasn’t doing much good right now, when nobody could drive up to and past it:

I jogged across town toward its north side, trying to look non-menacing as I traipsed through a small community where folks probably don’t see a lot of gangly, mud-covered strangers loping with purpose through their neighborhood at 7:00 AM on a Sunday morning. But, eventually, I found what I was seeking, stood below it, and snapped:

Ta-da! Great success! Mission accomplished! Nerd factor alpha! Hooray Hanley Falls! After patting myself on the back, I schlepped back over the construction barriers and was home at the cottage before Marcia had gotten up and going. The early nerd gets the worm, or something like that. It pleases itself, if nothing else. So here’s looking forward to the next absurd adventure that captures my fancy. I’ll be sure to share it with you here when it’s done.

A Change of Scenery

Marcia and I returned from Florida on March 18, just as things were slamming shut and the true severity of the current pandemic was becoming clear to most lucid folks. Since that date, my furthest venture from our apartment was on my bicycle, and we’ve cancelled planned trips to Iceland, Costa Rica, Nevada and Sweden. We mostly like our little apartment nest and our neighborhood, but over-exposure brings the small annoyances to the screaming fore, and dulls the subtle pleasures, especially when the folks around us are behaving in irresponsible or irritating fashions that intrude on our bubble of privacy and safety.

So we’re pretty Des Moinesed Out and Iowa Exhausted at the moment, and ready for a little mix-it-up, even as we’re still being diligent about keeping ourselves away from infection vectors by adhering to smart social distancing and personal protection standards. Those competing desires to get out of town for a change of scenery, while still being away from any crowds of the unmasked and oblivious infectious, finally led us to investigate remote vacation properties as a sensible solution to the conundrum.

We finally found a gem near Wood Lake, Minnesota: Prairie Cottage. It’s a lovely, restored farm house on a Minnesota Century Farm Homestead, nestled within a grove of ancient hardwoods planted by the family, who settled the land in the 1880s. Beyond its shady grove, there’s miles of corn and soy bean fields providing a peaceful rural privacy buffer, with a variety of interesting parks and recreation areas along the nearby, geologically fascinating Minnesota River Valley. Sure, the scenery looks a bit Iowan on the surface (corn, beans, wind turbines, etc.), but trust us after nearly a decade in the Hawkeye State: Minnesota really is very different, in a variety of important-to-us social and cultural ways. It’s refreshing. It’s Marcia’s home. We like it.

We arrived at Prairie Cottage on Thursday, and have gone on a couple of hikes already, when not enjoying cooking at home and sitting out in the yard reading, after an unexpectedly heavy rain system passed through the first night. (I finished a superb science fiction novel, Providence by Max Barry, that day, and I commend it to you). We’ve got some more hikes planned over the next two days, along with more sitting around doing nothing special, just enjoying looking at something different than what we’ve looked at every day for three months, in blissful, peaceful, private quiet.

As is my wont, I’ve snapped some pics of the little adventure so far, and share them with you below. Here’s hoping you’re able to safely push your own comfort envelopes in the weeks and months ahead. It’s good for the soul, I have to say.

(Note #1: Click on any image to view full size).

(Note #2: See also this related Supplemental Music Nerd Adventure).

The grove from the road.

Aha! There you are!

Bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Lots of space to loll.

You know you are in Minnesota when the patio furniture is repaired with old hockey sticks.

Outbuildings also tucked into the grove.

An iconic object of the corn belt.

Memorial Park in nearby Granite Falls.

Overlook view from Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

Minnesotan on the Minnesota River.

Outstanding in my field.

Historic farmhouse at Skalbekken County Park.

Wood Lake Battlefield, site of a tragic engagement during the Dakota/Sioux Wars.

Shadows and light. Solitude and delight.

A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley

Introduction: Iowa’s Decatur County recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case yesterday. With this report, the novel coronavirus has now officially completed its “Full Grassley,” having visited (and made itself at home in) all 99 of the Hawkeye State’s counties.

I have also personally completed a Full Grassley. I did so in 2011-2012, along with various GOP Presidential aspirants doing so at the same time as a way of currying electoral favor across the State in advance of the quadrennial Iowa Dumpster Fire Caucus. One day soon after we moved here, I was sitting in a traffic jam caused by one of those GOP candidates’ tour buses blocking traffic in downtown Des Moines. As I stewed in place, it occurred to me that the Full Grassley wasn’t really as much of a chore for the candidates riding about in relative comfort in the back of the R.V. (or flying into various regional hubs from Des Moines) as it was for the unfortunate drivers who had to zig-zag back and forth across often featureless sectors of the state just to hit a series of tiny county seats. 

So I decided I wanted to see what a Full Grassley felt like for those folks, behind the wheel, at road level. I got it done (Benton County completed my collection), but it was a chore, at bottom line. I suspect I’ve actually seen more of Iowa than 95%+ of the folks who have actually lived here all their lives. But did I mention that I got it done? I did. So there.

On the occasion of COVID-19 checking off all of its Full Grassley boxes, I re-run a piece I wrote in 2015 discussing why Iowa’s 99 counties represent an absurd anachronism that feeds into an even more absurd political practice. I’ve updated the data cited to the most current information. I’m cautiously optimistic that this year’s particularly embarrassing Caucus performance ends Iowa’s reign as the distracting and non-representative first-in-Nation player in our Presidential electoral process. But beyond that, I still think the State could still benefit from implementing some form of the modest proposal described below.

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Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.

Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 32nd largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.IowaCounty

Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.

The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.

But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?

I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”

I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.

So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.

First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap (about 35,000 people!) between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Warren County), with all of the top ten counties having over 80,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:

  1. Polk County
  2. Linn County
  3. Scott County
  4. Johnson County
  5. Black Hawk County
  6. Woodbury County
  7. Story County
  8. Dubuque County
  9. Pottawattamie County
  10. Dallas County

Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), or because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:

  1. Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
  2. Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
  3. Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
  4. Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
  5. Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
  6. Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
  7. Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
  8. Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract“)

So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.

Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.

Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a below-middle-of-the-pack State, size-wise and people-wise.

Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.

What do you think? I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?

My battered 2011-2015 Iowa travel map, documenting all of my Full Grassley drives, and then some.

Best of the Archives #13: Wrapping Up

A dozen “Best Of” articles feels like a good haul for this quarantine project, so I’m going to declare it a wrap and move onto other things at this point. I hope the 12 pieces posted here either elicited “Oh, I remember that!” responses from long-time readers, or “Huh! That was interesting!” reactions from those who started following in the past decade. It was fun to re-read some of these old things, several of which I’d forgotten about, along with a lot of other aged items that I didn’t post on the blog.

While the articles posted here, plus new reflections on them, marked the public part of this little personal project, I actually spent a fair amount of additional times in “back of house” mode doing some other overdue clean-up work, and being The Destroyer. As a result of these activities, the site now only has 939 public articles, about a 15% reduction. I also, finally, killed off and closed down the rump Indie Albany and Indie Moines sites that had been sitting out there for years as “just in case” placeholders. No more. All gone. Destroyer destroyed.

Here’s the roster of featured pieces in one place, if you stumble across this post before the others. Onward!

Rulebound Rebellion (2010)

On Being A Music Critic (1998/2010)

The Shared Experience of Hair Removal (2004)

Interview with Kim Deal (1997)

Fin de Cyclical (1999)

The Road to Anywhere (2003)

The Grease Group (2009)

Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend (2009)

The King of Tests Strikes Out (2002)

A Lifetime of Good Eats (2009)

Trio das le Studio (1999)

Internet Information Overload (1995)

The Destroyer’s work is done. For now.

Best of the Archives #6: The Road to Anywhere

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE ROAD TO ANYWHERE (2003)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

This was from the 2003 “Summer Issue” of Metroland. It was one of our periodic group pieces, when large chunks of the paper would be turned over to a single topic, and all of the writers (staff and freelance alike) would be given somewhat free reign to write something that fit within the theme. They were sort of the bottle episodes of the journalistic world: easy to produce, usually somewhat disposable, but occasionally some good and memorable things would emerge from them.

For me, that was the case with this one. The “Summer Issue” was usually intended to be frothy, light fare, and I started writing this piece that way, but it went in different directions as I started thinking about the story and how various pieces fit together. Since much of this particular archival article actually is “the background story” itself, I won’t say much more about it than that, except to note that this is one of the pieces that generates more direct contact with me from readers than any others on the site. Oh, and I’ll also note that it was one of the last pieces I ever wrote for Metroland, perhaps even the final one. So it really is a tale of transitions, with resonance.

Our Ford LTD Country Squire was named “Eloise.”