He Used to Cut the Grass

1. And then there were four . . . Counties in Iowa that I have not visited, that is. Marcia and I took a trip to Clinton, the easternmost city in the state, yesterday and today. While she was in meetings, I nabbed another six counties, most of them along the magnificent Mississippi River. I have only Grundy, Black Hawk, Buchanan and Benton Counties remaining before I complete my Full Grassley, and the weather is looking nice on Monday, so I’m thinking I might just get in the car and get it done then. Clinton awed me, because I am fascinated with heavy industry, and there were some massive plants and factories there that were simply mind-blowing, especially at night when their lights were visible from dozens of miles away. We had a great and fresh (though garlic-heavy, which I could do without) meal at the Candle Light Inn, overlooking the Mississippi River. I would recommend that destination should you find yourself in Eastern Iowa some evening, seeking sustenance and succor.

2. Seafood in Iowa . . . I live farther from salt water now than I ever have during my prior half century on this planet, and you know what? I am regularly eating better deep-water seafood than I ate during 18 years of living in New York, which actually had an Atlantic coastline. Take last night at the Candle Light: I had a beautiful seafood au gratin that had immense, sweet shrimp, perfectly prepped cod, langustinos and sea scallops in it, and they were all fresh, tasty, and huge. I have come to attribute this weird and unexpected regional benefit to the fact that the people of Iowa, living in a major agricultural center, expect things to be fresh. This means that the few restaurants and stores that stock seafood here seem to be more diligent about flying things in from the coast(s) than the distributors in New York were, since those guys could always get some fresh stuff, if you didn’t want the frozen, but why add the fresh expense if you’d settle for the latter? I may be wrong as to the cause, but I don’t really care, since the results are brilliant: Iowa rocks fresh fish.

3. The future of publishing . . . I was working on a proposal for a freelance writing job, and the employer asked that applicants answer this question: “What is the future of publishing? (200 words or less).” Such a huge topic, with such a small space to reply! How would you answer that question within those constraints? Here’s what I did:

In its traditional form, the act of publishing involves writers selling words to publishers, who in turn sell those words to readers. This model has been more effective historically than the direct sale of words from writers to readers, because publishers add two forms of value: quality control in the receiving function, and economy of scale in the production function.

This traditional model is now in flux. Blogs and related websites readily allow writers to communicate directly with interested readers. Some writers are even willing to give their words, for free, to commercial interests, who sell those words for profit. Print-on-demand mills, message boards, cell phone apps and countless other emergent technologies also seem to jeopardize the traditional role of the publisher.

I believe, however, that this period of flux will be finite and bounded. As the number of available information sources expands, the volume of inaccurate, incomplete, unedited and unreliable information grows equally quickly. Sophisticated readers will eventually seek more dependable sources, and sophisticated writers will expect to be compensated for their work.

Successful publishers will be those who develop the print and/or electronic platforms that allow both of these conditions to be met, thereby restoring their traditional role.

4. My current favorite band . . . Napalm Death released their new album, Utilitarian, this week. It is a spectacular disc. If you think that all metal sounds the same, then then disc would be a fine example to demonstrate why you are wrong.

Napalm Death, 2012 (Mitch Harris, Mark “Barney” Greenway, Shane Embury, Danny Herrera)

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!

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.

37 Down, 62 to Go

During the campaign cycle before the Iowa GOP Caucuses, Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann both completed “The Full Grassley,” visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties. (The feat takes its name from Senator Chuck Grassley, who allegedly has visited all 99 counties in each of his 30+ years in elected office). Senator Santorum did his Full Grassley the smart way: he basically lived here for a year, took his time working his way around the state, got to see its sights and know its people, and reaped the benefit of his retail policking with a neck-and-neck finish with the better-financed favorite, Governor Mitt Romney. Representative Bachmann, on the other hand, tried to pull it off as a 10-day stunt, which was disastrous for her, as her chronic late appearances, visible fatigue, and lightly-attended campaign events made her and her team look inept, not connected at a grassroots level.

As a new Iowan, and given my penchant for punishing endeavors, I really like the idea of completing my own Full Grassley, and have already made several day and overnight trips around the state toward that end. I’m doing it all on the road (I suspect Senator Grassley flies in to some key cities around the state when he’s making his rounds), and trying to find a balance between the Santorum and Bachmann approaches: taking time between trips, but making every trip count. Sometimes Marcia and I travel together, and sometimes I venture solo. Here’s a graphic of the counties I have visited to date (we live in Polk County, fourth row from the bottom, sixth from the left):

I have visited the 37 shaded counties as of January 26.

While it would obviously be easy (or at least easier) in some cases to just drive over a county line, or walk a circle around the many “four (county) corners” in the state, then drive on to the next destination, I am making a fairly serious effort to experience the counties in more meaningful ways: either by spending a sizable amount of time in them by fully transecting them from side-to-side or top-to-bottom, or by visiting signature county landmarks, or by having meals in great local restaurants. The breadth and depth of variety around the state is wonderful, and I appreciate seeing it up close and personal.

Monday and Tuesday this week, I will be doing this, with an overnight stop near Donnellson, from where I also plan to visit Keokuk, in the far southeast corner of the state. That region is known for Bald Eagles, fossils, and geodes, so it fits in well with many of my geeky interests and pursuits. When I get back Tuesday night, I will have shaded the entire southeastern corner in the map above, bringing my county total to 54. I will dispatch a good chunk of northeast Iowa over the next month or so, too, via trips to and from Clinton and Dubuque (in Iowa) and Chicago.

My goal is to complete the Full Grassley before I start working again full time, which (hopefully) will be sooner rather than later. So I may end up doing a mad Bachmann dash at some point if one of several employment prospects pans out soon, though for now, I’m savoring the luxury of getting to spend quality time all around my new state. It’s doing wonders in terms of making me feel like Iowa and Des Moines really are home.