Iowa is Not Vertically Challenged

Alleman, Iowa is a town in the northern part of Polk County (the same county I live in), with a population of 432 souls and a 774,000-bushel grain storage facility operated by the Heartland Cooperative. The town has a nice welcome sign at its central intersection, too. Here’s a picture of it:

Downtown Alleman, Iowa.

Oh, and see that tall, skinny thing off to the left of the picture, above the gas pumps? That would be the eighth tallest man-made structure in the world, at 2,000 feet, top to bottom. If it wasn’t surprising enough to have one such formidable world-class structure in humble Alleman, this tower actually has a 2,000 foot tall twin, just a mile or so away. Here’s a photo of the pair of them, with a standard water tower (probably 150 to 200 feet in height) in the middle to provide perspective.

Alleman, Iowa's 2000-foot tall broadcast masts, giving the town's water tower a serious inferiority complex.

For what it’s worth, Iowa also boasts two other 2,000 foot towers, one in Sioux City and one in Rowley. It’s quite hard to capture a sense of scale on objects so large, with so little nearby to offer perspective. Here are a few shots to (maybe) give you some sense of how overwhelmingly gigantic these things are:

On its own, the tower at right would look impressively tall. Here, though, not so much.

Service facility at the base of the eastern tower. Those are big truck doors, though they don't look it.

Guy wire anchors of one tower, with the other tower in the background. You can see the building from the prior picture, looking tiny, at bottom right of the frame.

While transmission masts are the tallest structures in the state, and Des Moines boasts eight buildings of 300 feet or greater (the tallest is 801 Grand, at 45 stories and 630 feet from top to bottom), most of the vertical sightlines around the state are provided by four other types of structures: water towers, wind turbines, silos, and grain elevators. Pretty much anywhere you are in the state on a clear day, if you do a 360-degree scan of the horizon, you’re likely to see at least one, and probably many, many more of those items. You find them out in the middle of the country, and you find them right smack in the downtowns of many cities. I love this shot taken in Indianola, for example, which shows just how short the distance from farm to market is in Iowa:

Indianola's Heartland Cooperative grain storage facility towers over the city's biggest grocery store.

And while we’re talking about verticality, let me dismiss one other notion about Iowa for you: the state is not flat. True, the total vertical distance from its highest location (1,671 feet at Hawkeye Point) to its lowest (480 feet at the junction of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers) is only a modest 1,191 feet, which is about a quarter of the prominence of New York’s Mount Marcy, for perspective. That being said, the state packs a lot of long, undulating hills within that brief vertical envelope, and the major river valleys in Iowa also tend to have steep bluffs or gorges along their paths. As many bikers who come to Iowa to ride the seven-day RAGBRAI no doubt discover, much to their chagrin, it’s not such much the amplitude as it is the frequency of the hills here, and over a long day, you can log a lot of grinding, fatigue-inducing climbs in Iowa.

But at least you have some impressively tall structures to admire as you grind your way up your 25th 200-foot climb of the day, so be thankful for that, at least.

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.