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Of the Monks

August 5, 2016

If you mention Iowa to people who live on the coasts, a stereotypical image of cornfields and small farm towns is usually what comes to mind. That image is pretty accurate.

This trip takes us completely across Iowa from east to west, and finding fun stuff to do here took a bit of creativity, and some stretching of the definition of fun. Highlights today included a really big truck stop, and you should see the ridiculous stops we’re making tomorrow on our way from Des Moines to the Nebraska border. The stuff we skipped is even stupider. One of the most recommended attractions in Iowa City is the building that used to be the state capitol back when Iowa City was the capital. And about 20 minutes off our route is a town called Riverside, which claims to be the future birthplace of Captain Kirk, despite the show never mentioning a specific hometown. We didn’t bother with those.

Somehow, though all the corn and all the corny-ness, we had a pretty great day.

A relatively light itinerary allowed us to sleep a bit later than usual. I told you yesterday that the woman at the front desk of our motel, Katie, is awesome. In my conversations with her, she recommended three things to do in the Quad Cities: the Rock Island Arsenal, John Deere, and the Skybridge. I did my best to follow her instructions.

The Arsenal is a historic and currently active army base with a museum and a National Cemetery. That sounds only mildly interesting, but I decided to trust Katie. Unfortunately, the Arsenal doesn’t ever open until noon, and that’s about the time we had to leave town. So the Arsenal was a no-go. Instead, our first stop was John Deere.

One of the Quad Cities, Moline, is the world headquarters for John Deere, and has been since John Deere himself started selling his first manual plow way back in the mid-1800s. There are three major attractions: the headquarters, the John Deere Pavillion, and the factory tour. The factory tour lets you see how they make massive combine harvesters, which sounded pretty cool to me, but Sam nixed it because, when you’ve never actually seen a real combine harvester, you don’t especially care how they’re made. Also, combines are evil in the movie Cars.

The big draw of both the headquarters and the pavilion are that they have lots of John Deere machines on display that you can climb right onto or into. We chose the pavilion because it has some interactive displays and exhibits about the company as well.



We were only there for about a half hour, but it was a lot of fun. Sam sat in one of the giant harvesters we didn’t see being built, as well as tractors of various sizes, a massive bulldozer, and more.


This combine harvester is so massive that you can barely see Sam in the cockpit.




We also saw some of the stranger machines Deere makes, one of which is basically a Roomba lawn mower. The other looks like a Star Wars AT-AT whose purpose is cutting down trees rather than shooting rebels.



Finally it was time for the Skybridge, a one-block-long glass walkway three stories in the air that’s right on the riverfront in Davenport. Katie had recommended going to see it at night because it lights up in impressive fashion, and I was ready to go last night after we checked into the motel, but it was late and Sam was exhausted (as was I), so we left it for this morning. Even without the lights it was pretty cool.


But the best part was that we were the only ones there, with the exception of two androgynous teenagers, one of whom was sitting and watching with rapt attention as the other one showed off some sort of dance routine. We tried not to stare, but it was fantastically entertaining.


Dance like nobody except The Hamster is watching.


Our next destination was something that should never be a destination: a truck stop on I-80 in Walcott, Iowa.


What makes this one worthwhile is that, in addition to a gas station and a little mart like every other truck stop, this one has a huge auto parts store, a huge souvenir shop, a full sit-down restaurant, a laundromat, a movie theater, a barbershop, a chiropractor, and a dentist. I’m not exaggerating to be funny–it actually has all those things. It’s quite literally the biggest truck stop in the world, both by square footage and by the number of people who come through every day.

We didn’t stay long but we did enjoy ourselves. Sam joked about going to the chiropractor to fix the damage from yesterday’s off-roading. I laughed at the DVDs that were on sale: Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and Convoy.


Also for sale: a full-body camo grass hunting suit. A good trucker is prepared for anything.

Almost as exciting was when we saw a Nevada license plate in the parking lot, leaving us with only Louisiana and Hawaii still to find.

After a quick lunch and a tank of gas (a mere $1.95 per gallon!) we were back on the road, this time with the top down so we could enjoy the gorgeous blue sky as we flew down I-80 toward our next stop. The cooler stayed where we put it, and we weren’t on the highway for long before the road trip playlist gave us “Holiday Road,” the song from National Lampoon’s Vacation. We sang at the top of our lungs (it’s not that hard–the song has surprisingly few words). We joked about how appropriate it would be if Louisiana is the only license plate we don’t see, considering it’ll soon be the only state we haven’t visited. Not long after, we passed a truck with Louisiana plates.

We were in great moods when we arrived in Iowa City. We decided to skip the not-state-capitol there, so instead we went fossil hunting. The backstory is a little weird, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. In the 80s the Army Core of Engineers built a dam on the Iowa River to protect the city from frequent floods. In 1993 there was a flood so bad that the river flowed over the dam and carried away five feet of earth on the backside of the dam. Underneath was a bed of limestone full of fossils of various small aquatic animals and plants from the Devonian period (pre-Pangaea, if I remember the informational video correctly). The state opened up the fossil gorge to the public, so anyone can just walk across the limestone, carefully inspecting its surface to see the many embedded fossils.




We saw some fun stuff in the limestone, and had fun exploring, but by this time it was 93 degrees and there’s no shade at the fossil gorge. By the time we got back to the car we were dripping. We drove with the roof closed and the air conditioning at full blast for the rest of the day.

Our next stop was Altoona, to see a bronze replica of one of the giant Easter Island heads. Ordinarily this would probably not be worth stopping for, but the pickings are pretty slim in central Iowa. Besides, back in my journalism days I once wrote an article about visiting Easter Island digitally, and ever since then I’ve been dying to visit in person. This might be as close as I get for a long time.



The maoi  was fun to see, but what really made our visit notable was the surrounding neighborhood. The statue is in a park. You know what wasn’t in the park? Any people. Any at all.



In fact, the entire neighborhood was completely void of people, and eerily silent. There were cars parked on the street and in driveways, and several garage doors had been left open, but nobody was outside and nobody was driving through. It was 5 p.m. on a weekday. People should have been coming home for work, running errands, playing in the park, or whatever it is that human people do in a normal suburb. The whole neighborhood looked like a movie set rather than an actual community.



We talked about how it felt like we were in one of those movies or TV shows where everyone dies or disappears, but the town is still standing. Then a 10-year-old boy with white hair passed by on a bicycle. The whole scene could not have been creepier. On our way out, we found three other actual humans: a high school kid carrying a baseball equipment bag, a woman getting out of a parked car, and a middle-aged man walking as if everything was normal. Sam hypothesized that aliens had landed there and abducted everyone in the town, but those four people were in the bathroom when it happened so they were left behind. That’s about as plausible an explanation as any, so that’s what we’re going with. If anyone out there has answers, I’d love to hear from you.

Finally it was time for Des Moines, the biggest city in Iowa. We had only a few things on our to-do list, though: see the state capitol (the current one, natch), visit a supposedly cool sculpture park, eat at the only kosher restaurant in Iowa, and see the triple-A Iowa Cubs take on the visiting Zephyrs.

We realized what we were in for as soon as the skyline came into view. As a New York native, I know I’m a little skyline-spoiled, but come on, Des Moines, get on your game. The whole skyline is four buildings. Three of them are rectangles.

Then we saw the capitol. Not only is it the least attractive state capitol we’ve seen (and we must’ve seen 25 or 30 by now), it’s absolutely hideous, with a gold dome surrounded by other ornate domes that look like cheap rip-offs of the Taj Mahal. We didn’t even bother getting close, because looking at it from the highway was more than enough.



When I was in high school, I saw a stand-up comic on TV once who joked that Des Moines is a French phrase that means “void of life.” Linguistically, he’s pretty far off, but he clearly knows Des Moines. The name actually translates as “of the monks,” but I’m more inclined to believe that they simply misspelled Des Moins, which means “of the minus.”

The kosher restaurant (a deli/mini-market combo that I’ve gotten used to seeing in smaller Jewish communities) closes at 6 p.m. on Thursdays, and that’s its late night. It was a little after 5 at this point, so we went there before the sculpture park. The deli is run by the local Chabad rabbi, and in fact he answers the phone with the greeting, “Maccabee’s Deli and Lubavitch Torah Center.” He’s a wonderfully kind and friendly guy. Not as wonderful a chef. He cooks the burgers on a George Forman Grill, if that helps give you an idea of how many Michelin stars the place has. But for the first time all week I didn’t have to cook dinner, so I was happy.

As we finished eating, I was calculating whether we had time to see the sculpture park before the game started, when I was interrupted by the rabbi, who sat down to give a brief mini-lecture about the Jewish concept of divorce and where it comes from and why the Hebrew word for divorce is “get.” It was actually pretty interesting, and the rabbi is so earnest and good-hearted that I didn’t even mind that we never made it to the sculpture park. Sam was giving me the “let’s get out of here” face the whole time, but I gave him the “too bad for you” face, and he behaved. Something tells me we’re going to remember this meal for a long time.

One of the many things I really enjoy about these trips is the interactions we have with various interesting people along the way. We’ve met some awesome people, and some complete whackjobs, and I really appreciated this rabbi. Besides, our entire meal, plus some challah and cookies for tomorrow, came to only $35, so, other than the food, what’s not to love?

When we got to the ballpark we were able to buy excellent seats in the first row, just past first base. By the time we got to our seats I figured out why such good seats were still available: a clear, dry day had suddenly turned into an intensely humid evening with increasingly ominous clouds gathering above the stadium. There couldn’t have been more than 500 fans there, which either means that most Des Moines baseball fans were in Altoona when the aliens came, or they’re smart enough to check the weather before coming to the game.



Thanks to our good seats and Sam’s charm, he extended his streak of getting a ball at every game before tonight’s game even started. He achieved this by slyly looking up the name of a visiting player who was stretching nearby, and then calling his name and asking for a ball. Later in the game, Sam went to the home dugout and chatted up one of the players, who gave him a (slightly cracked) game-used bat.

Meanwhile, weird stuff was happening left and right. The home team was winning, which is something we haven’t seen in person in a long time, even at home in New York. And they were taking forever to do it-the first five innings took 2.5 hours. Also, the team chose a couple of young kids to announce the batters during one inning, and that just happened to be the inning that featured the players with the toughest names. This poor seven-year-old girl had to announce Bijan Rudamacher and  Munenori Kawasaki, among others.

But the big story of the game was the weather. Those ominous clouds went away for a while once the game started, only to be replaced by clouds much darker more sinister, followed then by lots of scary lightning and thunder and, eventually, rain.




The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop the game, but it was hard enough to get all the fans scurrying either for covered seats or for the exits. By the time we left (in the sixth inning!) the rain had stopped but there were maybe 200 people still in the park.

And as we were leaving, a foul ball was hit right near us, scooped up by an usher, and put right into Sam’s hands. The kid has a knack.




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