Iowa, like most Midwestern states, gets a bad rap.
“There’s nothing to see.”
There’s even a name for the ennui: flyover country. If you never get off the interstate, sure. The highway system is designed to be fast, not scenic, and in the plains that means you’re taking a straight shot across the state.
It’s homogeny defined. Gas stations, fast food, the occasional Adult and Fireworks stores (sometimes one and the same), semis and RVs. It’s a blur of not-much-to-see-here as you race to your destination.
But just like Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and yes, even Kansas, if you take an exit you’ll find there’s a surprising number of things to see in the Hawkeye State.
One of those surprising exits is Iowa City.
Our first destination was the Brown Street Inn. We parked behind a 1913 Gambrel Cottage-Style Mansion flying both U.S. and rainbow flags from the full-length porch.
For the record, I did not know what “Gambrel Cottage-Style Mansion” meant. I’ve since learned that a Gambrel is a style of roof that looks like a barn. Cottage-style means it looks like a cottage. The word “cottage” implies small. We were staying in an oxymoron.
An artistic, comfortable, tapestry-hung oxymoron.
The sign at the side entrance told us not to let in the cat, so we didn’t, and Mark Ruggeberg greeted us with the signature warmth we’ve come to expect from bed and breakfast proprietors. (Except for one. But he’s in another book.) He knew we were late, really, really late, and probably quite hungry, so he gave us the briefest of tours before we left for dinner.
After he kindly let us store our bikes in his garage, we pulled out onto the literally brick-lined street and drove five minutes to the literally-renowned downtown.
Iowa City is a college town, but it’s not just any college town. It’s the home of the University of Iowa, which is known for, among other attributes, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Officially monikered the Program for Creative Writing, when it was conceived in 1936, during the Great Depression, it was the first creative writing degree program in the U.S.
By that time, U of I had already established itself as a groundbreaking organization. It was the first public university to open as a coed institution, admitting both men and women in 1855. Remarkably, 41 out of the initial 124 students, a full third of the class, were female.
The University of Iowa also opened the first coed medical school, was one of the first to present law degrees to both a white woman (1873) and a black man (1879), and was one of the first to decide it was OK for a black man to play varsity sports (1895).
This is Iowa. A state that’s known for feeding the bellies of the world with its productive farms. It also feeds the minds of the world with the words of authors fostered under its cornflower blue skies.
The University of Iowa was the first university anywhere to accept creative works on an equal basis with academic research. In essence, they were the first institute of higher learning in the world to realize that a novel or a symphony or an artist’s portfolio was every bit as valid as a thesis to represent the sum of a student’s learning.
On top of that, the University of Iowa created the Master of Fine Arts degree.
All of the above is why Iowa City was the first in the country, and third in the world, to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature.
UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and a summary of its goal is to spread peace through knowledge and understanding.
Related: Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA
UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, of which the City of Literature program is a part, aims to highlight cities with vibrant creative scenes that have a desire to promote cultural diversity.
Iowa City received its designation in 2008, and it’s reviewed every four years to make sure it’s still offering the programs and resources that made this august body take note.
Short story: it is.
That status is why we were there, but at 7:30 at night after a frustrating day of delays and weather tantrums, all I cared about was a stiff drink and a full dose of comfort food.
We found Clinton Street Social Club, billed as Iowa City’s only true gastropub and speakeasy, at 18 1/2 South Clinton Street. Up the stairs we trod until we came upon a wall of whiskey, a dimly lit dining room, a red pool table, and poutine.
Ah, poutine. That all-Canadian comfort food that feels right at home in the heartland of America.
We made the ill-advised choice to share this dish of fried potatoes topped with beef gravy and it’s amazing that neither one of us stabbed a fork in the other for taking more than our fair share of its creamy, savory, salty, squeaky goodness.
I know Canadians are nice and they’ve got health care for all and a mighty-fine-looking Prime Minister, but I’m sorely tempted to move north solely for the poutine.
Or I could just move to Iowa City, eh?
Bonus: there were cheese curds in that poutine. Hallelujah, there were cheese curds. AND a cocktail made with Laphroaig, Aperol, Lillet aperitif wine, Drambuie, and house-made lemon bitters.
Is this heaven?
No, Theresa. It’s Iowa.
We split a chicken sandwich and looked at the dessert menu. Although we were ready to curl up in our don’t-let-the-cat-in Red Room, Clinton Street Social Club had beignets.
Jim and I met in 2009 right before the holiday season. We had a connection, although neither of us was quite sure what kind of connection that was, and we began sending text messages back and forth.
As a professional Christmas caroler, Jim would invite me to hear him sing when he had a public gig. Every time he’d invite me, I had something else planned. Every single time.
As we neared Christmas, he sent me one more invitation to hear him sing at the Elysian (now the Waldorf Astoria) Chicago. “They have orange beignets.”
It was as charming and decadent as sugar-dusted pastries in a four-star hotel can be. I was smitten.
And I had plans.
This is why we didn’t stab each other over poutine. There was something simple and sweet about our courtship. I didn’t get my beignets that day, but I ended up with much more, and now we share them any chance we get.
We returned to Brown Street Inn and slipped into bed with fresh chocolate chip cookies and a cup of tea, orange spice for me and raspberry royale for him. It hadn’t been the easiest of days, but it turned out OK, and we slept in the comfort of a cottage-style mansion, dreaming of the journey ahead.
I woke up a few seconds before my alarm was scheduled to screech. I stretched, made sure I hadn’t gotten a stray chocolate chip on the pillow, and scribbled in my journal a bit before we showered, packed up, and headed downstairs.
Breakfast at Brown Street Inn was a communal affair. The sideboard was loaded with assorted breads, hard boiled eggs, and glorious cinnamon pecan rolls. Once we sat down at the large dining room table, a colorful plate of fresh fruit magically appeared next to a crystal bowl of rhubarb jam.
It was delicious, but I expected that. I’ve stayed in a lot of B&Bs and breakfast has been superb at every one. I love food, so this alone might make me choose this type of lodging over another. But that’s not the real reason I enjoy these cozy inns.
It’s the people.
That morning we met Will and Susan, who were visiting for his 55th High School Reunion at a nearby town. Dennis was a traveling businessman from Minneapolis who had an Iowa circuit. Miriam from Maine was finishing up a summer session with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
We all exchanged pleasantries and our conversation turned to travel as soon as they learned about our adventure. Will and Susan said we needed to visit Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Mark and his partner, Bob Brooks, suggested a visit to Stringtown Grocery in Amish Kalona on our way out of town.
Dennis was a bit more philosophical, and we felt like he was in lockstep with the reason we were taking this crazy journey.
“If only people would get out there and meet others, they’d see we’re more alike than different,” Dennis said.
I wanted to shout “Yes!” It’s easy to judge others as a group. When you meet someone, share a cinnamon pecan roll, pass the rhubarb jam, appreciate the hosts who’ve provided the spread, you’ve made a connection.
Mark and Bob filtered in and out, commenting occasionally, never once sitting, always the consummate hosts.
“We’re going to do this ‘til we die,” Mark said.
“Could be tomorrow,” Bob replied.
I browsed their eclectic art collection. Eclectic is overused, but I’m not sure how else to describe a place that has a pearl-choked dancing pig in a dress, a meat-grinder coated with a rainbow of beads, and pastoral scenes of rural Iowa, all in the same room.
There’s a grandfather clock, a gilded framed mirror over the mantel, blown glass sculptures and vases, abstract pieces lining the staircase, and gorgeous tapestries on the floor and the wall. It’s chaotic and orderly.
An oxymoron, if you will.
We collected our bikes from the garage and hoisted them back on the rack. Before we headed downtown, I peeked at the house hidden behind a couple of trees at the end of the block.
Instead of a sign proclaiming “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Wrote Here,” there was a sign warning all to stay off the private property. I respected that, but I still stood in the street and stared.
This was where the Pulitzer Prize-winner penned parts of Slaughterhouse Five. I imagined the click of the keys and wondered what it would be like to step inside.
I didn’t stare long, though. One, that would be pretty creepy. I mean, people actually lived there, and I didn’t want to be one of those tourists.
Two, we had to get going. Our campground that night was clear on the other side of the state, and Iowa is pretty wide. (Not as wide as Montana or North Dakota or Oregon, but it still spans a lot of miles.)
But first, we had a few things to see.
One of the contributing factors in Iowa City’s designation as a City of Literature was their Literary Walk. It’s the Hollywood Walk of Fame for authors.
Instead of stars, in 2000 – 2001 artist Gregg LeFevre installed bronze panels for each writer that included a quote from the author’s body of work. There are 49 in all, including Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, John Sandford, and Bill Bryson.
We strolled, stopped, read; strolled, stopped, read, up and down Iowa Avenue until we’d read them all. Seeing them together illustrated the huge impact this small Midwestern town has had on literature in the last century.
We read the final tribute at the corner of Iowa and Clinton (Tennessee Williams’ lament: “We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!”) and crossed the street to the Old Capitol Building, a beautiful stone structure with a glinting gold dome.
Built in 1840, it was the seat of the 29th state’s government when it was admitted to the union in 1846. Politicians crafted Iowa’s constitution in the building, and the first governor’s inauguration was held there.
The Old Capitol Building, which is now the centerpiece of the University of Iowa’s campus, was also where it was decided the state needed a public university in the first place.
That prescient decision, made in 1847, meant U of I had some pretty cool digs when Des Moines became the capital ten years later.
Classes are no longer held inside, but you can still get an education. We entered through the hefty doors and browsed the Old Capitol Museum, which houses the restored Supreme Court and Senate Chambers from the building’s days as the seat of government, as well as two rooms with rotating exhibits that emphasize the importance of the humanities.
Makes sense, considering the university’s history in the subject. We caromed from room to room like we were on a scavenger hunt. Senate Gallery: check. President’s Office: check. Five minutes listening to the 1880s Mermod Freres music box: check.
We raced through the museum because, while I’d gained a semblance of calm after our restful night and convivial morning, I was still anxious. Our late start the day before combined with our nomadic state, our loosey-goosey itinerary, and my general need to do everything and see even more fostered a constant rumble of panic.
I had to let go of what we didn’t get a chance to see and relish what we did.
After a quick stop at Oasis Falafel to pick up a couple of pita sandwiches and a pack of pitas to go, we drove south towards Kalona.
“South?” you ask. “Aren’t you supposed to be going west?”
Yes, but we needed to see some Amish about a bug spray.
Mark and Bob swear by Bug Soother and had some on their balcony for Brown Street Inn guests. Once they learned we’d be doing a lot of camping, they sent us to an Amish store south of Iowa City to get some of this magic juice.
We pulled into the parking lot of Stringtown Grocery and I turned when I heard clip-clopping along 540th Street SW. Being from the Midwest, that was not my first horse-drawn buggy. It was, however, my first Amish mercantile.
The shelves were stacked with plastic containers, the kind you’d see at a deli, and bags filled with spices, candies, chocolates, flours, sugars, popcorn, and nuts. Even though it was cloudy, the sun filtered through faceted skylights that gave so much ambient light it seemed like Edison had been there. There was a refrigerated section in the back, but that was the only sign of electricity.
We browsed the aisles, amazed at how affordable everything was. I wanted to buy all of the candies and chocolates, most of the spices, and some of the popcorn, but our vehicle was stuffed with everything we needed for a month-and-then-some journey, plus last-minute detritus from our move. We had just enough room for two moon pies, a couple pieces of stick candy, and a bottle of Bug Soother.
Let me tell you about Bug Soother. Mark and Bob were, oh, so right. This stuff is amazing. Mosquitoes hang out around my freckles like my body’s an open bar, but I spray this elixir and it’s like the bouncer finally decided to do his ever-loving-job and kick their free-loading stingers outta this joint.
AND it smells like vanilla and lemongrass. It’s the Yankee Candle of bug sprays.
I’ve since discovered that you can buy Bug Soother at Amazon and Walmart, but I’d rather pick mine up at an Amish store with a side of moon pie any day.
Iowa City Itinerary
These are the places we went during our brief stay in Iowa City: