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Glorious fall

After sleeping every night in my own bed in Ames, Iowa, since last December, I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to drive eight hours north last weekend to the north shore of Lake Superior. Pandemic be damned, I spent two nights at Cascade Lodge in my favorite cabin, hiked a bit of the Superior Hiking Trail, wore a mask, properly social distanced, did take-out food… and loved every minute of it.

Here are a few of my favorite images from a hiking trail north of Grand Marais, Tettegouche State Park, the town of Grand Marais itself, Cascade Lodge, and sunrise over Lake Superior.

Holiday Markets cruise

It’s not unusual for me to fall in love with a place all over again once my memory starts to fade and my recollections get reignited through the photos I took during a trip. Especially now, with the global pandemic. Traveling internationally seems like a dream right now, and flying to Europe last December seems like a lifetime ago.

But it’s true: Last December, we’d barely gotten the Thanksgiving leftovers eaten and the Christmas decorations put up when my husband, Dave, and I left the country to host an ISU Alumni Association Christmas Markets cruise along the Rhine River.

Looking back at these photos, it was such a lovely experience. Our river boat, the MS Amadeus Silver III, was just the right size. It was a small ship, free of the unnecessary frills of so many of the huge, ocean-going cruise ships, but with a personable crew and great food.

Our itinerary was equally ideal. Much of our time was planned out for us, with city tours and other excursions built into the price. But we also had ample time for discoveries and adventures on our own. We took advantage of the flexible schedule to enjoy most of our lunches in local restaurants or from food vendors, seek out views from the top of cathedral towers, drink beer in local pubs…and, of course, shop the Christmas markets.

We started our trip by flying Swiss Air into Zurich. Once we landed and met up with some of our fellow travelers, we were transported to Basel, Switzerland, where we boarded our river boat – our floating hotel for the week (below).

We spent our first full day of touring in Basel (above). After a guided tour of the old town (in the rain), Dave and I visited the holiday market stalls and discovered that glühwein (a warm, mulled wine) tastes mighty fine on a cold, damp day. Basel is such a charming city, and it was beautifully decorated for the holidays.

We climbed many steps to the top of the Basel cathedral, where we were rewarded with stunning views of the charming old city and holiday markets below. This may have been the highlight of the day. I love these views!

We also ate pretzels, drank beer, and acted like a couple of little kids with play money when we got Swiss Francs out of the ATM.

The next day, we visited Breisach, Germany (a university town with a bustling farmers’ market in addition to its holiday market, above). It rained again, but we made the best of it. The glühwein helped.

Breisach’s holiday markets were adorable and not terribly crowded. It was in this town that I learned that vendors along the Rhine cruise would be selling Polish pottery. I LOVE Polish pottery. I knew I couldn’t buy a lot of it, because it would be too hard to transport home, not to mention too expensive, but it was such fun to see it. I bought a small bowl from this vendor:

Later that day, we had the option of going to one of the famous holiday markets nearby or go on an excursion to Riquewihr, France, for a wine tasting. We figured we’d have our fill of shopping by the end of the cruise, so we went to Riquewihr, and I’m so glad we did.

The brochure described the outing in Riquewihr (pronounced something like “Rick-vere”) this way: “Riquewihr is an enchanting Alsatian village that looks much as it did in the 16th century. Its architecture, including half-timbered houses and medieval fortifications, add to its storybook quality. Selected as one of the most beautiful villages of France, Riquewihr charms all who visit. Stroll through the town, known for its fabulous wines and romantic charm, on a walking tour and stop to enjoy a wine tasting.”

Well, it was all that and more, except for the strolling part, which was impossible due to the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. The wine itself was really delicious, and the more I sipped, the happier I got. After our wine-tasting we had lots of time before we had to be back to our bus, so we threw ourselves into the Epcot-like crowds along the town’s main street, which was lined with Christmas stalls, food vendors, and winemongers.

We learned pretty quickly that if you get off those main streets, you have the super-charming side streets all to yourself, so that’s what we did:

Although I’d never heard of it before, Riquewihr was one of my favorite places on this trip. It truly was like walking through a storybook. I could not stop smiling and taking pictures the whole time we were there.

Another highlight was Strasbourg, France, which we visited the next day:

Strasbourg is a gorgeous city made even more beautiful by its extensive holiday decorations and markets. It was another chilly, rainy day. We escaped the weather with a long lunch in a cute café and by visiting an odd little museum that, it turned out, held some of the original Medieval statues from the huge Notre Dame Cathedral that stands in the city’s main square. We found this strangely wonderful for some reason.

Also, from the upper-floor windows of the museum, we found fantastic views of the cathedral and a small holiday market.

Strasbourg had several Christmas markets. We loved this one in one of the city’s beautiful old squares. If I lived in Strasbourg, I’d definitely buy my tree at this market.

Later, we waited for the sun to set and the holiday lights to come on and took a gazillion photos:

Then it was on to a full day in Heidelberg, Germany, where we started with a tour of the castle that sits way up on the hill.

That’s our group on the castle grounds (above). That castle was cool, but even cooler was the VIEW of the town below:

Heidelberg is a fabulous place. We visited the holiday markets, attended a classical opera performance, drank great German beer (and more glühwein), and walked through streets decorated with the most beautiful lights.

Heidelberg is also the town where I found the MOST delicious lebkuchen cookies. This day was another fairytale experience, start to finish.

The next day, we started in the small town of Rüdesheim:

Our walking tour began, unfortunately, with a herky-jerky little train ride that, not unlike the spinning teacups at Disney World, caused me to have motion sickness for the next two hours. After bailing on a music museum tour because the room was spinning, I walked back to the ship for a little while until I felt better.

So, I don’t have great memories of Rüdesheim except to say that the vineyards were pretty (above) and that  the famous Rüdesheimer Kaffee, a flaming, brandy-spiked coffee drink, was delicious (and thankfully it stayed down!)

The rest of that (sunny!) day was spent sailing the phenomenal Upper Middle Rhine River, lined with castles and storybook towns:

We spent our last full day in Cologne, Germany. That is a great city, where I took one of my very favorite photos of the whole trip:

Cologne has this gargantuan, famous twin-spired gothic cathedral:

After a city tour by the best tour guide of the whole trip, Dave and I climbed the 500+ steps to the top of the cathedral for views and bragging rights. The views were so cool!

We spent our afternoon at the Cologne Christmas markets, which featured an ice-skating rink and by far the best food vendors of the trip.

Before we headed back to the ship, Dave and I went to a pub for one last German beer, and who should stumble in but a very drunk Santa?

This might have been our best day … but all the days were so great, it’s hard to choose.

We came back with a suitcase filled with way too many glühwein mugs, not nearly enough Polish pottery, a bunch of Christmas ornaments… and chocolate. It was awesome.

If you go on one of these holiday markets cruises, my advice is this: Dress in warm, waterproof layers; bring very warm, waterproof boots that are comfortable to walk in all day; take a small backpack along on day trips; and leave enough room in your suitcase for all the goodies you’ll want to bring back.





A look back

Over the past couple of years, I will admit that I’ve become less and less enthusiastic about blogging my travel experiences. But it still shocked me to see that I hadn’t posted anything for an entire year. Really? What the hell?

But all this sheltering in place the last few months has left me longing to travel. I am heartbroken that the Covid-19 pandemic caused RAGBRAI to be canceled this year; driving that route and blogging about it has become one of my favorite Iowa activities every summer.

Given that there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do, I decided to take a look back at some of the un-blogged travel experiences I’ve had in the last 12 months. Looking at these photos and remembering the places I went, the food I ate, and the people I met was almost as much fun as the travel itself.

I’ll start with this trip to Washington, D.C.:

Washington, D.C.

I took a quick trip to Washington, D.C. in early September for a VISIONS magazine feature. I stayed in Georgetown at a little Airbnb row house (on a hill so steep I once had to chase my roller-bag down the sidewalk and into the street), so I kind of felt like a local.

I walked something like 12-16 miles every day, met with 10 Iowa State alumni, visited the incredibly moving National Museum of African American History and Culture…

… hung out on the national mall and with the monuments and statues…

… speed-walked through the revamped National Museum of Natural History…

… and the always-wonderful National Portrait Gallery between appointments (hello, Barack and Michelle!)…

… and ate some great food. I mean, like really great food. Here I am with my combination vegetarian sampler at Das Ethiopian restaurant, served on a spongy bed of injera:

I also sat next to the kitchen and watched pizza dudes create mini-masterpieces at Pizzaria Paradiso, ate crazy little late-night tacos at Chaia, lingered over a fabulous patio dinner at Kafe Leopold, stood in line for coffee and pastries at Baked & Wired, discovered equally good coffee and pastries just around the corner at Grace Street Coffee, and found the MOST drool-worthy pastries at Boulangerie Christophe just before heading to the airport. I should have taken more pictures of my food.

My alumni connections got me some cool insider’s tours of the U.S. Capitol, two Senate buildings, Ford’s Theatre, and the Air and Space Museum. I also interviewed an alum at the Washington Nationals ballpark. (The story got better a month later, when the Nationals won the World Series.) Here I am with some awesome ISU alumni:

Northern Minnesota

My youngest daughter, Lauren, moved back to Iowa in September after living for nearly three years  in Colorado. She and I drove up to a cabin in northern Minnesota in early October. It’s one of my favorite and most-visited places, but it was her first time up there. We probably ate too much pie at Betty’s Pies (below) and hiked too little, but it was a lot of fun.

I always love to stop at the Split Rock overlook:

Lauren and I took a walk to Palisade Head, overlooking Lake Superior in Tettegouche State Park…

… and followed the boardwalk to Grand Portage falls, all the way up to the Canadian border:

I took a wonderful morning hike on one of my favorite Superior Hiking Trail sections, to Alfred’s Pond. Here are some images that make me long to go back:

RAGBRAI 2019, day 7: Burlington to Keokuk

I began this LAST day of driving the RAGBRAI XLVII (yay!) getting good and lost as I tried to find my way out of Burlington. It was about noon, and I’d just finished the Day 6 route, which went through Geode State Park, Middleton, and West Burlington.

The first part of this last day’s route essentially retraces the previous day’s ride, and I wasn’t too keen on that. I decided I wanted to take the Great River Road to Denmark, the first NEW location on the route.

Finding the Mississippi River road was no easy feat, but I finally got on it with the help of my trusty Iowa Atlas and Gazetteer and a few well-placed U-turns.

As I started this last leg of the route, it occurred to me that it felt like the bicycle ride should be over. I was at the Mississippi, after all, and if I’m not mistaken, Burlington has been the last town on the route half a dozen times. So it seemed weird to have this back-tracky, unnecessarily southern route today.

I will admit I was a little grumpy, too, because I failed to find lunch in Burlington – I guess I didn’t try very hard – and it was really, really hot. And I was in a no-NPR zone.

But then I headed into super-cute little unincorporated Denmark, Iowa, and my mood improved. I was tempted to take a book from the little free library in the park, but since I don’t live in Denmark it sort of seemed like stealing.

Heading toward West Point, Iowa, on county roads X32, J48, and J40, I started seeing signs that said “RAGBRAI route – 15,000 bicyclists – plan ahead!” I thought at first that these were the work of the local RAGBRAI committee, but I continued to see them all the way into Keokuk, so they’re clearly the work of the main RAGBRAI organization. I hadn’t seen these in past years, though maybe they went up after I passed through. Doesn’t matter…it’s a great way to warn people to plan ahead.

I also saw some pretty farms and some curvy roads that could be fun for the riders.

I arrived in West Point (population 954), as patriotic-looking a town as you’ll ever see. The downtown has a lovely park surrounded by historic buildings (and another miniature Statue of Liberty).

The West Pointers also apparently know how to have a good time, with a tavern and biergarten flanking either side of the main business area.

Franklin, Iowa, also has an inviting tavern with outdoor patio space (below).

Just before I rolled into in Donnellson, I received an emergency text alert that all the power had gone out in Ames. Good to know! At this point, it was 95 degrees and I was beginning to melt.

Riders will be more than half-way finished with today’s route when they arrive Donnellson (population 885), the meeting town and home to Lee County fairgrounds:

From Donnellson, they’ll take U.S. Hwy. 218 to Montrose, another river town. When I arrived there, Montrose was in full-blown party mode. Everyone at the Montrose Sandbar seemed to either ride a motorcycle or drive a pickup, so I’m sure my bright orange Prius did not go unnoticed.

While in Montrose, I was hoping to cross the river to the town of Nauvoo, Ill., to check out the Mormon temple and other historic attractions. There’s a Joseph Smith (founder of the Latter Day Saints movement) historic site, a red brick store, Nauvoo House, Bringham Young Home, and more. I can’t say as I care much about Joseph Smith, but I thought the architecture and history would be fun to see.

I was encouraged to go over to Nauvoo by the woman working at Iowa Visitor Center in Bloomfield earlier on my drive. She gave me a brochure and everything. What she didn’t mention was that there is no bridge between Montrose and Nauvoo. I guess I should have looked at a map, huh? Anyway, it was already late and I just didn’t bother to figure it out. I took this picture from the Iowa side of the river and called it good.

RAGBRAI riders will follow the Great River Road, AKA county road X28, from Montrose to Keokuk, and they’re in for a very scenic ride.

I was eager to visit Keokuk (population 10,780). I’d never been here before, probably because it never seems to be on the way to anywhere I’m going, and because it seems to belong more to Missouri or Illinois than to Iowa. But I’ve always liked river towns, and I’d heard this one had some gorgeous old houses.

Coming into town, I quickly found my way to the downtown area and walked up and down the main street, sweating profusely.

When I got back to my car, I drove to the riverfront to see Lock & Dam No. 19 (above) and the bridge that takes you into Illinois.

In that area, I stumbled on the George M. Verity River Museum (below) and watched barges making their way up the river.

I also found the Keokuk Union Depot (above), built in 1891 and listed on National Register of Historic Places. The depot is a bit of a mess, but it’s currently undergoing a preservation project and the sign says it’s (going to be?) an event center.

I knew I wanted to go to Rand Park to see the Chief Keokuk statue, but I had no idea what a delightful place this park is. It’s definitely one of the nicest parks in all of Iowa. Besides the statue of Keokuk, a Sac Indian chief, Rand Park is situated on a bluff with a panoramic view of the Mississippi River. There are lovely flower gardens and a lot more – 57 acres total.

A bonus, as I drove toward Rand Park, was that I encountered the Grand Avenue/Park Place residential area – on the National Register of Historic Places and at the top of my list of things to see in Keokuk. Man, oh, man, these are some stately, drool-worthy old houses. Fifteen blocks worth of grand homes! I parked and got out of my car briefly, but mostly I just drove by as many as I could.

Oh, before I finish up, here are some fun facts about this town:

  • Keokuk has 20 entries in the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The American Fur Company opened a trading post in Keokuk in 1828 that was known as “Rat Row.”
  • Keokuk was home to Younkers’ first store, which is now just kind of sad.
  • Famous people with Keokuk connections include Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Betsy Ross, and Krusty the Clown. (Wait…what???)

I love that last one.

On my drive back to Ames, the heat finally broke. I encountered a rather terrifying storm that nearly blew my little car right off the road around Oskaloosa. But I survived – and saw the temperature drop from 96 degrees to 69 degrees in less than an hour.

With that, another RAGBRAI route drive is in the history books. Thanks for sticking with me!

RAGBRAI 2019, day 6: Fairfield to Burlington

I survived my night at The Rakmapura Park Hotel in Vedic City, just north of Fairfield. My over-active imagination had me on edge, but I was worried for nothing. In fact, I had a very pleasant night and slept much later than I expected.

After I checked out of the hotel (still nobody at the front reception desk), I grabbed a latte and a currant scone (warm from the oven!) at the inviting coffee shop Café Paradiso in downtown Fairfield (top and below).

Before I say goodbye to Fairfield, have I convinced you to visit this town in southeast Iowa? Besides the First Friday Art Walks, you can take in FAIRfest (Labor Day weekend), municipal band concerts (Tuesday nights in July and August), a Live on the Square Summer Concert Series, Farmers Market (Saturday mornings May through October), Oktoberfest (first Friday in October), and a holiday tree lighting (the Friday after Thanksgiving). Or just go for dinner and a stroll any time!

Once I figured out how to get out of Fairfield on county road H46, I drove toward Stockport, with its bright red depot and Stockport Freedom Rock, featuring the oldest courthouse in Iowa.

Back on the road, I enjoyed seeing the healthy-looking farm fields of southeast Iowa. I didn’t see much farming activity going on, but occasionally I got stuck behind a slow-moving farm implement. I sort of enjoyed those times because I could just drive really slowly and listen to NPR on Iowa Public Radio.

I’m pretty geeky when it comes to NPR. All day Friday I listened to about a million different reports and memories and behind-the-scenes stories about the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I will admit I’d heard enough of that, so I was really excited when “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” came on the radio Saturday morning. Not only is this one of my favorite shows (for those who are not familiar, it’s a news quiz, and it’s hilarious) but this morning was especially entertaining because the “Bluff the Listener” game featured the story of Iowa’s own Jerry Foxhoven, the recently ousted director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. These two-lies-and-a-truth stories are generally based on quirky national or international news, so to have an Iowa story featured was pretty awesome. And then Mo Rocca started rapping Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” and I could just not stop laughing. (The “true” story featured Foxhoven’s love of Tupac Shakur; he did not, in fact, hate corn.) And then Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black,” talked about how to make prison cheesecake. I was over the moon. Thank you, NPR. I heart you so much.

By the time I got to Salem, Iowa, at 9:50 a.m. it was so hot and humid that I started using my long lens exclusively, just so I didn’t have to move around as much.

I did stop and walk around the Lewelling Quaker Museum, which seemed really nice.

At Houghton, I encountered a big-ass grain elevator and a baseball game.

And then I saw a group of cyclists! Were they following the RAGBRAI route, as I was? Or just out for a morning ride? They were moving very fast, headed toward Geode State Park. I photographed them from behind, passed them, and then photographed them coming toward me. I’m sure they wondered who the hell I was.

I didn’t see any namesake geodes in Geode State Park, but I drove as far as the lake.

This lake was created in 1950 and is known for its bluegill, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. The park is popular for swimmers and hikers as well.

I was amused by this sign. It’s the little things, really.

I wasn’t aware that there was an Army ammunition plant in Middleton, but there it was, surrounded by razor wire, right across the road from a peaceful welcome sign featuring butterflies.

The town of West Burlington (population 2945) is, of course, located just west of Burlington, the next overnight town.

I’ve visited Burlington (population 25,663) a few times, so I pretty much knew what I wanted to see and do there. I started at the community field, home to the Class A baseball team, the Burlington Bees.

From there, I headed toward the Mississippi River to a scenic overlook:

According to Burlington’s website, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not has designated Snake Alley as ‘Unbelievably Crooked’ and the #1 Odd Spot in Ripley’s Guide to the Curious Corners of America.” It continues, “Perhaps Burlington’s most famous landmark, Snake Alley … consists of five half-curves and two quarter-curves.”


It doesn’t look like much in two dimensions, does it? You really need a drone to do this street justice.

I was hoping to find lunch in Burlington, but the hills and the traffic patterns deterred me. I moved on toward my final “day” of driving.


RAGBRAI 2019, day 5: Centerville to Fairfield

After lunch in Centerville, I headed east on Highway 2, through unincorporated West Grove, arriving in Bloomfield – RAGBRAI’s day 5 meeting town.

Did I mention it was hot? I cannot imagine doing this ride on a bicycle in this sweltering weather. It’s bad enough driving the route in an air-conditioned car.

I’m particularly fond of Bloomfield. It has another one of those gorgeous county courthouses in the center of its downtown (the Davis County Courthouse, built in 1877); it’s even more ornate than most (see detail below). And there’s a bonus Statue of Liberty replica (above), the first of three I’d see on the route.

Bloomfield was definitely beautifying the downtown area and gearing up for RAGBRAI, and I noted that the town is part of the Historic Hills Scenic Byway. On my way out of town, I stopped at the Iowa Welcome Center because I’m a geek and love to stock up on the latest Iowa travel brochures. I had a nice conversation with an older woman who worked there; she gave me some advice for the next day. But I’ll get to that later.

After Bloomfield, I breezed through Troy and Lebanon (on county road J40) without stopping. Turning north on V64, I crossed the Des Moines River, which runs between Leando and Douds. Combined, the two towns have a population around 267.  Here’s the bridge that connects the two towns:

The town of Libertyville (population 345) is the last stop before today’s overnight stop in Fairfield. I give this little town a lot of credit for its RAGBRAI planning. And I so wanted to stop at Peck’s Pub for a cold beer…but I needed to keep driving.

I was really looking forward to spending time in Fairfield and staying overnight nearby. Fairfield is one of my favorite Iowa towns; it’s completely unique – even out of place – in this part of the state.

Fairfield is all about culture and individuality, community and creativity…and FOOD. According to Fairfield’s promotional materials and website:

  • Smithsonian Magazine has called Fairfield one of America’s best small towns
  • Fairfield has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco…
  • …and their eateries offer cuisine from more than 10 nationalities
  • This small town of less than 10,000 people is bursting at the seams with artists of all kinds: painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and poets
  • First Friday Art Walks are held the first Friday of the month year-round, not just in the nice-weather months. More than half a dozen art galleries are open for business in Fairfield, and the Art Walks also include music and food.

By my own observations: you can get a damn good cup of coffee here, and the shops and restaurants are actually open, some even after 5 p.m.! I could happily live in Fairfield if it wasn’t located so far away from a bigger city.

Fairfield is one of the overnight towns on the RAGBRAI route this year, and I’m sure they’re going to do it up right.

One of the big reasons that Fairfield is, well, Fairfield, is the presence of Maharishi University of Management. Since 1974, this university has offered “consciousness-based” education programs, making Fairfield an international center for Transcendental Meditation.

The Maharishi campus includes a Tower of Invincibility, plus golden domes where 1,000 people are said to gather twice daily to practice Transcendental Meditation.

Maharishi Vedic City, situated just north of Fairfield, is designed as a model of ideal city life based on the Vedic knowledge that influences the architecture, agriculture, health care, and economy of a city. I don’t know diddly-squat about this…I’m just quoting from their materials. But I did drive by, stop my car, and tromp around a bit.

The homes seem quite peaceful, painted in restful, pastel hues. And there’s a Vedic Observatory that uses a series of sun dials to map out the university according to Vedic teachings. (The historic Vedic religion is a predecessor of Hinduism and is associated with India.)

See? I told you Fairfield is unique.

Anyway, I rolled into town around 3 p.m., parked my car, and walked for a good long time around the downtown area. There is so much to see here! Another great old courthouse (with another Statue of Liberty):

I love the colorful architecture in this town, and I could not wait to eat dinner here. But first, after about an hour of walking and sweating (my car’s temperature gauge said 106 at one point), I decided to go check in to my hotel: The Rakmapura Park Hotel in Vedic City.

Now, you may wonder why I decided to stay here. This place gets iffy (at best) online reviews, but I thought it looked interesting and relaxing. I brought a swimsuit, even though I do not swim, because I thought it might be nice to cool off in the water. Unfortunately, the Rakmapura has no pool.

The hotel is located north of Fairfield by several miles, and I’m glad I had Google Maps or I would never have found the place. You go by the aforementioned Maharishi University of Management and past fields and whatnot…it’s quite remote.

When I arrived between 4 and 5 p.m., there were a few cars in the gravel parking lot, but nobody working at the reception desk. In fact, it did not appear that anyone had been working here for quite a while judging by the number of packages sitting there. My room key was in an envelope with my name on it, so I took the key and walked down to Room 4 to see what awaited me there.

The room – a suite, really – was ridiculously large for what I paid ($99 a night), which made my mind jump to all kinds of crazy conclusions, most of which I learned from scary movies (think “Get Out” and “The Shining”). The room was super nice (almost too nice?)…it had a fireplace and an oval bathtub and a mini fridge and a porch…but it just, I don’t know, gave me a vibe. I texted my family, just in case.

I was so hot and sweaty that I decided to wash up and change my clothes before going back into Fairfield for dinner. I needn’t have bothered…my new clothes were immediately soaked through after about 5 minutes in the humidity.

My information sources had indicated there would be Ethiopian food just off the square, so that was my destination. But I didn’t find the restaurant.

After walking (sweating) a while, I decided to have a drink at Amore Mio, which I assumed was a wine bar but was actually a full-service ristorante Italiano. The crowd that night was a bit odd – I overheard some pretty bizarre conversations while sitting at a high-top in the bar – but the service was superb, the pinot noir was inexpensive, and the pour was generous. My server kept my water glass full and even brought me some bread to munch on.

My second choice for dinner was Indian food, so I cut across the park to India Café. The restaurant was mostly empty, so the service was prompt and the food was very good. I had rich, creamy navratan korma with rice and naan, and I could only finish about half of it.

Back to Rakmapura Park Hotel, I soaked away the grime of the day in my peach-colored oval bathtub and then went to bed.

Here are some parting shots from Fairfield:

RAGBRAI 2019, day 4: Indianola to Centerville

With the start date of the actual RAGBRAI XLVII bike tour across Iowa bearing down on me, I took a vacation day and headed for Indianola, the town where I’d left off more than a week before.

By 8 a.m. I had already experienced an extremely rough road (riders, beware of R63!), encountered a detour and a confusing intersection, and may have taken the wrong route into Lake Ahquabi State Park. (Is there gravel on this route? I don’t think so.)

“Ahquabi” is a Sauk and Fox word meaning “resting place.” The 770-acre Ahquabi State Park has a 115-acre lake, sand beaches, and trails. The man-made lake is said to be good for fishing,  boating, and swimming. Paddleboats are available for rent.

It was already hot and humid this morning, with a high predicted around 97 degrees – 110 if you factor in the heat index.

I didn’t stop in unincorporated Liberty Center and just kept moving until I came to Lacona (population 349). There I found some residents putting flowers in pots at the fire station department (above). I walked around the block, already sweating, and took pictures of the Willis Cabin, built in 1846.

I found a lot to like in downtown Chariton, including what would be the first of many beautiful old courthouses along this section of the bike route. I also found several signs of RAGBRAI, which would soon be passing through the town.

I meant to try to find Chariton’s popular cinder path, but I forgot.

I did not stop in tiny Millerton, population 45 in the 2010 census. I did stop to walk through a pretty cemetery on county road J22, but then continued through Bethlehem, which I’m not sure is really a town.

As I popped over hill after hill surrounded by green Iowa farm fields, it occurred to me to be grateful to the RAGBRAI planners. Without them, I would not have been on these roads, going through these towns, having this experience.

I didn’t expect much from unincorporated Confidence, Iowa, but I not only found another cemetery but also a small park.

I rarely take the extra-mileage loops on the RAGBRAI route, but this morning I made an exception. The optional Karras loop takes riders around Rathbun Lake and to Honey Creek Resort. I’ve stayed at the resort before and blogged about it, and it’s really worth going out of the way to see this place. There’s a large lodge featuring a soaring lobby, restaurant, bar, and 105 guest rooms. There’s also an indoor water park – perfect for winter travels but not truly necessary today with access to the lake – plus a golf course, cabins, trails, and more. It’s truly a gem in southern Iowa.

I didn’t stop in unincorporated Walnut City (not to be confused with Walnut, Iowa, which was on the route a few days ago), but I did find this scene in Mystic, population 405:

And then, gosh, I was already to Centerville, the next overnight town. My goal was to get here by noon, in time for lunch. I had no trouble finding a place to eat. I chose the Northside Diner because it serves breakfast all day. There’s also an all-you-can-eat salad bar, if that’s more your style.

Afterwards, I walked around the square, enjoying the architecture and the preparations for RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI 2019, day 3: Winterset to Indianola

A few days after I drove the first two days of the RAGBRAI route, I started where I left off: in Winterset, Iowa. I had become lost on the gravel hills of Madison County at the end of that first day, but today I was fresh and ready to start again.

I knew I would find lots of opportunities in Winterset; it’s a great community (population 5,190).

The first thing I found? Corn. Not fields of corn, but actual corn you can eat, at a sweet corn stand right on the main drag into Winterset. I wheeled in there and bought a big bag from these guys:

Actually, I did one other thing before I even got to Winterset: I stopped at Covered Bridges Winery. Madison County has several wineries, and this one is right outside Winterset on Hwy. 169. I stopped by to take a few photos and was such a big fan of their logo that I almost bought a T-shirt! I like the wine names, like Francesca’s Folly (an easy-drinking blush) and Hogback Bridge (a sweet red), tasting room is modern and attractive. The winery has “Sunday Wine Down” events all summer, with free music, wine, and snacks for purchase. Given that I was driving the RAGBRAI route, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to sample the wine; I’ll wait and do that another day.

Back in the downtown area, I had already photographed the Madison County Courthouse, some of the surrounding shops, and the Iowa movie theater when I was here earlier:


I wanted to visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, but I did not want to pay the $14 entry fee. I’m not that enthusiastic about John Wayne.


Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. His home is small and tidy.

Nearby is the Winterset Freedom Rock, painted by Ray “Bubba” Sorensen. This county’s rock features many of the military films starring The Duke, which seems appropriate.

I visited Roseman Bridge on my previous visit, but you can’t be in Madison County and only visit one covered bridge, right? So I went to the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge (below), which was built in 1871 but moved to Winterset City Park in 1970. It gets my vote as easiest to get to and with the least amount of gravel. And it’s just as cool as the Roseman bridge.


On my way out of town I stopped by the Cedar Covered Bridge (below), which is famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s been the site of arson and rebuilding (both in the early 2000s), which kind of makes me sick when I think about it. It has lost much of its historical beauty.

I mentioned in the Atlantic to Winterset post that I discovered a new (to me) Iowa Byway. And now, here’s another one! The Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. This route encompasses, obviously, the covered bridges in Madison County, but also other scenic natural, cultural, and historic areas. The route is 82 miles long.


Speaking of route, today’s RAGBRAI route is historically short. Actually, if you drove straight from Winterset to Indianola, it’s just 25 miles (and 31 minutes by car). Even with the never-direct RAGBRAI route, it’s still only 39.9 miles. Today will be a breeze for the bikers, compared with the hills they had to climb the two previous days.

Once the cyclists leave Winterset, they will not encounter any towns for quite a while. They’ll actually stop at Howell’s Greenhouse & Pumpkin Patch for a “RAGBRAI OASIS” sponsored by the Iowa Soybean Association. I stopped there, too, and think this will be fun for the riders.

It’s too early for pumpkins, of course (too bad; that would be fun), but there will be some of the normal fall activities retrofitted for summer (i.e., the pumpkin cannon becomes the gourd cannon). I spoke with some of the folks there, and they said cyclists should expect food vendors, booths, and other fun activities.

I nosed around in the barn shop and greenhouse, and I watched people playing with baby goats.

I was looking forward to visiting the town of Cumming. There’s an active bike trail that goes right past Cumming Tap, so that’s a great place to see cyclists stopping off for a refreshing beverage any time during the summer. Unfortunately, Wednesday afternoon must not be a hopping time for Cumming Tap or the bike path – or the town of Cumming, for that matter – because it was very quiet.

Cumming is also home to the Iowa Distilling Company (conveniently located right across the street from Cumming Tap). And also an old, preserved gas station.

Norwalk, today’s “meeting town” on the RAGBRAI route, is mostly a bedroom community. Its proximity to Des Moines and I-35 have spurred the growth in the community from 8,945 in 2010 to 10,590 in 2016 – and more today, I’m sure. Norwalk definitely looks like a suburb, with rows upon rows of newer homes – and more being built – plus schools, churches, and other signs of expansion. That’s in contrast to its tiny main street that has seen better days.

After Norwalk, it’s on to Indianola along R63. Indianola (population 14,782) is home to the annual National Balloon Classic and to the year-round National Balloon Museum and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame. I’ve really enjoyed attending the balloon events in August; in fact, attending my first one about 10 years ago was the inspiration to start a blog about Iowa.

Indianola is also home to Simpson College, a small liberal arts college. The college has 1,250 full-time and 300 part-time students.

Des Moines Metro Opera, a highly regarded opera company, also has its headquarters and performance space in the heart of Indianola. I arrived the main building – the Lauridsen Opera Center – just before the staff was leaving for the day to prepare for the evening’s performance. It’s a beautifully renovated space, located in the old Indianola Public Library building, one of the Carnegie libraries that are scattered throughout Iowa. I love the photos and quotes on the walls: “World-class opera grows tall, proud in the Cornbelt,” said the Chicago Tribune; “Don’t tell anyone, but Des Moines has good opera,” writes the New York Times.


Indianola’s downtown area gets my vote (so far) for Best RAGBRAI Signage with this mural featuring cyclists in silhouette:

I didn’t visit them, but three wineries are located in and around Indianola: Summerset, La Vida Loca, and Annelise. All are open for tastings and events.

With that, I headed back to Ames. I finished today’s route just in time for rush hour.


RAGBRAI 2019, day 2: Atlantic to Winterset

I arrived in Atlantic around noon on my first day of driving the RAGBRAI XLVII route. Atlantic is the first overnight stop along the route – the sixth time the town has been selected for an overnight stop in RAGBRAI history.

I’ve driven the route some days and experienced disappointment at the lack of food resources along the way, especially when I try to stop for lunch after 1 p.m. For that reason, I’ve started bringing food with me. As I sat on a bench in downtown Atlantic, chewing my peanut butter sandwich, I saw several places to eat with their OPEN signs lit. I guess I should have checked out the possibilities before digging into my sack lunch.

Atlantic – population 7,112 and the Coca-Cola capital of Iowa – is a pretty nice little town. I found a lot to like: Thrift stores, downtown shops, movie theater, Coca-Cola museum, beautiful old homes. I thought it was funny to see a vintage Pepsi sign on one of the buildings… in this city of Coke.

Out on the highway, there are the usual chain stores and restaurants, which I always avoid. As I left town, I drove past a motel where I stayed last summer when I came to this area to celebrate a college friend’s milestone birthday.

Today’s route starts out with a quick pass through Wiota, where there isn’t much to see (sorry, Bob).

Anita, Iowa, on the other hand, has my nomination for Best Welcome Sign. It’s a cut-out of a bear wearing red-checkered pants and yellow shoes, holding a big blue fish printed with the words “Anita: A Whale Of A Town.” You’ve gotta love it, right?

For a town with fewer than a thousand residents, it’s surprising that Anita has an 18-hole golf course, a cute downtown, and a fair amount of other services and amenities.

I especially like Lake Anita State Park, just south of Anita and not technically on the RAGBRAI route. I drove there, parked my car, and walked along the bike path that loops the lake. It was a beautiful day, and the lake’s edges were filled with water lilies. I also encountered birds, geese, cyclists, and flowering milkweed covered with butterflies.

I hope the nature-loving cyclists have an opportunity to experience the beauty of this state park.

Next town on the route is Adair, where I found a very large John Deere dealer, a city park, and a rooster crowing loudly at 2 p.m.

It was leaving Adair that I first noticed a new Iowa Byways sign for White Pole Road Scenic Byway. When did this happen? I thought I had driven all of the Iowa Byways, and I have a brochure that details each of them (though it is a few years old). But I didn’t know about White Pole Road.

I was interested in the history of the designation, so I looked it up. According to the Travel Iowa website, the 26-mile route, located between Adair and Dexter along old US Hwy 6, was formerly part of the route known as the Great White Way. It was lined with 700 white-painted telephone poles, linking five small towns and events from wagon times and train robberies to present day.

Well, I like this road and I’m happy to know more about its origins.

I’m guessing that a lot of Iowa towns are celebrating their sesquicentennials this year, because as I entered Casey there were signs proclaiming the 150th anniversary celebration (I’d encountered Avoca’s celebration earlier in the day). Casey’s celebration was scheduled for the next weekend, July 12-14.

I felt a strong sense of community in Casey, with its retro banners, flower baskets, and veterans’ pocket park

I got confused for the first time all day, trying to follow the RAGBRAI map to Menlo. The road signs said Hwy 25, a north/south road, and I needed to go east on county road F65. I did a number of U-turns before finally deciding to just head south on 25 and see what would happen. It turns out that the road was also F65, a fact that would have been nice to know at the intersection. But I did meet these nice horses during one of my side-of-the-road-map-reading sessions.

I got to see more of White Pole Road, too:

I had fun photographing signs and a vintage gas station in Menlo (population 342):

I have to add these fun factoids gleaned about Menlo from Wikipedia:

Menlo “hosts an annual avacado [sic] festival and lawnmower races. Turbo has won the lawnmower races 33 years stright [sic]. In 2019 Turbo extended his winning streak to 34 straight victories at the sesquicentennial celebration.” And: “Paul Bunyan was born in Menlo in 1642.” I think it’s especially chuckle-worthy that this entry misspells “avocado” and “straight” but correctly spells “sesquicentennial.” Somebody must have looked it up.

Stuart, Iowa, is the meeting town on this second day of RAGBRAI. Of all the towns I drove through today, Stuart was the friendliest. A woman walking downtown smiled and said “good morning!” then corrected herself and said “I mean, good afternoon!” We both laughed.

Stuart has an Instagram-worthy downtown and the “strictly modern” Hotel Stuart:

And then it’s on to Dexter. I clearly failed to do enough pre-travel research, because I learned when looking up the White Pole Road Scenic Byway that Dexter is home to Drew’s Chocolates, the only candy shop in the country (emphasis mine) that daily fork-dips each piece by hand.

Also, according to Wikipedia, Dexter (population 600) was the site of a shootout between members of the Bonnie & Clyde gang and police in 1933.

And now here we are in lovely downtown Dexter:

The next town on the route is Earlham, the last stop before the route turns sharply south. Up until now, as I mentioned, it’s been following that White Pole Road byway, which is due east.

Earlham is a tiny town with a hint of class, as shown by its downtown architecture and shops:

RAGBRAI’s Day 2 route ends in Winterset. As I was heading south on P57, I saw a sign for the Roseman covered bridge, built in 1883 and famous for its role in “The Bridges of Madison County” book and movie. I’ve visited the bridge a few times before, but I thought, What the heck, why not take this gravel road and shoot some photos before finishing my drive in Winterset? Here’s the bridge, which comes complete with its own gift shop:

That seemed like a good idea at the time, but after visiting the bridge I got ridiculously lost on The Never-ending Gravel Roads of Madison County. (If I were writing the book, that would be the title.) The gravel hills are like freaking roller coasters, and none of them seem to A) go any particular cardinal direction nor B) go more than about a half mile before ending at a T intersection or turning off slightly with a different road name. I gave myself a deadline to get un-lost before turning to Google Maps (oh, the horror of using Google Maps on a RAGBRAI drive!)

But I finally found (without Google) a paved road (Hwy. 169) way the hell south of Winterset. I did spend a little time in the downtown area before heading back to Ames for the night, but I’ll save that for my next blog post: Winterset to Indianola.

RAGBRAI 2019, day 1: Council Bluffs to Atlantic

It’s July, so it’s time for my annual-ish drive across the state of Iowa, following the designated RAGBRAI route. This is always a cool opportunity to get out the big Iowa map, travel along county roads and through small towns, and see parts of Iowa I’ve never seen before.

To be clear, I do this by car, not bike.

I started this year’s drive the 4th of July weekend, spending a full day driving the first two RAGBRAI sections.

The route starts in familiar territory: Council Bluffs. It takes about 2.5 hours to get there from my house in Ames, so I will admit that I only drove as far as the edge of the town to get gas at Casey’s and then turned back east on the official route. I was eager to be on my way.

Riders will experience a teensie bit of the Loess Hills right at the very beginning of Day 1 – not nearly enough, in my opinion. I think every RAGBRAI route should start with a full embrace of Loess Hills.

The beginning of the route runs parallel to Interstate 80, so close that you can see and hear it.

Driving along county road G8L, I was immediately greeted by a patriotic hay bale before rolling into Underwood, population 917.

The next town, Neola, has a good welcome sign, a ball field, big American flag, and brightly painted water tower, all as you enter the town.

Continuing through Neola, I stopped at what appears to be an old movie theater. The sign says the Phoenix operated from 1913 to 2011.

I vaguely remember driving through here before, because there’s an engaging black-and-white mural of the Champlin gas station, complete with vintage cars from the 1940s. Here’s a detail:

Neola also has a bar called the Tipsy Cow, another mural – this one a salute to veterans – a church with a steeple so tall you can see it from all over town, and a small downtown area with buildings in various stages of disrepair.

Next up is Minden, with its grocery store, park, greenhouse, and fireworks stand. And a lot of American flags. (It’s 4th of July weekend, after all.)

Continuing on county road G18 toward Avoca, I encountered slow farm equipment, good-looking corn, and killer hills. To me, the hills are fun. To the bikers on RAGBRAI, they will probably be less so.

In Avoca, today’s “meeting town” on the RAGBRAI route, I inadvertently stumbled upon the town’s 150th celebration. Wow, this is a big summer for Avoca – first a sesquicentennial and then a RAGBRAI stop.

The celebration ran July 3-6, with games and a farmers market, car show, train display, scavenger hunt, barbeque, corn boil, watermelon feed, beer garden, talent show, fireworks, 5K run, pancake breakfast, swimming, kiddie parade, sand volleyball, ice cream social, food trucks, and lots more. Just thinking about the planning that goes into this kind of small-town celebration makes me tired.

The day I was there (Saturday, July 6: “Born To Be Wild” day, according to a sign in one storefront), there were a lot of bikes of a different type: motorcycles.

I was intrigued by the trivia questions in some of the store windows. Do you know what was built in Avoca in 1924 and at 250 feet long and 135 feet wide is said to be the largest in the state of Iowa? Well, I do not. (Let me know if you have the answer, because this is bugging me.)

I hated to just drive away from Avoca’s celebratory downtown, but I was eager to get to Walnut, Iowa’s Antique City. (As an editor, I cringe at this, because I’m sure that it should be “Iowa’s Antiques City,” right? The city’s not an antique; it has antiques stores. Anyway, sorry to digress.)

I love antiques, so I’ve been to Walnut several times before. If you are NOT an antiques lover, you might want to avoid this town, because that’s pretty much the only thing here. A few images for you:

I poked through a few of the shops and managed not to spend any money. I did enjoy just perusing the storefronts, murals, and other visual details. They are clearly starting to prepare for RAGBRAI here in Walnut (population 785).

The land around Walnut is pretty: hills, curves, corn, wind turbines. After leaving Walnut, I drove through Marne (population 115) without stopping, even for one photo. Perhaps I was too hasty. Marne has a darn nice website, touting the town’s “convenient location between Omaha and Des Moines” and its proximity to I-80. There’s apparently a beautiful park with tons of amenities. How did I miss this? My favorite thing about the website? Pictures of pie. Marne’s slogan, if you’re curious, is “From a proud past to a promising future.” All I know is that I slowed down a bit, looked left, looked right, and then noticed that the speed limit had gone back up.

Wow, today went by quickly on four wheels – I’m sure it will feel a lot longer on two. I got to Atlantic (population 7,112) around noon. I’ll tell you more about it in my next post: Atlantic to Winterset.