Vacationing in Iowa5/1/2013
Remember that clever, acronymic T-shirt some smart alec thought up in the 1980s to insult Iowans: Iowa — Idiots Out Wandering Around? As mean as it was, we’d be liars if we tried to argue that Iowa doesn’t have its fair share of just that. To the uninformed, we’re just out wandering around because there is seemingly nothing to do or see in these rolling fields of farms and nothingness. Really, though, this state has some cool staycation destination spots worthy of an entire Cityview cover story. But most people around here already know about those places. So while you’re on your way to those awesome local attractions, here are a few stop-off spots we recommend you check out along the way.
Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Iowa
If you call the number on the website and tell the Indian man who answers that you’d like to write about their beautiful Hindu Temple, oddly constructed in the plains of rural Madrid on the cusp of Boone and Polk counties, the man will try in his best English to politely tell you that they “do not wish to be in magazine.” Odd. But that’s not the strangest thing about the Temple that appeared in an otherwise vacant field in 2005. How about the fact that the area isn’t even home to a Hindu population — rather mostly farmers and small business owners?
“We’re really not sure why they chose this location,” Chris Hudnall said with a chuckle. He’s the president of the Madrid Action Committee, and he said the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Iowa is a member of the Committee, but they never come to meetings, and he’s never met the people who run it.
“We drive by it all the time and think it’s beautiful, and we see cars coming in and out of its parking lot, but it’s kind of embarrassing to admit we don’t really know anything about it,” he confessed. But it’s not for lack of trying. The Hindu folks behind the mystery aren’t the easiest to communicate with, and although their published bylaws claim the purpose for building the Temple in central Iowa is “to promote friendship and goodwill among all people,” among other things, the guys behind it all seem inherently private and tight-lipped… paranoid even.
Still, the public is welcome to check it out, and they serve lunch, too. It’s a great spy en route to one of the many other must-sees and -dos in the area, including a bike ride across the High Trestle Trail, a wine-tasting at the Snus Hill Winery, a tree-hugging seminar at the Iowa Arboretum and a comfy stay at the Two Bears Lodge Bed and Breakfast — not that you’ll need the rest, as the Hindu prayer ritual, pooja, is said to be as relaxing as it is enlightening.
At the Temple, folks can pay a “suggested donation” of $21 to $251 for sacred services to be held within the temple walls. But services are cheaper when held outside, as well they should be. A curious visit to the Temple grounds quickly explains why. The beautiful structure that locals say “took forever to construct” stands among a lawn littered with the left-overs of exploded bottle rockets — remnants of a Hindu celebration? Or perhaps the disrespectful mischief of local teenagers? In back there appears to be a graveyard of construction debris and a half-burnt, old trailer house. Lovely. It’s no wonder they “don’t want to be in magazine.”
The back 40
Dolliver Memorial State Park
Speaking of burnt-down trailer houses, ever been to Lehigh? It seems not even the continual disaster of annual floods can put out the fires that tend to ravage homes in this small town — the 500 or so population of which fluctuates with each house turned to rubble. Even the volunteer fire chief found himself to be the victim of a devastating blaze a couple years ago. Hmmm, ironic and kind of embarrassing.
The houses that are standing are perched on an east-facing hillside overlooking the Des Moines River valley, a modest café that serves $1 beers and a quaint grocery store that has pretty much everything a resident would need including cheap gas — just don’t eat the produce, it has more protein than any piece of fruit naturally should. Across the river is a biker bar by summer and a snowmobiler’s bar by winter, Riverside Tap — a medicinal oasis run by three generations of women who “don’t take no shit” and who graciously help locals to forget they live in Lehigh.
But aside from the wreckage, Lehigh is a charming and beautiful, little town divided by a raging Des Moines River rich for fishing and wild life roaming through the hills… and there are animals, too. It’s a pretty, little town with nice people. Brushy Creek State Park to the northeast side of the river makes for a fun cruise on a motorcycle. And just west of the river, near the town of Otho, is the breathtaking Dolliver Memorial State Park. Known as the confluence point of the backward-flowing Lizard Creek, which drains upstream into the Des Moines River — a prime spot for fishing and seining and kicking off your shoes for a quick dip, it’s also a historic landmark for camping and picnics.
For the adventurous spirit, the lover of nature and history, Dolliver Memorial State Park is also home to the sacred Boneyard Hollow. It’s said the area was a perfectly cruel place for big hunting, as the tribal natives could drive the buffalo or deer back into the Hollow where the stone walls close in, and the herd would bottle-neck toward a crevice breached by an old, stone wagon bridge that is overgrown with moss and weeds. There the prey was trapped, perfect for picking off with arrow or bullet. The hunts are depicted still, hidden among years of more modern graffiti, carved into the cave walls in the depths of Bone Yard Hollow.
To the north
They know how to grow ’em up at Iowa State. Known throughout the country for its agricultural science program, Iowa State University has had a prominent horticulture program complete with a garden since 1914 and has been expanding it ever since. Now if we could just keep its graduates from moving their talents to Colorado, we’ll be all good.
But in the meantime, there’s Reiman Gardens. First completed in 1995, the five-acre Reiman Gardens is the most recent addition to ISU’s horticulture genius. Since then, the garden has grown to 14 acres and now includes a butterfly wing, making it one of the largest public gardens in the state. With both indoor and outdoor plant life, the facility operates year round and boasts five greenhouses. Its sustainable gardening practices, plants and designs have won it numerous awards.
Adding to the fun are the different displays the garden incorporates every summer. Last year the gardens were transformed into a Legoland with several Lego brick designs from certified builder (oh yeah, he’s certified, along with only a dozen other Lego-certified builders in the world) Sean Kenney. This guy must have the patience of a Hindu priest, as Kenney’s Lego displays ranged in size from as little as six inches to almost eight feet tall and has now become a traveling exhibit.
But the Legoland has continued on to another host this year and has been replaced by a bunch of scrap metal. It’s prettier than it sounds. The new display will showcase the work of Iowa sculptors in an array of metal designs such as a giant grasshopper in a presentation titled “More than Meets the Iowa.” (Hmmm, that would have made a great headline for this story.)
Sounds like the perfect resting place for that hunk of metal that was once called the “new Cy-Hawk trophy.”
To the east
Capt. Kirk’s birth place
Not a Cyclone fan? Prefer Hawkeye country? Well, next time you’re on your way to Kinnick Stadium, or perhaps on your way home after a devastating loss to the Buckeyes, cheer yourself up with a trip to Riverside and laugh at the Trekkies, just 15 miles south of Iowa City.
A certain kind of people are out there — most likely dwelling in their mom’s basement and occasionally dressed as a Vulcan or wearing Spock ears — who are praying reincarnation exists, because they’d do anything to be alive on March 22, 2228. That’s the day Capt. James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is slated to come beaming from the womb of some unsuspecting female, according to “Star Trek” legend.
Although the city’s claim to fame isn’t supposed to happen for another two centuries, that hasn’t stopped Riverside from attempting to capitalize as the future site of Kirksmas. To commemorate the great fictional god of the cosmos, the City of Riverside wanted to put up a bronze James T. Kirk bust, but the council decided it wasn’t worth the $40,000 licensing fee Paramount wanted. Ya think? Instead, fans and ornery travelers can find Kirk’s manger marked by a plaque behind a former barber shop as well as a scale model of the “USS Riverside” in the town square that resembles the USS Enterprise without the threat of a Paramount lawsuit.
Trekkies descend upon Riverside once a year on March 22 to celebrate the captain’s birthday, but local shops keep the celebration going year round with clever names such as Future Designs By Carol and Flower Trek. And of course, there is The Voyage Home – Riverside History Center, which is a museum and gift shop. Don’t miss the city’s annual Trek Fest this summer, June 28-29.
To the west
As joining cities divided only by the Missouri River, Council Bluffs and Omaha have a lot of draw on their own. Central Iowans can find plenty of reasons to go there and lots to do upon arrival. But the long, mundane stretch down Interstate 80 can make a motorist thirsty. When the time comes to stop for a beer, punch the town of Avoca into your GPS.
The small town has enough to offer in the way of bites to eat, parks to stretch your toes out in the grass and friendly people who will point you in the right direction, but when it comes to odd bars, The Exchange wears a cap all its own. The 33-year-old watering hole has a friendly rivalry with Fred’s across the street. Folks in Fred’s say their bar is the best, and folks in The Exchange would be more apt to flick their cigarettes at them than have a beer with them (if it wasn’t a waste of a good butt). Both bars are uniquely cool, but Dennis Langer, the owner of The Exchange, came up with an idea to make his bar a destination over all others in the area.
At first glance, it’s just another bar. It gets no reviews on online check-in sites, and it doesn’t give two turkeys about having a Facebook page or a website. Matter of fact, your GPS might not even know it’s there. But it’s not the bar that makes it unique. It’s the people. The people who have come and gone over the years will forever haunt the walls of The Exchange — that is, until the paint starts to fade.
“I wanted to make that wall look like the outfield at Wrigley in Chicago — right behind right field and the score board,” Langer said, nodding toward the opposite wall across from the bar. And it does. A mural stretches across the wall with the painted faces of cheering Cubs fans. But if you look closely, the face you see might be the same as the guy next to you at the bar who hasn’t more than grunted the entire time you grazed the selection searching for that fancy Vodka or whiskey that isn’t there. They’re the faces of real people who frequent the bar.
For 50 bucks, anyone can have his or her likeness, or the likeness of someone else, painted onto one on the faceless human silhouettes in the Cubbies grandstand and watch it suddenly take shape with personality. There’s a biker, a beer drinker playing pocket pool, a guy who could pass for Santa Claus and — every bar has one — the girl who’s face is covered by her shirt as she flashes the center-fielder.
“We’ll just say she’s a novelty on the wall; we won’t name names,” Langer chuckled.
While you’re at it, Langer recommends checking out Glenn’s Bar in Walnut, the next town over, where the owner is “one heckuva guitar player.” Cheers! CV