Monday, March 9, 2015

The Road Trip, Part 5: Four Stops in Iowa and a Night in Nebraska

*Just a quick note - as the formatting on this blog keeps some of the photographs pretty small. You can click on any of the pictures to enter a slide show, which will allow you to see larger format photographs*

New Glarus, WI to Iowa City, IA. 156 miles, 2 hours 47 minutes. 

We pushed through from New Glarus, WI to our next stop in Iowa City, IA. We left Wisconsin knowing that we wouldn't arrive until after dark - so we were trying to high tail it out there. Soon after crossing the Mississippi River at Dubuque we started to encounter some shitty weather. The rain remained constant - even heavy at times - for the rest of the night. When we got into Iowa City, we were hungry and decided to cash in a Groupon. 

Some sidebar here - ahead of the trip we looked up groupons for every city and town we planned on staying it. We purchased several dozen of them for the whole trip - ranging from grocery store coupons to winery tours and - of course - restaurants. This proved to be an extremely valuable move - saving us a lot of money in the long run and keeping us from only eating non perishable foods out of the car. 

This Torta was not good.
The groupon was for some Mexican restaurant - where we got some pretty shitty margaritas and Mexican. We did enjoy the quesadilla....but we tend to enjoy anything that is just a delivery mechanism for melted cheese. 

After dinner we drove around a bit to orient ourselves - and not knowing what else to do we parked in an Office Max parking lot and watched some TV on the iPad. After an hour or so we realized that it was too hot out to keep the windows up, but too rainy to have them down - and that it wasn't realistic to sleep in the car that night. After a bit of sleuthing - we grabbed a room at a hotel via priceline. It was good to take a shower and sleep in a bed while enjoying the comfort of some air conditioning. And there was a (halfway decent) continental breakfast!

We tried to get an early start the next day, as we had a bunch of things we wanted to do that were spread out between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (Think the distance between Saratoga and Albany). 

Devonia Era Fossils!
 Our first stop was at the Devonian Fossil Gorge. Here we were able to walk out on bedrock that was littered with Devonian Era fossils - which was exposed after something like 17 feet of soil washed away in flooding in the 1990's. We had a fun time trying to find all of the markers and especially liked that there was no barrier, no rope - you literally go out and walk on this sea floor, stepping over 375 million year old fossils.

Some building in Iowa City!
From here, we went into Iowa City - to the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History. This was a pretty nice museum (especially for being in a State University). The most memorable part, for me, was a stuffed giant ice age sloth. 

Eugenio, you may be on to something! 
Some good Mexican! And way too much of it!
We then walked around the pedestrian mall, popping into a few shops. It was becoming quickly apparent that Iowa City was not what we expected. It was...just a small college town with a lot of college-y things going on, and a very large student population. We were kind of bummed about this because Iowa City scored very high on our list of places to visit - to both of our surprise. This made it the curiosity of the trip - that we unfortunately became excited to see. We grabbed lunch, Mexican again - but this time surprisingly good. The restaurant was called La Michoacana Taqueria. It was in a nondescript strip mall with a small grocery store attached. We liked all of our tacos - but especially liked the Horchata, which was actually balanced in its flavor and not cloyingly sweet...which seems to be the norm. 
Look at those tacos!

Try not to have a nightmare about this guy.
We then headed to Cedar Rapids to check out the National Czech & Slovak Museum. This wasn't exactly at the top of my list for things to do - but it wound up being one of those pleasant surprises. It was a very tastefully curated museum, covering the cultural history of Czech and Slovak people - focusing quite a bit on immigrants to this part of the mid west. I especially enjoyed the somewhat macabre traditional costumes for....I can't remember what holiday. 

After the museum we stopped at a bakery in the Czech village - where we were given our first Kolaches. They were.... OK. From here we just peeked into a few shops before deciding it was time to head to Ames, IA. Another town that scored high on our list - that we were now expecting to be kind of...unimpressed with. Its a good thing we lowered our expectations...

A traditional Czech pastry brush
Cedar Rapids, IA to Ames, IA. 104 miles, 1 hour 47 minutes. 

We got to Ames right around golden hour. We took a stroll down Welch Ave & Main Street not really knowing what we wanted to do that night. In a fortunate stroke of serendipity, we overheard a few college students on the street talking about going to 'dollar pint night'. With a little bit of google-fu we landed at the Olde Main Brewing Co guessed it, $1 pint night. We had a few, some fries, and a pint of their house root beer and decided it was time to try a Super Dog. We read about the super dog somewhere online. Its a staple in Ames - there are two hot dog carts that serve them.

What is a super dog? An inexplicably delicious, " All beef hot dog on a Hoagie bun with 5 sauces (pineapple, garlic-cilantro, special, mustard, and ketchup), a strip of bacon, potato chips, and Monterey Jack Cheese, all warmed in a broiler to melt the cheese and warm the bun". I shit you not. We had one and, frankly, loved it. Its the prefect balance of textures and flavors to hit everything you need when your high or buzzed or whatever. Perfect for a small college town like Ames. After the Super Dog, we decided to turn in for the night - sleeping in the parking lot at Walmart in Ames.

We woke up to fall like weather - a pretty dramatic change from what we were used to so far on the trip. The air was crisp and the sky was overcast. We dug deep into our suit cases to find some colder weather clothing to stay warm. 

Our first stop of the day was the Anderson Sculpture Garden - on campus. Either we could not find this or it literally only had one or two sculptures. BUST.

Second stop, Christian Peterson Art Museum. Also on campus, essentially right next to the sculpture garden. Our info was wrong, museum was closed. We peered through the windows. BUST

J in some moody lighting at the Brunner Art Museum
Third stop, Brunner Art Museum. There was some weird function going on here - with a ton of 'young professionals' having breakfast at a buffet while schmoozing. We were tempted to help ourselves to the buffet...but decided to behave instead. The museum had some interesting porcelain and ceramics, as well as an okay collection of photos and paintings. In and out in 30 minutes.

Lunch. Hy-Vee. Deli meat & sides. Sandwiches in the parking lot. Oddly enjoyable. J was craving 'real food' and got some salad bar fruit. I had double french fries. 
What the fuck are these things???
Weeping Willow at the Arboretum
We drove out to the Iowa Arboretum and spent some time walking around the grounds. We both felt we rushed it too much at the arboretum in Madison - so we made sure we saw everything here. It seemed very nice, but like most things of this nature (no pun intended) we were not visiting at the right time of the year. We did see a couple neat things, however.

Playing around with the Macro lens for the iPhone
We took a detour to Jasper Cellar Winery in Des Moines (again, think Saratoga to Albany). I cant remember if we just read about it or if we had a groupon - but we both had a tasting. Everything was fine so we each ordered a glass and sat by the fire while figuring out our plans for the evening. The bar tender gave us some suggestions of things to do in Ames (wine bar, super dog) and strongly suggested we spend the next day in Des its was much more interesting. This was fairly apparent already, just driving through Des Moines to get to the winery. 

Cool bike rack / art installation in Ames
We went back to Ames to the wine bar the bartender in Des Moines recommended. It was happy hour so we dug in a bit. This place was the first self dispensing wine bar we had been to. A few years ago a guy I bought gelato from wanted to open one of these places in Saratoga with me and have me do food for it. I always thought it was kind of silly, but it was actually pretty enjoyable - and eliminated a lot of the awkwardness of ordering wines you cant pronounce or trying ones you don't know very well. 

Not as gross as it looks, but still pretty gross.
After wine we cashed in a Groupon for dinner at a place called Oddfellows. It was a fairly typical 'crazy burger' type place. We had one on a doughnut and one with peanut butter. Both were ..fine. We liked the tater tots but really just wanted the ones we had in Madison. It was getting late so we decided to tun in for the night. We stayed at a Walmart in Altoona - which was closer to Des Moines and also had the cheapest gas we had seen up to that point ($3.04 a gallon!).

Better than gross but not quite mediocre
It was raining when we got up so we weren't really sure how to pack up the car without getting soaked. There was a gas station pretty close by with a canopy - which worked pretty well. J packed while I pumped. The weather eliminated pretty much everything we wanted to do in Des Moines...our first stop was the Hoyt Sherman Place. This was a nice old house with beautiful furniture and decor run by the Des Moines Women's Club. The tour was very nice, our docent was wonderful and charming. Its nice to see old money sometimes. The theater here, which has been restored, is really quite impressive. Not unlike Proctors.
The beautiful theater at Hoyt Sherman Pace
Jill is very possessive about her door stop. 
We grabbed lunch at a place called Zombie Burger, which was recommended to us by our bar tender the day before. We had a great peanut butter milk shake and...a kind of embarrassing gluttonous hamburger...the fried mac and cheese burger. Fried mac & cheese for buns, burger, cheese, onion, mayo, bacon, mac & cheese. It was as good AND as regrettable as it sounds. 

This has to be the most unhealthy thing I have ever had.
As J said, 'Des Moines seemed like a much cooler city (than Ames...or Iowa City...or Cedar Rapids) but its still not tempting to live in'.

Des Moines 
We were very eager to get to Colorado - still about 700 miles away - and decided we could get a good chunk of the drive done if we left immediately - which would allow us some time to do stuff in Denver the next day. We couldn't stand the idea of taking i-80 all the way through Nebraska - so we decided to take the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway - adding a hundred miles and about 2 hours to the trip. It wasn't nearly as mind blowing as I was hoping - after reading it was one of the 10 most scenic drives in the country, but it was nice - and some of the first real scenery we experienced on the trip.

Sandhills Journey
I got pulled over somewhere along the way for speeding - but was let go after promising I would be more careful. We made a quick stop at Car Henge in Alliance to say we saw it and snap a picture in the headlights - and then headed southwest to Scottsbluff, where we stayed the night in a very lively Wal Mart. It was COLD - the first day we were uncomfortably cold in the car. We spent some time in the next weeks buying pieces to stay warmer - gloves, hats, long underwear, balaclavas, base layers, insulating layers...anything we could think of.

The best photo of Car Henge we got. 

Next stop - Denver & Fort Collins - and the start of our trip through the American Rockies.

From our book:
  • La Michoacana Taqueria – 10-9, cheap mexican (1.50 tacos, beef cheek), 436 hwy 1w (****) 436 Iowa 1/Iowa City IA/52246
Free to do:
  • The Pedestrian Mall/The Ped. (shops, park, etc) – free concert 9/12 @ 6:30.
  • Devonian Fossil Gorge – Coralville Lake. . Tour a fossilized Devonian age sea
    o 2850 Prairie Du Chien Rd NE Coralville IA
  • Plum Grove Historic Site = free (Sat-Sun 1-5). 1844 farmhouse with three heritage gardens
    o 1030 Carroll St/Iowa City IA/52240
  • Farmers Markets: Tues 3-6 @ Iowa City Marketplace, 1660 Sycamore St. Wed
    5-7 & Sat - 7:30-noon @ Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp in 400 block of
    Washington St.
  • UI Museum of Natural History – Tue-Sat 10-5 (Thu to 8) Sun 1-5. State’s
    geology; native cultures; ecology; reconstructed ice-age ground sloth o 17 N Clinton St/Iowa City IA/52240
  • University at Iowa Museum of Art = free (Tue-Fri 10-5; Thur 5-9). Paintings; prints; drawings; sculptures; photos; African art
    o 1375 Iowa 1/Iowa City IA/52246
  • Old Capitol Museum – Tue-Sat 10-5 (8 on Thu), Sun 1-5. (neat building)
    o 21 N Clinton St/Iowa City IA/52242
National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library = $5 with i.d (Mon-Sat
9:30-4; Sun 12-4). Videos; folk costumes; glass; ceramics; maps; folk art; military artifacts; restored house to showcase immigrant life; journey of their heritage. 
1400 Inspiration Place SW/Cedar Rapids IA/52404

  • REGIONAL SPECIALTY: Super Dog Stand on Wlech – Mon-Tues 11p-2a, Wed-Sat 9p-3a. Hotdog with variety of sauces, bacon, chips, cheese and pineapple. Smiles & Gyros cart - @ Welch & Chamberlain or Douglas & Main

Free to do:
  • Walk down Welch Ave.
  • Main Street Farmers Market – Sat 8-12:30
  • Main Street Cultural District
  • Iowa Arboretum – 14 miles away in Madrid. Sunrise to Sunset
    o 1875 Peach Ave/Madrid IA/50156
  • Farm House Museum = donations (Mon-Fri 12-4). Restored and furnished
    to its 1860-1910 appearance
    o 290 Schman Building/Ames IA/50011
  • Brunnier Art Museum – Tue-Fri 11-4, Sat-Sun 1-4. National & international travel exhibits; decorative & fine arts. top floor of Scheman Building in Owa State Center at University Blvd & Center Dr,
    o 290 Scheman Building/Ames IA/50011
  • Christian Petersen Art Museum – Mon-Fri 11-4. Sketches; sculptures; art
    o 1017 Morrill Hall/Ames IA/50011
  • Anderson Sculpture Garden – Small sculpture garden, sunrise to sunset.
DES MOINES, IA (30 miles from Ames, IA) 
Free to do:
  • Des Moines Art Center – Tue-Fri 11-4 (9 on Thu), Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4. o 4700 Grand Ave/Des Moines/50312
  • Pappajohn Sculpture Park – Sunrise-Sunset. 27 sculptures from 21 artists around the word scattered on 4.4 acres
    o Western Gateway Park.
  • Hoyt Sherman Place = free (Mon-Fri 9-4). 1877 Victorian mansion decorated
    with carved woodwork, stenciling, marble fireplaces, brass chandeliers, furnished with antiques; art gallery & a domed ceiling
    o 1501 Woodland Ave/Des Moines IA/50314
  • Jasper Winery = free tastings & tours upon request (Mon–Sat 10-6; Sun 1-5)
    o 2400 George Flagg Parkway/Des Moines IA/50321 

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