This weekend Rebecca and I took a road trip throughout Iowa. I must preface this with the history of my contentious relationship with Iowa: back around 1994 I connected with some online friends who converged on one girl's house in Ames, and that weekend I drove us back and forth between St. Cloud and Des Moines. That was fun, but Iowa did not care for me. I drove straight into a tornado, unable to find any shelter: all the overpasses were taken by semis. Finally we coasted into a truck stop/diner and a group of four "good ol' boys" threatened to haul me outside and beat me up. It was as abrupt and out-of-nowhere as that. From that point on, Iowa in my mind was represented as a broad, flat plane of green that rose to meet a broad flat plane of blue, and its sparse population was of amoral, bellicose rednecks.
But Rebecca suggested driving through Iowa for a road trip and I might not have agreed, but in the course of my stationery pursuits I learned of a specialty dealer on the southeastern border of the state. Pendemonium deals in all stationery supplies, e.g., quality bottled inks, calligraphic nibs, fine paper and homemade cards, sealing wax and accoutrement. It also has a compelling array of vintage souvenirs for collectors and enthusiasts: antique fountain pens for people practicing pen repair, preserved newspaper/magazine ads, all sorts of memorabilia and original artifacts. I had a great conversation with the proprietor about Rhodia vs. Moleskine and the pen shows that used to occur in Minneapolis but now happen in Chicago. I came away with antique inkwell and a lot of little things that mean a lot to me.
Pendemonium is on Avenue G in Ft. Madison, IA, but what else is in this tiny, flat town? From Avenue H we actually spotted Fort Madison, a traditional old-skool 'soldiers vs. Injuns' fort with a supply of replacement logs for the walls, right on the north bank of the Mississippi. And two blocks west of the pen store we found a microbrew bar, the Lost Duck Brewery. What a treat: this place had a gorgeous, comfortable interior and they make their own beer. Again, the proprietor was on hand to talk about his craft, and after a time one of his favorite patrons came in and had a seat next to us. What followed was a great education on the process of microbrewing and regional history: the owner talked about the disaster last year with the flooding and what that did to his water supply and, consequently, his craft. I had a pint of the Pelican Porter, Rebecca had a homemade root beer and then a grape soda, which she quite admired. But this bar, what a gem to discover in the heart of a tiny town on the edge of Iowa. The proprietor supplied us with a beer/wine map of Iowa, and we were stunned to realize how many active breweries and vintners were operating in this state. One could easily and happily indulge in a well-rounded brewery-crawl over the course of a weekend.
We drove to Davenport, a tiny city unto itself. I was impressed with how much it had going on: the highlight was the casino, but the treasure was a late-night coffee house with a live blues band. Much of Davenport closes at 4:00 PM, but there was still enough going on that one could get excited about walking around the "downtown" area. As it happened, we had to drive 50 blocks north to find an acceptable hotel...
The next day we made it up to Dubuque, the other intended destination on this trip. I found online information about their funicular, the Fenelon Place Elevator: "the world's shortest and steepest railway." For one slim buck you can get hauled up the side of a tremendous hill and enjoy the spectacular view of Dubuque and the Mississippi river. We walked downhill and ended up at Monk's Kaffee Pub. Pub, because they have a notable selection of beers; kaffee, because they serve coffee. We got a couple drinks with some variation and extras and, once again, the proprietor was a font of good-natured conversation. He talked about who he knew in Minnesota and I related the fantastic things I'd been discovering in Iowa (without having been accosted by farmers' sons once). I bought a T-shirt to commemorate my visit to this wonderful establishment. This is definitely where I'd spend a good portion of my time if I lived in this town.
Dubuque reminded us in many ways of Duluth, in fact, with the same charm and feel to it. The river factored heavily into building this city and that romantic, historic atmosphere permeates the businesses and architecture. There were many well-preserved or restored houses and buildings from a bye-gone era, some great photography to be had. Could we live there? We thought maybe, pending a community of like-minded individuals. Just a hypothetical question we tossed at each other occasionally. It felt good to get out and drive around, and I'm pleased our efforts were rewarded with these wonderful little surprises in each town.