Monday, August 7- Friday, August 13
This is my penultimate (next to last) post. Omaha is nothing to write home about as far as I can tell—a typical, medium-sized (almost one million people, metro), Mid Western city, making an effort to revitalize a rather dull downtown. (One question is where all the cars are. In the middle of a workday, downtown streets are mostly empty, and on street parking is abundant.) But we are here only one night and part of two days and are a bit weary of driving. There is probably more than meets the eye.
The journey to Des Moines begins in a dense fog so we see little of the Iowa landscape until the sun finally burns through. Iowa turns out to be beautiful.–deep green fields of corn and soy beans, rolling hills, pastures and occasional farm houses. We arrive in Des Moines around ten-thirty a.m. at the old library downtown, which has been turned into an international, feeding-the-hungry memorial honoring local Noble Lauriat, Norman Borlaug, the Des Moines scientist who pretty much invented the Green Revolution. There we meet Erik, Mary and their daughter, Anya. Erik worked with me at Howell Associates, heading up our marketing services and now works for Life Care Services, the largest manager of retirement communities in the country. He is a world class sailor and has remained a close friend. Their beautiful 13-year old daughter, Anja, is our goddaughter.
The four days and three nights with them are fabulous—great tour of the city (actually quite impressive, especially with regard to cultural stuff) , a day sailing with Erik and two of his former, now retired, work colleagues, on Iowa’s largest lake (not very large) in near perfect conditions except for the 95 degree heat , visiting Mary’s new framing and gift shop business near their home, enjoying Mary’s delicious meals, and just hanging out. Embry was even able to attend a Hillary rally (while I went sailing) where she picked up a tee shirt (“Madam President, Get Used to It”) and bumper stickers (“#Hill Yes”).
The big story, of course, is the Iowa State Fair. In fact we arranged the trip so that we would be able to attend this world famous event, which is the oldest (started 1850s) and largest state fair in the U.S. and, I presume, the world. The day starts with ferocious thunderstorms so we delay our departure until the skies start to clear and arrive mid morning. Today is the first day of a 10-day run, which will attract over one million visitors. To put that into perspective, there are only three million people who live in the entire state.
The best way to describe this extraordinary happening is to envision Disney World on steroids and with much more food and more varieties of farm animals than you thought existed in the U.S.– all in one place. Huge pavilions each contain many hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals–a pavilion for horses, one for cows, for pigs, for sheep, one for chickens, geese and ducks, and probably others. Any animal that you can eat is alive here and in abundance; and they are all competing for best-in-show prizes with their nervous owners standing by and leading them in front of judges and panels.
Then there is the food. Every conceivable vegetable that is grown in Iowa is also on display and competing for a blue or silver or yellow ribbon—corn, tomatoes, beans, beets, squash, onions, soy beans and stuff you have never even heard of. The same is true for “dairy.” Visitors stroll through the vast pavilions admiring all the produce and cheese, which already boast ribbons from county fairs. I have no idea how you judge one green pepper from another but someone obviously does. People have been doing it here in Iowa for over 150 years.
Naturally we stand in line to see the “butter cow”—a life size sculpture in butter of a Hereford cow–and walk along the midway with the rides, arcades, and booths where you can throw a ball and win a teddy bear. We also pause for a beer at Diamond Jack’s Bar and hear fabulous country music from “Heart’s Desire,” two women who sound like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Various concerts and special events go on each day, and there is a four page program booklet describing what is happening just for that day. Crowds are large but not overwhelming (as will probably be the case on the weekend), and you don’t have to stand in line for much of anything. Country music is blaring over a loudspeaker. Kids are blowing soap bubbles, one guy is using spray cans to paint cartoons on the sidewalk, most–many wearing tee shirts sporting names like “Proud Pig Farmer,” or “ Iowa is Best”–are just strolling along eating cotton candy, candy apples, kettle corn, corn dogs, chili dogs, pork on a stick, or just gawking at the vast activity that surrounds and engulfs them.
I try to figure out why the atmosphere, while like that of Disney World in some respects, seems different in others. Part of it are the animals and the competition, but what it really seems to boil down to is authenticity. There is something here that seems natural and real in contrast with Disney World, which by design is unapologetically imaginary and contrived. The atmosphere here puts you in touch with your roots—the closeness and dependence we have with animals and crops and food and our common humanity–real people of all shapes and sizes (especially a lot of xxx large sizes).
The lack of diversity is also apparent, but this is Iowa (only 3% African American, 5% Latino). If this is not all of the Real America, it is surely one of the pieces.
We say good bye to Erik, Mary and Anja and make our way in two days to Cincinnati where we stay with my senior year, Davidson College roommate, Bud and his wife, Mary Ann. Bud is a retired cardiologist and they live in a huge apartment (four balconies) on the 17th floor of a 23-story condominium with stunning views of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati. Like all the other mini-reunions along the way, it is great to see them and catch up.
Before reaching Cincinnati, however, we stop in Peoria, Illinois for a stay in a Motel 6. Naturally we have seen hundreds of Motel 6s along the way, and Embry wisely suggests that if we want to truly understand the Real America, we must stay in one. This is our last chance. We arrive around six at the modest motel building, buried in a sea of chain motels, just as a major thunderstorm is arriving. We scamper with our bags to the tiny and somewhat bedraggled front office and check in.
Seconds after Embry opens the door with her key, she jumps back, exclaiming, “There is someone in that room sleeping!”
Embry goes back to the front office while I wait with the bags in the hall in front of the room we were assigned to. Not a good decision. In a couple of minutes the door opens, and a huge hulk of a man peeks his head out and looks directly at me. My guess he is in his 30s, has a red beard, tattoos up and down both arms and is not pleased. Pointing his finger directly at me and scowling, he slowly says in a very deep and serious voice, “You broke into my room and woke me up!”
“No, sir,” I respond in my most contrite way, “It was not me, it was my wife.”
The guy has to be close to 6’6’’ and must weigh over 250 pounds. One swat at me and it would be over, like extinguishing an annoying fly.
“But she had a key and has gone to get another room assignment. We are so sorry, so very sorry….” I then hold my breath and mentally prepare for the worst.
He pauses for a moment, his face suddenly lights up with a smile and replies, “Hey, Motel 6, baby, happens all the time. No problem.”
Embry returns with a new key, this one for the last available room. It is supposed to be non-smoking but in fact reeks with cigarette smoke, with cigarette butts along with other debris on the floor. There is one old-fashioned, box, color TV with a wavy picture, which keeps going off completely from time to time as we try to watch the Olympics, and air-conditioning which does not work. The thunderstorm has cooled the 95 degree temperatures down a bit but still….Embry calls to complain and receives a ho hum, “sorry to hear this” response but nothing more.
So this is Motel 6—half the price of most of the other chains and now we know how they do it. We now have seen and understand the Real America. We do not talk to anyone else staying there but guess most are Trump supporters.
It turns out that the last day of the Road Trip of 2016 is the most stressful of the entire trip. We drive the 400 plus miles in a blinding rain storm that starts minutes after we leave Cincinnati and continues until we hit the Maryland border, 10 hours later. We are completely exhausted and so glad to be home as we stumble into our apartment at close to midnight.
The Road Trip of 2016 is now over. Long live the Road Trip of 2016!
Next and final blog post will attempt to pull it all together.