dsm magazine, January/February 2020
Close friends from New York recently visited Sally and me. These are people who’ve been almost everywhere and seen almost everything. Although they admonished us not to go to any trouble, we knew they’d want to get some sense of Des Moines and Iowa. Plus, I have a hard time believing it when people tell me not to go to any trouble. Surely they expect us to go to some trouble.
But what to do? What to show them?
They’d made something of a big deal out of Iowa being flat, so we decided to take a drive and see something of the countryside, then stop in a small town where we could have lunch at a typical restaurant on the town square. In other words we’d try to give them a real Iowa experience.
I’ve often heard that it can be a revelation to see a familiar place through the eyes of someone who has not seen it before. My friends marveled at the long fields of ripening soybeans and corn, as well as the hills with their trees just showing the first tinges of fall color.
The town we chose was Winterset in case they might appreciate seeing the famous bridges of Madison County. When we told them the plan, they became more enthusiastic than I would have thought. It turned out that my friends had liked Robert Waller’s book, so it wasn’t such a corny experience as I had expected, and I have to admit that even I was impressed by the covered bridges.
As if planned, another bridge visitor was from Connecticut and informed us that her great-grandfather had taken part in designing and building one of the bridges—a bit of serendipity.
I bragged a bit about Iowa’s county courthouses, so we visited the one in Winterset. Like so many of the courthouses, it is rather monumental. My friends seemed most impressed by the signs, plaques and flags commemorating all the Madison County men and women who had served in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq.
As we were about to leave the courthouse, a woman came out of an office and greeted us. More serendipity. She was one of the county supervisors. She chatted and answered questions, the perfect example of “Iowa Nice.” Sally asked, “Are you the only woman supervisor?”
“No, I’m the second one,” she replied, “in one hundred years.” Well, that’s at least some progress, I thought.
We then made our way across the square to the quilt museum. In yet another piece of serendipity, the museum was having a “homecoming” event featuring Winterset quilters Marianne Fons and Liz Porter, who happen to be two of America’s best-known quilters. They were holding a lecture and workshop for a large group of women who had gathered to see and hear them.
The words “quilt” and “quilter” do not do justice to the artistic talent of Marianne and Liz or to the exquisite products of their work. My New York guests were entranced.
It was lunchtime so we sought out the Northside Cafe, made famous during the filming of the “Bridges” movie by the visits of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. We found the cafe was not open on Thursdays so, in yet another piece of serendipity, we decided to try the only restaurant open on the square, Mi Pueblito. It was packed with a very diverse crowd: farmers, truck drivers, families, people of all ages.
My friend said, “This is better than the Mexican restaurants in New York.” Maybe he was just being nice, but judging by his clean plate, I think he was sincere.
By the time we headed back to Des Moines, I realized that in our quest to do and see everything in the big world, we too often overlook the pleasures right under our noses. That’s another way of saying, in Iowan Meredith Willson’s words, “You ought to give Iowa a try.”
Mississippi native James A. Autry (jamesaautry.com) of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. He also published the novel “The Cold Warrior: When Flying Was Dangerous and Sex Was Safe.”