One Day in Des Moines

15 hours. 22 venues. One city.

Impact Pro Wrestling, Platform

Photographer: Betsy Rudicil
Writer: Chad Taylor

There’s nothing to do in Des Moines. Spend any time on the Des Moines subreddit, and you’ll find abundant confirmation. We are bereft of nightlife, low on entertainment options and devoid of outdoor events. Welcome to Dead Moines.

Except, that’s clearly not the case. During the Before Times—pre-COVID—the capital city was rife with live music, theater, food trucks and entertainment. Now, two and a half long, stressful years later, the city has opened back up and returned to some form of prepandemic “normal.”

But what does that “normal” even look and feel like now? To find out, photographer Betsy Rudicil and I set out on the morning of May 21 to see what the city had to offer on a typical Saturday. What we found over the next 15 hours was encouraging, at times unexpected, and completely memorable.

9:30 a.m., Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market: Take a poll and Des Moines residents are likely to say they missed the Downtown Farmers’ Market most during the pandemic (except for maybe the Iowa State Fair). On this overcast morning, Court Avenue and its side streets teem with families, buskers and dozens of dogs. Young parents tow small children in wagons. A barbershop quartet sings at Court and Fourth while a group of 20-somethings dance in the street.

10:40 a.m., Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden: Walking through the humid warmth of the geodesic dome, we’re surrounded by running children and couples on post-brunch strolls. As we enter the cool quiet of the “Bonsai for Beginners” classroom, a dozen or so students are hard at work trimming their tiny trees. Instructor Scott Allen sits at a table near the front, offering advice to one man regarding where he should trim and crimp his tree for the best effect. Betsy and I bob and weave through the tight space as students walk to the front of the room for tools and back to their tables.

Exiting out the back of the facility into the space that once was home to an outdoor herb garden, we discover a tai chi class practicing under the slowly breaking clouds. Water from a fountain provides peaceful background sounds as the instructor talks the group through their movements: “Cloud hands. Shift your weight; step in. Return.”

Tai chi class, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

11:02 a.m., State Capitol Grounds: We retreat to the East Village to plan our next move. Exiting the parking ramp, we’re met by people walking back from the Capitol, including a number of young girls with runners’ numbers pinned to their T-shirts and with medals around their necks. Curious, we walk up the Capitol grounds and into the Girls on the Run 5K. Adolescent and preteen girls, flush and smiling with accomplishment, chat excitedly and admire the medals around their necks.

Near the Capitol steps, I pass a boy, maybe around age 4. Walking a few steps ahead of his parent, he takes in everything around him with the wide-eyed joy that only the very young can muster. Every time he sees a girl with a medal, he shouts, “Congratulations! Congratulations!”

Girls on the Run, State Capitol Grounds

11:22 a.m., Scenic Route Bakery: Coffee. Cinnamon rolls. Bathroom breaks. As we recharge, the room around us is bustling. While several of the customers came from the farmers market, others are just starting their days. Until the beginning of May, Scenic Route was one of the places in town still requiring masks for all patrons. Now, maybe 30% of the clientele wears them.

Scenic Route Bakery

11:59 a.m., John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park: The sun is burning off the cloud cover and the park is reaping the benefits. Children run up the hill at the park’s center and people walk dogs around the perimeter.

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

12:12 p.m., Gray’s Lake: Turning left at George Flagg Parkway to pull into the Gray’s Lake parking lot, we’re greeted by a balloon-bedecked tent and about a dozen dogs. We’ve stumbled upon an Animal Rescue League of Iowa microchipping event, spearheaded by Grimes resident Riley Pilch. Her own dog went missing briefly in April, prompting her to advocate for microchipping pets, including cats and even horses. On this day, the ARL would microchip nearly 200 animals.

Animal Rescue League of Iowa microchipping event, Gray’s Lake

12:22 p.m., Water Works Park: As he watches his wife, Betty, stand on the Water Works amphitheater stage and direct people in an attempt at the “World’s Largest Wobble” (a jumping, swaying, rhythmic line dance tied to the eponymous club hit by V.I.C.), state Rep. Eddie Andrews, R-Johnston, is confused. “My wife and I share a birthday,” he confides, “and it’s not today.” And yet, as she looks over the crowd of several hundred dancers, Betty throws her arms wide: “It’s my birthday, ya’ll!” Andrews explains that their shared birthday is May 31. When asked if Betty picked today to celebrate because of the Wobble event, Andrews shrugs. Behind him, under a large banner reading “Happy Birthday Betty,” two people cut a big birthday cake. Andrews just laughs and shakes his head at his wife’s evident decision to celebrate her birthday 10 days early.

The Wobble does not set any records. But nearly 300 people appear to have a great time trying. The Isiserettes perform, and Mayor Frank Cownie is on hand as well, doing his best. Mascots for the Iowa Wolves and the Iowa Stars make the dance look easier than the mayor’s efforts would have you believe—which makes sense, given both mascots are trained acrobats.

The Wobble, Water Works Park

12:51 p.m., Jasper Winery: After the cacophony of noise and thumping bass at Water Works, Jasper is an oasis of serenity. Outside, workers set up for a wedding taking place in the afternoon. Inside, Chelsea Jacobsen stands behind the counter, pouring samples. The sun has burned off the clouds and the weather is beautiful, but it’s quiet. Maybe too quiet. So we circle back downtown to the Lauridsen Skatepark, and then …

2:00 p.m., Iowa Events Center: Events like Des Moines Con were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Hundreds of people, densely packed into questionably ventilated rooms for hours at a time, several days in a row? Definitely out. Coupled with the fact that most local and regional comic cons tend to be labors of love with tenuous bottom lines meant that there was genuine concern over how many of them would come back.

Des Moines Con, however, appears to be small but mighty. Dozens of vendors and hundreds of attendees mingle in the main hall, nerds of all ages showing off their best costumes. Masks seem to be the norm, but hugs and fist bumps are plentiful as well. Members of the local chapter of the 501st Legion (a worldwide Star Wars fan club) are on hand, dressed in their full Stormtrooper gear. Klingons and Pokemon and various iterations of Link and Zelda abound wherever you look.

Back in the car and pulling out of the skatepark’s parking lot, Betsy and I see the sign—stuck into the ground at the driveway entrance—at the same time: “Iowa Metaphysical Fair.” We know our next stop.

Des Moines Con, Iowa Events Center

3:06 p.m., State Fairgrounds: Sprawling through the interior of the 4-H building, the Metaphysical Fair is not a place for the skeptical. Everywhere you look, there are tarot cards being read or spirits being contacted. Reiki practitioners will adjust your chi. A man in one corner is casting chicken bones—tossing them on a table and then divining … something. Vendors will also happily sell you everything you need for your own spiritual guidework: sounding bowls and crystals and cards and blankets and books. Off the main floor, seminars take place in rooms with names like “The Moon Room” and “Sonic Waterfalls.”

Iowa Metaphysical Fair, Fairgrounds

Walking back to the car from the fair, two small boys in Western shirts and cowboy hats run across the street in front of us. Curious, we peek our heads into the Livestock Pavilion and stumble upon an auction. While an auctioneer talks up the horse currently being paraded in the ring (which will go on to sell for $40,000), vendors behind the stage sell tack, hats and clothing. One vendor has a wall of coonskin hats, hanging over a wooden box with a sign that reads, “Tails = $10 / Faces = $5.”

Iowa State Fairgrounds

5:55 p.m., Principal Park: The Iowa Cubs are playing the Columbus Clippers for “Family Carnival Night.” We walk the concourse as the Clippers take batting practice and watch the families file in. Tonight’s national anthem is performed by Des Moines’ darling of the daytime, Jackie Schmillen. This is a busy day for Schmillen: at 2 p.m., she performed in the musical comedy “Rolf(e)” at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Then she shuttled over here for the anthem and, immediately after she’s done, she hustles back out of the park to return to the Historical Museum for “Rofl(e)’s” second show at 7 p.m.

Iowa Cubs Game, Principal Park

7:00 p.m., The Hall: Ten hours into our day, live music is beginning throughout the city. As Betsy snaps photos of Tyler Frazier playing Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” I speak to Grimes resident Jacob Garfield. Is this his only stop for the night, or just the first? “Oh, we’ll probably stay here for a while and feel it out,” he says, gesturing to his wife and their friends seated at their table. “It’s a beautiful night; it seems like a waste to spend it at home.”

As we pack up to leave the Valley Junction spot, an EMT crew pulls up in an ambulance and bustles into the room. Not seeing any obvious signs of distress, Betsy and I follow behind to see what’s up. As the EMT at the head of the phalanx reaches the back of the room, the crowd parts to reveal her boyfriend, smiling. The confusion on her face turns to tearful realization as he drops to one knee and pulls out a ring.

Tyler Frazier, The Hall

7:22 p.m., Noce: Playing to a packed house, the Andrew Walesch Big Band sings hits from Sinatra’s catalog. Between songs, Walesch cracks jokes and banters with a bachelorette party that’s taken up most of the room’s left wing.

Andrew Walesch Big Band, Noce

7:36 p.m., TeeHee’s Comedy Club: Chowdown, an improv comedy troupe, performs to an enthusiastic crowd. As troupe members swap in and out of scenes, laughing audience members call out prompted suggestions. “We need a location!” “How about a film genre?” Standing in the back, I run into Onnalee Kelley, a local standup comedian and an improv comic in her own right. She tells me that the pandemic didn’t stop her from getting married, and I hug her my congratulations.

TeeHee’s Comedy Club

8:06 p.m., xBk: The venue is packed with patrons chatting among themselves while they wait for violinist Geneviève Salome to take the stage. Looking over the crowd, owner Tobi Parks says the year of pandemic-related closures hurt everybody, but new, local business owners felt it especially hard. “We’ve had good luck with turnout,” she says. “It was definitely touch-and-go for a while. But I don’t know when it will fully come back.”

8:30 p.m., Des Moines Civic Center: Standing in the lobby just before the intermission in “Hamilton,” Des Moines Performing Arts Director of Marketing Barb Preuss says she’s excited for the coming season. “We’ve seen [season ticket sales] almost to where they were before the pandemic,” she says. “Not only are the numbers back for us, but we’ve seen a different demographic coming in.

“They’re younger,” she adds, “coming from more parts of the metro, and from a wider economic bracket.”

As the crowd floods out of the theater doors and queues up for bathrooms and refreshments, Preuss chats more about the upcoming shows. As people nearby catch the name of a specific show—“Beetlejuice,” “Six,” “Come From Away”—they lean into our conversation to express their excitement. “People are just glad to be out,” Preuss says. “They’re glad to be back.”

“Hamilton,” Des Moines Civic Center

8:54 p.m., Wooly’s: Iron Maiden and Megadeth tribute bands from Minnesota have made the trek for this evening’s show. The crowd is smaller than the ones at xBk and Noce, but enthusiastic. Primarily Gen X-ers, they skew older than most of the crowds we’ve seen tonight. They’re into the music but seem grateful for the tables and chairs scattered around the venue.

Megadeth Tribute Band, Wooly’s

9:22 p.m., Gas Lamp: As we walk into the venue, performer Karen Meat is lying on the stage, drinking a beer while her band plays. Whatever is happening, we seem to have caught the end of it, as the song abruptly stops. As Betsy works the crowd, I chat with Jeff Stone, bassist for local band the Maw who’s doubling as Gas Lamp’s sound guy tonight. After a pause, Meat appears to be ready for her next number. Clutching the mic, she announces, “This is a song about the internet.”

9:48 p.m., Lauridsen Skatepark: We’ve actually been to the park three times throughout the day, but now is when it seems most alive. Seeing Betsy’s camera, a young man wearing a Burger King crown stops her and insists she get pictures of his kickflip. Younger children weave in and out of the scene on scooters, while teenagers grind rails and skate the park’s bowls. The bright LEDs illuminating the park throw the river into an inky black contrast. The encroaching dark, combined with the lack of traffic on Second Avenue overlooking the park, gives it a sense of isolation that belies its middle-of-downtown location.

Lauridsen Skatepark

10:02 p.m., Platform: This new downtown spot (400 Walnut St.) bills itself as a home for house music (a genre of dance music). But Platform hosts no music tonight. Instead, a large wrestling ring dominates the space as the stars of Impact Pro Wrestling take over the venue.

Fan favorite JJ Garrett takes the ring against scripted bad guy Matty Star, along with his manager, Captain Midnight. Fans boo and cheer lustily as the pair throw themselves around the ring and deliver a good show. In classic “heel” fashion, Star wins the match by cheating, pinning Garrett when Captain Midnight holds the good guy’s legs from outside the ring. As Star leaves the ring, a woman shouts “You suck!” at him. Midnight flips her the bird. “You suck also!” she retorts.

10:44 p.m., Grand Avenue: Leaving Platform and driving back toward Dogtown, we spot a large spotlight in the parking lot across the street from the Central Library. Investigating, we find a half dozen teens and early-20-somethings taking turns dancing in front of the bright light as someone else films.

What are they doing? Filming a music video, they say.

Where will they release it? YouTube, probably.

Where did they get the spotlight? The group is light on specifics.

11:11 p.m., Lefty’s Live Music: We’re here for something called BASSberry Jam. Whether that’s the name of an event or a musical act is unclear. What is known, however, is that it involves lasers. The pitch-black space is pierced by the green, red and orange beams of light as they illuminate smoke from a series of hazers set up on the stage. Booming, thumping music vibrates the air as people dance and move and sweat their way through a song that doesn’t end.

Behind the bar, co-owner Anne Mathey slings drinks and, with a bemused smirk, shakes her head at the young crowd jumping around in front of her. Just blocks away from xBk, the two venues serve as anchors to the evolving culture of the Dogtown neighborhood.

Lefty’s Live Music

12:00 a.m.: Fifteen hours after we started, it’s time to go home. Betsy has snapped hundreds of photos. My Garmin reads 28,368 steps. We’ve crisscrossed the city a half dozen times and visited more than 20 venues. On this particular day in Des Moines, if you had been so inclined, you could have worked on your bonsai tree, had your fortune read, bought a horse, caught a ballgame, seen some live music, watched two men named Malice and The Big Picture bash one another over the head with bamboo kendo sticks—and still had time for dinner.

Moving forward, we may never have a world where COVID isn’t a factor, always bubbling under the surface. But after two and a half years of isolation and uncertainty, people seem to be, as the Civic Center’s Preuss said, glad to be back.

It’s just a shame that there’s nothing to do in Des Moines.

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