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  • Writer's pictureJoe

The Hawkeye State

Hello again, friends, and thank you for joining me for this very special blog post. My journey has finally brought me back to Iowa, the land of my birth. The Hawkeye State - famous for early caucuses, corn, hogs, ummm, covered bridges, the World's Largest Truck Stop, the birthplace of various celebrities that moved away and never returned, the home of a poorly regarded POTUS, aaaaaand not really a whole lot else. I've maintained for years that Iowa is the least famous state. That is, I believe it is the state that the average American knows the least (often absolutely nothing) about. This is not a value judgement, simply a statement of fact. There are states that are more boring or abjectly worse, but none are as anonymous as Iowa. As I've mentioned previously, common reactions to dropping the I-bomb on people include, "Iowa... that's... potatoes, right?" and, "Iowa... I think I've driven through there." Once again, no, it's not potatoes, but yes, you've probably driven through it if you've ever been on I-80.

It mostly looks like this.

But fame is of no great import to the roughly 3 million nice folks who call Iowa home, and it was not fame, but family that called me back to the Midwest in the middle of the summer of 2019. My dearest cousin Daniel, the very first Cool Boy, was set to wed his longtime sweetheart Sarah in Cedar Rapids on Fourth of July weekend. Having the summer off while recovering from my broken elbow, I found it to be the perfect opportunity to finally cross Iowa off my crapitols list.

The original Cool Boys.

I had booked myself a late night flight on Tuesday July 2, but a late aircraft meant a delay of several hours, which I spent drinking whisky and eating brownie bites in the United Club at Denver International airport (a very nice MileagePlus Explorer Card perk). It also meant a 1:30 AM arrival at the dinky Eastern Iowa Airport on Wednesday, July 3rd. The plane arrived so late there was no one working at the airport, and we had to wait until someone got called in to bring us the jet way. I was happy to see my dear mother and Maeve Ryan waiting for me at the curb. Maeve Ryan is a 4 pound Yorkie Poo. She's pure sass, hates squirrels, is so black that she's difficult to photograph, is terrified of me, and is very hard to catch. She's goddamn adorable.

The tiny, elusive, and sassy Maeve.

I managed a few hours sleep in my old bedroom with mom's new air conditioner cranking. Though I had several possible target dates for making a run at the capitol that week, I awoke feeling confident today would be the day. Mom had the Honda all gassed up and ready to make the 2 hour journey to Des Moines. I just had to wait for my companions.

Soft smiles all around.

The very first blood relatives to join me on my crapitol quest would be Tom and Lucy, my eldest nephew and favorite niece. I thought that perhaps in the middle of their action-packed summer vacation they might want to go on a little road trip with their uncle Joe to learn a little bit of Iowa history and to wait around while I pooped and then be featured on my blog. Big sister Katie thought it was a great idea so she packed some snacks and dropped them off bright and early. We hit the road about 9 AM.

It was a fairly quiet ride most of the way. Soon-to-be high-schooler Tom had been up since a 6 AM freshman football weight-lifting session and fell asleep about ten minutes into the drive. Lucy was silently occupied with her Nintendo. I regrettably don't get to spend much time with these kids and I began to wonder if I was doing this uncle thing right. I recall road trips with my uncle Brian back in the day where we never shut up, constantly demanded to be entertained, and endlessly begged for him to buy us Big Slams of Mountain Dew. Neither Tom nor Lucy were asking me to buy them a liter of pop (yeah, it's called pop), so I didn't quite know how to gauge the situation. Luckily the tension was broken when we ran over a giant chunk of shredded truck tire and Tom was jolted awake. We chatted the rest of the way about how little time any of us had ever spent in Des Moines.

Mmmmm, can't wait to take this coffee inside the capitol.

After a quick stop for coffee at Plain Talk Books & Coffee, we wandered over to the capitol grounds, which were covered in blankets and lawn chairs of early birds staking their claims to good seats for that evening's Independence Day symphony concert. There's nothing more Iowan than arriving early to get a good seat, except of course, arriving early to get a good spot at the back that's easy to get out of before everyone else leaves.

One of us is thrilled to be here!

We entered the visitors center on the ground floor and immediately encountered two small setbacks: (1.) The tour departed 20 minutes prior, and (2.) No drinks are allowed in the capitol and I would have to leave my coffee behind. The only thing to do was take a few way-too-hot gulps, leave the beverage behind at the gift shop, and catch up to the tour already in progress.

We caught up to the tour in the old Iowa Supreme court chamber. As we had missed the start of the tour, I once again failed to learn the name of the tour guide, but I can tell you that he sported an amazing buzz-cut with a long, slender, braided rat tail in the back.

They were on sale!

Completed in 1886, the Iowa State Capitol is the only five-domed capitol in the country. The building survived a fire in 1904 and went through several renovations over the following century, with the last major work completed in 2001. The long-since completed work is gorgeous. The grand staircase is flanked by matching lighted statues that were originally intended for the Illinois State Capitol, but were deemed two lewd for public display by the prudish Illinoisans, and scored at a reduced price by the discount-loving state of Iowa.

Open toes are supposedly good luck.

The grand staircase leads to the giant mural Westward, by Edwin H. Blashfield, a classic example of state capitol art.


The tour continued with stops in the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which I had actually visited previously. You see, dear reader, this was not my first visit to the Iowa Capitol. Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1999, I attended American Legion Boys State at Camp Dodge, Iowa. This is a week-long mock-government camp for boys (there is also Girls State) sponsored by the American Legion since 1937. An announcement was made at school that applications to Boys State were open to juniors, and somehow my mom got wind of this and made me apply. I was content to go about my summer working on the grounds crew of the local country club, getting off at 3 PM each day and coming home to play Contra on original NES and listening to Californication on repeat, but instead I was tragically accepted into the program. So I surrendered a week of my summer and shipped out to an Iowa National Guard Camp where poor saps like me from all over Iowa were tossed into barracks. Each barracks was a "town" where we elected town "officials" and sent "representatives" to the "state government" and "learned" about citizenship and governance. A few lucky lads from each bunk were selected to the State Patrol program where they did obstacle courses and rappelling and fun stuff like that. They even got teargassed, after presumably signing waivers. The food was okay and there was a swimming pool but it got a little boring towards the end of the week. Luckily our counselor was cool and rented the Star Wars Trilogy on VHS for us to watch. The grand finale came when we all piled onto buses bound for a joint session at the Iowa State Capitol, where we elected my high school classmate Tom Ebinger Governor of Boys State. Tom then got to introduce Iowa's 40th Governor Tom Vilsack who would give us the standard future leaders pep talk.

Summer of '99

After American Legion Boys State Tom Ebinger went on to become Prom King, attend Yale, and become a doctor. I returned from Boys State to find my family had moved out of my uncle's basement and into our own house, then went on to earn a bachelor's degree in philosophy and write a travel blog about pooping. Imagine what American Legion Boys State can do for you.

But I digress. The highlight of the Iowa State Capitol is the State Library, a gorgeous, four-story room full of arcane texts and spiral staircases.

The tour culminates with an ascent to the dome, a rarity among capitol tours. Thus far, only Denver and St. Paul have offered excursions into the upper heights of their capitols, and those were both exterior balconies. Technically Nebraska as well I guess, though that building has a tower instead of a dome. The Iowa Capitol offers a 360 degree circumnavigation of the interior of the dome, and a stern warning that children under the age of 16 not be allowed to hold anything whatsoever in their hands. According to our guide, dropping a cellphone or a pair of sunglasses could kill an unsuspecting bystander below.

We ascended the many winding stairs and emerged out onto the interior balcony where everyone clung as closely as possible to the wall. As is all to common for extremely tall people such as myself, the railing that served to keep folks from falling to their deaths was woefully too short, making for an uneasy stroll around the dome.

The tour concluded and we were dismissed to roam the capitol as we pleased. I told the kids to sit tight while I went back downstairs to the visitor center to grab my coffee and purchase an Iowa State Capitol enamel pin (sadly Iowa is a bit of a souvenir penny desert). I chugged the rest of the now room temperature coffee and headed for the restroom. I had doubts about this trip from the outset. I've found it best to travel solo on these excursions, since one ought not needlessly subject others to the mercy and/or fickle nature of one's digestive system. Would I be able to hit my window of opportunity with the nephew and niece in tow? Would they be kidnapped while waiting for their weird uncle to poop? It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. Though the restroom was lackluster (no brass, no marble) and desperately in need of a post-1980 renovation, I had no trouble pooping under the pressure. For 18 years of my life I lived in Iowa. Most of the dumps I've ever taken I've taken in Iowa. But this one, this is the one that counted.

American Hero (photo: Lucy G.)

It was time for lunch, and we had a hot tip from my sister that we should go to Zombie Burger. If you guessed it was a burger joint with a zombie theme, you are correct. They had wacky burgers like the Trailer Trash Zombie Burger with chicken fried bacon and cheese curds. I had the Stranger Things themed special which was a ball of cheese deep-fried in crusted Dorito batter served on Eggo waffles because I have no self-control. Or self-respect. One of the two. Also I had a birthday cake shake. I was on vacation. Anyway, with our stomachs now full, we swung by Drake University on our way out of town so I could show the kids their mom's Alma mater, where they begrudgingly agreed to be photographed.

And with that, my crapitol mission was complete and I was free to enjoy the rest of the week with my family. We cooked hot dogs, caught toads, and watched fireworks at my brother's place, drank fine scotch at uncle Brian's office, swam at Tom and Lucy's pool, played with mowing-obsessed nephew Frank, chased Maeve around the house all week, visited with dear Grandma, had a blast at the now-legendary King-Fagan Wedding, caught up with Getta, hung out with my pops, got devoured by mosquitoes at my friend Tim's house, saw Midsommar, and bonded with my brother-in-law Matt Ireland over Stolen Car, a superb deep cut off of Bruce Springsteen's The River.

Almost everyone.

Next on the list: Cheyenne, Wyoming. Stay tuned!

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