Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Civil War history unfolds at Iowa sites

A soldier yells, a weapon fires, and the Battle of Shiloh begins. Immerse yourself in the action during Keokuk’s Civil War Re-enactment. Keokuk’s location in the far southeast corner of Iowa seems to bring it closer to major events of the Civil War, and for 25 years the community has been commemorating its Civil War history, which includes Civil War generals and one of the nation’s earliest national cemeteries. Other re-enactments are planned in Nashua, Mason City, Bonaparte, and Davis County this year.

Another personality of the Civil War era is revealed at the Council Bluffs home of General Grenville Dodge, Civil War general and railroad builder. Just a few blocks away is the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, also celebrating 150 years with a new exhibit opening May 12. Take time to see their Lincoln Collection during your visit.

Just open is a new 10,000-square-foot exhibit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines, titled “Iowa and the Civil War: Nothing But Victory.” See more than 300 authentic artifacts and documents, including battle flags and weaponry, and follow first-hand experiences of Iowans at war and the communities that supported them.

Stories of victory and defeat will be relived through special events and exhibits during the five-year national commemoration of the conflict so check to explore more Iowa connections.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Piece together a quilting excursion

Take a colorful excursion into quilt country with special events, exhibits and attractions. For more than 40 years, Kalona’s quilt festival has brought the quilts of its local Amish crafters together with other examples from past and present for a large quilt show and sale. This year’s event is April 27-28, but don’t worry, if you can’t fit the festival into your schedule you can visit The Quilt and Textile Museum and local quilt shops throughout the year. In downtown Kalona, the idea of a “quilt walk” is given a whole new twist, with 42 quilt block designs embedded right into the sidewalks.

In the Amana Colonies, quilts and other textiles served a utilitarian purpose in early communal life, while the skills of 19th-century colonists inspired future generations of artists. Today visitors can purchase antique and contemporary quilts and quilt supplies at several shops in the seven villages. Tour the Amana Heritage Society museums for a look at exhibits, artifacts and living history settings interpreting the unique communal lifestyle that developed here.

With East Central Iowa as the starting point for your quilt quest, consider embarking on one of Iowa’s many barn quilt tours to see barns and farm outbuildings painted with oversize quilt block designs. Grundy County was one of the first to develop the barn quilt tour; now there are similar tours in Washington County, Butler County, Sac County, Humboldt County and others.

Mark your calendar for the Living History Farms Quilt Show in late September or an exhibit of Civil War Commemorative quilts at the Grout Museum of History and Science in Waterloo now through September 1. “Comfort and Joy” is the theme of a holiday quilt show and quilt block walk during Creston’s annual Christmas festival. Create a patchwork of memories – start planning today.

Celebrate Spring - plan your Iowa getaway today!

Spring is in the air and thoughts are turning to weekend getaways and warm-weather excursions. If the open road is calling you to an Iowa adventure this spring or summer, it’s never too early to begin planning. Order a free Iowa Travel Guide or view the digital version and get started today.

Want to get in on a special celebration? Take your pick of anniversaries and grand reopenings across the state! The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, closed in 2008 due to flooding, is reopening on higher ground July 14-15 and starting a new chapter in their fascinating story. Whenever you visit, be sure to wander the Czech Village district, sample Czech specialties at the bakery or local restaurants, and visit the Kosek Building to see the exhibit “Rising Above: The Story of a People and the Flood.”

Much of Iowa’s history is tied to the railroad, and 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Union Pacific. The UP Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs unveils a brand-new exhibit May 12 titled “Building America.” Cutting-edge technology will immerse travelers in the experience of building the transcontinental railroad. While in town, make tracks to the RailsWest Railroad Museum to view steam engines and other vintage rolling stock along with a large operating model railroad.

The only U.S. president to hail from Iowa, Herbert Hoover, attended the opening of his presidential library and museum in 1962 and 50 years later the West Branch site remains a relevant and interesting place to delve into political history from many eras. Learn about the development of the museum complex, imagine what it might be like to dine on White House china, or draw parallels and contrasts between the 20th century president and Abraham Lincoln, whom Hoover greatly admired.

Take new inspiration from the Grotto of the Redemption as it turns 100 years old. Off the beaten path in small-town northwest Iowa, it has nevertheless welcomed pilgrims from around the world to explore precious stone and gem-encrusted formations and admire the work of many faithful hands. Festivities in West Bend June 22-24 include tours, a parade, children’s activities, and Christian concerts.

You’re sure to find your own way to celebrate on your next Iowa trip.

Monday, April 23, 2012

I'm a Little Bit in Love with this Woman

I'm glad I met this Cleveland woman, who had just found out she got a free ticket to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and did two cartwheels. We could all learn a little from her.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Here's to Richard Reid

Perhaps we should judge a life by how one is remembered. My dad, who died 10 years ago today, had a SRO funeral. A few hundred Tulsans filled the aisles around seats fit for 200. Many were people I’d never met. Friends from high school. And patients without medical insurance my dad, ever the old school doctor, had visited on unbilled house calls, often bringing him at odds with his more business-minded peers.

My dad was right. He made a habit of taking little self-deprecating comic jabs at the well-to-do, the privileged, the millionaires of Tulsa — and there are many. The chic Utica Square shopping mall became, in a purposeful self-mocking drawl, ‘OO-TA-KEE Square.’ He called Toyotas ‘tee-OH-tas.’ He once, in a moment of weakness, bought a red Cadillac, then traded it in a week later he was so embarrassed to drive it. Often he’d stop on the way home from work, to look for and collect golf balls overshot by richer doctors outside the walls of a country club. My dad shunned and ignored status, be it ‘MD’ or otherwise. A lieutenant in the navy, he’d pass the officers table in the mess hall to dine with the privates. His favorite people tended to be waiters and clerks and cash attendants. When I’d get upset over something — a book report grade or a football game — he’d say, good-naturedly in a hilariously over-pronounced voice, ‘someone is taking things a LIT-TLE too seriously.’ It let me know that in the end very little that consumes us really matters that much.

Nine months before he died, Lonely Planet sent me on a research trip around the Great Plains, and I cajoled him away from work for a few days of South Dakota roadtripping. I drove the whole way, letting him soak in scenery he’d never expected to see and always wanted to. I purposely approached Mt Rushmore the back way, weaving through the stunning Needle Highway, until we reached, suddenly, a full frontal view of four US presidents in stone. ‘Oh!,’ he said by impulse. Usually one who remained dryly hilarious about everything he did, I’ll never forget this unguarded reaction of joy. Somewhere video exists of the trip, but I’ve still not had the heart to watch it.

The day after he died, I flew back to Tulsa from San Francisco and we found a manila envelope filled with instructions of what to do. He had pre-paid for a gravestone to be beside his brother’s in Bartlesville. He wanted to be cremated. He include a few quotes he wanted to be shared at his service, which included words from Lincoln, Gandhi and the Talmud. Not your standard material for a First Presbyterian service in Oklahoma.

But what was best was his suggestions for who to direct it. An African-American South Baptist preacher patient of his I had never met. Tulsa remains a pretty segregated place, sadly evident from the tragic shootings in north Tulsa a week ago. And I have to think my dad’s choice might have raised a few eyebrows. Good. But I know why he picked him: because he respected him, his passion; he was a friend.

But best of all, finding that envelope on that sad day ended up a parting gift. A chance to collaborate with my dad again, on one last thing. It brought him back to life again for me. Like he always will be.

As I said at the service in 2002, I’ve accidentally been called ‘Richard’ on occasion most of my life. It’s a mistake I’ve never minded.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Unsinkable Stories: 100 Years Later

Photo courtesy of Brucemore
On April 11, 1912, the RMS Titanic set out on her maiden voyage carrying more than 2,000 passengers. She sunk just four days later. Two members of Brucemore's Douglas family and former Cedar Rapids' residents Walter and Mahala Douglas were among at least 36 passengers aboard the Titanic with connections to Iowa. Personal accounts, documents from the Douglas family archives, and excerpts from local newspapers are currently on display in the Unsinkable Stories: 100 Year Later exhibit at the Brucemore Visitor Center in Cedar Rapids.

Mahala Douglas
(Photo courtesy of Brucemore)
“Many exhibits examine the national and international impact of the tragedy,” said April Kamp-Whittaker, Director of Learning and Museum Projects. “Few focus on the human experience. Unsinkable Stories provides a regional and individual perspective, connecting Iowans to the personal accounts of the historical event and international tragedy.”

The exhibition is open during Visitor Center hours, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Brucemore, Iowa’s only National Trust Historic Site, is located on a 26-acre park-like estate in the heart of Cedar Rapids. The Queen Anne style mansion was built between 1884 and 1886.

Information supplied by Tara Richards, Brucemore

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I've Never Been to Cleveland

In January, the Atlantic did a survey of an issue that often overlaps with my feeling of why travel is so important: perception. Often we find outside perceptions of a place immediately burst when you go. Things like, oh, that in the '90s, that Americans should be leery of traveling in Vietnam, travel to places like Colombia or Mexico is too dangerous to consider, that all Russians or Parisians or New Yorkers are unfriendly. All you have to do is go to know better.

The survey looked at the 50 biggest cities in the US and which had the most positive and negative associations. The positive 10 included lots of coastal cities with Seattle at #1. The negative list predictably ran through the Rust Belt, with three Ohio cities in the top 10, and Cleveland at #3 (behind #1 Detroit and #2 Birmingham).

I wonder how many of the people surveyed had been to those places?

I've never been to Cleveland, the city Liz Lemon linked with sandwiches in a '30 Rock' episode and has been misspelled for years (it's named after Moses Cleaveland), but always have wanted to. I go tomorrow to attend the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony this weekend and see some rock sites.

Before I go, I thought I'd document a few things I think I think about Cleveland.
  1. It won't always be pretty but I'm guessing there will be particular pride in the place that championed its own 'You Gotta Be Tough' slogan on t-shirts since the early '70s. I learned a bit of that while talking with locals for my '9 Reasons LeBron Should Stay in Cleveland' post for Lonely Planet a couple years ago.
  2. Cleveland really is the heart of rock'n'roll. A lot of people wonder how Cleveland got the Hall of Fame. In the early '50s, DJ Alan Freed famously used the term 'rock'n'roll' to make R&B more attractive to white kids. A writer for the Plain Dealer said, 'It wasn't Alan Freed [that brought the hall to Cleveland]. It was $65 million.' Ie Cleveland raised the money before places like Memphis or Detroit (or New York) could. I think I think it's more than that.
  3. The Cuyahoga is not on fire. Pretty much any article on Cleveland -- a travel story, a political story, a sports story, REM song ('Cuyahoga') -- mentions that its river was so polluted it caught on fire in 1969. (It burned for 20 minutes. Actually a 1952 fire, one of 12 others over the years, caused much more damage.) Since then, the city's been committed to cleaning up the river. The fish are back. I kayak it on Sunday.
  4. Joan Jett and Michael J Fox aren't still slow dancing, as brother/sister (weird), at the 'Euc.' In the rather bad 'Light of Day' film -- that was almost a Bruce Springsteen movie called 'Born in the USA' years before his album -- Jett and Fox 'bond' at the Euclid Tavern. I'll go tomorrow to see that fabled dance floor, and have a burger.
  5. Axl won't show. G'n'R are getting inducted, and I think the question of will/won't he? will hang over the whole evening. [Looks like I was right.]
  6. It's not boring. And I'll wish I had more time.
We'll see once I get there.

All aboard the Scenic Line!

When I married my husband, I inherited several pieces of ugly furniture, an array of Pink Floyd CDs, some really bad kitchen utensils, and hundreds of O-gauge scale trains and train accessories. James, you see, is a train connoisseur to the point of obsession. And as our sons - ages one and three - grow up, they’re constantly immersed in James’ passion and are already obvious train lovers. (Not that they have any choice.)

It’s no surprise, then, that our family outings often involve train-related activities. This summer we’re planning to visit the new exhibit at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. The Watson Steam Train and Depot Museum in Missouri Valley and the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District in Sioux City are on our bucket list, too. 

But our favorite railroad attraction is the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, mostly because it’s a short 40-minute drive from our home in Johnston. We travel to Boone several times a year to enjoy A Day Out With Thomas™, the Pumpkin Express and the Santa Express™. Recently, we took the kids for a one-hour journey on the aptly-named Easter Bunny Express. The ride took us over the 156-foot Bass Point Creek High Bridge and offered front-row seats to the beauty of springtime in Iowa. Our conductor announced the precise kind of diesel locomotive that pulled the passenger cars – endearing him to my husband. About halfway through the ride, the Easter Bunny visited our car, giving hugs and high fives to each child and leaving behind a small bag of jelly beans. My three-year-old was beyond delighted!

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad offers a variety of train excursions throughout the year for families and adults, including the basic Excursion Train, Valentine Dinner Train, Dinner Train, Dessert Train and much more. Even if your husband isn’t the train aficionado that mine is, I’d encourage your family to hop about the Scenic Line and experience this Iowa tradition. All aboard!

Shawna Lode, Iowa Tourism Office

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

NYC checker-cab food tour

My article on Famous Fat Dave's checker-cab food tour of NYC (link here) appears in the April issue of Lonely Planet magazine. I seriously enjoyed it more than I expected. Perfect if you have three others as a mini splurge that will get you into parts of the boroughs you wouldn't see otherwise. I've been in New York for 13 some years, and I ended up going to places I'd passed unknowingly for years in NYC. And I will definitely go back to that Yunanese place in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Chacala, Mexico

I really don't know why people stick with big-city beaches. This one, Chacala, a kilometer wide bay with perfectly soft brown sand, is 90 minutes' drive north of Puerto Vallarta. Twenty years ago it was a tiny fishing village you had to hike into from the highway. It's still only partly developed -- with no resorts or ATMS (or smooth roads). I liked how locals and tourists played volleyball together, musicians played to play (not for money), and a new married couple went right out into the waves -- in full wedding attire -- for photos.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Seals and Sea Lions Make a Splash at Blank Park Zoo

It’s no secret, to those who know me, that I love the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines. The intimate exhibits allow visitors to get an up close look at animals, help you learn about where they are from in the world, and are placed snuggly together so my children can bound from one to the next and stay in my sight.

We recently got a glimpse of Blank Park Zoo’s all new Seal and Sea Lion Pool. This is a fantastic exhibit! The new pool allows for visitors to see the seals and sea lions swimming in the crystal clear water from above and provides under water viewing which my kids couldn’t get enough of, and honestly neither could I.

It’s larger than it was before and offers a wide variety of places to enjoy the exhibit. Twice a day the Zoo has training demonstrations where they work with the seals and sea lions to do a variety of tasks while they “work” for their food. Although entertaining for visitors, this actually provides great assistance to veterinarians. Through training, these marine mammals can present a flipper for examination, open wide for a dental check and even hop on a scale.

Last summer the Zoo opened an Australian Adventure and work has already begun rebuilding and expanding their African experience. In the meantime, visitors can also enjoy a special Ice Age exhibit showcasing animals of a different era.

I’m looking forward to all the new things to come, but have to admit we love to hang out at the lion exhibit. What’s your favorite animal to see at the Zoo?

Colleen Murphy, Iowa Tourism Office