When thinking of great places to visit in the world, Paris, Rome, New York and London are just a few of the cities that top most lists. Rarely does one hear “Iowa” mentioned, seldom does one call out that landlocked state seen mostly from above by those traveling from coast to coast and sometimes to Chicago.
I had always romanticized the Midwest, most likely a consequence of watching one too many Westerns or my strange predilection for obscure American history, so I was more than excited when a friend invited me to stay with her on her family farm in Decorah (pop. 8109; 7.04 sq. mi.), a small town located in Northeastern Iowa.
Established in 1849 and populated with settlers emigrating from Norway, the formerly Winnebago Indian land became a town steeped in Nordic traditions. Even today, Norwegian flags adorn the buildings of Decorah. The local high school mascot is the Viking, be it football or wrestling, and an annual Nordic Fest (tagline: “May the Norsk be with you!”) is a major event for the city.
There is no airport near Decorah. The closest one is over an hour’s drive away in Rochester, MN. There are no shuttles between cities, no cabs willing to take you without your contributing a small fortune. Options are relatively limited, and it seems that people heading Decorah-bound already know someone there or are simply returning home.
This is what makes Decorah a place set to its own means. AT&T has no business here (it’s Verizon and US Cellular country), and even locals find it difficult to acquire quality high-speed Internet connections in their homes. Everyone seems to know everyone, like one big Cheer’s bar.
From Rochester to Decorah are highways nearly touched to their edges by cornfields that stretch seemingly without limit the other way. This is the land of John Deere, one can see while driving past, of cows and pigs and lots of hay, of fields tended by combines and tractors city folk see only in film; “God’s Country,” some say.
“It’s just like in the movies,” I kept repeating as the evening sun splashed against the grain silos and upon the waving stalks of corn. And again, I said it, when a single pickup truck zoomed across a gravel pathway in the distance at sunset, leaving a dramatic white smoke trail in its wake. (Jerry Bruckheimer would be pleased.) And again, as we sat in the dark along a farmhouse porch watching the explosive aerials of a neighbor’s Fourth of July spectacle. The Independence Day evening I imagined sitting on a patio watching fireworks, hands still sticky from making s’mores over an open fire, drinking cheap beer and watching lightning bugs illuminate the dark was realized, and I’ll never make fun of Busch Light again.
My expectations were few, only that I wanted to discover the American Midwest, the “Heartland” as it’s affectionately called for good reason. Being from Hawaii, it was not a strange transition, only that I kept subconsciously expecting that the ocean sat beyond the horizon. I felt small after realizing that the ocean (any ocean) was, in fact, very far away.
Highlights of the trip included the Toppling Goliath Brewing Company (a local craft brewery — try the Pseudo Sue), Mabe’s Pizza (Midwestern pizza at its best), Phelp’s Park and Palisades Park (for gorgeous views), the Decorah Fish Hatchery (because who doesn’t love feeding fish for a quarter?), the Whippy Dip (for that classic American ice cream experience), T-Bock’s Sports Bar & Grill (because I had to watch the 2014 World Cup — ouch to Brazil), and La Rana Bistro (because it’s just damn good). We even visited the town of New Glarus in Wisconsin, also known as the “Little Switzerland of America,” where one can find the amazing (amazing) New Glarus Brewing Company. My only regret was not buying more bottles of beer to take back.
The people were noticeably kind. Sure, the way of life is different here; Monsanto ads can be found along freeways and corn-fed everything is the norm. Even the airport at Minneapolis-St. Louis hosted numerous Fox News Channel shops. But that’s the way it goes and, despite our obsessively lauded San Franciscan ethics, I would argue that the quality of people in Decorah are much better than many found in the big cities.
The concept of “home” is a subjective one, something my Iowan friend and I discussed at length. Being from one place (Iowa for her; Hawaii for me) and living someplace entirely different (San Francisco) brings with it pluses and minuses. San Francisco is no doubt an amazing city, but the home of the mind still cannot compete with the home of the heart. Iowa reminded me a lot of home, the latter one, the one you feel deep inside.
There could not have been a better final night than a visit to the Winneshiek County Fair during its opening day. It was the classic fair experience, complete with carnival games, the pungent smell of livestock, vendors selling farm equipment, funnel cake and live country music blaring from the stage. The closer was a scenic nighttime ride in the Ferris wheel; this was the Midwest romance I was looking for.
In the ambience — from the quiet, sunny mornings to the ominous thunder-rattled nights when both cable and Wi-Fi went down — I was reminded of what I learned during my vipassana meditation retreat (mostly bringing it up because it was very hard and you should read my post on it), that we should always be mindful of where we are at the present moment. Soon, I would be on the plane back to San Francisco, I thought to myself during my last morning, and I ought to bathe in the sensations of the present while I still could; read: I ate more cheese curds. These are the lessons of awareness that make you wiser (and get you more cheese curds).
My next planned trip this year will take me to many of the most beautiful cities in the world — Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Gothenburg, Warnemunde, Tallinn and Reykjavik — places I’ve always dreamt of visiting. Even still, I won’t forget about my adventure in the heart of America, back to the metaphoric “home”; I won’t forget about Decorah.