Visiting Iowa

Visiting Iowa

Aldo Rossi
Aldo Rossi
Hogs, heifers and prairie dogs—it doesn't get more honest-to-goodness than Iowa.

I've always liked pigs. In Iowa I learned to call them hogs, or haahgs, as it is pronounced there. When I told people in New York City that I was going to Iowa, they said, "Oh, yes, potatoes," or nodded sympathetically and declared, "Real flat." In fact, I learned that Iowa is not flat and that potatoes are grown mostly in Idaho. The rank and file seem to know little about the state, and Iowans have a good enough opinion of themselves not to care—perhaps they even encourage this ignorance. John Cheever believed Iowans took pleasure in urging visitors to keep going toward Omaha. Don't you listen to them: Stop in Iowa.

The Amana Colonies, seven tiny red-brick towns around a loop of road, are one of the few attractions in Iowa that guidebooks mention. The scenery—old dairy farms, red barns, tall grain elevators with silver domes and black-and-white checkered trim—is largely the way it must have been a hundred years ago. Yet I couldn't decide whether farming is thriving in the hands of enterprising young farmers who have made the (now profitable) decision to farm organically like their families before them, or whether it is about to be swallowed up by industrial agriculture.

I wondered: If this place has survived the "modern era" without being developed or ruined, why can't it stay like this?It is no surprise that Iowa, where even bits of land along highways are being restored to wild prairie vegetation, was the birthplace of one of this country's first conservationists, Aldo Leopold, who believed that a society rooted in the soil was more stable than one rooted in pavement. Laura Jackson, a biologist at the University of Northern Iowa, invited me on a student field trip she had organized to restore five acres of prairie in Dauben- diek, one hour north of Cedar Falls. I drove about 150 miles to get there. Leaving Homestead, in the Amanas, at dawn, I sipped an RC cola and ate two slices of bread that I'd saved from my dinner the night before, thinking of the early departure. I turned on the radio and fell with glee upon the lyrics of a country song whose refrain went, "If I'm not in love, I'm on the verge."

I arrived at about 11 by a dirt road and parked near what appeared to be a field of weeds. I looked more closely at what had once been, and will soon again be, a prairie, and under the expert guidance of Professor Jackson, it blossomed into words—Indian grass, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, mountain mint, bottle gentian, meadow blazing star. There are hundreds of plant species in a prairie, almost as many as in a tropical rain forest, and to restore one you have to burn it down to get rid of encroaching sumac and quaking aspen. The native plants survive and what doesn't belong is eliminated. Some prairie animals burrow deep into the earth to wait out the fire. Lanes have to be cleared so that it can spread safely, which was the purpose of this field trip. Shortly after I arrived, Mike Natvig, a farmer of Norwegian descent who lives nearby and looks like a blond Jesus, pulled up on a silver tractor known as Field Boss, which I coveted right away. He belongs to a group called the Practical Farmers of Iowa, which meets regularly to exchange ideas on how to make a living as independent farmers.

While Natvig was chopping down the bigger trees, I inspected his tractor, at first from the outside and then, since no one seemed to be paying attention to me, by stepping into it gingerly. The moment I sat down, I knew I had found my ideal studio: high above the landscape, with views through the windows on all sides, I was on a bouncing seat, free from interruptions other than those of daydreaming, with a radio, heating, and air-conditioning at my disposal. What more could a writer want?As Jackson and her students girdled quaking aspens and cut down other shrubs that could not be handled by the tractor's blades, I sat on my perch in seventh heaven, rocked by the wind, watching the grasses sweep right and left.

Back at my inn in Homestead that evening, I sat on a rocking bench in the garden beneath an ancient leafy tree. The excited fluttering of birds from branch to branch at sunset made some leaves drift off the stems in a dancing rain of gold. Cicadas could be heard, and the distant mooing of cows; then, suddenly, a big hooting noise and deafening thunder, as though all the air had been sucked out of the atmosphere—a freight train rattled by, behind the barn across the street. I counted more than 30 cars; then stillness, and the cicadas and crickets were heard again—long, low trills, like a distant unanswered telephone, and constant, barely audible tweet-tweets.

On Professor Jackson's advice, I tried to catch a glimpse of buffalo the next day at the Walnut Creek Wildlife Refuge. A sign warned promisingly, BUFFALO ARE WILD AND UNPREDICTABLE ANIMALS: STAY IN YOUR CAR. It made my pulse race, but the only creature that dared cross my path was a field mouse. At least I saw what a properly maintained tall-grass prairie looks like. It was time for lunch, so I headed to the Prairie Rose Tearoom in Prairie City. It has white lace curtains and tablecloths, and a doorway decked in pink tulle. At the table next to mine, one woman was telling another about a 12-step program for chocoholics. I'd have signed my name on the bottom line to reach the age of 102 as fit as the woman at another table who was eating cake to celebrate her "little sister's" 100th birthday. The only sign of her advanced years was a hearing aid. As for the sister, she had flown in from Phoenix for the occasion. I thought perhaps sweets, steaks, and country air are the recipe for a good life. I could see myself at age 100, sitting out in a field on a late-summer night, listening to the corn grow. (I'm told it makes a loud crackling sound.)

I HAD JUST DAINTILY PICKED CLEAN a wonderful Dover sole at David's Milwaukee Diner in the grand Hotel Pattee in Perry when, since the night was still young, I decided to inspect the bowling alley in the hotel's basement. Two young women had preceded me and were tying their shoes. When they caught sight of me peering through the window in the door, they invited me to join them. No one admitted to knowing how to play, and I turned out to be the only one who didn't. My companions bowled expertly from the start. As I continued to spin one ball out of two into the gutter, they instructed me on how to improve my aim, and also on the strangeness of names in Iowa—Keokuk, Poweshiek, Appanoose, Pottawattamie, Oskaloosa. They were farmers' wives, they said, or rather "widows," since it was harvest season, and their men left at five in the morning and returned at midnight. One of them, Mollie Schlosser, invited me to Colfax and promised me a tour of her farm.

I knew by now that I could not resist the lure of a farm, especially since I'd already dispatched some of my tourist duties. I had been to the covered bridges of Madison County, made famous by Robert James Waller's best-seller and the film with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. "Hogback Bridge is like Sophia Loren," a woman at the Madison County Chamber of Commerce told me. "You can't take a bad picture of it." I had made a somewhat hurried pilgrimage to John Wayne's birthplace in Winterset, where the guide explained that although this was the ek-chul house and the ek-chul place, these were not the original furnishings: John Wayne's parents took their furniture with them when they moved, "because they didn't know they would have a star." Stars were all very well, I thought, but the hogs were calling to me, so I phoned Mollie and made a date to meet her in Colfax. After all, Iowa is hog coun-try, and that's why the corn is grown.

I drove through the town, past the convenience stores and the cemetery, all the way to the end of the road, where I found the green house with a two-car garage that Mollie had described. She had changed from her city clothes—a pleated wool skirt and boiled wool jacket with pewter buttons—into jeans and a sweatshirt. She asked if I had any "down" clothes, which I didn't, having long ago given up dressing either up or down for a place. We skipped over two iron fences to the sow farm, spread across several acres of open fields.

A creek makes the soil sandy, and most of the trees have no bark because the pigs scratch themselves against them. Each sow had a corrugated metal shelter shaped like a tunnel. On one side were the pregnant sows, which stay pregnant "three months, three weeks, three days, three hours, and three minutes," Mollie's husband, Greg, later told me. On the other side were sows with their young—some pink, some white, some black with a white stripe. The piglets stick close to their stern, watchful mothers, who grunt at regular intervals. When we approached, the piglets drew near with a look of intense, arrested curiosity in their eyes, their snouts pointed upward as though they might retrieve some information from that higher altitude. "Who are you?" they seemed to inquire, and not for the first time in my life, I wished I could converse with animals, like Francis of Assisi or certain lion tamers.

YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A VEGETARIAN to love hogs: To slaughter a hog on the farm where it was raised, I was told, is far more humane than taking it to the slaughterhouse. Greg's mother, Karen, who is married to a farmer and whose son is a farmer, has a collection of hog-inspired objects—hog ashtrays and pitchers, sunbathing hogs and sprawling hogs, hogs in costume and naked hogs, sows with bosoms and hogs vanishing into barns, as well as, naturally, a hog mailbox. Needless to say, about 10 yards from her front door there are hundreds of real hogs. "You have to love what gives you a living," Karen told me. "Want a pop?" It took me a couple of seconds to understand I was being offered a soda.

We joined Greg, and he took me up on his tractor for a ride. As I sat on the armrest of the only seat, we drove to town to deliver the corn and have it weighed at the co-op—it turned out to be a 34,000-pound load. There was a little mound of soybeans on the floor of the weighing station, and Greg handed me some to taste. Then he gave me a few corn kernels. "I like the corn much better," he said. The soybeans were soft and buttery, but the kernels were tastier.

In his pickup truck, Greg took me out to where his father, Wayne, was harvesting a neighbor's soybean fields. "Everything my dad owns is red," Greg said, "his tractor, his pickup truck, his house." Greg insisted I get up on a combine. Wayne was too shy to do the honors, so he left the driver's seat to his son, and we went up and down the field, cutting and threshing. The blades separated the stalks and grasses from the pods, and the hulled beans were miraculously conveyed to the back of the combine. We advanced through a mist of dust rising from the blades. The seat was wide and comfortable, unlike that of the tractor. We were 10 feet above the landscape, with nothing but fields and sky in every direction and the sight of other farms in the distance.

Greg showed me the abandoned one-room schoolhouse across a narrow dirt road on his grandmother's property. Schoolhouses like this were the inspiration for the "Alton School Room," one of many themed guest rooms at the Hotel Pattee in Perry (others were the American Indian and the Bohemian rooms). I'd chosen to sleep in it because I'd been taken with Herbert Hoover's Quaker schoolroom in West Branch the day before—whitewashed, with dark wood trim at elbow height, wooden desks, and portraits of Lincoln and Washington.

Hoover's schoolroom wasn't much larger than the house Mr. Hoover Sr. had built for his young family after finishing his rather grander ironsmith's shop across the street. It was a "starter home," as the guide diplomatically put it. When the cast-iron stove was brought indoors during the winter months, it took up much of what counted as the family room; the only other room was the bedroom, where five slept—the parents on the double bed, the boys on a trundle bed stored under it, and a baby girl in a cradle. I liked the crescent moon carved in the outhouse door and the quote from Herbert Hoover painted on a sign by the picket fence: "This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life."

I TOLD GREG OF MY FASCINATION with his upbringing, so unlike my own, which was scattered over every continent. I presumed that he had always lived in one place, but he shook his head gravely. "Oh no," he said, "I moved, too, you know—three times," and pointed to the three houses where he had lived, including his current one. They couldn't have been more than an acre or two apart. "My favorite is still my parents' house. I'm a mama's boy and proud of it."

"Did Mollie tell you how we met?" he asked abruptly. I said she hadn't. It was some story, he said. He had gone to a party, and toward the end of it, he danced with a broom. He liked it so much, he named the broom Mollie. When his female friends heard he had a girlfriend called Mollie, they were bitterly jealous, but he wasn't too bothered, because if they wanted to be jealous of a broom, that was fine by him. Then, when he met a real Mollie a fortnight later, he told her, "Did you know I've been dating you for two weeks already?"

In between stories, Greg gave me a crash course on how pigs are rounded up, inoculated, and weaned—"by that time their mother doesn't mind, because the piglets have teeth." When the sows are ready to be bred, Greg lets them out into the open fields, and they go running about, coming back only for water: "The commotion brings on their heat, so I let eight boars into the fields and, after a day or so, replace them with eight fresh ones."

"No man should want more than fifty hogs," Greg's grandmother never tires of repeating, and he carefully avoids telling her that he has about a thousand. He took us behind her house, where the piglets are confined once they're separated from the sows. The youngsters all came forward eagerly, a wiggling stream of pink and black bodies and damp snouts. When Greg picked one up, it squealed so stridently and insistently that anyone less knowledgeable of a hog's antics would have put it down immediately. I could understand the woman I heard about later on a plane out of Des Moines who kept a pig as a pet and fed it cough drops and Oreos. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?" Greg asked as we left the sty.

Driving away, feeling nostalgic already for the place I was leaving, I almost laughed at the notion of being accused of vegetarianism, counting all the steaks and chops I'd eaten during my stay in Iowa. After buying a bag of freshly picked Macoun apples at a gas station soon after my arrival, I'd slipped into a regime of apples by day and steaks by night, and never felt better: maybe it was the climate, or the quiet of those days spent driving, discovering that no two cornfields look alike, even after you've seen a hundred. Perhaps you can eat red meat near a cornfield but not in a city. It's we poor city people who need organic produce most, since we don't have much of an organic life.

Back in New York after a week in Iowa, I found that there were too many restaurants and not enough bowling alleys, too many people and not enough hogs, but more than anything, too much concrete and not enough cornfields. When I declared my new allegiance, one woman said, "Oh, you're such a snob." I wasn't offended. I just explained about the winding, empty roads, the sunsets over cornfields, the hogs, the cows, the Mississippi bluffs, John Wayne's birthplace and Herbert Hoover's, and how I hadn't even been to the Loess Hills or to Dubuque. And at the end she conceded, grudgingly, "Sounds wonderful."

But I say that the sights in Iowa are just a pretext to take to the road and cruise down it while admiring the scenery. Charcoal roads, like a satin ribbon unfurled on the landscape, rise and fall over green and gold hillocks. I drove some 1,200 miles in my periwinkle blue Mercury Mystique and felt I had been initiated into the wonders of the American heartland, quite as if I had been a raccoon, a prairie dog . . . or a haahg.


The ideal month to visit Iowa is August, when the corn is at its height and the Iowa State Fair is held in Des Moines (in 2001, August 9—19). I recommend buying Iowa Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places, by Lori Erickson and Tracy Stuhr (Globe Pequot Press).

Driving around is your best diversion. Highways 150 north from Urbana to Decorah, 151 to and from the Amana Colonies, and 169 south from Perry to Winterset are good roads to follow. Try to visit a working farm; inquire at the chamber of commerce in any town.

Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau 800/579-2294 or 319/622-7622. The Amana Colonies, seven brick villages that began in 1855 as a religious society formed by German immigrants, are now home to excellent, old-fashioned German restaurants, B&B's, and craft shops.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Walnut Creek) 9981 Pacific St., Prairie City; 515/994-3400. A great place to see a maintained tall-grass prairie, as well as buffalo and elk.

The bridges of Madison County The beautiful, covered wooden bridges are worth seeing even if you're not a fan of the book or movie. The Madison County Chamber of Commerce (73 E. Jefferson St., Winterset; 515/462-1185) can give you more information. Head to the area around Cedar Bridge for a delightful picnic spot.

Birthplace of John Wayne 216 S. Second St., Winterset; 515/462-1044.

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site 110 Parkside Dr., West Branch; 319/643-2541.

Die Heimat Country Inn 4430 V St., Homestead, Amana Colonies; 888/613-5463 or 319/622-3937; doubles from $65. A wonderful 18-room B&B.

Hotel Pattee 1112 Willis Ave., Perry; 515/465-3511, fax 515/465-3909; doubles from $110. Take your pick of the themed rooms, and be sure to visit the bowling alley downstairs. The sublime restaurant, David's Milwaukee Diner, serves fish, which is something of a rarity in Iowa.

Hotel Fort Des Moines 10th St. at Walnut St., Des Moines; 515/243-1161, fax 515/243-4317; doubles from $80. A good base for staying over in Des Moines.

Zuber's Restaurant 2206 44th Ave., Homestead, Amana Colonies; 319/622-3911; dinner for two $20. The windows are hung with white lace curtains, and main courses all come with six side dishes—cottage cheese, vegetables, sauerkraut, applesauce, coleslaw, and fried potatoes with gravy.

Espresso Yourself 122 N. First Ave., Winterset; 515/462-5962; lunch for two $14. Yes, it serves espresso, and delicate sandwiches on focaccia bread. The Prairie Rose Tearoom in Prairie City has closed.

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