Life in Iowa (and the midwest)

November 21, 2009

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A substantial portion of the readers from The Soap Boxers are from the midwest, but we also have other people spread out over quite a geographic area – not just in the United States and Canada, but spread out across Europe and Asia as well (with the occasional visitor from Australia or New Zealand spread it).  Today’s article is mostly geared toward the out of area readers.


When I say that I’m from Iowa, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that I grew up on a pig farm.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was a dairy farm.

While it’s true that a considerable portion of Iowa’s economy is tied to the agriculture industry, it is far from the only industry in the state.  My own “day job” is working in the information technology area of one of the most recognizable companies in the country.  Quite a few Fortune 500 companies have a presence in Iowa, and there are plenty of white collar jobs in the state.

Cost of Living

One of the best things about the midwest is a substantially lower cost of living than on the coasts.  I live in a city that is more expensive than most in the state, but it’s laughably less expensive than New York, San Francisco, Seattle, or even the larger metro areas within the midwest.  On the rare occasion that I watch a real estate show that watches people buy homes in other cities, I have to laugh.  People are paying multiples of what my house costs and getting a fraction of the space.

Caveat: salaries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle can often by higher than those in the midwest.

Weather / Traffic

The midwest is blessed/cursed by the existence of seasons.  We don’t have the consistently frigid temperatures of Point Barrow or the baking heat of Death Valley, but it does get over 100 degrees in the summer and wind chills can dip to fifty degrees below zero in the winer (although that is fairly rare).  During the course of the year, we’ll get rain, snow, sleet, hail, freezing rain, fog, and even something fun called “wintry mix”.

One quirky thing that we do in Iowa answer the question of “How far is it to point X” in miles!  Why don’t we give the answer in minutes?  Well, because there’s a pretty standard conversion factor that everyone knows.  1 mile = 1 minute.  I work in one of the larger cities in the state, and a “major” traffic delay means 15-30 minutes.  A few years ago, I was delayed for nearly an hour!  For someone in NYC, this might not sound like much of a delay, but it’s historic around here 🙂


Considering that Iowa has the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses, you may jump to the conclusion that Iowans are, by nature, very political people.  This really isn’t the case, though.  The registered voters in the state are split pretty evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters.  The Democrats have done well in recent elections, but any given election can turned based on how the substantial block of unaffiliated voters swing.

The big political news this year was the state supreme court legalizing gay marriage.  Iowa has never been known as an activist state, so this came as a surprise to many.  Opponents of gay marriage are proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.  However, it’s difficult to even get such a measure on the ballot.  Such a measure must pass in the state house and senate in TWO consecutive state assemblies (an assembly lasts two years) before going in front of the voters.  With the Democrats in control of the state legislature, there is not chance of this occurring any time soon.  The next chance the Republicans would have to gain control would be in the 2011-2012 general assembly, meaning that it will be 2013, at the very earliest, before this measure could go in front of voters (since it must pass in TWO assemblies) – where it would face an uncertain fate.

What to Do – Sports

Iowa has no top-level professional sports teams.  However, we are within an easy day’s drive of Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Milwaukee (or a more aggressive day’s drive to quite a few other cities).  So sports fans in Iowa aren’t completely shut out.  A nice bonus to this is that you don’t feel compelled to lock in to one particular sports team.  The fan base within the state is fractured.  The Cubs have a plurality among baseball fans, but there’s also a strong contingent of Cardinals and White Sox fans.  The Vikings probably have the most football fans right now, but this tends to flip-flop between the Vikings, Bears, and Packers depending on who is doing the best on the field.

The biggest sporting events in the state, however, are the college sports.  Iowa is the only state that has a team in both the Big 12 (Iowa State) and Big 10 conferences.  This leads not only to debates about which team is better, but also which conference is better.  (Iowa State and the Big 12 are better, of course).

If you’re a fan of college wrestling, Iowa is a great state for you.  Wrestling legends Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson wrestled for Iowa State, with Iowa native Gable later switching sides and turning the Iowa wrestling program into a juggernaut.  During the season, quite a few wrestling matches are televised on the state’s PBS station.

There are also quite a few race tracks in the state, ranging from go-kart tracks in the smaller towns all the way up the the Iowa Speedway in Newton, which features NASCAR Nationwide and truck racing, as well as an IRL race.

There are five affiliated minor league baseball teams (headlined by the AAA Iowa Cubs) as well as an independent league team in the state.  There is also the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville (a hop-skip-and-a-jump from my hometown).  It has been twenty years since the movie came out, but the field still attracts visitors.  Admission is free.  They do accept donations and will happily sell you merchandise.

What to Do – Non-Sports

OK, I realized that not everyone is a sports fan.  What is there for the non-sports fan to do?  Well, of course there is access to activities in the larger metro areas mentioned earlier, but what is there to do within Iowa itself?

Hebert Hoover Presidential Library – It might surprised you to know that Iowa is home to a presidential library.  The library and music of native Herbert Hoover can be found in West Branch.

Cable Cars – Cable cars aren’t just for San Francisco.  You can recreate the experience in Dubuque, riding up the side of a hill in a cable car.  I was there when I was a kid, and it was pretty cool.

Burial MoundsEffigy Mounds National Monument features more than 200 Native American burial mounds, including 31 that were formed into the shapes of animal.

The Bridges of Madison Country – Yep, Iowa is the home of the covered bridges of movie fame.

Rivers – Iowa is bordered by the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  This provides great access for fisherman (and fisherwomen), and has also resulted in interesting topography for hikers.  Personally, I like the bluffs along the Mississippi.

The Basilica of State Francis Xavier – Don’t think there’s gothic architecture in Iowa?  Check out the Basilica and you won’t be disappointed.

RAGBRAI – Every year, thousands of people participate in this ride across this state.  It’s half exercise and half party.  Well, maybe that’s not the exact percentage 🙂  They change the route every year (but it’s always west to east)

I’ve just scratched the surface … swing by and visit Iowa some time.

Review of St. Louis

September 23, 2009

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Over the years, St. Louis has become a favorite destination for my wife and me.  Many times in the past, trips to St. Louis have included a trip to the Edward Jones Dome to catch my wife’s favorite team, the St. Louis Rams.  Our most recent trip, however, did not include a Rams game.

My wife was the navigator for the trip.  She had programmed destinations into our Nextar GPS navigator, and also had printed information from Mapquest.  We have learned from past experience that the Nextar can be a bit quirky, although it generally does a pretty good job.

The first stop was at the Galleria Mall.  I’m not much of a shopper, so I made a beeline for the Apple Store.  The Apple Store is a great place to catch up on email and browse the web.  I have used Apple Stores for this purpose in 3 different malls (Mall of America in Minnesota and the Jordan Creek Mall in Des Moines).  In general, if you don’t make a nuisance of yourself or hang out for hours on end, the employees will leave you alone.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First, Apple believes that their computers sell themselves – so that casual users in the Apple Store will eventually turn into buyers.  Second, it’s never a bad idea when there are a lot of people in a store – it makes the product look more popular.

After the Galleria, we checked into our hotel.  We like to stay at the Drury Inn by the Gateway Arch.  The location is great – walking distance to the Edward Jones Dome, Busch Stadium, the Arch, and lots of restaurants.  We hopped on the metro to Union Station.

We wanted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe.  We were told that the wait was 15-20 minutes.  We patiently waited, and were eventually told that our table was ready.  The waitress began to lead us outside, and we politely mentioned that we preferred an indoor table (we hadn’t been asked for a preference when we checked in initially).  She told us that it would be “a few more minutes.”  Fine, we sat down to wait a few more minutes.  Ten minutes later, I asked if they knew how much longer the table would be.  About 15 minutes.  This seemed to be longer than the “few more minutes” we had been quoted.  It seemed like we were being jerked around a bit, so we left and ate elsewhere.

The next day, we went to Grant’s Farm.  The Busch family donated the property and Anheuser-Busch provides a lot of financing.  Admission is free, although parking is $11.  I don’t quite understand the logic of this, but it’s still a great bargain, so I’m not complaining.  The first part of the trip is a tram ride where you can see a lot of wild animals.  I had the digital camera handy and got a lot of shots – particularly of the bison and zebras.

The tram stops at a central area within the facility where you can see more of the animals up close.  There is a variety of animals from farm animals (you can feed the goats) to African elephants.  My wife loves elephants, so we rushed to the elephant area to catch the elephant show.  The first show didn’t actually have a large enough audience, so the trainers just had the elephants do some training exercises.  This was pretty cool.  After that, we took a look at the other animals, and caught most of the bird show (pretty neat) before going back to the elephant area for the next show.  This time, the audience was large enough.  Robbie (trainer) and Mickey (elephant – short for Michelob) put on a show.  The show was educational and entertaining (Mickey raced a couple of kids in a balloon blowing contest – she gave them a huge head start, and beat them easily with just one breath).  We did the VIP tour ($5 each) afterward.  We got to tour the bull barn – a massive building where Bud (male elephant) lives.  Then we got to meet Bud.  We fed him carrots and got pictures taken with him.

In the afternoon, I made a trip across the street from the hotel to visit the Gateway Arch.  This is, of course, the icon of St. Louis.  The Arch soars 630 feet in the air.  You ride to the top in a little tram car that has five seats.  I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to cram five normal sized people into one of the cars.  The cars have a bit of Ferris Wheel movement to them, since the trip to the top is not completely vertical (since it must travel along the curve of the arch).  I rode to the top with a guy from Pennsylvania and a happy young couple.  The woman had a very nice camera.  I coveted the lens, and told her 🙂

The top of the arch is a fabulous place for taking photos, and I took several dozen photos.  I took a quite a few pictures of Busch Stadium.  The game was over, but they were letting kids run around the bases.  Even though I’m a Rockies fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take photos of a ball park.  I also took quite a few pictures of the mighty Mississippi River.

Why Winnipeg?

August 9, 2009

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In what should be the first of a series of “promoting” some Canadian tourist destinations, I figured I’d start with one that is a challenge: my current city of residence, Winnipeg. Winnipeg is often the butt of jokes from Canadians (an air miles commercial comes to mind where the guy took the wrong flight and instead of Hawaii he ended up going to Winnipeg and was very unhappy) mainly for its weather. In winter, it can reach as low as -50 celsius and in summer as high as +35 celsius. The city is about a 20 minute drive west of the centre point of Canada. I view this as a bonus, as it makes it easier to access the different cities in the country. Anyways, here are some of the specifics which I think make Winnipeg stand out:

MTS Centre: One of the 10 busiest venues in North America each year since it opened, it has helped attract some big names in terms or performances and concerts. I have enjoyed Cirque do Soleil, Oasis, numerous hockey games, Disney on Ice, etc. The building will turn five years old this fall, but remains a bright spot in the city’s downtown area. With plenty of parking surrounding it, the arena has helped revitalized the downtown core.

The Forks: An area of the city on the Red River packed with history, is also the future home of the Canadian Human Rights Museum which is slated to open in spring of 2012. There are plenty of old stores, restaurants, the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball stadium, and a long walkway along the river for anyone’s enjoyment. I sort of fashion it to the Navy Pier in Chicago.

Cultural Events: Every summer there is an exciting and diverse list of festivals that every Winnipegger can look forward to. There is the two week long Fringe Festival, packed full of small plays and shows in many small venues that cost only $5-10 to attend. This festival brings acts from all over North America. Currently going on is the two week Folklorama, which showcases over 40 pavilions with countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, El Salvador, Cuba, Mexico and many others. Each pavilion provides entertainment, history, food and more which give the visitor a real taste of that country. Folk Fest runs for five days in July at Bird’s Hill Park and gives people a chance to tent out and enjoy their favourite musicians. Elvis Costello and Ani DiFranco were notable performers this year. Countryfest, which is a yearly set of concerts in Dauphin (a short drive west of Winnipeg) also brings some big names up north for country music fans. This event always sells out and sells out early, and featured names this year such as Tim McGraw, The Roadhammers, Charlie Major, and many more.

Proximity to Stuff: Want to visit our neighbours to the south to feel what life in the States is like? Grand Forks is a mere two hour drive south. Want to see Mall of America and all of the major sports leagues? Minneapolis is just a 6 hour drive southeast. Want to spend time at the lake, go to a beach? Well then you are talking about 30-120 minutes worth of driving, in basically every direction. Heck even Chicago, Edmonton and Calgary can be done in a 12 hour drive. If you like road trips, there are lots of great things to see and do in only a day’s drive.

I guess what motivated me to write this is a story in the news this week about how tourism in the city is down a fair bit this year. Now obviously the weather has something to do with this (8 months in a row of below average temperatures) but also the new law put into place in June where you must have a passport to cross the US/Canada border by car. With many Americans not having bothered to obtain a passport, this has hit hard up here. I encourage Americans (and Canadians for that matter) to go and get this, and experience the many great places that are not really that far from home.