Thursday, October 18, 2012

Iowa in Autumn 15-17 October 2012

Is this Heaven?
No, it's Iowa.
-Field of Dreams-

My personal "seasonal Heaven" is indisputably autumn.  Living in Southern California, however, deprives me of most of deliciousness autumn has to offer.  Palm tree fronds keep their green and our Mediterranean climate leaves much to be desired in the "gloom & grey" category.  Fortunate for me, nearly my entire family lives in the great state of Iowa...and a return to the midwest to visit my roots and family I hadn't seen in years was long past due.

I am now convinced, that October is the best month to visit Iowa: the weather is cooling, but not yet cold, the leaves are changing, but not yet fallen.  The lighting in the late afternoon is magical on the leaves of brick red, burnt orange, and bright yellow.  I took at least 50 pictures of trees and leaves along on my 3-day venture, and that was with a intentional effort at restraint. 

The principle objective of my trip was to surprise my grandparents (on my father's side).  Although I speak on the phone, email, and write them occasionally  it had been years since we'd seen each other in person.
house dad grew up in

I wrestled with the best way to execute this "surprise" that would be creative but not too shocking.  I ended up just driving to the house, still wracking my brain with what to say when they opened the door.  Fortunately, my grandfather was working in the garage, intent on shelling a box full of walnuts.  He has a small (for lack of a better word) "business" of shelling and distributing hickory nuts and walnuts in the area.  It is not a huge money maker, but he gets a great deal of enjoyment out of using his hands and partnering with neighbors who have these nut trees, helping them get rid of product they don't have another use for.  I walked up to the garage where he was shelling some walnuts and said, "I hear you are in the business of selling walnuts and was wondering if I could purchase some." He looked at me with a distant hint of recognition, covered by confusion.  Five years and a complete change of hair style disguised me sufficiently.  When I revealed my identity his eyes were wide in surprise and he buried me in a firm embrace.  "Let's go surprise your grandma" came next, and she was equally shocked to see me.  Operation surprise was a success.

Although I only had two days with them, the time could not have been spent more pleasantly.  I had several delicious meals: French Toast from their favorite diner a town away from them, cinnamon rolls for breakfast, fresh made soup (made by my aunt) with sour dough bread, followed by Apple Crisp Cow Bell Ice Cream (unbelievably good - basically the reverse of pie a la mode: it is pie blended into the "la mode" ;).

I had some one-on-one time with each of them: shopped at a local second hand store and a went to a museum with my grandma, studied the technique of horse shoe throwing (my grandpa competes nationally...and yes that makes him totally awesome) and golfing, and we had hours and hours of soul sharing conversation between the three of us.  Just being in the old house, where my dad grew up, and thinking over all the stories he has told of his youth, as my grandpa explained who is who in old family photos, telling the origin tale of family heirlooms kept in glass cabinets, it felt like I traveled back in time, or at least gone to a museum of my own history.

Both my grandpa and I were born in October, and on my final evening with them, two of my aunts, my cousin, and one uncle came over for a joint birthday party.  My relatives shared stories of their past that I'd never heard before, we sang happy birthday to each other, I got a stich in my side laughing over family memories relived.  It felt so normal and natural to be there that I forgot I've been largely California-grown.

On the third day I said goodby to my grandparents and headed off to visit another aunt (on my mom's side).  Here begins my fall-leaf-odyssey.  We hiked around a park near her house which had a paved path snaking around a body of water, lined with trees galore.  I fantasized about how amazing it would be to have this tree lined path as my daily jogging course.  I was sept away in the day dreams, in a childlike glee, as the leaves fell gently from above in the way that snowflakes drift slowly down from a first snow.  She took me for a brief taste of two state parks nearby to further expose me to the beauty of a midwest October (locations will be discussed below). The time was short, but wonderful, blessed by discovering a kindred spirit who loves fall leaves, woodsy areas, and the great outdoors as much as I.

house mom grew up in
It is amazing to me that despite being separated by half a country, by years of no "face time,"family bonds remain as strong as ever.  No awkward spaces in conversation, it feels like no time has passed at all.  I truly didn't want to leave and as I drove back to the airport I marveled at how blessed I am to have the family I do, who makes me feel so loved and welcome even when I'm hundreds of miles away.  Iowa may not be "home" in the way where I reside, but it is a component of "home" in the way that it is where a significant part of my heart lives.  Every time I've gone back, this time most of all, it feels like I am returning to a portion of myself, to my roots, to the family that I treasure beyond words.

A few things not to miss if you find yourself in the Des Moines/Cedar Rapids area:

  • Grey Lake (near Des Moines): an excellent little loop for running, walking, or cycling.  On a calm day the water has a perfect mirror-like reflection quality.  This was my first stop after the airport, and I got my first addictive tastes of fall trees.
  • bakery @Czech village
  • Jason's Deli (near Des Moines): grabbed lunch here with two of my cousins.  It has a wide variety of sandwiches and a great salad bar.  Good if you need a quick bite.  The line was consistent but did not make for a long wait, a testament to its quality of food and service.
  • Czech Village (near Cedar Rapids): a celebration of the Czech diaspora that came to Iowa years ago, Czech village has a museum, bakery (be sure to buy some roliky & kolach!), butcher's, gift shop, and cafe...all maintaining authentic Czech culture.  As luck would have it, the museum was currently featuring an exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonsa of my favorites.  My mom's family, five generation's back, is from Bohemia, and her family in Iowa used to come here often to purchase meat and baked goods.

  • Palisades State Park (near Cedar Rapids): a complete Autumn Wonder Land.  Every curve in the road lead to a shower of fall leaves, colors of every vibrancy. I thought I would explode from the beauty of it all.  I desperately long to return here in a future October to camp and hike deeper into the woods.

  • Lake MacBride State Park (near Cedar Rapids): Features hiking trails and lake side spots for picnics, complete with stunning views of fall foliage   The best part was my mom has frequently spoke of coming here in her youth, and now I know why she remembers it so fondly. 

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