ON ASSIGNMENT

Danke Schoen

By - Sep 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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We’re back now, and our footage from the rest of the trip is in post-production. Check Matt’s blog regularly over the next few days for video coverage of the Renaissance Faire, dogs in sunglasses, dirty jokes at the hotel bar, confessional interviews, archery, driving around at night listening to “Golddigger,” revelry at the Royal Mile, ferrets and a kid on a leash. Among many, many other worthy documentary moments. You never know with that kid. He is a loose cannon.

So what, you ask, did we discover on our epic tri-state crossing into the corn-fed heart of Midwestern America? Was it a renewed sense of belonging to the region’s majestic history of stewardship, loyalty and tradition? A flaring-up of love and admiration for a charming river-valley city and the solid people who live there? Beauty and truth? A headache and a sore throat? A deep-seated inner tedium after realizing that we’d been telling the same five inside jokes for 72 hours straight?

A little of everything, it turns out.

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Last night, after a downright decadent afternoon of napping, laying around and slugging back whiskey and cokes in bed, we dragged our sorry selves out the door and drove north to El Rodeo for cheap, hearty Mexican food and a pitcher of margaritas – dinner of hung over champions. Afterward we gussied up and sauntered through the bustling bar district on Court Street to the High Life Lounge, where the shag carpeting, glaring fluorescent lights, the bros and the classic rock – not to mention the Champagne of Beers itself – almost did us in completely. But Jon Anne came to the rescue and swept us away to GT’s on Ingersoll Avenue, where, she promised, we would find an appealing blend of hipsters and greasy old bikers.

Willow did not lie. Within minutes we felt right at home in our flouncy dresses and heels, dancing to James Brown on the jukebox and drinking snake bites. We saw bikers with biker tattoos and hipsters with hipster tattoos (like the young woman who flaunted a gorgeous/weird vegetable garden between her shoulder blades) as well as comfortingly familiar ironic t-shirts (my favorite: “The Periodic Table of Des Moines”). And because Des Moines is smoke free (which I thought was wonderful, except that my friends kept abandoning me at various bars to go outside and smoke), we had lots of opportunities to hang around on the sidewalk outside and get to know each other through the transcendence of lighters and bummed cigarettes.

Around bar time, a pack of cyclists rolled up to GT’s for a night cap. After delivering my usual redundant/drunken monologue about why Milwaukee is sooooo great, I asked one of them how he liked living and cycling in Des Moines. Did he think it was bike-friendly?

His answer seemed to be “yes and no.” Greater Des Moines has hundreds of miles of paved trails, plenty of bike racks and, like Milwaukee, it’s a compact and sensibly planned city that’s easy to navigate. What’s lacking, my new Des Moinesian biker friends told me, is a bike culture – bike parties, bike gangs, biker ice cream socials, lots of robust and enthusiastic bikers all around town seeing and being seen. There are more and more bikers on the streets of downtown Des Moines and all over America, but they’re not hanging out together.

I don’t know if he’s right or wrong – poking around on bikeiowa.com didn’t turn up anything compelling one way or another – but he shrugged it off with an air, almost, of defiance. And at last call, he packed a case of Natural Ice into his saddle bag and biked off into the distance with his friends, destined for some top-secret party location under some sort of bridge.

At the Farmer’s Market that morning, I’d met a 25-year-old computer game designer who spoke with tentative hope of a new creative class putting roots down in Des Moines, opening up galleries and design collectives and starting their own businesses. It would be easy to leave a small, unromantic city like Des Moines for a hipper, flashier city. But living in Iowa is cheap, pretty and friendly, and besides, these kinds of cultural shifts don’t happen until someone makes a decision to have a go at it. Since the collapse of major manufacturing in the late 20th century, mid-sized cities all over the country – Milwaukee is one of them – have had to rethink what they are and how they do things. Des Moines has a fighting shot to become a significant regional center of smart urban restoration, and it already has so much going for it: an attractive downtown, funky neighborhoods, plenty of college students and lots of stable jobs in the finance industry.

And we had a hell of a time there.

This morning we paid our respects at the grand State Capitol and surveyed the hazy valley from the top of the hill, then left for breakfast at a truck stop in Altoona. Driving home in the stifling heat, through miles of golden cornfields, I called my dad to tell him about our trip and confess that, crushingly, I had not met Wayne Newton. When I asked him if he’d ever been to Des Moines, he said yes at first, then remembered that he’d been thinking of Omaha.

“I’ve never been to Omaha,” I said to him. “Maybe I will one day.”

“You never know when you might find yourself in Omaha,” he said. And you never know when (or … why) you might find yourself in Des Moines. But if you do, make the best of it, right? We can give you about a dozen places to start.

Categories: VITAL

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