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Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines, Iowa, RDG Planning and Design

I lived six years in Iowa. Three years in Des Moines, Iowa, while my husband was at Drake Law School, and then three years in Sioux City, Iowa. These are my memories of Des Moines, which is the largest city in Iowa, and also the state capitol.

Jeff and I moved to Iowa in July of 1993. We arrived in Des Moines on a rainy afternoon, and checked into a hotel room. Other than the rain, I distinctly remember that day, as we were driving down a residential street pulling a small U-Haul trailer, a car passed us, going at least twice the speed limit, and as it got ahead of us, the driver flipped us off. Welcome to Des Moines!

The next day we looked at a few apartments, and then found one just two blocks away from Drake University. It rained a little in the afternoon. We moved ourselves in, getting boxes inside, got our futon bed set up, and then took showers. The next morning my dad called me from Denver, and asked about the flooding.

I looked outside at the dry streets. Sure, it was raining yesterday, and we heard that this was the already one of the wettest summer on record, but the sky was blue and there weren’t even any puddles to be seen. I laughed and asked what he was talking about.

After the call, we turned on the local news and learned that large portions of Downtown Des Moines and other areas near the confluence of the Des Moines River and the Racoon River were under water. We also learned that the greatest casualty of that was the water treatment plant, not-so-conveniently built in a bit of a valley, with a not too high levee, which overflowed. Dirty, contaminated sewer mixed in with the city’s clean water supply — so no more water for the city of Des Moines until the water could be completely drained, the levee rebuilt, and the treatment plant was functional again.

For the next 10 days we did what everyone else did — lined up for water by the grocery store with whatever jugs and containers we had, and filled them from large tanks trucked in by the city and the National Guard. And we lined up for flushable water that our landlord provided from a large tank parked near the apartment complex courtyard. After the third day, we heard glorious news. After days of taking what Jeff’s grandmother called “whores baths” — washcloths plus water, we drove to the nearby Camp Dodge Army Base, where we took the coldest showers in the history of showers.

But, that was only a preview of the wonders that awaited only a couple of days later. We drove to the posh neighborhoods of West Des Moines, where nice hotels were allowing use of their rooms for showers — actual warm-water showers. This was largely an honor system, with people waiting in lines, a little grumpy, but happy to be there — like waiting to go on the rides at Disneyland.

On the 9th day, I have had enough. I cried and felt sorry for myself and threatened to go back to Denver. Sadly, this tactic of whining to the universe worked . . . and we got clean, running water restored the next day.

At that point, we had lived in Iowa less than two weeks. Welcome to Des Moines.

Des Moines was the only city that contained one building downtown made of metal — and made to rust. But before anyone would suggest that I am writing only negative things (although it is only my truth I am writing), I want to be fair and mention two things (and a half) that I really liked about Des Moines. The first was the highway that ran the length of the city, and through the very center of it, with easy exits every mile or so. This was extremely convenient to get anywhere in town very quickly.

The second best thing was the Downton Sky Walk system. Downtown Des Moines skyscrapers are not many — but most of them are connected by elevated walkways — like a human Habitrail. The walkways themselves are wide, spacious, and contain business kiosks and restaurants along these windowed hallways between buildings. The walkways play an important role during the brutal Iowa winters. This brings me to the half thing I loved about living in Iowa — the winters. I love winter, I love snow, and I love the cold.

It took me a while, but I figured out that around September it stops being sunny and warm in Iowa, and the sun doesn’t come out until March or April. The wind, that cold damp wind, goes right through your clothing, straight to the bones. And rain becomes sleet, and then becomes snow. Our first winter in Des Moines (following that later-summer flooding) was particularly brutal.

The TV weatherperson came out of the downtown news building wearing a heavy parka and a balaclava that covered everything except the tip of his nose. He mentioned that he was worried about the tip of his nose getting frostbite. Then he took a glass of water and threw it on the wall. He reached out and touched it, his glove slipping on the ice it immediately became. “Stay at home,” he cautioned. “It’s too dangerous to go out. Stay at home.”

That winter, McDonald’s, which was two blocks from our apartment, had a promotion. Each day for the month of December, the Big Mac Sandwich was the price of the high temperature of the day (of 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit). And when the high temperature hovered around 5 to 10 below freezing for over a week, Big Macs were given away for free — limit one per day per customer. Oh yes, we ate well that winter! Ok, we did not eat “well,” but free hamburgers and 10 cent hamburgers taste the most delicious.

I have to mention the people of Iowa — the Iowegians. Many of the good people of Iowa come from hardy Scandinavian and German stock — very serious folk. Hard working, make great small appliances and sturdy windows for your home — you have to know them for three years before you can tell them a joke. They ran the emotional gamut between woody and stony. What do I mean? My sister-in-law, Amy, and I went to the circus, we cheered, “woo hood,” and laughed and applauded at the feats of daring, the tricks, the magician, and the goofy clowns. I wanted to stand up and just yell, “ENJOY YOURSELF!” but politely did not. I’m fairly certain that the people seated around us stared more at us than the true action of the three things.

We visited the Amana Colony, created by the German Mennonites. Actually, there were seven Amana towns, one of whose is famous for making refrigerators and small appliances. We visited Pella, Iowa, a very Dutch town, with the Amsterdam-Dutch façade of all the business in the center of town, and festival with wooden-shoes and fields of tulips. We ate in wonderful restaurants (and less wonderful ones).

For some reason, we found that the Iowans don’t much care for car upkeep or even keeping their cars aesthetically pleasing — most cars were dirty and could be heard approaching and leaving from far away. And we saw many, many fields of corn. So. Much. Corn.

All right, there is one more thing I am going to mention — Des Moines has the most beautiful capital building I have ever seen. Why be content with just one cupola? Let’s have a bigger one in the middle, and four smaller ones on each corner of the building. Lovely, really.

After passing his bar exam, Jeff got a job working as a Human Resources Director for the school district of Sioux City, Iowa. But that is the subject of my next blog.

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