Why visit Des Moines?! Six words pilgrim, “The John Wayne Birthplace & Museum”. That and the World Food Prize.
John Wayne Birthplace & Museum: Located 30 minutes outside Des Moines in Winterset, IA, is the largest museum dedicated to the greatest American. If you are a John Wayne fan (or higher), like me, then the $15 admission fee may be worth it - otherwise, you (or your spouse) may want to give it a pass and get some Hot and sour soup at the nearby China Cafe. The museum contains plenty of well-displayed artifacts (his 1975 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon, hardhat from Hellfighters, the buggy from The Quiet Man), but gives almost no context to a man who was an Academy Award-winning actor, arguably the greatest motion picture star of the 20th century, a producer, director, political activist, and friend. Don't worry, I've already let TripAdvisor know.
- Winterset is located in Madison County, which is also home to the eponymous bridges. After visiting The Duke's birthplace you may want to inspect some or all of the bridges with your spouse, which may feel like the premise of a hilarious, but ultimately tear-jerking rom-com. Either way, it will make for a nice country drive, as when I said to my wife while driving to the second bridge "honey, look up ahead, the road is going to end", she replied "dear, only the pavement is going to end", to which I replied, "I'm a city boy, that's what the end of the road means". There are six of them, to which some or all have all been novelized, filmed, burned down, moved, rebuilt, and/or renovated. If you are limited by time (you lucky dog) then only see the Roseman Covered Bridge, which due to its aesthetics, engineering, and role in the eponymous movie has been designated the AAR #1 Bridge of Madison County.
Iowa State Capitol: Prior to visiting I reviewed TripAdvisor, which back in 2012 used to be a little secret I had with the internet, but now has become a race to the lowest common denominator. A reviewer "The VMan-13" eloquently wrote, "They had me by ‘hello, you can keep your concealed firearm on you, and mask (sic) is not mandatory’. Beautiful building with interesting (sic) history and good (sic) variety of exhibits.". I decided to visit, well-masked, anyhow, but kept an eye out for a "knuckledragging (sic), unibrow, Neanderthal wearing a red, white, and blue wifebeater with flip-flops". I breathed a sigh of relief when there was no sign of him - the tour was just me and the Missus. Our guide Gale did a fine job showing us the best parts of the largest gold-gilded domed capitol building in the U.S. She mentioned that during construction in 1873-84, the two small female statues flanking the grand staircase were previously rejected by the Illinois Statehouse because they were too risqué . This made me think of a statue of a female gracing the nearby Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil War Monument erected in 1895 which features a topless woman proudly displaying her breasts (of which she should be justly proud). Supposedly they‘re a big hit with tittering schoolboys and sophomoric quadragenarians. BTW: Gale mentioned at the end of the tour that she would not be getting a Covid vaccination as she didn't want to be part of anyone's test project - well so much for that sigh of relief. Bottom Line: A very nice capitol, ahead of Texas and Denver but behind Harrisburg. See the complete AAR state capitol rankings here.
Lodgings: Stayed at the Marriott downtown via a Friends and Family rate (an easy $20/night savings). If you have a good friend in the hotel business then you may want to ask them about it. The Marriott is centrally located and part of the whole Skywalk pedestrian system.
- The Skywalk connects most of downtown via an above-ground walkway. It kind of reminded me of the Houston tunnel system, except that as most of it is above ground it doesn't make you feel like a rodent, and when you do exit to the outside, your face doesn't melt off. - Parking: Expect to pay $10/day to park (it’s pretty much citywide, most likely due to the Parking Lot Guild). Following a Costanzanian quest, I found free parking; as three of the four bridges that cross the Des Moines River allow for free parking, 24/7.
Pappajohn Sculpture Garden: Located downtown is a patch of grass the size of a football field that contains some interesting sculptures. Definitely worth the visit and admission.
-The place is named for John Pappajohn, a local venture capitalist. As rich as this guy must be, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him (x2): as most tourists must credit this beautiful park to a bad pizza or the jerk who used to make them and what parents in their right mind with the last name of Pappajohn, name their son, John?! I leisurely strolled the park and inspected each sculpture. If you are short on time you can approach it in two ways:
a. Just inspect the stuff the looks interesting to you.
b. Hit only the works by famous artists: there’s an Ellsworth Kelly (“a wind turbine blade stuck in the ground") and a Willem de Kooning ("an amorphous blob"). It does not have the required Calder, but does have a "knockoff" by Marco Polo di Suvero (it's not the first knockoff he's made, I think it's part of his schtick). Note: Each piece has a nearby plaque providing the requisite details (artist, name, date, material), though I wish the sales price was also included.
- There is an accompanying audio tour that can be accessed via your cell phone. Some may find it interesting, but listening to Thurston Howell III talk about "psychological tension . . . celebrations of the materiality . . . simultaneity of cuteness and . . . " all became a little too much. I wished he talked more about how it was made and less about what it all means. BTW: I never knew simultaneity was a word.
- The Krause Gateway Center across the street was probably the best sculpture, as it looks like a five-story building with each floor twisted 30 degrees from the next. Its courtyard contains two conical cement "radar" dishes placed ~100 ft. apart that transmit whispers, allowing Mrs. AAR and me to whisper explicit nothings to each other.
Rooftops Bars: Des Moines punches way above its weight when it comes to the skyline, as it may have the world's highest Skyline ratio (quality of skyline/population). Unfortunately, there are only two rooftop bars that allow you a good look at the goods. And both are lacking.
- The Republic on Grand: Good for a beer as most of the best views are obstructed or denied by the placement of the seating. The capitol is but blocks away but almost completely obstructed by the placement of the rooftops bar (which required me to insert my cell phone through a crack in the glass windows) and the downtown skyline is partially obstructed by the adjacent apartment building. - 300 Craft & Cocktail: Nicer and closer views of downtown Des Moines that are only slightly obstructed. When I sat at the relativity covid safe outdoor bar, I asked the bartender for a bar menu and he replied they didn’t have one, as the beer list was constantly changing, though they were thinking of putting one online. I said that could be a good idea as “I think the internet might be around for a while”. You’d think bars would want to have a bar menu to help market their most profitable drinks so that patrons wouldn’t take the path of least resistance and just order a Bud (all hypothetical of course). We eventually hit it off, as he used to date three girls from NY and therefore could appreciate my constructive criticism for the sarcasm it really was. When I asked about getting the finest cocktail in Des Moines he recommended this place . . .
- Hello Marjorie: Located directly next door to my hotel (does it get any easier/more dangerous than that?). The large space reminded me of a well-off friend's living room in the late 70s (which is a good thing). I asked the bartender for his take on a Manhattan on the rocks (i.e. a Flackhattan), so he made me a . . . Manhattan on the rocks (Four Roses, Doulin vermouth, Angostura bitters, rocks, cherry), nice but lacking imagination, though the cherry was excellent (not like those shriveled up boutique cherries).
Fong’s Pizza: Ever wonder what would happen if a pizza joint took over the space and condiments of a prior Chinese restaurant? Well, now I don’t. The menu is a mashup leading to such “Signature Pizzas" as General Tsao's Chicken, Crab Rangoon, and Mongolian Beef. I couldn’t make the leap, so I went with the Southsider which was olive oil, capicola, Graziano sausage, garlic, fresh basil, tomato, and mozzarella with an Italian giardiniera finish. It ain’t NY pizza but was actually pretty good (though I’m still not sure celery and carrots really have a place atop a pizza).
The High Trestle Trail Bridge: Located 20 miles north of Des Moines, it was built by the Milwaukee Road in the 70s as a railroad bridge and converted to a pedestrian bridge in 2011. The spiraling steel frames around the concrete roadbed are intended to evoke the sense of a descent into a mine shaft, a nod to the history of mining in central Iowa. Though I think a ride on a fast bicycle on a full stomach could be a nod to vertigo. Either way in 2015, the BBC designated it as one of the eight amazing footbridges in the world (though if you ask me it should be ranked no higher than 11). The late winter views from the middle looking south over the Des Moines River, reveal a bleak starkness that is quite beautiful.
Des Moines Art Center: Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect, but as Duke² Wayne might say "the amount first-class pieces of art in this place is ri-goddamn-diculous³". And as SNL's Stefon might say "I have just the place for you . . . Des Moines hottest museum is . . . this place has everything . . . a Picasso, Lichtenstein, Calder, Hopper, Rothko, Basquiat, and a Monet ". All of which are displayed in a building designed by Sarrinenen, Meier, and Pei (an architect supergroup that would make Asia proud).
- Most museum gift shops don't have a comprehensive selection of postcards of the art contained therein. But this one does. Which was nice.
The Sum It Up: While Savannah has been deemed AAR's Most Beautiful City in the U.S., Des Moines is AAR's Most Cleanest City in the U.S. And I mean clean, like Tokyo clean. A former resident described it as a sleeper city, and I might just agree.
Required Reading/Watching/Listening: Either The Bridges of Madison County: The book, the movie, or the musical. It was a NY Times bestseller for over three years, led to a Meryl Streep Oscar nomination, and won two Tonys.
-Note: If you want a pdf of the book, just email me at michael.j.flack(at)gmail.com.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ Fong's may therefore be classified as Chinese-Italian cuisine. You know what they say, "the food is great, but an hour later you're hungry for . . . my wife stopped me from completing this endnote.
² While his many fans call him "The Duke", to his friends like Grant Withers, Ward Bond, John Ford, and Maureen O'Hara, he was just "Duke".
³ "ri-goddamn-diculous" is a tmesis (once uttered by Wayne), which is a linguistic phenomenon in which a word or phrase is separated into two parts, with other words between them. A good example is “How-heinous-ever it be” (from Richard II, by William Shakespeare).