In the first weekend of 2020, seven Democratic presidential candidates blew through Iowa like a snow squall.
Elizabeth Warren appeared in Manchester, Maquoketa, Davenport, and Dubuque.
Bernie Sanders also stopped by Dubuque, in addition to Grundy Center, Mason City, and Boone.
Joe Biden logged significant miles around the Hawkeye State as well, visiting Waterloo, Davenport, Grinnell, Vinton, and Des Moines, the capital.
I landed in Des Moines at the same time as John Delaney’s Sunday event in Sheldon and checked into my room while Biden was speaking in Davenport. If I had unpacked a little faster, I could have caught the tail end of Tom Steyer’s talk in Newton.
Over the next several days, all eyes will bore into Iowa, the first state in the country to hold a caucus or primary. The Democratic candidates are blanketing the Midwestern state, jockeying for supporters before the Feb. 3 caucuses. (A few Republicans challenging President Donald Trump, such as Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, are also popping up in Iowa.)
The politically minded will focus on the policies, positions, and personalities of the POTUS hopefuls, but I was more interested in the datelines — the destinations and attractions that will be here long after the politicians have moved on to another state, another election. The candidates come to Iowa for votes, but I came to Iowa for Iowa.
For three out of every four years, Iowa is relegated to flyover status. So, you can’t blame the state of corn, Hawkeyes, and Herbert Hoover for basking in the spotlight while it can.
Businesses around the state are capitalizing on this moment. Sock Spot, a vendor in the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, carries election-themed sport socks with candidates’ names, public service announcements (“Do the right thing 2020”), and unifying slogans (“I vote for snacks”). The store’s owner, who was wearing chihuahua-print socks, said the Bernie and Trump styles with unruly hair (comb included, to tame the locks) were doing well. But if votes were based on sales, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would be the next President.
Raygun, a printing, clothing, and novelty retailer with several locations around the state, slaps a crooked smile on the straight face of such serious subjects as politics, social causes, and Iowa stereotypes. The company, which leans left, has created islands of candidate-related merchandise within its stores.
Here, you can pick up books by Warren, Sanders, and Biden, among others; T-shirts (“Give Pete a chance!”); and laser-cut ornaments (Warren hanging with Lizzo and a gun-toting cat). If you have lost track of which candidates have dropped out of the race, check the discounted rack: “Iowa for Beto” shirts are on sale.
On weekends, diners, including many Drake University students nursing hangovers, stand in line for breakfast at Waveland Cafe in Des Moines. The place is packed; the clamoring for hash browns loud. But on a Monday morning, I had many seating choices: counter or booth, by the photo montage of regulars or along the wall of signatures by journalists and politicians. Two bites into my rye toast, I noticed a familiar face with a Ned Flanders mustache and a Hawaiian shirt.
I dropped my slice to say hello to Waveland owner David Stone. I asked him how the cafe had become a campaign and press stop during the caucuses. He said it gained national attention in 2000, when Tom Brokaw reported live from the 54-seat diner. This year, CNN wanted to set up operations inside, but Stone declined.
"They can’t take over the restaurant on a weekend," he said. "We are extremely busy, and I can’t have cameras getting in the way of my customers."
Not even Aquaman could move the mountain of eggs and potatoes. When Jason Momoa, the herculean actor and a native Iowan, wanted to hold a family reunion at the diner last year, Stone agreed, but only if his party arrived at 7 a.m. and cleaned their plates before the official opening hour of 8. "He complied," Stone said.
Since 2004, the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City has held the Coffee Bean Caucus. The process is much easier than the actual Iowa caucuses. At the front counter, guests take a bean from a jar and drop it into a smaller container embellished with the name of their preferred candidates. At the end of the day, the staff transfer the beans to the larger Mason jars lined up on a shelf near the front door. The policy is one person/one vote, but everyone can participate, including non-natives (often called “captives” in Iowa-speak), children, and foreigners.
"This gives us a really good sense of what the consensus in Iowa City is," said Elise Prendergast, the front house manager, adding that Bernie Sanders won in 2016.
On the Tuesday morning I stopped by, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were bean-to-bean, and Mike Bloomberg’s canister was empty. Prendergast said the numbers are always in flux, however. After the Democrats’ debate in debate, Amy Klobuchar’s bean count rose.
The restaurant is lined with press clippings, and toward the back, you can genuflect before a shrine to past candidates and ex-presidents. In 1992, three years after leaving office, Ronald Reagan visited the Hamburg Inn and sat at what is now the Presidential Table. According to the menu from his visit, he ordered meat loaf, french fries, green beans, a roll with butter and apple pie à la mode, which he ate first.
Of course, tastes and diets have changed since the Reagan years, so I asked Prendergast for her menu picks. She recommended the hamburgers and pie shakes, a blend of vanilla ice cream and pie — America in a glass.
At Eatery A in Des Moines, I ordered a Moscow mule and chatted with the mustachioed bartender about the property’s former occupants, first a Blockbuster Video store and later Barack Obama’s caucus headquarters. I had read that a few campaign offices were nearby and wondered with the excitement of a wildlife enthusiast on safari whether he could sense the presence of any campaign workers.
"They wear buttons," he answered, scanning the establishment.
We didn’t see any, but he did notice a man and woman of distinction in the booth behind me.
"Are you guys with the Well Pennies?" he gushed to the Des Moines-based folk-pop band. "I love your song ’Ooh La La.’ "
(That night at the hotel, I fell asleep to the duo’s music and not the news headlines.)
In Pella, a Dutch-accented town about an hour east of Des Moines, the woman in the white bonnet didn’t want to talk politics. She had more pressing matters to discuss.
Bakeries all over the town post signs for Dutch letter cookies. The employee at Jaarsma Bakery explained that the S-shaped sweets are traditionally baked for Sinterklaasavond, or Dutch Santa Claus Day, on Dec. 6. For more seasonally correct snacking, she suggested an almond banket, a pastry similar to a letter cookie but with more almond paste and shaped like a flagpole.
Jaarsma Bakery opened in 1898, about 50 years after Dutch immigrants arrived in Iowa seeking religious freedom. The Old World traditions still run deep.
Since 1935, the town has held Tulip Time, a springtime festival celebrating the Netherlands’ flower power. The Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working mill in North America, soars nearly 125 feet high, its 82-foot-long blades whirring like a lazy fan.
Five times a day, the Klokkenspel stirs to life with chiming bells and lively characters, including the gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who grew up there. His childhood home is part the Historical Village, a collection of 22 buildings, including one where wooden shoes are made and one — the Delft House — that contains vintage pieces of the famous pottery.
Continuing east, I headed for the Willkommen mat of the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark. Starting in 1855, German immigrants fleeing religious persecution established seven villages on 26,000 acres of land in central Iowa. They lived communally until the Great Change of 1932, when they split the shared nest for a more independent lifestyle. Today, 1,600 people reside in the colonies, including 300 adherents of the Amana church, a breakaway sect of the Lutheran Church.
During the winter months, the historical buildings keep limited hours, but Jon M. Childers, executive director of the Amana Heritage Society, held the keys to the colonies. We visited the communal kitchen and the church in Middle Amana, and toured the exhibits at the heritage museum, which included (empty) buckets of lard and barrels of pickled German cut beans from the subsistence days and the world’s first microwave from the more recent past (an Amana Radarange).
In the fantasy baseball movie Field of Dreams, the voice said, “If you build it, he will come.” Meanwhile, the voice in my head said: “If you offer a house tour that doesn’t involve standing outside in freezing cold, she will come.”
I recognized the two-story clapboard farmhouse in Dyersville from a corn field away. It sat above the baseball field, which looked smaller in person. I buzzed the doorbell and a guide ushered me inside. After putting on protective booties, I followed her through the kitchen, where a photo of Ray and Annie Kinsella, the fictional field-builders, sat on the counter. In the living room, the 1989 film played on a boxy TV, the sound off to prevent the tour guides from going mad.
Winter is prime time for viewing bald eagles in the Midwest. The birds of prey, which start arriving in September, hunt for food along Iowa’s major rivers, so I started my search in the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque. The cafeteria overlooks Ice Harbor, a man-made offshoot of the Upper Mississippi.
No luck on the birds, but I found Jared McGovern, the museum’s curator of conservation programs, eating a chicken sandwich. He told me to look by the lock-and-dam systems along the Mississippi River, where eagles often feast on the fish uprooted by the rushing water.
Plan B: Check the fields, in the off chance a farmer has tossed a dead pig.
So I drove out to Lock and Dam No. 11 (nothing) and Eagle Point Park (maybe something) in Dubuque. Standing on the lip of the park above the Mississippi, I caught a glimpse of two dark-feathered birds (juveniles?) and a third with a white head (mom or dad?). I tried to snap a photo to send to McGovern for confirmation but couldn’t free my hand from my mitten in time.
Back in the car, I continued south on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway to Bellevue (Lock and Dam No. 12 and Bellevue State Park), Green Island, and Sabula, the state’s only island city. In Davenport, gulls circled Lock and Dam No. 13 and Canada geese pecked at the frozen banks.
The next day, I had moved on from the bald eagles — I now cared only about blankets. I returned to Amana and was walking down the street when a mother exclaimed to her son, “Bald eagle,” and pointed to the sky. The little boy and I both looked up and watched the bird soar toward the setting sun. Tinted in golden light, the bald eagle looked regal and proud, even if he was just going to freeload in a farmer’s field.