My wife and I recently journeyed to Des Moines to visit old friends who work at a farm magazine. Emails and phone calls are OK, but you have to connect in person if you really want to feel the connection.
We took the back roads, the type of byways described by William Least Heat-Moon in "Blue Highways." Taking the roads less traveled taught us that there's a lot of Iowa in Iowa.
There appears to be no end to the perfectly manicured farmsteads and impeccably farmed fields. One gets the impression that you could randomly parachute into any rural area of the Hawkeye State, shoot a random photo and make it into a calendar.
Happy surprises happen when you wander haphazardly. For instance, we stopped for gas in the tiny hamlet of Livermore. Chatting with the lady proprietor, we learned that Livermore is where Dallas Clark grew up. Clark did pretty well for himself and is currently employed as a tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Clark hasn't forgotten his roots, though. He's fixed up his parents' old house at the edge of town and often spends his off-season there.
We decided to see if a winery might be in the vicinity, so I asked our wacky travel adviser, Mrs. Garmin, to guide us. I was trying to manage her while bringing up a map on my wife's so-called "smart" phone. And as I was doing all this virtual stuff, the real world was passing by outside the window.
"Thor!" said my wife as we drove through a small town bearing that name.
"The Norse god of thunder," I replied absentmindedly, not glancing up from the electronic gizmos that had enslaved me.
Mrs. Garmin got us to a winery - eventually. She first directed us to a remote gravel road and informed us that the winery was located out in the middle of a corn field. We told her to try again and she took us on a circuitous route that finally brought us to a vineyard.
She did better in Des Moines, steering us directly to our friends' office building. Next came the most difficult part of our Iowa odyssey, namely, enjoying a very pleasant lunch with Dan and Paula while striving to accomplish nearly a decade's worth of catching up.
After lunch my wife and I opted to do some sightseeing, so we visited an infamous government boondoggle.
The golden dome of the Iowa Capitol shimmered in the autumn sun. The building, with its five domes and magnificent stone edifice, looked as if it belonged in a fairytale. But the exterior proved to be only an appetizer for the sumptuous interior.
Wonderfully wrought stone and wood and metal decorate every square inch of the interior of the Capitol. Hallway ceilings soar to a height that could easily accommodate the tallest giraffe.
We signed up for a tour of the premises. It was free, so the price was right. Kae, our tour guide, was a very pleasant woman, a retired teacher and a lifelong Iowegian. She was also a fount of knowledge of all things regarding the Capitol.
One of the first questions I asked was how much gold was plastered onto the exterior of the dome.
"About eight pounds," said Kae, "but it's so thin, it would take 250,000 sheets of it to make an inch."
So much for my plot to rappel down the dome and scrape off an easy harvest of precious metal!
Our attention was riveted by the profusion of polished stone columns, gilded statuary and astonishingly elaborate chandeliers. Even the radiators were decorated by an array of miniature marble columns!
The library seemed like something from a movie set. Stained glass graces the ceiling, with filigreed cast iron spiral staircases at each end of the immense room. Kae said that despite its opulence, the library remains fully functional. I instantly wished that I had a card.
Jaw-dropping lavishness washed over us at every turn. Here is an epic mosaic constructed of Italian tiles; there is a polished marble staircase wide enough to hold a Mack truck.
I trudged up a set of narrow, spiraling stairs to a circular platform located immediately below the great dome. Ho. Lee. Cow! The entire inside of the dome - perhaps an acre or so - is surfaced with 24-carat gold! They wouldn't miss just one little piece, would they? But it was a long reach and a very long ways down.
We left the Capitol with our heads swimming. It made other such buildings we've toured seem like backwoods chicken coops.
"Wow!" said my wife. "What did you think?"
Trying to maintain my cool, I replied, "Not too bad. They got a pretty nice little shed there!"