Monday, August 28, 2006

Welcome to the Working Week

Well, it's been lovely, but now that things are actually getting started, I probably will not be updating as frequently. My hours during the work week will probably be long and taxing, until I get settled into my house and figure out just how it is that one teaches; my hours on the weekends will probably be spent relaxing and often out of town. The social scene around around these parts is about an hour east of me.

We've had two in-service days so far, and school starts on Thursday. There is also a bat that seems to live in our auditorium and flits around all day while we're doing our training. On the home front, I finally have a mattress, and since I have also stacked my crates into some temporary bookshelves, the place is feeling slightly more homelike. Although it is still a mess, with papers scattered all over the floor.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


I am sitting in my car outside school right now, stealing wireless since the internet at our house isn't hoooked up yet. I managed to get some pictures up, but they are not very exciting.

Moving in to my empty bedroom. You can just see the very nice sunflower trim in the corner there.

Things get a little messier. It's a little mmore organized than this now, although my desk right now is a box, and my bed is still just a blanket on the floor. Luke's family came to town this weekend and plowed through the house with cleaning supplies and furnishings, so everywhere but my room is now immaculate and liveable.

Here is the turkey I found in our freezer. We decided to throw it away.

South Dakota license plate.

Storm coming. This is the storm that almost killed me when I went for a run in the lightning.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

County Business

Security seems very lax in South Dakota. When I got to my house, I didn't have a key yet to get in. I unloaded my bike from my car and started to check my voicemail, when one of the maintenance guys across the street asked if I was moving in to that house. He said he hadn't known anyone was moving in there, and then proceeded to open the place up for me. Later he came by to change the locks, and then gave me a copy of the new key. No verification process whatsoever.

I drove up to the Kadoka courthouse a couple of days ago to register my car in South Dakota. When my sistser moved to DC, she got caught in this catch-22 in which she had to be registered in DC to get insurance and she had to be insured to get registered. I was anticipating similar problems. But then the county treasurer told me I didn't need proof of insurance to get registered, and when I called to get insurance the agent didn't ask me a thing about my car's registration. Once again, these things seem lax here. After I got my new plates, I borrowed a screwdriver from the county treasurer to put them on. I was down on my hands and knees in the parking lot, unscrewing the Connecticut license plates when a police car drove by. I would expect them to stop and question me at that point, but they drove by without comment.

It's been pretty Spartan living out here for the past couple days. I don't have a mattress yet--I'm hoping to get one from one of the teachers that left, after I can get into her apartment--so I bought an air mattress in Rapid City the other day. After driving an hour and a half home, I realized I didn't have an air pump to fill it up. So I've just been sleeping on the floor.

I have a couple pictures to go along with this--showing off my new South Dakota license plates, and showing how much of a mess the house is--but I don't have an internet connection yet, and the wireless network at school won't let me put them up. Oh well.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Day 10: Omaha, Nebraska to Mission, South Dakota

I dropped my mom off at the Omaha Airport this morning around 7:45, so I got an early start on the road. My plan leaving Omaha was to cross back over into Council Bluffs, Iowa, and then take the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, which crosses through some hills in western Iowa. I got a little mixed up getting out of Omaha, though, so I had to use a little intuition to finally find my way. The Scenic Byway was a little difficult to follow; it is not one specific road, but is a path through the hills over various county roads and state highways, which aren't very well marked as being part of the bypass. It wasn't too much trouble to follow, though, and the hills and farmland were very beautiful in the morning light. Originally I had planned on making this my entire drive today, but at 10:30 I was almost to Sioux City, which was my last stop in Iowa. At this point I started to seriously consider finishing out the drive today.

The only place I stopped to take a picture along the Scenic Byway was not very scenic; this is Onawa, Iowa, home of the widest main street int the world according to the signs. My grandfather (is that right, Mom?) grew up here. I probably should have taken a picture as I rolled into town, because that would have been a lot more attractive. It was typical, flat Midwestern farmland.

I lost track of the Byway in Onawa, so I took the insterstate direct to Sioux City. I decided to get off in Sioux City to have a bit of a look around, but there wasn't a whole lot of interest. The AAA book said there was an overlook in a state park outside of town from which you could see Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota, so I wanted to check that out. I found the park, but I never found the overlook.

A different overlook at the park, with a view of the Missouri and Sioux River Valleys.

Coming out of Sioux City, I decided not to take the interstate, but just continued on some backroads for a while north before cutting to the west. I crossed over to South Dakota in the middle of nowhere. As soon as I crossed the border, though, the road conditions became terrible.

Crossing in to my new home state. Check out the ruts on that road.

My next stop was Sioux Falls, South Dakota. With a population of 120,000, it is the largest city in the state. This was orginally going to be my resting place for the night, but since I got into town at 12:30, that seemed pretty pointless. I was pretty unexcited by Sioux Falls at first; my first stop was the mall, where the visitor information center was located. I don't like malls. Then I ate lunch downtown at a restaurant listed in an old book my parents had given me. The food was okay, but the place was a bit fancier than I expected, so I felt a bit out of place in my ratty t-shirt, dining alone.

After lunch I checked out the Visual Art Center at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences. The exhibits were touch-and-go; some of the art was terrible, but some of it was pretty good. There was one exhibit on loan from the collection of contemporary Indian art at the Red Cloud School, which is in Pine Ridge, so that was interesting to see.

Sioux Falls also has a pretty nice downtown for pedestrians. It might be worth coming back for a weekend if I need a refresher.

I would say that the highlight of Sioux Falls is Falls Park, which is very well maintained. This is a view of the falls and the park from the observation tower.

Up closer to the falls.

Leaving Sioux Falls, I took I-90 across the state. I-90 is the mother road, straight west across the state, linking coast to coast. I was talking to my sister the other day, and she asked if I was enjoying the flatness of Iowa. It wasn't actually flat then, but once I hit eastern South Dakota, it sure was. Corn as far as the eye could see.

A little bit after getting onto I-90, I passed these giant strawberries. I wasn't sure what they were until i got by them and read on the side "Berry Go Round." I guess it is some kind of ride. Later I stopped in Mitchell to check out the Corn Palace (see below). As I was walking out of the Palace, the Berry Go Round pulled by me in downtown Mitchell. I guess it was coming to town for the Corn Palace Festival.

The corn palace is a South Dakota classic; it is decorated in designs constructed entirely out of cobs of corn. There are 12 different varities used, allowing a palatte of 12 colors. The less elaborate portions are decorated with straw. The design changes every year; this year, as you can see, the theme is Rodeo. Apparently they light the place up at night, which would be pretty cool to see.

Inside there is a basketball court. LeAnn Rimes is going to be playing here in a few days for the Corn Palace Festival that I mentioned; too bad I missed that.

A close-up of one of the designs inside. If you look closely you will get some idea of how the corn cobs work.

Also in Mitchell is the Prehistoric Indian Village and Museum. Not nearly as many people seemed interested in the Indian Village, so I had the museum mostly to myself. I didn't stay too long, since I wanted to get on the road and back on the reservation, but it was pretty impressive. At the end of my tour I got to try throwing this special kind of spear that the prehistoric Indians used.

This is the archeodome, which you can go inside. It houses an actual archeological dig at the site.

The dig inside the dome.

My next stop after Mitchell was Al's Desert Oasis in Oacoma. The great thing about driving across South Dakota, besides the landscape--which I am actually really growing to love--is the billboards, which will advertise a place from miles away. The model is Wall Drug, a drug store that advertised so effectively that it turned itself into a tourist attraction. I saw signs for Wall Drug starting in Iowa. I first decided to stop at Al's Oasis back in July, when I drove out to Aberdeen for the coaching clinic and I saw so many advertisements that I broke down and knew I had to go.
You see signs like this for hundres of miles.

The place basically consists of a restaurant, a really tacky gift store, and a grocery store, all behind these faux-Western storefronts. None of them were particularly impressive, but somehow I am still glad I stopped.

A view of the Missouri River, across the street from Al's Oasis. The view of the river from the highway was actually really dramatic; I came down a hill and then suddenly the river opened up in front of me. This picture doesn't at all do it justice.

From Al's Oasis it was 2 hours to Mission. I arrived around 8:30. I'm crashing with my friend and former roommate Russ for the night, since I don't have a key to my house yet. Tomorrow it's an easy hour drive to Wanblee, and then time to get cracking.

South Dakota landscape in the early evening, as seen from a highway rest stop.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Day 9: Des Moines, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska

This morning we were meeting my mom's uncle and cousin at a diner near Drake, my mom's alma mater. Before breakfast, though, we drove around campus a little bit, and I saw my mom's old dormitory and sorority house. After breakfast we drove around Des Moines and looked at various houses that members of the family had lived in. I think they were my great-grandparents, but it could also be my great-great-grandparents. I'm losing track of the generations. If I have it right, my great-great-grandparents lived in what sounds like a very cool old house that would be right across from the state capitol, if it had not been replaced by a parking lot. We have an antique couch at home that used to be in that house.

What does remain, though, is the hotel that they established. It is now the office of a lawyer and a post office. This is East Des Moines, which was always sort of a seedy side of town, but the hotel did pretty well, it sounds like.

It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

After scoping out the family history in Des Moines, we went back to Drake. My great uncle, who is 89, has worked in the athletic department there for 60 years--and he is still working. He is an institution there, and everyone seems to know him. It was great when we were walking down the street and these two big football boys waved from across the street and said, "Hello, Mr. Morrison." So he took us on a tour of the Drake athletic facilities.

The Drake Relays are a pretty big deal out here, but judging by the size of the field they can't really rival the Penn Relays. I might still come to check them out at some point while I'm out west. The track here is really historic, but it wasn't a regulation size, so they recently had to knock out part of the stands, making it a slightly less intimate venue for the fans. Some people aren't happy about that.

In the new field house, there is an athletic Hall of Fame named in honor of my great uncle, who was giving us the tour.

Some artwork on the walls there. Paul is painted up in the very top right corner, overlooking all of the athletes. He had no idea that he was going to be included on the mural, and they kept that part of the painting covered until the dedication ceremony.

From Des Moines we drove two hours to Omaha. We got in in the early afternoon and had some time to walk down to the Old Market District, which has been very yuppified and turned into a trendy little area. Since Omaha is a hip city and all, I decided to check out a couple of independent record stores. I resisted the temptation to spend a lot of money, but probably shouldn't have, because who knows when I will next be in a good record store. Let's hope Rapid City has something.

For dinner we visited a friend of my mom's from when she worked as a social worker in Chicago. I heard all kinds of great stories about patients that I had never heard before. Nancy lives in a tower that is restricted to residents ages fifty and over; she was telling some pretty great stories about all the characters who live there. I look forward to moving into a retirement home; it seems sort of like going back to college, only without any of the work or pressure. I decided that I would like to get all my friends from college to retire to the same place.

Tomorrow I drop my mom off at the Omaha Airport and from here out it's a solo run. That means the music will be a bunch louder and everything will be much less organized. I haven't even quite figured out my route yet; I'm feeling a bit of pressure to get home and get cracking on work, but there is a lot yet to see. I think my plan is to wind through the Loess Hills of Iowa tomorrow, check out Sioux Falls' evening scene, and then make my way across South Dakota on Tuesday, stopping at all of the essential South Dakotan oddities.
Iowa State Fair

I first heard about the Iowa State Fair when we were still in Chicago, and I was glancing at the Wall Street Journal, where there was a right up. I realized that we would be in Des Moines at the same time as the fair, and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I've been to the Big E, the New England exposition, a number of times, but I was unprepared for the magnificence of the Iowa State Fair.

The first building after we walked into the fair grounds was the Pigeon and Poultry Barn. It was an appropriate starting place, because from what I can tell, the Fair is all about lots and lots of ridiculous competitions. Out east, pigeons are flying rats; here, they are show animals. To be fair, there were some surprisingly beautiful breeds of pigeons out there.

This one, for example, had a fancy crest over its head. I think this little guy placed first in his category.

The judges engage in some serious deliberation over pigeons.

After leaving the pigeons, we wandered around for a bit, looking at Iowa's first church and stopping in at the Iowa State Fair museum, which has all kinds of well-aged memorabilia. I was pretty amazed by the section sponsored by the Iowa Association of Antique Gas Engines and Tractors. All these old guys were stooped over various kinds of old engines they had running, stinking up the place with diesel. I think I was mostly amazed that such an association exists. We're not big on tractors or gas engines in West Hartford.

I took this photo of the Iowa State Marble Shoot. They had a bracket done up and everything.

The trams at the Iowa State Fair consist of cars pulled around by John Deere tractors.

There is also a sky tram. And all kinds of people. After braving these crowds, I am now ready to retreat to the isolation of South Dakota.

Here is a blurry shot of the Midway. I didn't go on any rides; I was at the Fair more for a cultural experience, I guess.

Just as we were getting ready to get some dinner, a parade materialized in the road next to us. The Atlantic High School Marching Band came by first, but I won't put up those photos since they're pretty boring.

There were a couple clowns in the parade, including this stilt lady. The little boy on the bicycle rode under her legs, but I didn't time the shot very well.

There are also, of course, lots of animals at the fair.

Like sheep.

And goats.

Here is the Big Boar. I think this is actually the runner-up Big Boar, but my photo of the pig that was even fatter didn't come out too well. They were both over 1100 pounds. That's a lot of pork. The other guy was about the size of a small cow, and was so hefty that all he could do was lie down on his side while some attendent spritzed him with water to keep him cool.

This is the famous butter cow; it is about life-size and constructed entirely out of butter. You can see they even went as far as sculpting the ribs. The bulging veins on the udder are a nice touch, too, I think. There was also a butter Superman this year, because the actor in Superman Returns is an Iowa Boy. And then there was a bust of "Mr. State Fair." I'm not sure what that was about.

My mom was most excited about seeing the prize-winning vegetables. Keep in mind that these are the most aesthetically pleasing veggies Iowa has to offer.

Check out that blue ribbon cabbage!

I thought this was going to turn out to be a pretty cool photo, but then the flash went off and now the colors are all off. And the crush of people behind me who also wanted to scope out some prize-winning peppers prevented me from snapping another photo.

The highlight of the Fair is obviously food. My mom doesn't like to eat pork, because she thinks pigs are too intelligent to be eaten, but she was also raised in Iowa, which is pork country. So she had a hankering for a good old tenderloin sandwich, and we got one:

I had never seen anything like this. The bun seemed kind of pointless, but it served as a good house for the pickles, mustard, and ketchup.

Before we left, we got some dinner at the Iowa Pork Producers Tent. I had a nice pork chop that was about 2 inches thick. I had never seen a pork chop like that before. This is another reason why my mom doesn't buy pork: you can't get real pork chops in Connecticut. By the way, I recall someone at school questioning my technique of dipping pork chops in apple sauce. I'll have you know that in Iowa, where I think they know their pork, they serve the chops with apple sauce. I feel vindicated.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Day 8: Cedar Rapids to Des Moines

So yesterday was short on pictures, but today I am heavily loaded down with them. The bulk of the pictures might have to wait until Omaha, because my internet connection here is not so hot.

We left Cedar Rapids in the late morning and took back roads through more very Midwestern countryside. We drove through the Amana Colonies, but they were a bit off the road, so we couldn't really see them. The Amana Colonies sort of confuse me; they are another religious community that some confuse with the Amish, but in 1932 they gave up their old-timey ways and their communal style so I'm not sure how different they are from everyone else anymore. I think they still speak a German dialect, though. According to the pamphlet I read in Kolona, they are a Lutheran sect that believes in mystical, individual communications with God. Or something like that; I could have that completely wrong. It sounded vaguely Quakerly.

We also drove through Grinnell and past the college there, but there wasn't a whole lot to take pictures of.

Outside of Des Moines we stopped in Prairie City, which is home to a wildlife refuge where they are restoring the original tall grass prairie that preceded all of the agriculture. My mom had been here a year ago, last time she was in Iowa, and wanted to stop again.

Coming through Prairie City, I saw this sign for gas at $2.66/galloon. We were at half a tank, so I figured at that price I would have to fill up. I also took this picture, because I wasn't convinced that I would see gas this cheap again (I saw gas for $3.58 in Chicago, by the way, to show the range of prices). It turned out that about 500 meters up the road gas was priced $2.65, and outside of Des Moines it was $2.62.

But none of those gas stations were as cool as this one. At first we couldn't figure out how to pay; we didn't think there was a credit card reader, and the only store, as you can see, was actually across the road from the gas station. We ended up finding a credit card machine, though, so we just used that.

More photos from the gas station: the grain silos and the water tower in Prairie City, two key landmarks in any rural Midwestern town.

The wildlife refuge itself was nice, although we were a bit pressed for time and were only able to go on a short walk. We also drove through the portion where the bison and elk were supposed to be, but didn't see any. The whole thing is not so different from the Niobrara Wildlife Refuge

Long grass prairie on a cloudy day.

This hawk was circling around us for a while, at one point coming very close to us. These were the best pictures I could get, though.

The real goal today was the Iowa State Fair, which was quite an experience. I'm going to leave that for a separate entry while I'll put up once I get to Omaha.

The State Fair was actually east of Des Moines itself, so we didn't see Des Moines until after we left the Fair for the evening. I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. Des Moines reminds me a lot of Hartford: it is a decently sized regional city, and it looks like a city. And yet on a Saturday afternoon it is unbelievably empty: no traffic, no pedestrians. It seemed a bit like a ghost town. Of course, I hardly got a look around; my chief activity is Des Moines has been lounging in the hotel hot tub.

Des Moines, as seen from the 25th floor of the Marriott.