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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Our trip to Iowa

My son Spencer and I recently got back from a trip to Iowa to visit my grandmother, who moved into a nursing home this year. We had some good conversations, and she looked improved since my last visit in March. We also visited my uncle and aunt, and my cousin and her husband and son, who were all great hosts.

I guess you could say a secondary theme of our trip was "How to get by without fossil fuels." With the world’s oil half gone and gas prices creeping steadily upward, I couldn’t help myself when I was planning the itinerary. I’d say it was pretty fun and interesting, and when it fell short, Spencer was a good sport.

We started by visiting a 46-turbine wind farm near Dodge Center, Minnesota. We walked up to one of the windmills and playfully jumped over its powerful, whipping shadow. Then we touched the base of it as we listened to the calm, humming sound. For me it’s like a pilgrimage to visit these symbols of hope for the future.

Next we visited the Mystery and Niagara Caves in southern Minnesota. Besides being impressive spectacles of rock, water, and time, another fascinating attribute of the caves is that they are always at a constant 48 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a hot day, but underground it felt like air conditioning. We changed into long pants and long sleeve shirts to stay comfortable. They say it’s the same in winter. So that underscored another way to save energy: Build more dwellings underground.

We then peeked at the Bily Clocks in Spillville, Iowa: Huge, hand-wound, intricately-carved grandfather clocks; and ate dinner at the Backbone State Park.

The next day, after visiting my grandmother we went to the Field of Dreams, where the movie of the same name was filmed. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a child of the Sixties who constructs a baseball field in a cornfield for players of the early 1900s. We played a little catch and each caught a fly ball while we were there.

Then we dropped in on Mamie again and continued on to Hazleton, Iowa, visiting an Old Order Amish Community. The Amish don’t use gas or electricity, so we saw a lot of horse-drawn buggies and a couple girls using push mowers. They have a lot of farm-home-based businesses that are open to the public and we went to three of them. We bought some bread, peanut butter, and jam, and ate some cinnamon rolls at a bakery. Back on the road, Spence carved the bread, which is fluffy but filling, and the added the toppings, which are very sticky—an excellent sandwich. That night we stayed at the Timberline campground in Waukee.

The next morning we parked at the state capitol in Des Moines and took the shuttle bus to the Iowa State Fair, which I thought was pretty similar to the Minnesota State Fair, only a little smaller. They didn’t have a Space Needle, enclosed gondolas, or All the Milk You Can Drink for a dollar, but they did have the open-air gondolas, midway and barns, a motorcycle-jumping show, and an impressive domino-toppling demonstration. Also, we were there for the divers’ last show of the last day, so we got to see this Canadian woman light herself on fire and dive into the pool. Ok, I guess that used fossil fuels, but they also had some exhibits showing pre-industrial shops, and an interesting exhibit of old-fashioned telephones.

The following day we went to the Living History Farms, which has three historical working farm sites and a recreated frontier town, where you can get hands-on experience and see first-hand what life was like in early Iowa. At the 1700 Ioway Indian farm, Spencer used a piece of brittle chert rock to saw at a deer antler for a cooking knife handle. The guide told us it would take a week to make it all the way through. At the 1850 farm, we groomed oxen and used a two-man cross cut saw on a ten-inch log (this time we made it all the way through!) At the 1900 farm, we hauled firewood, stirred some soap, used the push mower, and watched horses munch on hay. In the 1875 frontier town, I was particularly impressed by the hand-cranked and foot-powered devices--at the broom works, the cabinetmaker’s, and the print shop. The blacksmith had to use coal, since wood does not get hot enough to form metal. The interpreters wore historical clothing, so we felt like we were real time travelers! Spencer was amused when I told him he may need to pass this information on to the next generation. We were looking back in time, but he understood we may also be looking forward.

Next we camped at the Amana RV park (don’t worry, we were in a tent). The next morning we ate a huge Amana breakfast of juice, fruit, eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, and these excellent pancakes with a crunchy trim. Then we toured the Amana colonies. While the Amish are pre-industrial, the Amanas were communal, based on European castle communities. They shared property and jobs across family lines, and didn't need money within the colonies. They split into seven colonies, each about two miles apart, because if they were all in one city, it would take too long to travel out to work the farmland. We toured a communal kitchen that served 39 members; an agricultural museum with a horse-powered hay bailer, potato digger, and road grater; and a community church without stained glass windows or even a cross. We shopped at the General Store, and sat in the World’s Largest Amana Style Rocking Chair. A wooden Rube Goldberg-style machine they had there intrigued Spence.

Our last major stop before heading home was Pike’s Peak near Guttenberg, Iowa (not the one in Colorado). It has a picturesque view of the Mississippi River, another natural energy source.

We revisited my grandmother on the last day of our trip, and described some of the things we had seen. She knew what a cherry pitter was, and helped me recall what it was called. She was glad that we were learning about the inventions of her day and before. She said it shows the ingenuity of Americans.

Sheryl in Crawford!

Sheryl, my democrat friend from Texas, recently made the 3½-hour drive from San Antonio to Crawford to take part in Cindy Sheehan’s vigil at Camp Casey near Bush’s ranch. As you may know, Bush is taking a record-long five-week vacation while our young men and women are dying in Iraq. I was only out of town five days! While there, they played Sheryl’s song "Pied Piper of Crawford" over the PA system. Very apropos. To hear the song, click here to go to her blog, click "View My Complete Profile," then click "Audio Clip." Way to go, Sheryl!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Animals are like people

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has come under fire for ads comparing images of animal abuse and slavery. But they're not saying that people are like animals, they're saying that animals are like people.