This week I made a trip to Iowa City to visit the University of Iowa. I have travelled the Canadian prairies a lot but have never visited the American midwest. I did not have high hopes for the town’s political, topographical, social, cultural, or culinary environment but I was pleasantly surprised on all counts.
I awoke to a big thunderstorm my first night there; I was reminded of my first trip to Regina as a 14-year-old when two tornadoes came through town and there was green and purple fork lightning. No tornadoes this time, but they are not infrequent there in the summer and the high winds from that storm did uproot some trees and blow off some roofs in the north part of the county. I appreciate that every area has its downsides and I have happily lived with earthquake drills (and earthquakes) on the west coast, but the risks I am not familiar with carry more dread (see also: winter prairie blizzard with -50 C windchill).
The University and associated healthcare centres and teaching hospitals are the major employer and has national and international draw, so there is a lot more diversity than one would expect (although not nearly as much as Toronto or Vancouver). The town itself is small but charming; there is a lot more theatre and museums and nice restaurants and festival events than a town that size would normally have. The highly-educated, liberal, and culturally engaged population has a great influence on the town. With all its pedestrian malls, open markets, and non-auto conveyance (bikes, peds, rollerblades, skateboards) it reminded me a bit of an upscale Gavle.
Iowa grows a lot of corn and soybeans and there are 3 pigs for every human – but there are a lot more trees and rolling hills through the river valley than I anticipated. There is a big local foodie movement, people value and support local organic farmers at the popular produce market and half the people I spoke to grew heirloom tomatoes in the gardens (and had heated debates on the benefits of one variety over another and anxious forecasting of ripening schedules and rainfall levels.)
There is a giant boat house built by the Varisty rowing team (which thanks to title IX has over 100 woman members) with a long calm river to train on and lots of local lakes as well. It seems like a dream spot for marathon canoe racing, but I didn’t hear of or see any.