Thursday, July 17, 2014

Omaha to Iowa: More Weird Times in the Midwest

As with many places, we arrive in Omaha, Nebraska without much expectation. It’s hard to thoroughly research every town that matters in every state in the country. Instead, we float from place to place, ask around and see what catches our interest. What really ends up thrilling us about Omaha is that there’s a Trader Joe’s. We haven’t been to a TJ’s since we were in Washington and it’s actually incredible how happy we are to be back that health-conscious poor kid haven, grabbing at our favorite crackers, curry sauce, salad greens… We fill up our hand basket until it’s uncomfortable to carry and take turns lugging it around, trying to be frugal but unable to contain our ravenous excitement. The cashier gives us a new set of stickers and recommends we check out the Market District.

The Market District has old-fashioned brick streets and big vintage looking murals, small shops that remind us of Sebastopol and restaurants that make us wish we were real adults that could afford to travel around, eating in highly recommended restaurants and tasting local craft beers. It rains on us for a while, still warm, and then the sun breaks through again.

We find a Couchsurfing host in Des Moines, Iowa, and decide to cut Omaha short since it’s a little hard to get to know without much guidance. Sanjay is from India but is getting his Masters at the University of Iowa and doing an internship in Des Moines. He talks to us about being from a city of 20 million people and then moving to the Midwest, how at first all the silence scared him, and although he has very little in the way of recommendations for things to do in town, he says he likes it here, it’s a more peaceful life. The next morning we come up to the apartment early before he leaves for his internship, and cook in his kitchen in silence while his housemate snores on the living room floor, which appears to be a routine. We head to Grays Lake, at their recommendation, and as soon as we park climb into the back and fall back asleep.

Des Moines is cool and breezy, which is a relief. After our nap we walk into town and find an incredible little coffee shop called Ritual Cafe, with this wonderful warm red interior and an entirely vegetarian menu. As we sit and work, a woman starts carrying in and stacking boxes of produce and suddenly we realize she’s setting up her CSA pick up. Although we are eating neither the food on the café menu nor the local produce being sold, simply being in the presence of the CSA bustle fills us with happiness, the environment is familiar and reminds us of home.

After working in the café we explore Des Moines a bit and enjoy the fascinating sculpture garden, complete with this insane rainbow prism sculpture that you can walk inside of. We are retroactively surprised that Sanjay had so little to say about this sweet little city. We spend the rest of the evening by the lake and then continue east, towards Iowa City, where we camp in yet another Walmart.

We park the van at a fairly central park where we cook breakfast and shoo away gnats and flies that no one else seems quite as phased by, and then Kelsey “jogsplores” while Tressa lodges herself in an overpriced café to work. In the evening, we head to a bar called The Yacht Club where a jam session is underway and where they have a cheap PBR special. We sip beer and watch a strange collection of musicians work their way through free-style hip hop, blues, and some jazz until we hear a loud clang and inadvertently make the acquaintance of a self proclaimed alcoholic that’s missing most of his front teeth and had just dropped a large glass bottle of hard alcohol on the ground. He immediately took a liking to us, especially Kelsey. He tells her repeatedly that she’s, “A beautiful ass girl,” but that he wishes she’d take off her glasses. Much to his amusement, she threatens to break her glasses and stab him with the shards, and he feigns terror. We leave shortly thereafter, somewhat tired anyway.

But once outside, loud music and flashing lights catch our eye in a building just behind the bar we were in. We follow the commotion and suddenly find ourselves in a drag bar in Iowa, of all places. What are the odds? It’s interesting because the performers are definitely not quite on the Seattle ladies’ level, but it’s still a lot of fun and we befriend a group of seemingly straight guys, all in shorts and sandals. They all teach at the college, although they aren’t much older than us, and it’s actually one guy’s birthday. Although we still aren’t sure why they chose to celebrate at the gay bar, it’s the first and possibly only time we’ll ever witness a presumably straight bro-type in a camo hat and camo mandals get caught in a gay biracial grind sandwich and be okay with it — a glorious sight to behold.

When the bar closes, we make our way back to the van, parked conveniently near a the College Green, where we are able to have a picnic breakfast in the morning before meandering through downtown Iowa City and checking out the sidewalk sales and boutiques. We continue to be surprised by these little towns. The Midwest ain’t so bad.

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