Monday, September 7, 2009

Notes from Our Trip to West Branch

I left school on Friday with all my work done. This is a rare experience, due to extraordinary self-discipline during the day and a crack schedule that includes three (count 'em, 1-2-3) preps in a row on Friday mornings.

I casually mentioned to Tara that maybe we would like to go somewhere for Labor Day weekend. She airily replied, "You organize it and get the kids packed, and I'll be happy to go." So I got out an old Iowa map and started looking for destinations. I'm not sure why I chose Iowa. I think I wasn't sure what part of Minnesota I wanted to see, and anything north of the Cities, even though it exists, doesn't really exist because during my childhood there was never any reason to go there.

So when she got home from Nick and Jessica's about 3:00 on Sunday, I said, "Let's go." And she had had plenty of time to mentally prepare for this, so she didn't even say, "Where?" She just said, "O.K. What's left to pack?"

The destination I had chosen was the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. They had special programs planned for Labor Day, and it seemed a good site for a family with lots of children.

We pulled out around 4:00 and hit 63 south. I think we traveled through until Waterloo, Iowa, where we began looking for a park to stop and eat our dinner (I had packed sandwich fixins in our cooler). The main problem with Waterloo is that everyone is, uh, not the same color we are. From my end, that's not a problem, except that I don't know if it's a problem from their end. I don't really want to be shot for entering a neighborhood where my kind ain't welcome. So we finally settled on something like Lincoln Park, a sort of town square with decorative trees, picnic tables, and a carillon from the Presbyterian Church Across the Street playing the Doxology during dinner. Needing to urinate, we headed across the street to a scuzzy-looking convenience store run by a middle-eastern man and his family. Everyone peed, and in my gratitude, when Aidan wanted a bag of marshmallow peanuts, I happily obliged him.

We were pretty stunned when we hit the cash register to pay, and it was manned by a seven-year-old boy. It got even better when we saw his skills: lightning fast with the cash, the register, the change, and the "May I help who's next?" Aidan was buying the peanuts, so it was even funnier... this little middle eastern boy selling to my almost-six-year-old.

So we got out of Waterloo without meeting our Waterloo. I was struck by several things: 1) how white it isn't, as I already said 2) how different churches down there look from churches in Rochester -- in general, bigger, older, more garish, and more run-down. 3) how people just saunter across the street nowhere near and crosswalk and in very non-Minnesotan ways.

Continuing south, we arrived in Cedar Rapids. I had not booked a hotel because I figured that would give me more flexibility for how far and for what price. (I had done the internet work and knew that 25 hotels in greater Cedar Rapids had availability for that night.) So after lifting a quick prayer for guidance, I exited somewhere on the south half of town. The Lord answered very kindly, because there were no less than 9 motels at the exit I picked. We hit several and finally settled on the Heartland Inn, where the family could swim and where Talli the desk chick promised full breakfast including hot biscuits and gravy and real waffles in the morning. We settled in and let the kids swim until it was pretty late. As a family we don't spend a lot of time in the water, so these are good experiences for them.

Back in our room, we got people down for the night. This is some trick because all four kids aren't used to sleeping in the same room. While they go to sleep, we usually sit in the hallway and read. When we thought it was safe, we re-entered. Only Evan was still awake, and he conked out pretty quickly after we came back in.

In the morning we partook of the said full breakfast and met six siblings in their 50s or so who had been home for a reunion and were now heading back to their homes east of Iowa. One brother told me there were actually 10 of them, but only six were traveling together. Well, this was a delight, and we chatted with them a bit and got them all laughing before we said our good-byes.

There was a little more driving, but we finally arrived at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. It is a very pleasant destination, including Hoover's birthplace (a tiny cottage), a re-creation of his father's blacksmith shop, the Quaker meeting house where his family worshipped, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover's graves, and the actual museum/library. Hoover was an efficient man with a big heart for people and humanitarian causes. We learned many facts about him, his wife, and his family and came away with a much different impression than "the guy who presided over the beginning of the depression".

Evan had many wondrous experiences, including playing in the nearby creek where Hoover had played as a boy, being interview by a newspaper reporter, and meeting the wife of a diplomat who had served under Johnson through Bush 41. We toured everything we could and even bought souvenirs for the family.

On the way home, I determined to take a different route through different towns to see more of the countryside, so we traveled 150 north to Highway 52. Eventually that brought us within two miles of the "Smallest Church in America", which we decided to see, even though it was already evening. The Smallest Church in America, St. Anthony of Padua's, really is tiny. Some woman made a vow that if her son came back alive from whatever war, she would build a church. He got back alive, and she figured she better keep her word. To minimize costs (I assume) she only built a tiny church. If it seats 20, that would be amazing. Still, it has elaborate stonework, beautfiul stained-glass windows, and a tall steeple. There is also a guest register where people can record their visit. I counted 9/07/09. Eleven other parties had stopped and signed today!

The rest of the trip, I would like to say, was un-eventful, but that would be a lie. We arrived in a 30 zone on the south end of Chatfield, and the flashing lights started. But I'm tired now. We got off with a warning (mercy completely undeserved) and made it the rest of the way home.

Presidential libraries are very educational. So is traveling with your wife and four children.


SaraRC said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip! I have only made it to one Presidential library - really, it was a museum - the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids. Don't miss it if you ever get out that way; it's kind of fantastic. (The first part has a huge display of 1970s memorabilia... it's hilarious stuff). I also loved a video of President Ford dancing with the Queen of England... it's hard to realize that she was ever so young and gorgeous now.

Glad you all got home safely and had a fun time. (And also that you didn't get a ticket... that's never fun.)

Anonymous said...

West Bend, and you missed the Clock Museum? The Czech cultural museum? Where Dvorak hung out while he composed in America?