Man In A Suitcase

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

What was a New Yorker turned Californian doing in Iowa in winter? Heck, what was I doing in Iowa at all? Previous jobs used to take me to exotic places like Budapest and Istanbul; this one takes me to Cedar Rapids. Hardly what I'd call career advancement.

But Cedar Rapids it was, to help a customer get some applications running. It was my first time in the state, and what little I knew about it came from less than unimpeachable sources. There's The Music Man, which I saw at age eight at Radio City, and which gave me a wholly inaccurate picture. I mean, not once did one of the locals break out in song with invisible accompaniment. Sure, a capella on a couple of occasions, but the dancing in the streets was disappointing to say the least.

And then there was Radar from M*A*S*H, who may have been representative of the state fifty years ago. But now? And finally my own brother, who spent his post-graduate years in Iowa City. He made the experience sound not awful, so how trustworthy can he be?

Anyway, now that I've divulged my degree of preparation and my prejudices, to the story. I arrived in Cedar Rapids after a long day of flying, my luggage having other plans. Can't blame the Iowans for that, of course. That was either San Francisco's or St. Louis's fault. Took the short and less than scenic drive to my hotel, which had been without power until about 24 hours earlier and was still without net access. Not an auspicious start.

The next day I was ready for work. Unfortunately, the customer wasn't; a bad case of the flu kept him home. So I took the opportunity to explore. Not knowing anything, I headed downtown to see what I might see. And what I saw is what you see here. Grey. And lots of it. The sky was grey, the ground was grey, the buildings were (mostly) grey. And when I found the Cedar River, home to the Rapids I never managed to locate, it too was grey. Except for the parts that were covered in ice; they ranged from off-white to light... well... grey. Ansel Adams would have had a field day.

Driving further and further east from downtown, I think I found the source of all that grey. They make it in bulk here at this factory! Okay, not really; that's actually a power generation facility. Which was working hard, I was happy to see, belching out smoke that disappeared among the pearly grey of the sky. I mean, environmental concerns aside, it was nice to know that I wasn't at risk of turning blue amid all that grey.

I'm being unfair, I know. Because I was enjoying the winter desolation at least a little. It's not something I get a lot of in the Bay Area, where we grumble about grey skies but hardly ever have to shovel our driveways. I miss winter, at least for the occasional short visit. And let's face it: it makes us appreciate spring all the more.

Later in the week I found myself with even more free time. And I remembered my brother telling me about the Amana Colonies, part of a utopian movement that was like a 60s commune, only without all the drugs and sex and stuff. It wasn't too far from Cedar Rapids, so I drove over to explore. Not a hopping place in winter, but still interesting. I enjoyed wandering through Iowa's only operating woolen mill (sadly not operating on the day I was there) and checking out a few open shops. Definitely a place I'd like to see in season. Bet it's not all grey then.

But desolation and grey aren't all I'll remember about Iowa, even if it's all I managed to photograph. (Like the "end of the world" road at right, which wouldn't have been entirely out of place a hundred years ago.) No, I have a couple of happy moments from the trip. Like a Texas BBQ place that had the absolutely best ribs I've ever had. And the friendliest and most adorable waitress too. Yeah, there were a couple of bright spots among all that grey...

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California