Wednesday, December 23, 2015


We have discovered the joys of domestic travel. There is as much to see in the United States as in any country we have visited--or more! The US is full of hidden gems. Last June, after spending some time in Kansas City, we traveled through Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, three states not necessarily known for their tourism, but which we learned are LOADED with things to see. 

Here is a map of our meanderings. We began in Kansas City and nearby sites in Missouri (bottom middle), then drove north to Des Moines. From there we went east to Iowa City and West Branch, then turned around and went back through Des Moines and west to Council Bluffs. Next was Winter Quarters, Nebraska, followed by Omaha and Lincoln (left side of map above center). Continuing south, we went to Abilene, Kansas, then turned east towards Topeka, ending up back in Kansas City.
Our longest drive was the first stretch from Kansas City to Iowa City, a distance of about 300 miles. However, we like to drive, and we had a good book going from our acount (Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson), so we didn't mind. 
We left in the late afternoon so we could sleep in Iowa City and get an early start the next day. 
I fell head-over-heels in love with radiant Iowa. (And with Kansas. And with Nebraska.) 
It didn't hurt my initial impression of that our first stop was the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, located on both sides of three blocks of Iowa Avenue, which runs alongside of the University of Iowa.

The University of Iowa, located in Iowa City, had the first creative writing degree program in the US and today has one of the most respected writing programs in the country, known informally as the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Graduates of the program have won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes, six have been US Poet Laureates, and several others have won the National Book Award, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and other major honors.

It's a stately campus built around "The Old Stone Capitol." Although the capital of Iowa is now Des Moines, Iowa City was the territorial capital beginning in 1839, and then the first state capital in 1841. This capitol building was completed in 1842 and served until the state capital was moved to Des Moines in 1857.
"THE OLD STONE CAPITOL Builded by the Territory of Iowa,
out of stone quarried from the banks of the Iowa River.
Occupied by the government of the territory of Iowa from 1842-1846
and by the government of the State of Iowa from 1846 to 1857."

Once the capital was moved to Des Moines, this building was gifted to the University of Iowa.

The historic Old Capitol provides a regal background for the Literary Walk, a series of bronze relief panels set into the sidewalk in 2000 and 2001. They illustrate the words of 49 writers who have ties to Iowa. The artwork for each selection is by Greg LeFevre. All types of literature are represented--novels, poetry, children's books, memoirs, plays, and short stories. I took pictures of about two-thirds of the pieces. I was drawn to either the quote or the image (or both). Which is your favorite image? Your favorite quote?
Paul Engle (1908-1991): "Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held
together by the delicate, tough skin of words." (From "Poetry Is Ordinary Language Raised
to the Nth Power," a book review in The New York Times)

Susan Allen Toth (1940 - ): "When I left Ames, I took with me an underlying sense of a work ethic
that highlighted dedication but left much else in shadow. Perhaps that inconclusiveness was
a most important preparation for life." (From her memoir Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood)

Rita Dove (1952 - ): "Sometimes a word is found so right it trembles at the slightest explanation."
(From her poem "O" in The Yellow House on the Corner)

Vance Bourjaily (1922-2010): "Here we go. The quest is on again. There's lots to do, many voices
to hear and some to heed." (From the novel Now Playing at Canterbury)

Stephen Greenleaf (1942 - ): The plane descended over the heroic quilt of soil, bounced twice on
the black and shiny tarmac, and taxied to the terminal unimpeded by other traffic."
(From his novel Fatal Obsession

Raymond Carver (1938-1988): "Why don't you kids dance? he decided to say, and then he said it.
'Why don't you dance?' 'I don't think so,' the boy said. 'Go ahead," the man said. 'It's my yard.
You can dance if you want to.'"
(From his short story "Why Don't You Dance" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love)

Black Hawk (1767-1838): "How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make
right look like wrong, and wrong like right." (From his autobiography)

James McPherson (1943 - ) "It was one of those obscene situations, pedestrian to most people, but
invested with meaning for a few poor folk, whose lives are usually spent outside the imaginations
of their fellow citizens." (From his book of short stories Elbow Room)

Aesop: "Words may be deeds." (I'm pretty sure Aesop doesn't have any connections to Iowa.)

One of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson (1944 - ) "The disaster took place midway
through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the
Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward 
the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel 
sliding off a rock."  (From her novel Housekeeping)  

W. P. Kensella (1935 - ): "Three years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin's-egg
blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in eastern
Iowa when a voice very clearly said to me, 'If you build it, he will come.'" (From his novel Shoeless Joe)

Ethan Canin (1960 - ): "'I'm an old man and I want you to do something for me. Put down your bicycle,'
I said. 'Put down your bicycle and look up at the stars.'" (From his short story "Emperor of the Air.")

Mona Van Duyn (1921 - 2004): "Anger, resentment, self-pity, what were they but weeds to be
chopped out fast to make more room for the crop, the only crop that rich land wanted."
(From her poem "Falls.")

James Galvin (1951 - ): "The history of the meadow goes like this: No one owns it,
no one ever will." (From his novel The Meadow)

Ruth Suckow (1892-1960): "She loved being able to know that country was all around her and that
at any moment she could reach it . . . and stand and let great sunny silence sink into her whole
being, not just into her mind . . . " (From her novel The Kramer Girls)

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983): "We're all of us sentenced to solitary
confinement inside our own skins, for life!" (From his
play Orpheus Descending)

Susan Glaspell (1876-1948): "She isn't dead. Anything about her is alive. She belongs to the world.
But the family doesn't seem to know that." (From her play Alison's House)

Jane Smiley (1949 - ): "I have noticed before that there is a category of acquaintanceship that is not friendship or business or romance, but speculation, fascination." (From her short story "Goodwill")

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007): "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about
what we pretend to be." (From his novel Mother Night)

Frank Conroy (1936-2005): "You must imagine the music in your head.
Imagine it shaped and balanced the way you want it. Get it in your head 
and then believe in it. Concentrate, believe, and your fingers will do it." 
(From his novel Body & Soul)

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940): "The silence of the prairie at night was well-nigh terrible."
(From his short story "Among the Corn-Rows")

Frederick Manfred (1912-1994): "In May, when the grass turns green, and the lilies fill the air
with purple perfumes, and the orioles tell of orchards bursting with pink blossoms, then the
boys, old and young, get out their bats and balls and run to the pastures and play the 
wonderful game of baseball." (From his novel No Fun on Sunday)

Robert Dana (1929-2010): "The small towns of the strange middle of our lives remain small.
Streets wintry even in summer . . . " (From his poem "Summer is a Very Small Town")

Another of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner (1909-1993): "All of us felt it. We must have.
For in front of their gate, before we drove away still wearing their burnooses, we fell into a
four-ply, laughing hug, we were so glad to know one another and so glad that all the
trillion chances in the universe had brought us to the same town and the same university 
at the same time." (From his novel Crossing to Safety, one of my top-ten favorite books)

Chris Offutt (1958 - ): "The midwestern land has a softly undulating quality, like concentric circles
spreading from a rock tossed into a farm pond." (From his memoir The Same River Twice)

John Irving (1942 - ): "To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread. We were
just a family, In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense." 
(From his novel The Hotel New Hampshire

Jorie Graham (1951 - ): ". . . someone laughs upstairs
but it's really wings rustling up there
on a cold current called history"
(From her poem "The Phase after History")

James Tate (1943 - ) "I've seen fox, deer, wild turkey, pheasant, skunk, snakes, moles, guinea hens.
I've thrown a boomerang that never came back." (From his poem "In My Own Backyard")

Margaret Walker (1915-1998): "The summer then was like an idyll, a season of peace, when
all the agitation of the violent world around them seemed suspended, and they felt secure."
(From her novel Jubilee)

Marvin Bell (1937 - ): "And the color yellow regrets it was never green, and the east and the west long
to trade places, and the shadow would like just once to come out on top."
(From his poem "Poem in Orange Tones")

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964): Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers.
My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." 
(From a book of essays, Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose)

William L. Shirer (1904-1993): "On the very eve of the birth of the Third Reich a feverish
tension gripped Berlin." (from his history The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)

Amy Clampitt (1920-1994): "The axe is laid at the root of the ash tree. The leaves of dispersal,
the runaway pages, surround us. Who will hear? Who will gather them in?"
(From her poem "Sed de Correr")

Philip Levine (1928-2015): "Instead I was born in the wrong year and in the wrong place, and I made
my way so slowly and badly that I remember every single turn, and each one smells like an
overblown rose, yellow, American, beautiful, and true." (From his poem "One for the Rose")

Walking along the sidewalk is almost like strolling through a labyrinth, but with a little more intellectual stimulation.

Besides the thought-provoking excerpts embedded underfoot, there are other literary works and allusions at eye-level. A giant book opened to "A Plowman Sings," a poem by Jay G. Sigmund, dominates a corner:
The "cover" of the book shows the plowed fields referenced in the poem:

A boutique named for Don Quixote's beloved is on another corner:

Around the corner is a wall of fanciful murals:

There must be literary allusions here that I'm missing:

An alley has a mural of a different sort:

As a lover of great literature, I give the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk an A+. 


  1. Thanks again for confirming that the mid west is not only the center of our country, but the center of our country's great soul.

  2. It's hard to choose just one quote, but I like Mona Van Duyn's today. Maybe tomorrow I'll change my mind. Love the murals and the painted books at the end.

  3. This is a wonderful tribute to a unique place. To be able to honor a boatload of talented authors in an unusual way with fun and creative art.