Remember the line from “Field of Dreams?”
Is this Heaven? No, said Kevin Costner. It’s Iowa.
Well, after five days is Des Moines, I’m not ready to go that far. But I’ve always liked my trips to Iowa, and even though I barely ventured outside downtown Des Moines, I enjoyed my stay in Iowa. Interesting city. Interesting state.
Back in the fall, I blogged about my 10 favorite state capitols. Not capital cities. Capitol buildings. I haven’t seen them all, of course, but I’ve been a bunch. I ranked Des Moines No. 1, and I stand by it. Here’s what I wrote then, and nothing has changed: “Golden dome, with a belvedere and a golden lantern on top. Plus a bonus — four smaller golden lanterns are attached to copper-covered domes at every corner of the building. Those domes are decorated with vertical lines of intermittent gold.” Totally, totally cool. For good measure, the Polk County Courthouse sits on the other end of downtown and has a stately look as well.
The buildings of downtown Des Moines are connected by skywalks, as a buffer to the harsh winters. The weather in Iowa actually was pleasant: 40s and low 50s. Only one day was cold, mid-30s. On Monday, Mike Baldwin and I had lunch with OSU athletic director Mike Holder, associate AD Amy Weeks and Big 12 assistant commissioner Bob Burda. We walked the skywalks probably a half mile to Court Street, a small entertainment district, then another block or two to a restaurant. When we walked back, we stayed on the streets because the weather was so nice. But the more than three miles of skywalk is a very solid alternative.
The coldest I’ve ever been has been in Iowa. I’ve covered some OSU-Iowa State basketball games in which you thought you were in Arctic City, but this was good weather.
Downtown Des Moines has some cool architecture and a pretty solid skyline. Maybe not quite as many skyscrapers as Oklahoma City, but the tall buildings they have are impressive and tall. I stayed on the 22nd floor of the Marriott Hotel and looked up — way up — at the 44-story Principal Financial Group tower. The Marriott itself is 30 stories, and across the street is the 36-story Ruan building.
Des Moines has a metro population of about 520,000, which is smaller than you would think. That’s more than half as small as Oklahoma City and not nearly as big as Tulsa. It’s got a small-town, big-city feel that is really quite charming. Omaha feels that way to me.
The sports in Des Moines are minor league, of course. It’s got the Iowa Cubs, of course, the Pacific Coast League team that has been a rival of Oklahoma City’s AAA team for 40 years. The I-Cubs play in a relatively new stadium just off downtown. The Wells Fargo Arena, opened just a couple of years ago, is nice, as I blogged the other day, and is host to the Iowa Stars, an American Hockey League team that is moving to the Dallas suburbs; the Iowa Barnstormers, an arena football2 franchise just starting; and the Iowa Energy, an NBA D-league team.
Des Moines’ entertainment district, there on Court Street, is nothing as elaborate as Bricktown, but hey, it can get there.
The Mexican place Bob Burda picked out to eat, Dos Rios Cantina, was not Tex-Mex but was very good. Mike Holder declared it better than the 801 Steak & Chop House he had been raving about. I had shrimp enchiladas, because you can’t always get seafood enchiladas in Oklahoma, and they were solid. We also ate at the Iowa Beef House, which is one of the places I had visited in the past and enjoyed. It’s not downtown, it’s east about a mile, but has a good, lusty Midwest feel. The only other real meal we had was at Biaggi’s, an Italian chain based in the upper Midwest. Good, but not an old-style, family-owned, stuck-away-in-a-neighborhood kind of place. That’s what I was looking for, but on Easter night, our options were limited.
Driving to and from Des Moines — we drove from OKC — you notice something else in Iowa. Billboard regulations. Billboards can’t be closer than, oh, I’d guess, 200 feet from the freeway. So very few billboards. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, and I didn’t really notice that it let me see more of the countryside, but I thought it was interesting.
One more thing. I’m now sold on a new way to get to Kansas City. I’ve always just stayed on I-35, part of which is the Kansas Turnpike. But at Emporia, where you exit the turnpike and stay on I-35, we instead exited I-35 and stayed on the turnpike. That puts you on I-335, to the eastern edge of Topeka and onto I-70, where you zip into Kansas City from the west instead of the south. I thought it was closer and quicker. And if you’re going north, as we were, it’s clearly the way to go. One downside: the turnpike tolls are much more, $9 and change, as opposed to $5.25 if you get off in Emporia.