I had a very unusual blogging experience this week. On Monday afternoon, I realized I was getting hundreds of hits on a post I wrote two and a half years ago about a trip Doug and I took to Lansing, Iowa. I was getting many angry comments from people in Lansing who thought I was insulting their city. (The day did, however, end with a very nice email from the mayor inviting me to come back and give their town another try.)
I was so confused by these responses, mostly because Doug and I loved our trip to Lansing. We went back a year later to take our best friends who were visiting from Florida (they loved it too). We’ve recommended Lansing to all our friends in Iowa City. We plan to go back several times over the next few years. We talk about it all the time.
As I went back and re-read the post from 2012, I could see how some of the wording I used could have been interpreted as elitist, though that was never my intention or my outlook. My intention of the post had largely been to mock Doug and myself for our own unpreparedness for small town travel, not to insult the city. This misunderstanding has been upsetting to me, but it has also given me a chance to reflect on how my post failed to convey how much we loved the town.
I would like to take this opportunity to clear the air with the people of Lansing, and to hopefully do a better job of describing what we loved about our trip and the impact it has continued to have in my life. So, without further ado:
How a Trip to a Small Town in Iowa Changed My Outlook on Travel
The year Doug and I moved to Iowa, I wanted to take a trip during his spring break. We didn’t have much money and Doug couldn’t be gone long because he had a lot of work to do. So he told me I could only plan a short trip and that it had to be somewhere in Iowa.
So I went online and soon learned that northeastern Iowa is incredibly scenic with its tall bluffs lining the upper Mississippi River. I figured the region would be perfect for Doug and me since we prefer natural beauty over big city travel any day. Next I needed to find a place for us to stay. I couldn’t find travel reviews for any of the small river towns except for one extremely positive review for a town called Lansing (population 999) written by a man who’d visited there from San Francisco and fallen so in love with the town that he’d quickly sold his San Francisco home and moved there. That review, combined with some photographs I saw taken from Mt. Hosmer, were enough for me to book a reservation at a hotel in Lansing.
Driving into Lansing via a series of bridges was a beautiful experience. The river is unbelievably wide up there, filled with marshland and islands. We immediately knew we had chosen the right destination.
We stayed in a lovely, modern room at McGarrity’s Inn. The building has been renovated from an old photography studio, so the rooms were decorated with leftover photography artifacts, which gave us a taste of the local history.
We hiked through the Effigy Mounds (about a 30 minute drive from Lansing), which includes over two hundred American Indian mounds and offers spectacular views of the bluffs, the river, and bald eagles. We happened to be there during an unseasonably warm week for early March, which made it perfect for hiking.
We also had a great time hiking to the top of Mt. Hosmer, which is right in Lansing and offers an incredible tri-state view.
Our trip to Horsefall’s Lansing Variety Store was unforgettable. The store is jam-packed and known to have more than a million different items for sale. Doug bought some rare toys from his childhood, and I bought some bowls that always remind me of our trip. We loved the cashier who worked there—a very friendly man in measuring tape suspenders (I also bought my dad measuring tape suspenders) who told us we could mail him a check later if we didn’t have enough cash on us. I loved that—I have never been on the receiving end of that much trust in a business transaction.
We had lunch at Safe House Saloon where I had an AMAZING slice of s’more pizza, which I still dream about. The restaurant owner said she invented the recipe herself.
Overall, we found the land to be beautiful, the pace to be laid-back, and the people to be friendly. Although we were only there a couple days, we really felt like we had gotten away.
As we drove home, I realized that one of the reasons this trip had been so enjoyable was because it had been so unexpected. We hadn’t known much about the area when we arrived, so it felt so serendipitous to uncover all the lesser known treasures the region has to offer. Anyone can pick up a guide book to New York City and hit up all the typical hot spots, but to me there is something more special about going to an area whose appeal is lesser known and more subtle. It feels like you are uncovering a hidden treasure, or being let in on a wonderful secret.
That experience has altered my entire perception of what travel is and can be. After Lansing, I was hooked. I now own three Iowa guidebooks and plan Iowa getaways all the time.
Doug and I have kayaked in Decorah, hiked through the Loess Hills, ridden the world’s steepest railroad elevator in Dubuque, toured the Star Trek museum in Riverside (birthplace of Captain Kirk), taken a private bald eagle tour of Davenport, observed the Amish in their horse-drawn buggies in Kalona, and stayed at the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in Mason City.
We have now been more places in Iowa than some native Iowans. It has provided us with many great adventures and memories, but even more than that, it has made me feel like this state really is my home.
I am always stunned when people tell me there is nothing to do in Iowa. There is so much to do in Iowa that I actively worry about not getting to do it all before we move in a few years. (Next up on our list: the famous bridges of Madison County and the Great Lakes of Iowa.)
I have become a huge advocate for exploring your home state. In a country where we are always pressed for money and vacation time, I think in-state getaways are a great way to combat the “no-vacation nation” problem.
It’s so easy to pack up and go on an adventure somewhere completely different, and really feel like you’re getting away, even if all you have is a weekend and a couple hundred dollars. I encourage everybody to try it. Every state has its own hidden treasures. There’s a lot to experience beyond the typical guidebooks and internet forums, and your life will be richer for it.
I have Lansing to thank for teaching me that.