Jun 252015

Summer in Iowa is a see-saw of rising heat and humidity, counter-balanced by thunderstorms that pour all of that moisture into the ground and cool the air before the cycle begins again. This past month, however, there has been more rain than feels usual—and the temperatures have been striking 90 degrees more often than I would expect. June, in other words, feels more like July and August. There has been so much rain, in fact, that many of the creeks are overflowing and flash flood warnings have been extended. We drove past a loop of the Walnut Creek this evening, and discovered a church parking lot next to the creek, filled with water.

Church Parking Lot

We checked out the same creek where it flows past our hair stylist’s building, and noted the creek is filled all the way to the edge of the banks.

Walnut Creek

And behind our house, where there is a woodsy walking path parallel to North Walnut Creek, the grass is swept flat in the direction of the lower-lying homes on the other side of the creek. Tree debris and logs are pushed back into the woods.

North Walnut Creek Tree Debris

A few years ago at this time of year, the bridge leading to our walking path washed out because of heavy rains. It was rebuilt, but you can see how full of silt the muddy-colored water is.

North Walnut Creek Bridge

When we went on vacation in northeastern Iowa earlier this month, we came home to a damp basement with some water in the carpeted area of our home office. Apparently there had been a power outage that lasted just long enough for our sump pump to turn off (it needs electricity to work, of course), and that allowed ground water to seep through the tiles beneath the house to soak the carpet. But it could have been worse. We used a wet-dry vacuum to remove as much water as we could, and ran a utility fan to dry out the carpet. John will shampoo the rug soon, and we should be good until the next sump pump crisis.

To combat the ever-present summer dampness in the basement, our dehumidifier is working full-time to remove moisture from the air. Every day, we dump the tank that pulls about a gallon of water from the air. Too bad I can’t send dehumidifier water to parched California these days!


But all of this is normal in Iowa, overall. People share similar stories about water in their basement every summer, and we all know that Fleur Drive in Des Moines experiences flooding every year. We don’t enjoy the water issues, but it’s a fact of life. We deal with it  and move forward. It’s life in Iowa, after all, and life goes on.

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jun 182015

We spent last week at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa once more for the 10th consecutive year. If you have never rented a cabin in a state park, it’s a wonderful experience, especially because it gives you the opportunity to unplug and completely unwind. Unless we head into nearby Manchester for supplies, there is no telephone, television or Internet. The state park itself is nestled in the middle of rural Iowa farm country, so even when you’re not at Backbone, everything feels like it’s operating—delightfully—at half-speed.

IMG_5752 - Farm Country

To be honest, the cabin we rent is not exactly rustic—it’s an air-conditioned cabin with a refrigerator, microwave and stove—in addition to two bedrooms and a queen-sized futon in the full-sized living room that is bigger than our own. Although we did spend time outdoors, this year’s unseasonably warm, humid early June weather definitely called for the air-conditioning to be turned on!

Cabin Interior

We checked into our cabin on Friday evening. By the time it was eight-thirty, we were hungry but still not completely unpacked, so we drove into Manchester for supper at the Fireside Pub & Steakhouse, where we enjoyed nachos and the best pizza (really!) we have ever eaten. You can tell from our happy faces that the food hit the spot! If I had thought about it, I would’ve handed the server my iPhone to snap our picture, but I didn’t think of it at the time and instead took individual shots of us.

Fireside Pub & Steakhouse

Our son, David, drove out from Indiana for much of the week, which was a special treat for us. I think he got a chance to relax, too.

David relaxes outside

Every evening but Thursday, when it rained buckets all day, we grilled our dinner outdoors over the fire pit, and sometimes we enjoyed roasted marshmallows much later, when the stars came out. But there was at least one fire every night but Thursday, filled with appropriate chat and silence, in equal measures. One night after our dinner campfire, we took a walk along the East Trail Lake. When we returned a couple of hours later, David stacked the wood chimney-style and blew on the still-hot embers to get a second campfire started.


John and David paddled a canoe around sunset on Backbone Lake one evening, while I enjoyed being a passenger. Because we had never done this previously, we didn’t realize how shallow some parts of the lake are. At one point David dipped his paddle and hit bottom, pointing out we probably had less than 18 inches of water below us. It made me feel foolish for wearing a life vest, but at least I can say I was following safe boating practices. John and David sat on theirs—ha!

Paddling the canoe at Backbone Lake

Despite the shallow water in some parts of the lake, we still enjoyed being on the water. In the photo below, you can see a rock formation against the shoreline. If you use your imagination, you can see how it resembles part of a backbone. Backbone State Park is known for this type of bedrock, carved by a loop of the Maquoketa (ma-KOH-ka-tah) River.

Backbone Lake shore rock formation

Paddling a canoe around sunset provides an excellent opportunity to take photos. I can’t take credit for the beautiful ones below; David took the first two from the canoe using his iPhone, and the last one from the dock.



Dusk outisde the boathouse

The sun was setting as we pulled into the boat dock. I had it pretty easy as John and David tied up the canoe across from the boathouse.

John and David tie up the canoe outside boathouse

We hiked along the East Lake Trail, which parallels Backbone Lake. In the photos below, you can see more examples of backbone-like rock formations.

East Lake Trail ridge

In front of our cabin is an immense, mature pine tree that provides a lot of shade over our fire pit and picnic table. David couldn’t resist climbing it—probably to make me nervous, as I’m not fond of heights.

David climbs pine tree outside cabin

One day last week, we had perfect kiting weather. John and David flew a stunt kite on a hill next to Backbone Lake while I tried to follow the kite with my iPhone lens.

One afternoon we played a board game called Firefly (yes, based on the Firefly film series) and enjoyed root beer floats at the same time. Both were thoroughly enjoyable!

Playing the game of Firefly

Next year we hope to rent the same cabin again. There are small, medium and large cabins at the state park, and ours is called Hawk’s Roost, one of the medium-sized ones. A porch wraps around the back, where a picnic table and benches sit—great for when it rains. We also store our firewood on the deck to keep it dry. The cabin is surrounded by trees, bushes and a large grassy area. The people in the cabin next to us used their grassy area to play croquet. Our neighbors on the other side spent most of their time trout fishing, for which Backbone State Park is known. Behind Hawk’s Roost are woods with lots of oak and maple trees, the East Lake Trail and Backbone Lake.

Outside the cabin

You couldn’t ask for a better summer getaway, or a better place to create some family memories!

Beneath the pine tree outside cabin

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jul 082013

Last week we visited my mother-in-law in north central Wisconsin, making day trips to different destinations: the Wisconsin Dells, Marshfield, and Dells of the Eau Claire. We did so much in so little time, in fact, that I am writing separate posts to describe our doings. The trip from Iowa to Wisconsin, however, was a sightseeing activity in itself. We drove north on Interstate 35 all the way to Minnesota, then sliced across the southeastern corner of the state on Interstate 90 through Albert Lea. Finally, we crossed the Mississippi River to LaCrosse, Wisconsin before continuing northeast to Rib Mountain (near Wausau), where John’s mother lives. The three states—Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin—all share a piece of the Mississippi River Valley, yet are so unique that you can tell where you are by the geography.

At the northernmost point in Iowa, just before you enter south central Minnesota, there is a barn-shaped welcome center called Top of Iowa.


You’ll find restrooms and vending machines downstairs, but if you climb the stairs, you’ll discover sightseeing brochures, booklets and maps about every interesting spot in Iowa that you can imagine. Sprinkled throughout Iowa, in fact, are attractive welcome centers that provide free visitor information. There is also a gift shop called the Barn Boutique that features the work of local area artisans.

Top of Iowa Collage

When we have visited the Top of Iowa barn in the past, John has enjoyed a cappuccino in the coffee shop while waiting for me to finish browsing in the gift shop known as the Barn Boutique.


I always enjoy browsing through the crafts, which are made by local area artisans.

Barn Boutique Collage

The gift shop features beautiful, sturdy baskets woven by Amish families. Family members usually sign the underside of their work. I own several of these Amish baskets, although mine were purchased elsewhere.


I was amused by the book below and must admit that some of the expressions in How to Talk Midwestern do not sound altogether unfamiliar. Most Midwesterners won’t cop to speaking with a so-called accent, but I realized after relocating from southern California back to the Midwest (where John and I grew up) more than 20 years ago that we have a distinctive pattern to our patter, along with some interesting expressions that are not used elsewhere. Do you know what it means to live in the “boonies?” Did you know that a “guy” can mean anyone of any gender or age? That a mush mellon (or muskmelon) is a canteloupe, or that Monkey Ward is another name for the store called Montgomery Ward? (Does that store even exist anymore?) Did you know that Midwesterners sometimes swallow their vowels or consonants, saying “Floorda” for Florida, or “eve-nun” for evening? Natives of Milwaukee, where I was born, pronounce the city’s name as “M’WAW-kee,” eliminating the “l.” Many Iowans refers to their state as “AH-wah,” eliminating the “i,” or “EYE-wah,” eliminating the “o.”


We noticed that in north central Iowa, you’ll see vast stretches of farm and wind fields.

North Central Iowa Collage

As soon as you cross over into south central Minnesota, you continue to see farms, but you’ll also notice thick stands of trees, acting as sturdy wind breaks.

South Central Minnesota Collage

Much of the Midwest was at one time covered by glaciers, but as you descend into the Mississippi River Valley, the road on either side is edged with sedimentary bluffs and roadcuts of limestone, sandstone and dolomite, which represent areas the glaciers may never have touched. According to a sign posted at the Enterprise rest stop in southeastern Minnesota:

These rock formations were deposited by oceans which have covered the area several times in the past, the most recent some 70 million years ago. These types of stone are easily eroded by groundwater and there are numerous sinkholes and even caves to be found in the area.

Southeastern MN Bluffs Collage

Large cranes and construction debris provide evidence of a new interstate crossover being built in the vicinity of the Mississippi River between Dresbach, Minnesota and LaCrosse, Wisconsin.


If you stop at the welcome center in Dresbach, you can watch the river traffic.


Opposite Dresbach, on the other side of the Mississippi River, is LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As you drive along the highway, you continue to see farmland. One farm is prettier than the next, and in the background loom forested hills.





Both Minnesota and northern Wisconsin are known for their forests and lakes. I stopped in Necedah to snap this sunset shot of the lake. I had to do so quickly because the lake flies and mosquitoes swarmed.


Our journey from Urbandale, Iowa to Rib Mountain, Wisconsin ordinarily takes about 7-1/2 hours by car. It’s a full day of driving, in other words, but being able to enjoy the lay of the land—it’s a pretty drive anytime of the year—makes the time fly quickly.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.