An Art Trip To Iowa City

On a Thursday morning I throw a dozen or so paintings and a couple changes of clothing into the car, load an audiobook version of “Moby Dick” on the iPod and drive west on I-80. I’ve never been to Iowa City. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Iowa, even though I live in Chicago, a mere two hours or so from the state line.

A woman named Chris Ameling who follows me on Twitter invites me to come. She wants to turn the front room of the real estate firm where she works into a gallery; the first show there will feature my work. Most artists don’t have the luxury of turning down exhibition opportunities; I know I certainly can’t. The fact that it’s only a few hours’ drive makes the decision a no-brainer.

There are several tiers of prestige in the art world: at the top are museums and other venerated institutions, below that, established galleries, lower down, up-and-coming and not-for-profit exhibition spaces, then, far below those, the walls of bars and restaurants, craft fairs and everything else. It’s a mostly closed system where you have to be part of this or that club to even participate, let alone be celebrated. I’ve never been much of a joiner and have rarely longed to play in those upper echelons. The reason I paint and draw has little to do with gaining approval from the gatekeepers of culture and those gatekeepers have, for the most part, reciprocated by ignoring my work.

A few times a year Iowa City holds an arts walk. A couple dozen businesses put up paintings, photographs and other art in their windows and on their walls. They make a route map, advertise in local publications and print an oversized punch card for people to carry from stop to stop – get your card punched at 10 participating places and you’re entered to win a pair of tickets to a concert at the Englert Theater down the street. The newly named B Gallery – the little front room of Ms. Ameling’s firm, Barker Financial – is on this map.

Queequeg and Ishmael haven’t even boarded the Pequod yet when I get into town. Barker Financial is located on the second floor of a building on College Street – which is a pedestrian mall – so the people walking around and lunching al fresco are a bit put out to see my car creeping carefully along their quiet plaza. It’s the only way to unload my work without running a block back and forth several times. After the task is done and the car is properly parked in a municipal garage around the corner, I take a look around.The second floor of 114 ½ East College Street houses a variety of businesses, each behind a door with an over-sized transom above it. I could imagine a down-at-the-mouth detective hanging his shingle here in bygone days but now it’s home to several art studios, a messenger service, a taxi company, several vacant offices and – directly across from Barker – a tattoo parlor. I spend a couple hours hanging my oil paintings of bookshelves and gouaches of taxis in the little front room, battling the close, humid June air, the intermittent buzzing needles from across the hall providing a backing soundtrack.

A book reading has been set up for me at Prairie Lights bookstore but I’ve got a little time to kill before that so I wander around downtown Iowa City for a bit. Before leaving Chicago I’d asked people for recommendations and was told to go to George’s Buffet. George’s Buffet has no buffet but does have a Hamm’s Beer waterfall sign behind the bar. A woman with a leg in a cast invites me to take the barstool next to hers, finds out the reasons for my being in town and introduces me to her drinking buddies, one of whom is a sullen, aging history student who moonlights as a cabdriver. I order a cheeseburger and my new friend instructs me to ask for horseradish on it (which isn’t listed on the menu). There are a dozen types of potato chips for sides. I ask the bartender what Sterzing’s are like, and she says they’re the local brand and twice as greasy as the major brands, making my decision easy.

After washing down the cheeseburger and chips with Wild Turkey, George’s starts to feel like home, but it’s time to head to the bookstore so I say my goodbyes and walk the few blocks back to Prairie Lights. In the window display they’ve got a bunch of my books and an old photo of me behind the wheel of a taxi, to advertise the reading. A large poster for Dan Brown’s latest provides the backdrop for the whole display.

The reading, while sparsely attended, goes well. The University of Iowa is between semesters, so the students whose attendance at readings is practically mandatory, aren’t around. All you can ask for is for people to listen and to ask good questions, and I get both, so there’s nothing to complain about. Afterwards my hosts take me out for more drinks. They’re buying, so I order a bourbon a notch above Turkey. It feels good to be the guest and to have the bill taken care of because they’re happy to have me in their town. It doesn’t happen that often but I could certainly learn to get used to it.


Friday starts with breakfast at the Bluebird Diner. The host is an exasperated-looking David Cross type, all the waitresses have tattoos and most of the waiters are very obviously gay. Maybe it’s big-city prejudice but I’ve been struck since getting to town with the very prominent gay/lesbian presence in this little place. My hosts tell me that the lesbians paved the way and that Iowa’s early passage of gay marriage has a lot to do with it. Having spent some time in the restaurant racket, the vibe of the Bluebird feels very familiar, almost nostalgic to me. The art walk doesn’t start until 5 p.m. so I have a few hours to wander and see what else there is to see.

It turns out that this art walk I’m part of is a kind of add-on to a larger art fair. Several of the streets on the main drag are blocked off and a music stage and rows of booths are being assembled as I amble around without any particular destination in mind. Vendors unpack plastic bins and cardboard boxes full of jewelry, ceramics, macramé, paintings and all manner of crafts and creations all around. Street fairs always bring on a low-level malaise. Thinking of all these people doing so much work for so little reward, the sheer volume of handmade products is overwhelming and dispiriting. I keep walking, thankful not to really be part of it. The selling and showing of artwork has always been my least favorite part of the whole process, be it in a pristine white-walled gallery or a temporary tent down the street from where they sell the corndogs.

I get back to the B Gallery a little before 5 p.m. Chris is putting out strawberries, cheesecake bites and mini bottles of water in the back room for the prospective art walkers. The tattoo shop isn’t part of the festivities but stays open for business anyway. The daughter of one of the tattooists wanders about listlessly, cradling a very real-looking bloody, bandaged leg, waiting, apparently, for the evening to end so she can go home. David Barker – whose firm is hosting my show – comes by with his family and buys one of the cab paintings. It reminds him of his time at the University of Chicago. His purchase makes this whole two-day out-of-town trip worthwhile. A couple dozen other visitors come through as well. Most are bent on getting their cards punched and only give cursory attention to the artwork. The ones that do linger get a look of recognition on their faces as they examine the cluttered bookshelves and parked taxis that populate my pictures. That look tells me that what I’m doing is worthwhile and valued, even if it’s not valued enough to crack a checkbook open very often. As for the rest, the ones that start stretching out punch cards to be attended to before even coming all the way into the room, I do my part to make their stay as brief and painless as possible. I stand holding the hole-puncher, ready to dispatch them on to their next stop with a smile on my face. The ones that figure out that I’m also responsible for the artwork pause a moment or two and glance around politely before lowering their eyes and moving on.

I buy a breaded tenderloin sandwich from one of the vendors around the corner from the parking garage around 9:15 p.m., get in my car and turn “Moby Dick” back on. Ishmael and Queequeg are still negotiating the terms of their employment and haven’t even met Captain Ahab yet as I pull into my garage back home in Chicago some three and a half hours later.

US National Trail System Expands By 650 Miles

Last week – just in time for National Trails Day – newly appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the designation of 28 new National Recreation Trails located in 18 states across the country. These new additions offer a wide variety of experiences for outdoor enthusiasts while adding an additional 650 miles to the existing U.S. National Trail System.

Being granted National Recreation Trail status indicates that a particular route plays an important role in linking communities to public lands and local parks for recreational purposes. There are now over 1200 trails that hold that distinction across the U.S., covering a distance of more than 15,000 miles through a variety of environments and terrains. Many of those trails also hold particular historic or environmental significance above and beyond their ability to connect us with the outdoors.

Some of the trails that were recently added to the system include the Forever Wild Coldwater Mountain Trail in Alabama, which is 11.5 miles in length and open to hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers alike. Similarly, California’s 28-mile long Nadeau Trail was recognized for its historical significance and offers mixed-use options that include 4×4 off-road vehicles as well. Located in amidst the cornfields of Iowa, the Sugar Bottom Mountain Biking Trail System received its designation for providing 13 miles of unexpected challenges to Midwest mountain bikers, while New Mexico’s Sierra Vista Trail is 29 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding bliss.

These are just a few examples of the new trails that Secretary Jewell approved last week. For a complete list, read the official press release from the National Park Service here. And to find a National Recreation Trail close to you, click here.

$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

Since when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.

Three Free Transportation Options For Those Who Need Them Most

Transportation options for most travelers give a choice of going from one place to another by air, land or sea – if they can pay. To those challenged by economic factors or health concerns, payment is often not an option, making travel planning nearly impossible. But a few companies and organizations are jumping in to the holiday travel spirit with both feet, offering much needed assistance to those who need it most.

A free bus ride for the unemployed in Great Britain is the result of a deal with UK bus operators, eligible to over 800,000 people. Those unemployed between three months and a year qualify for the Bus For Jobs offer.

“Bus for Jobs could make the vital difference for those who are struggling to get that first job or training place” said Sir Brian Souter, the chief executive of Stagecoach Group. “In particular, I hope we can help more of our young people make a better start in life.”

Commuting to work via bus takes 70 percent of UK workers to their jobs. Now, those who are actively hunting for work or training have another helping hand at their disposal.Compass To Care provides travel assistance to kids battling cancer. The nationwide program, founded by an actual childhood cancer survivor, is funded by donations to help families of child cancer patients with gas, hotel stays and food if they live more than 60 miles from their treatment center.

Knowing that “every difficult journey is easier when you have a friend by your side,” as Compass To Care states on its website, they offer those interested in helping the Dina Doll ($20) who will be “a constant pal to bring the lucky recipient lots of smiles.”

Like other charitable organizations, Compass To Care has events where participants can sponsor a child. RAGBRAI, The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is an annual seven-day bicycle ride across the state of Iowa and the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world.

Compass To Care will match cyclists with one of their kids that they will specifically raise funds to support.

Working Cars For Working Families provides a reliable vehicle for low-income people who do not live in an area with good public transportation. That lets them do things others take for granted, like visiting the doctor, taking children to school or daycare, getting more training or going on job interviews that require travel and more.

For these people, the hurdles to car ownership are huge and they may have no place else to turn. 1800CharityCars helps by facilitating the donation of used cars, online, every step of the way. At the end of the three-step process, those who donate a vehicle get the full fair market value as a tax-deduction when 1800CharityCars provides donated vehicles to a deserving family.

1800CharityCars provides vehicles to victims of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes as we see in this video:

[Image Credit- Flickr user Chris JL]

The Worst-Smelling Towns In America

Last week, I was in Eureka, California, for a couple of days with my parents and brother’s family. Despite the cute, historic downtown and an epic feast at the renown Samoa Cookhouse, our overwhelming impression of this coastal city is that it should be renamed “Eureeka,” because it stinks – literally.

The stench of … bait fish? Fish meal or perhaps cat food processing enveloped our hotel, and that’s just not an aroma that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. It was like living in a bucket of chum.

My niece and nephew, 12 and 16, respectively, suggested I write a piece for Gadling on the stankiest places in America, and I’m more than happy to oblige. In addition to personal picks, my fellow Gadsters were only too happy to (cow) chip in.

Coalinga, California
Anyone who’s driven I-5 past the famous cattle stockyards knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Yellowstone National Park, and Thermopolis, Wyoming
These two famous attractions may stink of sulfur, but they’re worth putting up with the fumes.

Pago Pago, American Samoa
Think giant fish cannery.Chinatowns, everywhere
Special mention goes to NYC on a breezeless summer’s day.

Greeley, Colorado
Let’s just say that being the home of one of America’s largest beef abattoirs has far-reaching consequences if the wind is right, which it usually is.

Gilroy, California
Depending upon your feelings about garlic, the nation’s largest producer of the stuff is heaven or hell (personally, I choose the former).

Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Its unofficial nickname is “The City of Five Smells,” due to the grain processing plants located there. Like roasting coffee, not always an olfactory pleasure.

Gary, Indiana
According to one Gadling contributor, this city famously smells like, “coke (a coal by-product), steel, and sadness.” Apologies to residents of Gary but this one came up more than once.

Got any picks of your own? We’d love to hear your votes for America’s smelliest town!

[Photo credits: cattle, Flickr user St0rmz; fish, Flickr user amandamandy]