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A little nostalgia and a pretty Iowa town


I had planned a couple of bookstore stops as I headed away from events in the center of Iowa. Inexplicably, a bookstore in Cedar Rapids quit communicating in the midst of an email discussion about an event there, so with extra time on my hands, I decided to see parts of the state I’d never visited despite my Iowa residency from 1953 to 1976.


I left Story City early to leave plenty of time for a stop in Clear Lake at the Surf Ballroom, the venue that has the sad distinction of being the last place the Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Buddy Holly played before their small plane crashed in a corn field 10 miles away on “The Day the Music Died”—62 years ago last February. While I am too young to have grown up with those early rock’n’roll greats, I have since come to appreciate them—especially since their music compares so favorably against the disco phase that followed it not so many years later!

The ballroom still serves as a music venue, but it also houses a museum commemorating the music that “died” there and celebrating the dawn of the genre. The stage and ballroom are little changed, and the café looks much like it did in 1959. I studied the posters and photographs and walked around for an hour or so, and left feeling a little solemn. I sat in the sun on a bench in front of the building next to the monument to the three musicians and the pilot and ate a sandwich I’d made that morning. There’s no place like a quiet small town in Iowa in the early fall for slowing the heart rate and clearing negative thoughts, and despite the sadness imbedded in the historic site, I left with a good feeling about the rest of my adventure.


My next destination was Decorah, a small town that sits along the Upper Iowa River in the “driftless” region of Iowa—driftless designating an area the last glaciers didn’t scrape into flat prairie—and home to Luther College, which, no surprise, is a Lutheran sponsored university. Friends went to school there, but I had never visited its campus, it's lively downtown or its falls and hiking trails.

I checked into the charming Leytze’s Corner Bed and Breakfast, a converted former church near shops and restaurants, and lugged my heavy bags up the steep stairs. I walked downtown to visit the Dragonfly Bookstore. Unfortunately, the owner was out of town, but I left some bookmarks—and I hope some goodwill for my visit. (The store did not carry The Rebel Nun.) I lingered at the knitting store (buying a cache of yarn and a pattern that will occupy my knitting cravings for the next 20 years) and stopped in the quilting store to lust after a $12,000 sewing machine. At dinner, I was served tasteless, colorless, overcooked Atlantic (perhaps farm-raised) salmon that was advertised as line-caught Sockeye at a restaurant that came highly recommended. I must learn not to eat seafood in the Midwest unless it comes from the Great Lakes!

My hopes for hiking along the river the next day were dashed when I woke up in pain. Hauling my bags up and down stairs and in and out of the van over the past weeks had injured my hip, and I had to sit and edit my current novel all day instead. My day was rescued by a wonderful meal and inexpensive Rhone blend at La Rana, a tiny bistro along one of the side streets downtown.


I felt better the next day, explored the beautiful historic homes district, took a two-mile hike along the river, and visited Dunning Springs Falls. On my way out of town that afternoon, I stopped to see the home where Anton Dvorak lived in Spillville, Iowa, one summer, and then headed for my next book event.

I could live in Decorah, if the town was somewhere other than Iowa with its bugs, humidity and cold winters. Of course, if it were somewhere else, it wouldn’t be Decorah, and it would have a million people. I hope to visit again sometime soon. And perhaps have a chance to meet the bookstore owner then.


Next: Lovely Waverly and a book club meeting

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