Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time to Leave the Rolling Hills of Iowa

When I told folks in Michigan I was going to move to Iowa for college there were the usual comments about how flat Iowa is. "Flat" they said. "Iowa is flat". I think they were thinking Nebraska. Nebraska is flat. Iowa, not so much. In fact, the transition is pretty striking...Sioux City is where Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota meet.

So, there you are, standing on a bluff on the Iowa side of the river a couple hundred feet above the Big Sioux, and just across the river the rolling hills disappear into miles and miles and miles of flat, South Dakota corn fields, fireworks stores, and casinos.

The transition is pretty dramatic. As we drove up a tall bluff my three year old squealed "We're so high up!" and my seven year old said "There are so many huge hills here!" and my wife said "Do you know why it's so hilly here? It's because you're in Iowa."

Sioux City Iowa is home to the extremely rare geological formation the Loess Hills, a certain type of hilly formations of extremely fine silt. The only other place in the world where this type of silt hills can be found are in China.

Many Americans think of Iowa as having little topographic variation. However, in westernmost Iowa the Loess Hills rise 200 feet above the flat plains forming a narrow band running north-south 200 miles along the Missouri River. The steep angles and sharp bluffs on the western side of the Loess Hills are in sharp contrast to the flat rectangular cropfields of the Missouri River flood plain. From the east, gently rolling hills blend into steep ridges.

Loess (pronounced "luss"), is German for loose or crumbly. It is a gritty, lightweight, porous material composed of tightly packed grains of quartz, feldspar, mica, and other minerals. Loess is the source of most of our Nation's rich agricultural soils and is common in the U.S. and around the world. However, Iowa's Loess Hills are unusual because the layers of loess are extraordinarily thick, as much as 200 feet in some places. The extreme thickness of the loess layers and the intricately carved terrain of the Loess Hills make them a rare geologic feature. Shaanxi, China, is the only other location where loess layers are as deep and extensive. Though much older (2.5 million years) and much thicker (nearly 300 feet) than Iowa's loess, the Shaanxi loess hills have been greatly altered by both natural and human activity and no longer retain their original characteristics.

The drive and walk through Sioux City's Stone Park was absolutely stunning. Reminded me of the dune ridges back home along the shorelines of Lake Michigan, but with a lot more oak in the mix rather than evergreens and sassafras.

While visiting the wife's family in Sioux City, we stopped at the local Palmer's Candy factory outlet to stock up on King Bings which are in my top ten favorite candies of all time. Sadly, I have trouble getting them anywhere outside the Iowa region. It's the ideal combination of sweet and salty...a mash of chocolate and crushed salted peanuts over a sweet cherry cream center. In the candy world it's one of the best thought out candy concoctions I've experienced.

We also went to the museum and read about the early WindCharger factory started in Sioux City. These were early wind turbines for farms first made in 1930. The company started with two people in a garage and within months moved to over 50 people making hundreds of wind turbines per month. Just a few years after it started Zenith bought the company with the idea to use them to charge radios. Iowa's got a strong history of wind power...so it's no wonder 15% of the state's power comes from wind turbines. Massive turbines are everywhere. Awesome.

Did I mention the state was also the first state in America to allow same sex marriages? Iowa is fantastic.

Alas, though...today we head out. The kids had a fine time playing at Grandma and Grandpa's for the week. Next stop, Madison Wisconsin to visit my sister in law.

1 comment:

Cathleen said...

I've only been through Iowa on the Amtrack, and I remember it was really pretty.

Nebraska, not so much.

Bring us back a turbine, k?