The last time I visited Des Moines, Iowa, was about 4 years ago. Wow. Things have changed. Oh sure, on my previous visit, they did have Raygun and Zombie Burger, and there was always West Des Moines where you could shop at Trader Joes or hang out in the new high-end mall. I hear they even have a Whole Foods there now. But Downtown Des Moines has definitely turned hipster.
The first indicator that something has changed is the lack of availability of last minute hotel rooms in the Downtown. I asked my sister who works in Des Moines if there was a convention or something going on. Not that she knew of. “Try Des Lux”, she said, “It’s a relatively new boutique hotel.” Second flag that something was up…new boutique hotel. No go. Fully booked. Next step; try Airbnb. Score. Not that many available, but I did manage to book a really nice flat (and yes, the owner called it a flat…third flag something was up) overlooking the Des Moines River and Cubbies Baseball stadium. Highly recommend this Airbnb! Location was perfect and the ‘flat’ was awesome.
Driving around Downtown Des Moines, you notice a lot of construction, but nothing that gets in your way. You can find a parking place within a minute or two, if not immediately. As you walk along, you can’t miss a series of brightly painted pianos on various street corners around the city. 4th flag that something is up (I heard about a similar project in NYC), and low and behold, there were even people who stopped and played a few tunes on them. You may even forget for a moment that you’re in Des Moines and think you’re in NYC, but then quickly you realize there is absolutely no trash or debris of any kind in Des Moines. It’s even cleaner than Singapore.
My destination on this walk is East Village, because that’s where Raygun and Zombie Burger live, both of which I’m familiar with. I’ll get a couple of clever-edgy-funny t-shirts, and grab a vegan burger at Zombie. But suddenly, I am completely distracted. There’s an element of Melrose Avenue in LA that comes to mind and I’m seeing girls with really good ink and guys with trendy hair and trimmed beards. I do a double take of the streets and see 6th and Locust, and then a stranger says hello to me and I’m instantly brought back to reality – I’m not in LA, I’m in Des Moines – the only capital city in the universe where a stranger will actually say hi to you in the passing. This is true. Iowans are among the nicest people in the world. It seems everyone has time for you and the check out person at HyVee will spend 5 minutes asking about your life, your kids, San Francisco, your relationship with your husband, all while he/she scans your groceries. You leave HyVee feeling like you had a 5 minute therapy session, and you do indeed feel better about yourself because it seems that someone actually cares…and it’s the grocery store clerk that you just met!
Back to EV (East Village). I could spend a lot of time here. I stop at Mars Café and decide I need a manipedi because I just came from SF where it’s 50 degrees in June and Des Moines is topping out at 85, hence the flip flops with my overgrown toenails. I’m scrolling through my phone reading reviews of several nail salons within a 3 block radius while drinking my almond milk latte (Yep. Des Moines got the memo about milk alternatives…5th flag). Bingo. Art of Nails. Right across the street from Mars. And they take walk in’s. I’m greeted by a very lovely Iowan native, Michelle. She gets me a bottle of water and shows me to my chair. Art of Nails has the best massage chairs of any nail salon I’ve been in. Bill, born in Laos, but moved to the US when he was one, has lived in Des Moines since he was 4. “I’ve been to Vientienne and Luang Prabang”, I say. We then talk for 45 minutes about a lot of different things as he delivers a great pedicure. I move on to my mani, which is given by another Lao native, Lang. She’s my age and we talk about our kids, parenting, etc. When I leave, I see Michelle cutting Bill’s hair and next to them is a very handsome young man who looks part Asian. They’re all smiling and chatting with each other and I say, “Are you all related?” “Yeah, that’s my mom and dad”, says the handsome young man. Nice family.
Next stop. Blow-out at Bombshell Betty’s. On my way, I pass a swanky day spa called W. They have Aveda products lining the window and it’s all very modern. Again, reminiscent of something straight out of LA. Oh! Another stranger just said hi! I’m still in Des Moines. I pass several boutiques, and they look rather high-end. I step into one called Velvet Coat where I see some really cool sandles. They’re three hundred dollars, but I can see they’re well worth it. Made in Italy. I’m getting nervous because it’s right about now that I start feeling unwelcomed in high-end boutiques. You know, right when you turn the shoe over to see if it’s in your price range and you want the shoe, but you know your husband isn’t gonna want the shoe and the store clerk knows you’re one of “those” people who is not in ‘the disposable income’ category and they decide to not give you the time of day. ”Hi, how are you?” I hear someone say. I turn and see two beautiful sales women, Julia and Nadine. “Hello”, I reply. “Let me know if you need any help”, Julia says. “Thank you. I have an appointment to get my hair blown out, but wanted to stop in your store for a minute.” Nadine replies, “Oh at Bombshell Betty’s? They do a great job.” Which says a lot coming from Nadine who is stunning, with hair that has been painted, literally, by an artist friend. She was a dancer and like other hipsters in Des Moines, was sporting some fine ink. I left there thinking that these two ladies could be my new BFF’s and felt compelled to invite them to have a beer later with my sister an me.
On to Bombshell Betty’s. I walk in. This place is cool, and the two gals working here are even cooler. Now, it’s starting to look more like someplace in the Mission in SF. These girls both have serious body art, and I mean the tattoo artist is really an artist! I ask the one with green hair about hers. “Is that a zombie?” I point to the art on her sleeved arm. “It’s a zombie Snow White scene. I love Disney”, she replies. “Oh, do you watch The Walking Dead? I LOVE that show!” I overzealously chime in. “Haven’t seen it but hear it’s great”. Both of these girls, Sabrina and Holly, have that milky flawless skin that seems very prevalent in the Midwest. They are both beautiful, and smile a lot. They ask me questions about my children, places I’ve travelled. Everyone in this town seems to have time for you. And to be honest, I haven’t seen an excess of cell phone fixation. My hair looks great when Sabrina is finished washing, massaging, blowing out and styling my hair.
My sister picks me up at Raygun, the t-shirt shop whose owner only recently got a smart phone. The shop was featured on NPR during the Iowa Caucasus when hordes of candidates, their entourages, and the press descended on this city and state. Raygun really would be more at home in SoHo, NYC. Its t-shirts’ snarky commentary on conservative culture must have driven the republicans insane! One shirt reads, “Guns don’t kill people. People from Texas kill people.” Hmmm.
My sister drives me to Des Moines International Airport to meet my husband. It takes us 12 minutes to get from EV to the airport. Dollar Renta Car is the only car rental with a line. There are 3 people ahead of me. I’m checked out in less than 5 minutes, and I walk about 100 feet where my car is waiting for me. Toyota Yaris. Zippy. I pick up my husband and we drive straight to Zombie Burger where my whole family is waiting; Mom, Dad, my sister and her two boys, my brother and his wife and their two girls and son. My two boys are the only ones missing. Both on summer trips with friends. I am a TWD fan, which stands for The Walking Dead. I feel very comfortable in this place. And they even have a vegan burger, which I order. What flag are we on? I’ve lost track. They also have a variety of local beers and I say to my husband and sister, “I love this place! Check out the beer selection.” My sister gives me an update…”You have to go to the Iowa Tap Room. They have over a hundred micro brews”. Okay.
Washington and Oregon have nothing on Iowa in the way of micro-brewing. Iowa has entered the modern beer age, and the state has a huge advantage with soil and climate that support optimal hops growing. The line at the Iowa Tap Room was too long…a 50 minute wait. But luckily, it has a sister pub called El Bait Shop, which is conveniently located 1 block from our Airbnb flat. El Bait Shop serves over 100 different beers and a variety of food items. It’s casual and a perfect venue for a hot afternoon draft of beer. Our waitress, Melanie, like everyone else in Des Moines, was helpful, cheerful and very nice.
My husband really wanted to go bike riding, and let me tell you, there are a lot of bike trails in and around Des Moines. In case you’ve never heard of RAGBRAI, I’ll explain; every summer the state of Iowa hosts The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Riders from all over the world participate in this spectacle, and towns transform into massive shelters that provide tent space, sofas, beds, showers and home cooked food of all sorts to the riders. Over 25 thousand people participate in this week long ride, starting with dipping their back tires in the Missouri River and ending with a dip of the front tire in the Mississippi. My husband is gearing up for participating in Ragbrai one day, hopefully within the next couple of years.
For our last real stop in Des Moines, I met my sister and husband at Della Viti Wine Bar. My husband and I grow grapes in Sonoma, so we enjoy a good wine bar, and Della Viti did not disappoint. In fact, the selection of wines were worldly and sophisticated, our host, Bruce, seemed to know as much about wine as the any Bay Area Sommelier. I also need to mention that this is the highest tech wine bar I’ve ever visited. Wines are stored at optimal temperatures in dispensers. This seemed odd at first, but after listening to Bruce’s explanation we realized it was quite state-of-the-art. The ambiance of Della Viti was just what you’d want in a wine bar. Cozy, well designed, and they serve small plates to accompany your wine experience. I had a delicious glass of Langhe Barbaresco, and I can HIGHLY recommend it!
I told my husband and sister, the only thing missing from Des Moines is ‘the tude’. Everywhere you go, there seems an overwhelming absence of ‘the tude’. Very refreshing. We step onto the street and I notice a shiny new Indian motorcycle. “Nice bike.” I say. “I’d love to have an Indian motorcycle.” My sister adds, “They’re manufactured here in Iowa, you know.” My mind is blown! No, I did not know. I guess the whole damn state is hipster!
As we get ready to leave Iowa, we enter the Des Moines Airport terminal. And, you guessed it – THERE ARE NO LINES AT CHECK IN OR SECURITY! I turn to my husband and say, “Is this heaven, or what?!” He replies deadpan, “No, Jackie. This is Iowa.” He’s funny. I’m definitely coming back here with my whole family on our next vacation. And yes, Iowa is like Heaven…Hipster Heaven!