Thursday, August 24, 2006


Quad Cities Swing

Unsurprisingly, a wooded campsite located alongslide a slowly moving river abounds in bugs. Suffice it to say that I resolve to me more careful about the tent zipper in the future.

There's a bike trail that runs from Savanna to the Quad Cities, a distance of about 50 miles. I follow the first part of it, as well as a loop around a section of backwaters where I see huge numbers, and huge examples, of heron and other wading birds. Unfortunately, none of them cooperate with my desire to take their picture. One or two snakes behave no better, but that's just as well.

I take the trail as far as it's a separate path from the roadway. Then the map tells me to follow the highway a bit to Thomson. Not so much fun. After five minutes of being buzzed by pickup trucks and other assorted hilligans I give up the quest. When I get back to the tourist center at the trailhead, the same woman who was so encouraging two hours ago nods her head like she knew it would be hellish all along. The Burlington Northern tracks would make a lovely rail-trail, but given the number of trains that woke me up last night, that seems unlikely in the near future.

This is what the backwaters look like. All that plant life, the cattails on the left particularly, are a bad sign, by the way. They indicate an overabundance of nitrogen in the water, which feeds the cattails, which in turn block sunlight from the aquatic plants underneath that generate the river's oxygen supply. You see where this is headed.

The nitrogen oversupply is the result of bad farming practices, especially the corn monoculture and the tendency of farmers to think too much fertilizer is better than too little. I could go on, but I know what's coming, so I'll probably get to the rest of it in a couple of days.

In the afternoon I drive down the Iowa side of the river toward the Quad (Quint?) Cities. It's slow going, for some reason - there's less to see than I might have imagined. One thing there is a lot of is gambling. Every little dot on the map has a riverboat casino. I'm only to Iowa and I'm astonished at the amount of gambling there is in this country. If you had asked me, I would have told you Atlantic City, Vegas, and some Indian reservations. In fact, I have hardly been anyplace where the populace is more than an hour or two's drive from the opportunity to lose their money.

It's not that I have a moral objection to it, really; I've played blackjack at Vegas and Tunica myself and bought the occasional lottery ticket. It's just that it seems a fundamentally stupid and dishonest - and, I may add, in the long run counterproductive - way to build an economy and fund government.

Which, all in all, probably does amount to a moral objection.

Whatever. I pass a place with a chicken in a top hat on the roof, and it tempts me far more than any casino does, even though it's not anything like a meal time. But it's going to take 20 minutes for me to get my hands on "broasted" chicken, so I keep moving. I get to the Buffalo Bill museum a few minutes after closing - damn you, top-hatted chicken! - so I am unable to tell you anything about his boyhood life near LeClaire, Iowa. Finally I arrive at Bettendorf, drive past the immense Alcoa plant by the river, and pull into Davenport.

Part of the reason I came to this part of the world is that my grandmother was from here, and I still have some more distant relations around these parts, good Swedish stock from little towns that are on the verge of disappearing. So on the verge of disappearing, it seems, that Rand McNally doesn't even bother showing them, and it shows some pretty dinky towns. Or maybe I have the names wrong. I don't really know what I would do when I got there besides take a picture of the church and walk through the graveyard, so I'm not bothered that much by it. Except that, otherwise, the Quad Cities are a pretty unlikely destination.

Except again, on the third, hand, there's a beautiful little ballpark in Davenport that overlooks the Mississippi as it flows westward. (Yes, westward; check your map of these parts.) The Quad Cities Swing - formerly the River Bandits, and why anyone thought "Swing" was a better name is beyond me; this is not exactly a hotbed of jazz or anything besides Sousa marches, from what I can tell - and they kept what I assume is the old mascot, a racoon with, naturally, a mask. The marketing folks were doubtless completely unequal to the task of devising a mascot to go along with "Swing," since I can't imagine the focus groups of eight-year-olds reacted positively to a six-foot walking saxophone ... where the hell was I?

The ballpark. I'd seen pictures of it a long time ago, and it was in the news a few years ago when the whole Mississippi valley was flooding and the stadium was underwater. It sits right on the banks of the river, next to one of the bridges. This is low-level minor league ball; most of the players are barely out of high school, and sometimes they play like it. I've never heard of any of them, of course, but one of the players for Clinton, just up the road, is named John Mayberry and turns out to be the son of the former major leaguer.

It's a beautiful evening at the ballpark. And one of the things that's nice is that the fans are actually interested in the outcome of the game, and pay attention, and know their baseball, even if it will be a whole different cast of characters here next spring.

There's also a sprinkler delay around the fifth or sixth inning. And a rabbit delay in about the eighth. And they give away free loaves of bread after the game.

Davenport turns out to be a pretty cool little town. I recall that during the Mississippi floods, Bob Edwards asked the mayor of Davenport, which was hit especially hard, why the town hadn't built levees the way most of the towns upstream had. The mayor's response was that being connected to the river was especially important to the psyche of the people of Davenport. Walking along the riverfront park before the game, I can see what he means. There's a nice bike path and a bandshell and restaurants, as well as the inevitable casino, of course, and a lot of people out using them. And being able to see the water, as opposed to a grassy berm, makes all the difference.

There's also an arts festival going on downtown, a couple of blocks from the stadium, and before the game I wander through. It's a relatively small affair, but it's pretty good and far less commercial than you might see at a street fair some other places.

They've also got a big new art museum, the Figge, that's celebrating it's first anniversary with free admission. It's a terrific little collection. Totally weird and eclectic, but terrific. There's far more Haitian art than you'd expect to find anywhere in Iowa, for example. And there's a Grant Wood room, which turns out not to have very much by Grant Wood in it, and certainly none of the greatest hits, but has some spectacular little works by a guy named Marvin Cone. One of them, a landscape of a river valley where the whole world seems to be swirling, reminds me of what it was like to see the Burghers of Calais for the first time or Basquiat's Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump: I never want to stop looking at it.

The museum reminds me of the Columbus Museum of Art back when their collection was weaker and they had to work a little harder, and in the end it was a place where art was a whole lot more interesting.

So finally the game ends, and there's a fireworks show, and I can't find any karaoke, and I cross the river and head back up toward the campground. I pass the John Deere headquarters on the way, which I later learn was designed by Eero Saarinen and probably worth seeing in the daytime, but that'll have to wait.

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