In Clear Lake, the spirit of the 1950s didn't die with Buddy Holly.
This northern Iowa lake town, midway between the Twin Cities and Des Moines, swells with vacationers in summer but retains the laid-back, carefree air of decades past.
On the shores of the lake, classic cars cruise around pocket-sized City Park, fuzzy pink dice dangling from mirrors. Every Saturday and Sunday, the municipal band plays in the bandshell. The Lions Club grills chicken and sweet corn, and a paddlewheeler takes tourists on cruises.
Of all the immigrant groups, Norwegians perhaps are most sentimental.
They settled in hills and valleys reminiscent of their homeland, bringing trunks full of handcrafted ale bowls and mangle boards.
Generations later, theyre still painting bowls and stitching costumes in the old style and celebrating holidays with foods poor Norwegians ate in the 19th century.
Even in a region rich in ethnicity, the Dutch stand out.
In a town square in Iowa, lacy white hats shaped like pyramids, horns and half-moons bob high atop women's heads. Men wear black caps, breeches or baggy trousers and narrow bands cross at their throats. Their wooden shoes click and clack as they dance.
"These are the weirdest people I've ever seen!'' shrieked a little boy watching from the sidelines.
First, an elf sashayed down the street.
Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.
Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.
Around Kalona, Iowa, there's one group of people who always have understood sustainable agriculture and locally sourced food.
For the Amish, that's a lifestyle, not a movement.
Since 1846, Old Order Amish have lived and worked in this bucolic pocket of southeast Iowa, 20 minutes from Iowa City.
Long before the second-growth forests of Minnesota and Wisconsins north woods became fall destinations, sightseers were flocking to northeast Iowa.
Flat? Hardly. In this part of Iowa, only the river is flat. Towering bluffs line the Mississippi, providing unparalleled views of the sprawling river plain.
For more than 150 years, people have gone to great lengths to see these views. In 1851, when the town of Lansing consisted of a few log cabins, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed a particularly steep bluff there.
In summer, you have to work the angles to vacation for $100 or less.
You've got a good shot in Iowa, which has a big selection of cabins in state parks and especially county parks.
It's a little harder in Illinois. But Chicago has one of the world's best hostels, and some state parks have lodges and camper cabins.
Brilliant men have been very good to Mason City, Iowa.
Frank Lloyd Wright built a bank, hotel and house there in 1908-09, and the locals loved his Prairie style so much it commissioned houses from four of his associates. Today, it's one of the best collections in the nation.
Wright became persona non grata in Mason City after he abruptly left for Europe with his married lover. But a musical virtuoso was growing up nearby. Meredith Willsons The Music Man, inspired by Mason City and its band, became a Broadway smash in 1957.
Tucked into the tip of northeast Iowa, Lansing has been overlooked for a long time.
In 1851, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed its steep bluff and won a footrace to the top; the peak became Mount Hosmer.
Lansing was the county seat until 1867, when a posse from Waukon stole the county records. And it was a boom town in the 1870s and '80s, when farmers beat a path to its grain elevator and levee.
Over the years, the byways around McGregor, Iowa, have seen an extraordinary procession of people.
Between 650 and 1300, Woodland Indians built animal-shaped burial mounds, 29 of which are preserved nearby at Effigy Mounds National Monument.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived via the Wisconsin River, claiming the land for France and paving the way for the fur trade, whose center was just across the river in Prairie du Chien.
It's obvious from one look at the shop-lined streets of Amana, the largest of the seven Amana Colonies, that modern commerce is in full flower there. Even so, the first question asked about the villages is: Are the Amana people Amish?
And no wonder the people of the Amanas spoke German, lived simply and adhered faithfully to Scripture. Many still do. But no, they never were Amish.
The first people of the Amanas were German immigrants who came to Iowa in 1855.
For much of its existence, Dubuque, Iowa, has been a little short on charisma.
It started out well, with a lead-mining boom and eight breweries and Victorian mansions filled with millionaires.
But it faded into obscurity. For years, its last brewery sat empty next to the 1856 Shot Tower, where laborers once turned molten lead into bullets and cannonballs by dropping it through screens into cool river water.
For a long time, Iowa has been a great place to ride a bike.
It's not as flat as people think, and it has an excellent network of paved county roads.
RAGBRAI, a cross-state bike ride that spawned many imitators when it debuted in 1973, now is so popular that its 8,500 week-long riders, who come from 50 states and 50 countries, are chosen by lottery.
Before 1932, the pious, hard-working people of the Amana Colonies were the only people in Iowa who got to eat out every night.
Members of the pacifist Community of True Inspiration, they emigrated from Germany and built seven villages on 25,000 acres of eastern Iowa farmland. For nearly 90 years, they lived communally, pooling resources and skills.
Butchers, brewers and winemakers turned out goods for everyone, and meals were served in 50 communal kitchens.
Lately, weve been traveling like kings . . . and paupers, too.
I suspect a lot of other people are doing the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else.
Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $60-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.
In 1997, a small-town damsel who married a prince well, an heir waved a silver wand over her hometown of Perry, Iowa, and unusual things began to happen.
She took the dowdy Hotel Pattee, built in 1913 and on the brink of demolition, and filled it with terra-cotta tile, Persian rugs and so much Honduran mahogany she cornered the market for it.
Artists moved in and painted murals and whimsical folk-art lamps, bedsteads and armoires.
What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.
Its like hiking on the North Shore, my husband said.
But it wasnt Lake Superiors North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.
There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.
It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.
There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.
One June, I was a very lazy camper.
I threw a sleeping bag and pillow into the car and drove two hours down Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, Iowa. I didnt bother to solicit company; in early June, most people where I live want to go north, not south.
It was their loss. McIntosh Woods State Park is on one of Iowas most popular lakes, a big expanse of sparkling water that was scoured out by glaciers and sits above the surrounding countryside, catching breezes on hot days.
Poor Herbert Hoover.
Orphaned at age 9, he spent his childhood picking potato bugs, weeding onions and cleaning barns. His first job after graduation from Stanford was shoveling ore.
Then he grew a moustache, bought a tweed suit and passed himself off as an experienced mining engineer. Sent to Australia at age 23, he found a vein of gold that yielded his London employers $65 million.
Walnut carpenter's lace. Fireplaces made of Italian mosaic tile. Yards of leaded glass and richly printed, century-old wallpaper.
That's what the two dozen people on a house tour and progressive dinner in Dubuque, Iowa, kept saying as the tour progressed from one Victorian mansion to another.