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Iowa Mardi Gras and Ghosts from the Past

Quick, what Iowa state festival did The Discover rank as a must see top state festival?

If your answer is the Iowa State Fair, buzzzz, paint a big L on your forehead, you’re a loser.

Nope, it’s the Des Moines Art Festival. Better yet, others on that list included the Taste of Chicago, Bonnaroo and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.

Photo of sculpture that looks like paint can spilling onto ground.
That's gonna be a big mess to clean up.**

Now, I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I have spent a New Years Eve in New Orleans and I’m thinking the Des Moines Art Festival isn’t quite at the same level of insanity.

Having said that, I am a big fan of the Art Festival. So much so I made plans to attend it this year, held annually the last weekend in June, as a kind of pre-retirement celebration.

It was my fourth trip to the festival. Darling Daughter spent two summers working for the Des Moines Opera and I timed my visits to see their productions those years so that it coincided with the art festival weekend, and I made another trip to the festival about three years ago.

Unfortunately, this year’s event was a bit of a rainout with showers hitting off and on most of the weekend. But that’s hardly their fault. Any outdoor event is subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

The festival pulls in artists from not only the Midwest but throughout the country. From pottery to painting, sculptures to photography, you name it, they have it.

As a juried festival, they only allow the finest work to be shown. If you’re not familiar with that term, a juried festival is one in which the artists have to complete an application to be in the festival, typically including photos of their work and their booth. A committee then decides whether or not the artist suits the criteria required for inclusion in the festival.

(I’m going to take a quick timeout and put a little plug in here for Davenport’s Riverssance Art Festival, usually held the third weekend in September. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve as chair for a couple of years. It is also a juried festival, held in a beautiful park setting on the edge of the Village of East Davenport, so if you’re anywhere near this area you should check it out.)

Other attractions at the Des Moines Art Festival include a massive amount of food trucks and booths, the Iowa Beer Tent is up and running serving Iowa brewed beers, and there is live entertainment on two stages throughout the day and night. The evening entertainment is almost always a “name” entertainer.

Photo of exterior of Gas Lamp bar.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the Gas Lamp.**

When you’re there, you have to stop by what is probably my favorite Des Moines drinking establishment, the Gas Lamp. It’s a good ‘ol dive bar with live entertainment every night. It’s big enough to hold a lot of people and is a popular spot for festival goers to stop in and take a break. It’s in a perfect location, right on one corner of the festival grounds.

If you’re looking for other places to take a break, Exile Brewery is a popular place, less than two blocks from the festival grounds with both beer and food. I also stumbled upon Grumpy Goat while there, just a block away from the festival. It’s a comfortable spot with a Chicago Cubs theme and a lot of seating.

Image of a stand selling baked goods at farmers market.
Des Moines' Downtown Farmers Market has something for everyone.**

Before I move onto those "ghosts" I mentioned in the title, let me throw a shout out to the Downtown Farmers Market. Held every Saturday morning it takes up several blocks in the Court Avenue area of Des Moines' downtown. It's a great place to pick up fresh produce, have breakfast or lunch, or just to wander around and take it all in.

I spent quite a bit of time doing just that. Strolling the streets, people watching, and grabbing a slice of breakfast pizza from one of the vendors. There's always live music happening and sometimes even street performers. And many of the local "establishments" are open for that day-after-the-night-before bloody mary.

Actually, they were two really old guys. Ok, they were high school classmates, though I will never admit I’m as old as they are.

I realized some time ago I’ve lost touched with a long list of people from over the years. I suspect this is true for a lot of us. As life moves on, first family becomes the focus and then work somehow seems to take control. The next thing you know, 40 years has passed and you realize you haven’t talked to your, what have become, old friends.

Now that time is more on my side, I’ve made a promise to myself to work to rectify that. In that spirit, I reached out to Norton and Bird, two buddies now living in the Des Moines area.

I’d seen Norton a few years back, the first time since we graduated college. I had not seen Bird since he sang in our wedding, in 1983. It saddens me even now to admit that.

As you would surely expect, we spent the couple of hours doing a little catching up on where our lives are today and a considerable amount of time reliving our glory days.

Stories like the one where Norton and I, following my freshman year in college, drove the local high school band’s uniform/equipment bus on their summer road trip. Only problem was I had never driven a stick before, and certainly nothing as big as a bus, and didn’t have the required chauffeur’s license to drive one. We borrowed another friend’s Jeep the day before we were to leave on the trip, took it out on the gravel roads and that’s how I learned to drive stick.

Quick side note, the bus was then, and will forever be known as, Eunice, the Uniform Bus.

Of course, two days later I’m driving in Rock Falls, Illinois, and get pulled over by the local constabulary because there was a padlock on Eunice's back door. Eunice still looked like a traditional yellow school bus, and that padlock meant the emergency exit was inaccessible, which would be illegal if she were actually still a school bus, carrying passengers.

Norton, who did have the appropriate license, and I quickly changed positions before the officer reached the doorway. Oh, and, this was so long ago the only other seat on the bus was a lawn chair in the aisle; long before seat belts, and other safety features were required.

That lawn chair literally fell apart on our last day from swinging back and forth as we rumbled down the road during the course of the trip, and we spent the rest of the day sitting on a tuba case. Which, by the way, also served as our beds when Eunice broke down one night and we couldn’t get parts until the next day.

As for Bird, he unwittingly reminded me of how much I don’t remember of my life. I don’t know what that means, but it’s true. There are events that I am told I was party to that I have absolutely no memory of.

The last time I went to a class reunion, probably 25 years ago, people were telling me various things we did together in high school and I have no recall of them. I wrote that off to them just thinking I was there for whatever story they were telling, when I really wasn’t.

But in this case, there were enough of the details he told me that I believe it’s true, but I don’t have even the slightest memory of it. Let’s just say it involved me driving my old Ford LTD with an engine that was way too big and way too tempting not to drive fast, down the two lane highway late one night to Matt’s house, another friend, in another town 25 miles away, while Bird was in the back with someone of the female persuasion and neither of us remembers who was in the front seat with me.

Am I the only one who this happens to? Where you just don’t remember things that happened in your life? I’d write it off to old age but I don’t think it’s that. I do know I have more trouble remembering names and such things than I used to but if the stories they were telling at the high school reunion, when I was barely 40, were true then that was long before I reached “old age.”

But I digress. What I do know is I want to continue to make new connections with old friends, and new connections with new friends as well. I’ve already sent notes off to others in the effort to continue the process.

Photo of beer can on a railing, overlooking river.
Uncle Roy's is a great place to have a couple of beers near the Des Moines River.**

As for Norton, Bird and I, we’ve agreed it’s been too long, none of us wants to let it happen again and are working toward scheduling a future date to meet, tell some more old stories, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember them this time.

P.S. If you're looking for a laid back place to have a couple of beers on a nice summer day in Des Moines, check out Captain Roy's. That's where Norton, Bird and I met for out little get together.

It's located near Birdland Marina along the Des Moines River and has plenty of seating, both indoor and out. I'd be a regular if I lived in Des Moines.

**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask that you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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Never saying,
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