If you're looking for a vacation travel destination that blends excitement with huge amounts of corn, I strongly recommend Iowa. I recently spent a few days there, and I can honestly say that it was comparable to experiences I have had in sophisticated prestige travel destinations such as Paris, France, in the sense that I was not once engulfed by hog manure.
I was concerned about this, however. The second day I was in Iowa, the top story on the front page of The Des Moines Register was headlined:THOUSANDS OF FISH KILLED BY MANURE SPILL
The story stated that a leak in a storage basin at a major hog farm had resulted in "a mammoth hog manure spill," estimated at 1.5 million gallons, which - to give you a sense of magnitude - is more than the House of Representatives produces in a week.
The story said that state officials were especially alarmed because the manure spilled into a section of the Iowa River considered to be "one of the most prized canoe areas of the state." I can see where it could put a real crimp in a person's canoeing vacation: You're paddling peacefully down the Iowa River, when you hear this faint rumbling noise, which gets louder and louder until it sounds like a freight train, and you turn around, and there, thundering right at you - this would be just like the tidal-wave scene in "The Poseidon Adventure," only more aromatic - is the dreaded, biblically prophesied Wall of Swine Doots, and at that instant you realize that even if you do survive, you will never be welcome in an elevator again.
Of course it would be absurd to suggest that everybody who visits Iowa will be engulfed by manure leaking from storage basins. Some people could also be hit by manure shot from guns. You think I am making this up, but that is only because you did not read The Wall Street Journal article about the Iowa hog industry, written by Scott Kilman and sent to me by many alert readers. This article states that the state's large hog farms have "huge waste lagoons, some emptied by `manure guns' that fling their cargo through the air onto surrounding fields - and occasionally onto passing cars."
I am certainly not in a position to be critical, inasmuch as I live in Miami, an area also known for shooting at people's cars. But at least we have the common decency to use bullets.
Anyway, my point is that aside from the manure danger, there's no reason in the world not to vacation in Iowa, unless you're concerned about piranhas. I quote here from an Associated Press story that also appeared in The Des Moines Register when I was out there:
"SIOUX CITY, IOWA - For the second time in a week, a fisherman has reeled in a piranha from the Missouri River just south of Sioux City's downtown area . . . A third report of a piranha came from Blue Lake at Lewis and Clark Park near Onawa."
The story quotes a state fishery official as saying that piranha reports are "not unusual" in Iowa; he also notes, reassuringly, that "piranhas will bite but so will bluegill, bass and snapping turtles, all of which can be found in Blue Lake."
That certainly makes ME feel better. Clearly the lesson here is that if you, the Iowa vacationer, would prefer for whatever personal reason not to be consumed by marine life, it would be wise for you to refrain from jumping into the water except in an emergency, such as when you're trying to evade an incoming round of gun-fired hog manure.
But aside from the piranhas and the attack manure, I can't think of a single thing that could possibly spoil your Iowa vacation, unless you plan to have breakfast. I refer here to yet another Des Moines Register story, published July 14 and sent in by many concerned readers, which states that firefighters in Cedar Rapids were called to the General Mills plant to extinguish - I swear I am not making this up - "spontaneously igniting Cheerios."
So, OK, you have fish attacking, manure rampaging and cereal bursting into flame. Also, during July's severe heat wave in Iowa, there were news reports of - I am not making this up, either - cows exploding. But I am still urging you to take your vacation in Iowa. Why? I can answer that question in five words, which you have probably already guessed: "the world's largest popcorn ball." Yes. It turns out that Sac County, Iowa, is the Popcorn Capital of the World, and in an effort to promote this fact and get in the Guinness Book of World Records, people there constructed a popcorn ball that is 22 feet in circumference. It weighs over a ton.
I'd read an Associated Press article about the popcorn ball, sent to me by several alert readers, so when I was in Iowa I drove up to Sac County to take a look at it. I have seen some of the world's greatest attractions - the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, Ray Charles - and I can honestly say that this popcorn ball has them all beat, at least in terms of sugar content. Jim Stock, president of Stock Popcorn in Lake View, Iowa, told me that the popcorn ball, which travels around on its own trailer, is available on a limited basis to make public appearances. So if you can't get to Iowa this summer, maybe you can arrange to have what is probably the largest single snack item in the universe come to your town; it would definitely add "a touch of class" to any wedding, bar mitzvah or funeral.
But I hope you can get to Iowa. I had a great time there, and found the Iowans to be extremely friendly. Of course that will change once this column appears. The state tourism commission will probably come after me. And they'll be packing the Doot Gun.