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Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly.

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Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly. It's an agricultural corns and soybeanslandlocked state. While Iowa's landmass is a little larger than England's, its population is only three million, about 17 times smaller.

The state's name derives from the Ioway Indians, one of several tribes that used to call the region home. Of Iowa's 99 counties, 88 are classified as rural. Iowa's capital and largest city is Des Moines pop:, whose primary business is char. The state is 91 percent white. Each once was a booming city on the swollen banks of the river that long ago opened the middle of America to expansion, civilization, abundance, and prosperity.

Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris.

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The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days. Mark Twain once lived in Southeast Iowa, in Keokuk, working at his brother's printing press. He also was employed nearby as a reporter for the Muscatine Journal. When Twain lived in Keokuk years ago, the Gateway City was a sought-after destination; some seriously said Keokuk would someday rival Chicago as a metropolis of culture and commerce.

Thirty-eight hotels crowned the intersection of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers. Ro coming of the railro changed all that, and today, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something.

On Iowa's western frontier lies the Missouri River, which girds a huge, sparsely populated agricultural region anchored by Sioux City pop: 83, in the state's far northwest and Council Bluffs pop: 62,across from the Nebraska hub of Omaha. In between these two great, defining rivers, Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts. The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is ciyy Democratic; to the west, it's rabidly Republican.

Iowa's two U. Grassley is 78; Harkin 72; both have held seats in either the U. Senate or House since Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast iwoa third of the state. Some of King's doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a "hero for America"; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people's porches; and praying that Supreme Court "Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba.

Considering the above, not just a few Iowa he turned when a District Court in Des Moines in declared same-sex marriages legal. Iowa, at the time, tto the second state in the U. In retaliation, Iowa conservatives in mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage.

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Marriage between two same-sex people is legal in Iowa for now, but may not be for long. So far, Democrats have blocked a statewide referendum on the issue Dems hold sway in the Iowa Senatebut if Republicans take control of the Senate, gay marriage could -- and likely would -- be repealed. It's been this way sinceand there are no s that it's going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it.

Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state's about to lose one of its five seats in the U. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible.

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Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure. Maybe Ambrose Bierce described it right when he called the U. Many towns are so insular that farmers from another county are strangers. Historically, at least sincewhether because it was too hard to get to, too uninviting, or promised too little, few newcomers chose to knock on America's Heartland door.

Iowa anchors the Upper American Heartland, the rural interior that produces much of the world's corn, pigs, cattle, and soybeans. The corn grows so fast in Iowa -- from seedlings to 7-foot-high stalks in 12 weeks -- that it crackles nonstop throughout the summer months. The sound is like popcorn popping slow-motion in a microwave. That pop-pop-popping can be heard especially in the early morning hours, as dew and fog cover the acres of gently swaying cornstalks that surround farming villages the way the sea encircles an island.

Rows upon rows stretch further than most urban minds can fathom, leathery husks and silky tassels bending in unison to the shimmying breeze.

From one angle the corn resembles a hodgepodge of gnarly green stalks, but from another, each plant appears positioned with precision next to another, next to another, an exacting maze, for thousands upon thousands of acres. For any corn connoisseurs out there, don't think of poaching an ear from a field, boiling it al dente, then slathering on it hot butter. Almost all the corn Iowa farmers grow is feed corn, not sweet corn. It's meant for pigs, not humans, and tastes that way.

Almost all of it gets stored in an elevator elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people. Each isolated Iowa homestead is marked off by a stand of trees usually maples, cottonwoods, sometimes basswoodsas much windbreak as shade grove from the blazing sun. Just about everyone wears a hat; farmer's tan is a condition every Iowan knows -- a blanched forehead above a leather-cured face.

Ailing windmills stand unsure next to sturdy no-nonsense homes and dilapidated peeling-red barns, often with freshly tilled beds of Black-eyed Susans or gladiolas in front. There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop ro that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn s advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen. Driving through these throwback towns, a stranger might receive a slight nod from a farmer on the side of the road, or a two-finger driver's greeting from knobby fingers atop a pick-up's steering wheel.

Strangers are rare in these parts. Why would they be here? What would bring someone with no business or family to such a remote pocket of America, where car alarms are as unheard of as home burglar alarms? Locals don't bother to put on their turn als because everyone knows where everyone else is going.

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Some rural counties in Iowa don't have a single traffic light. In the large towns population more than 2,towering grain elevators are what you first see from a distance. In mid-sized towns, it's church steeples, their bell towers once a call to farmers toiling in the fields. Just about chta town, no matter what size, has a water tower with the town name scrawled or stenciled on the tank's side.

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Each summer, the 4H and Future Farmers of America sponsor contests where teenagers vie for birthing and raising the best pig, lamb, goat, roster or hen. Housewives compete for best pie always with a no-fail pie crust.

A float pulled by a farmer's pickup showcases smiling and often-hardy girls waving, to be crowned County Fair Queen, Dairy Queen, and Pork Queen. Kids compete in ikwa Mom-calling contest; the loudest wins. Iowa is these gently rolling plains, full of farms and barns and also millions of pigs and turkeys twenty times as many people. But there also are too-many-to-count empty storefronts and not coincidentally scores of flourishing Wal-Marts. The region has suffered terribly, particularly since the 's when the ravaged farm economy started spinning out of control into free-fall.

After winning the Iowa Caucuses three years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama didn't mince words about the lingering impact of the Farm Crisis.

Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life - The Atlantic

Speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama said, "Like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's cht them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. Those are tough sentiments to share with those caught in the middle. I imagine many in the rural Midwest must have said a variation of this -- "Whaddaya expect from a Harvard-educated, black city slicker who datiing know a John Deere tractor from an International Harvester combine?

If the audience wasn't primarily vegan, gluten-intolerant foodies, what came out of Obama's mouth was some of the most succulent red meat he could have tossed their way. Coastal elites love to dump on Iowa the same way Datinh trash New Jersey. Obama's comments went over without a second thought, until they wafted back to the Heartland.

What Average Joe in Iowa wants to admit he clings to anything -- except hunting, fishing, and the Hawkeyes?

Guns, religion, xenophobia? Them's fightin' words. Obama might have been wrong for telling the truth, which seldom happens in politics, but the future president was percent datinng when he let slip his comments on the absolute and utter desperation in America's hollowed-out middle, in particular in the state where I live.

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There's the idealized version of rural America, then there's the heartbreaking real version, the one Obama was talking about. Take One: The fairytale rendering is pastoral and bucolic; sandy-haired children romping through fecund, shoulder-high corn with Lassie at their side.

The ruddy, wooden Bridges of Madison County ukk John Wayne was born may be in the background as the camera pans wide. Take Two: The nightmare reality is tens of thousands of laid-off rural factory workers, farmers who have lost their land to banks and agribusiness, legions of unemployed who have come to the realization that it makes no sense to cityy for work, since work pretty much no longer exists for chqt.

An illusionary, short-term salve has been the proliferation of casinos in the state. In the last two decades, Iowa has established 18 of these bell-clanging jackpot landmines and more could open as the economy continues to go south and overseas. But, of course, this is happening far and wide in the United States.

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Detroit has three downtown casinos for those who want something to do while in the Motor City. Maytag, the iconic American company that makes washer and dryers, is a good example of Iowa economics. Maytag's flagship operation had been based in Newton, Iowa, for more than a century the company was founded by Fred Maytag in After Whirlpool bought Maytag inworkers girded for the worst, which came a year later, when Maytag closed the two million square-foot plant, leaving 2, workers unemployed.

In protest, workers left their boots hanging on the cyclone fence surrounding the plant. At its peak. Maytag employed 4, workers in Newton, a town of 16, The Newton plant was union; consolidation of Maytag and Whirlpool was shifted to nonunion facilities, as well as overseas. In part, rural Iowa's economic malaise has been made all the more in-your-face by the thousands of undocumented immigrants arriving every month, trolling for work that pays indecent wages in some of the most dangerous jobs imaginable, mostly on under-regulated, non-union kill-floors of the rural slaughterhouses.