Summit Date: July 22 through July 25, 2015
"Iowa has a highpoint?"
That is the normal reaction when I tell people I've done the highpoint of Iowa. To paraphrase Bette Midler; Iowa has a highpoint, it's low but it has one. That's the thing about highpointing that most people don't understand; it's doesn't necessarily mean strenuous hikes and mountain climbing. Sometimes it's about finding that flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. That's a good description of Hawkeye Point.
This was, however, the trip that almost wasn't. My original plan was to leave on July 17th and see the sights on my way to the Iowa highpointers convention which started on the 23rd. This included a two night kayaking trip to Voyageurs National Park and hitting the highpoints of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This came into jeopardy when on July 4th I had a bicycle accident and broke my right collar bone. The first thing I thought of when I broke it was "son of a bitch, I guess I won't be kayaking now." On the 14th, three days before my trip was originally to start, I had surgery to repair it. A metal plate with eight screws was installed onto the collar bone. While the surgery was a complete success, I still had to let it heal. It would be a couple months before I was back to 100%, so I had to rework the itinerary, since kayaking was out of the question. While I had some use of my arm again, I still couldn't even put on a t-shirt. I now planned on leaving on the 21st, the day I took the bandages off. And I decided to scrap the trip to Voyageurs and the Minnesota highpoint all together, and I would be hitting the Wisconsin and Michigan highpoints on the way home instead. I could shift my car at least, so I was good for a road trip.
So on the 21st I set out for the convention. The good thing was it was super easy to get to. Although the convention was all about the highpoint of Iowa, the host hotel was actually just over the border in Worthington, Minnesota. Both Worthington and my hometown of Syracuse are serviced by US Route 90. All I had to do was hop on the thurway and drive west for a day, and the hotel was just off the exit. I saw a bunch of familiar faces at the hotel. This was my third convention so I was starting to make some acquaintances. Plus, being the third year in a row of showing my panorama photographs, I've made a bit of a name for myself. I'm the 'picture guy'.
I got checked in, said hello to a few friends, and grabbed a bite to eat. I was only at the hotel for the night before moving down to the campground across from the highpoint for the rest of the convention. I headed out for my first visit to Hawkeye Point. It is only about 15 minutes south of Worthington. As I approached from the north, I recognized the silo from the pictures I had seen. It stood atop a subtly sloped mound off the side of Route 60. To call it a hill would be very generous. Like I said, its a flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. I parked at the campground across the street (where I would be spending the rest of the week) and walked over to the highpoint. From the end of the driveway (the de facto trailhead) to the marker was only about 50 yards. The summit consists of a small concrete platform covered in mosaic, a bench, and mileage marker signs for all the other highpoints. The view from the summit is surprisingly not corn. It's mostly soy fields, although corn can be seen in the distance. I guess they didn't want to block what view there was by seven-foot corn stalks. I took the shots I needed for a panorama, and started formulating what I wanted to show with this highpoint, photographically speaking.
Normally when I shoot a highpoint, it's kind of an in-and-out operation. I don't normally plan for the time of day that I'm going to be there, and I don't usually have the luxury of being able to hang around for days on end to shoot it at different times of day. I have revisited some highpoints, but it was years in between visits. Hawkeye Point was different though; I was going to be literally camped out across the street from it for three and a half days. From my campsite to the summit was about a two minute walk. I would have unfettered access to it whenever I wanted. so my plan was to shoot it at different times of day and create one panorama that transitions between the different times of day as you move from left to right through the image. Not an original idea, but not a common one either and one that I've always wanted to try. The resulting image is at the top of this post. I wound up using only two of the pans that I shot, one sunrise and one sunset. I never know how these things will turn out until I get them on the computer. I also had one other idea...
At one of the club socials I approached the convention organizer Jim Sutton about doing a special group portrait. At every convention there is a tradition called the watermelon social, dating back to the first convention. Everyone in attendance gathers at, or near, the highpoint and they carve up dozens of watermelons. It's a delicious, sticky feast. So while everyone was there I wanted to get them all lined up in a circle surrounding the highpoint marker. It was flat and open and easily accessible. Of the highpoints that I've been to, Hawkeye Point is one of the few that could actually accommodate such a photo with so many people. Jim thought it would be interesting. Excellent. In a few days I would be taking the largest group portrait I'd ever shot. For being such a non-dramatic highpoint, Hawkeye Point was certainly presenting some creative opportunities that many other highpoints couldn't offer.
Some video during a Hawkeye Point sunrise...
So while I waited for the watermelon social on Saturday to roll around I continued shooting the highpoint. I would end up taking six panoramas of the highpoint at different times of day over the course of a few days. As my plan was to blend these together into one image, I needed to make sure my tripod was in the exact same spot every time, facing the same direction, and that I turned the camera by the same number of degrees from the same starting point every time. Any deviation would just make the photoshop work that much harder. I took photos of the set up with my cell phone so I could get it back in the same spot every time.
I also explored the area a little bit. On the Friday morning I headed west. Hawkeye Point is located in close proximity to two tri-state points. The first one I went to was the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. As I've mentioned, this area is very flat. Since there are no geographic features to go around, the roads here are straight as an arrow for miles and miles. A map of the area just looks like somebody made a reference grid and forgot to put roads on it. But those grids ARE the roads. It was a 43 mile drive and I only turned my steering wheel three times. The tri-state marker was on the corner of an intersection of some rural roads. A simple marker surrounded by farmland.
The next tri-point was Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota near Sioux City. The drive to this one was a little more interesting as the route followed the Big Sioux River and was a little more scenic and curvy in spots. The tri-point was located at the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers and was part of a housing development called Dakota Dunes. I actually have a separate blog post about this tri-point that you can read about here. After experiencing one of the hottest locations I've ever visited (and I lived in Texas for five years), I headed back to Hawkeye Point. I stopped at a Subway for lunch and a much needed air conditioned break. Holy crap was it hot that day.
Saturday morning came and as I was getting cleaned up for the day at the campground, I decided to see how my shoulder was doing. I hadn't worn a t-shirt in about a month and I now had a crisp, new, bright yellow convention t-shirt that I wanted to wear since there was a bunch of convention stuff happening all day, including the pancake breakfast, watermelon feast, and the banquet. I managed to wriggle into it without too much discomfort. Two days earlier, on Thursday morning, when I was installing my photo exhibit at the convention headquarters, I was heavily favoring my left arm while putting the display panels together. My range of motion still had a ways to go before it was normal again, but I was definitely seeing rapid improvement.
With my ability to wear t-shirts restored, I headed over to the traditional Saturday morning pancake breakfast. This year it was held at Central Park in Sibley, just down the road from Hawkeye Point. The griddle they used was actually kind of interesting. It was circular, about four feet across, and slowly turned. The person cooking could just stand in one spot and eventually everything would come around to the front. I sat with my friend Rick and some others. As we sat around enjoying breakfast and swapping stories, a gentleman involved with the county fair told us about an exhibit at the fair grounds across town. It was a model train display. It was in the basement of one of the buildings there. He asked if we would be interested in a private tour of it. Having had a model train as a kid I was definitely interested. A small group of about 6 or 8 of us finished up breakfast and headed across town.
This model train display was amazing. I've always been fascinated by models and miniatures, and this was one of the biggest model train displays I'd ever seen. It took up pretty much the entire foot print of the building and took some time to really take it all in. So many trains. The little kid in me was definitely geeking out. There were multiple towns, industrial areas, mountains, canyons, forests, tunnels, bridges. The detail on everything was incredible. It was obvious that many years of collecting, curating, designing, and construction had gone into this.
Later in the afternoon it was time for the festivities at the highpoint. Most of the attendees, over 100 people, started gathering at the highpoint for the watermelon social. Dozens of the juicy melons were carved up and eaten. Because the highpoint is essentially flat and used to be a farm, there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. There were also lots of activities. A rock climbing wall was erected with two auto belays. Wagon rides for families. A mini train pulled by a four wheeler for the kiddies. A local tv news crew even showed to cover the event.
Once the watermelon feast had subsided, I started to think about my panorama. I tend to be very soft spoken, so Nikki Hemphill, who isn't afraid to motivate people, was enlisted to help round up people for the photo. I got my camera gear set up on the marker in the same spot as all the others I had been shooting, just in case. Once everyone had gathered at the marker I started directing them into a loose circle around me. Then I started shooting. I made two passes just to be sure. And with that, I finished taking the single biggest group portrait of my career! As people were dispersing, however, I suddenly realized I hadn't taken one with me in it. I figured it would have been too much bother to get everyone back, so I just used the timer on my camera to take one of myself next to one of the mileage marker signs. I'd just photoshop myself into the shot later. All my panoramas are heavily photoshopped anyway to get all the individual shots together.
This would also be the last of the panoramas on this trip that I would shoot of Hawkeye Point as I would be heading back up to Worthington for the rest of the day for the banquet and then making my way east toward home after that. Once the crowd had left, I went back to my campsite and got everything squared away. It was very calm and relaxing at that campground and I almost hated to leave, but it was time to move on.
I had some time to kill in the afternoon before the banquet and decided to check out Worthington. It’s a decent sized town (big enough to host our convention). It sits on the lovely Okebena Lake. The business district has a fair amount of little boutique shops. The thing that surprised me though was the food. The banquet was still several hours away and I wanted to get something to eat. I came across a little Mexican restaurant. I lived in Houston, Texas for almost five years, which is flush with amazing Mexican food so I was somewhat skeptical. Mexican food in rural Minnesota? We’ll see about that. I walked into the place and immediately noticed I was the only white person in there and a soccer game on a Spanish language channel was on the TV. Good signs. The menu was fairly extensive, with every variation on traditional Mexican dishes. I got the enchiladas with beans and rice. It was really good! I would’ve held it up to anything I had in Houston. So there it was, authentic Mexican food in middle America.
Eventually the banquet got under way at the Comfort Suites conference center, with all of us highpoint nerds getting together to celebrate our admittedly weird hobby. I sat with my friend Kenny, who I had met at the Maine convention two years prior. Being the third convention I'd been to, the banquets had a familiar cadence to them. After the delicious buffet dinner, our attention turned to the head table where various speakers addressed the crowd, including host Jim Sutton who thanked everyone for coming and recapped the week's highlights. One of my favorite parts of the evening is the superlatives. Responding by standing at their table, the MC asks who has been to all 50 highpoints, then 45, 40, 35, etc, the oldest attendee, the youngest, who came the farthest, and so on. Then the podium gets turned over to the host of next convention to give everyone an update on what to expect. In this case it was John Mitchler talking about the Montana 2016 convention (read about my Granite Peak adventure here). We all voted on where the convention will be in 2017 (we picked Massachusetts, to be hosted by Mick Dunn). Finally, the evening ended with the premiere of the documentary "American Highpoints" which featured several club members and chronicled a hike up Wyoming's Gannett Peak.
I said farewell to my friends and acquaintances, dismantled my display panels, packed up the car and hit the road. The goal was to get as far northeast as I could before getting too tired. My next stops the following day were a quick trip to Minneapolis to see the Mall of America an then the highpoints of Wisconsin and Michigan. Then home to Syracuse. It certainly didn't go as planned, but my trip to the highpoint of Iowa was definitely eventful and I got to experience a little corner of America that I wouldn't have gone out of my way for otherwise. And of course, that's one of the best thongs about highpointing.
Other posts in this series: