“When I try to think of Iowa, I think ‘The place with the Mormons? Wait no, the other one.’”
Something, if you believe in higher forces, did not want us to get to Iowa. We were stalled on the tarmac in Atlanta (which is actually farther from our destination than we started from that afternoon) because, in technical terms, “the gate was broken” and they couldn’t fix it. They found another gate, eventually, and our stalwart crew drove the plane around to dock us with it, leaving plenty of time to make our connection. Especially after the captain on our connecting flight said that they were having “a little problem” with the plane and needed to replace one of its batteries. Then the other battery. Then the battery charger. When they got to the point of replacing some of the other pieces of the electrical system, the flight attendants suggested that it would be alright if we wished to disembark and wait in the terminal for them to sort things out.
When it came down to it, an hour later they just replaced the whole damned plane and redirected us to yet another gate for one more try at getting us out of Atlanta. This one was more successful, and things went smoothly once we were out of the Atlanta Vortex of Fail, but the delays meant we didn’t pull up onto the darkened, deserted streets of Grinnell until well after midnight.
I’ll be honest: Iowa is not a state for which I have had a particularly elaborate mental model. Pressed for some nouns, I’d probably have said “Corn?”, “Rolling hills?” (because of the Dar Williams song), and, “Uhhh…”, then redirected the conversation to some unrelated anecdote about folk music. But I’ll tell you, the folks at Grinnell have done a lovely job of giving us new images to associate with the state: t-shirts and shorts when it’s 38F and threatening rain. The Student Ball Pit Association (exactly what it sounds like). The Mac and Cheese Club (also exactly what it sounds like). And students and professors who notice you looking all visitor-like and come over to chat you up.
It’s clear that Grinnell encourages students to engage and take initiative. The swing set on the green behind the dining hall? Someone wanted a swing set. They applied for college funds, a student vote was taken to gauge support and, voila, the school installed a swing set.
The faculty also seem to subscribe to this principle of engagement: There was a young man stuck behind our little tour in the hallway for a minute. When he overheard the murmured references to astronomy, he introduced himself as one of the physics professors and gave us a clear and brilliantly concise overview of the relevant research going on behind each of the doors we had passed (“There are these stars that vibrate at fixed frequencies. We don’t know why they do that. Sometimes, the frequencies change. Bob’s trying to figure out what’s up with that. Eliza’s looking for exoplanets. She does this by looking for certain types of blips in the spectra we read from distant stars.”). Bob even invited us all for an extended tour of the school’s observatory at the edge of campus and used it to illustrate the philosophy behind the school’s non-intuitive mix of undergraduate research and classes. Yes, you can safely color us impressed.
Anyhow, that makes three school tours in three days and, if you can’t tell by today’s scintillating narrative, we’re pretty exhausted. Tomorrow we’re northbound to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where they’re expecting half a foot of snow. No, don’t even say it.