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Coming Home: Observations After Moving Back to Iowa, 16 Years Later

A lot has changed in Central Iowa since the turn of the century, but is Des Moines really all that different after almost two decades away?

The Des Moines Register-USA TODAY Sports

After 16 years living in the hot, arid climate of southern Nevada, my family and I finally decided it was time to return to our Midwestern roots. Specifically, back to my Midwestern home state of Iowa. Multiple factors went into this decision; quality of life, children's education, crime, traffic, and lack of adequate severe weather patterns to name the most important.

I'll even admit that the current level of excitement surrounding Cyclone athletics played a small role in my push to move back (as long as you promise to not share that information with my wife).

16 years is a long time to be away, and though I visited through the years, those trips were generally rushed and focused on visiting friends and family. Now, having been back for almost three weeks, I'm beginning to realize that for as much as things have changed, there are still things that are very much the same as I left them.

Working on an assumption you, the readers, are made up of a mixture of those who emigrated to different parts of the country and those who have spent their entire lives living between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, I thought I would share my perspective as a former ex-pat returning home.

I have yet to venture back to Ames, something that will be remedied this weekend as I introduce my children to a new era of Cyclone football during the Spring Game, so my observations are limited to the Des Moines area which, as a native of Warren County, is where I spent the majority of my former life as an Iowan anyway.

I also haven't fully taken in the newly re-vamped Downtown area and East Village (had to look that up on a map), so I know there are some glaring omissions. You'll just have to settle for what I have and wait for updates throughout the summer as I continue my Quest for the Best Burger series looking at what the Des Moines area has to offer.

Different: Waukee/West Des Moines/Jordan Creek

Jordan Creek Mall was but a concept as I drove west on I-80 in August of 2000 past the open fields that would later move the economic hub of West Des Moines into Dallas County. Now, the area is filled with chain restaurants, clothing stores and rows upon rows of similar looking houses. Waukee, which was nothing more than another small town close to the big city, has become the newest suburb of Iowa's capital and West Des Moines is now Wester than before.

Same: Southeast corner of Des Moines

There are a few new stores down the SE 14th corridor; Tasty Tacos, Okoboji Bar and Grill, Best Buy (which will be closing in June, I hear), but the Village Inn where I would meet my chemistry study group at to go over the latest equations while enjoying their French silk pie doesn't look like they have done much to their exterior in the 22 years since I last sat at a table inside.

Similarly, Southridge Mall has seen some of its buildings demolished while others have modernized their storefronts to compete with what is going on far west of them, but somehow Shoe Carnival is still a core tenant of this now large strip mall and that just seems weird to me.

The rest of this section of town looks exactly the same.

Different: Under Armour

Did the state of Iowa sign an exclusivity contract with the Maryland-based clothing company while I was away? It seems as though every child, pre-teen and teenager I've come across is wearing the branded item. Sometimes from head to toe.

How long has this been going on, and am I allowed to become a full-fledged resident again if I refuse to adapt my children to this trend? Seriously, I'm asking.

Same: New Balance Shoes

I noticed long ago that every male resident over the age of 35 has at least one pair of New Balance shoes. This is much more noticeable when you are travelling to or from the state in an airport as apparently these are the travel shoe of choice for most Iowa men. I turned 40 last year, so I'm guessing Amazon will start sending me notifications once it recalibrates my location.

True story: when traveling back to Iowa from Las Vegas, I would often try to find our gate not by looking at the monitors around the airport, but rather the footwear of the customers sitting in the waiting areas. When I found the seats with the most NB shoes, I knew I was in the right location.

Different: Clean Air Initiative

I have to admit it is very refreshing being able to spend an evening in your favorite watering hole without the lingering effects of fabric saturated with stale smoke the next morning. Hangovers are bad enough without the "bar smell" reminding you of your poor choices the day after.

Same: Smokers

Now that they have been pushed into the open, it's ever more evident how many smokers Iowa has, taxes and initiatives be damned!

Different: Iowa Events Center

Although I haven't yet attended an event inside the new arena, it is impressive enough from the outside and gives Downtown Des Moines a sense of legitimacy that didn't exist around the turn of the century.

Same: Iowa State Fair

I realize this specific event occurs in August, making it impossible for me to have witnessed it in the short time I've been back in the state, but I introduced my family to all the joys the fair had to offer a couple years back while we were discussing the possibility of relocation and there wasn't a single thing about this fantastic event that had changed over the years. The Midway, the butter cow, the creepy dark make-out log ride, the fried food, nothing had changed. And that is as it should be.

Different: School Pride

I admit this could be an oversight on my end as I never really paid attention to things like this as a twenty-something year old, but Iowa and Iowa State clothing (often Under Armour), license plates, hats, ornaments, etc. are everywhere. I feel less a representative of my alma mater, and more of a member of a certain flock out here then I did back in Nevada where college sports mattered little.

Same: Iowa Fans

Still the same.

Different: Iowa's Governor

Tom Vilsack began his eight year interruption of Branstad's reign the year before I left this agriculturally rich state for the Mojave Desert, Agronomy degree in hand.

Same: Branstad's mustache

I assume this is where he derives his everlasting powers.

Different: BBQ

You would think a state with a porcine population as large as Iowa's would have developed a decent BBQ scene much earlier on in its existence but, unless I just wasn't hip enough back in the day (very possible), Des Moines never had much of a BBQ presence until recently. Now, between Jethro's and Smokey D's, good to decent ribs are not difficult to come across in the metro area. I'm not going to tell you it's great, just that it is now there.

Same: Breaded Tenderloin Sandwiches

So happy to be back in a state where they know what these are and how to do them properly.

Different: Pizza Ranch

Apparently this is a thing now?

Same: Casey's Breakfast Pizza

I was thrilled when I found a local restaurant in Las Vegas that had breakfast pizza on its menu. Imagine my horror when it came to my table with actual pizza sauce separating the toppings from the crust. WTF?

I'm not sure if Casey's invented the breakfast pizza (Google says, "no"), but I'll be damned if they didn't perfect this culinary delight.

Different: Me

When I left Iowa, I was a 24-year-old kid, armed with a degree and filled with hope. I was moving across the country with no money, no job and no plan, but I felt the need to explore something different than the middle.

Same: Me

I return to Iowa at the age of 40, now with family in tow but still with no money, no job and no plan. Man, it's good to be home.

Bring on the beef!