Days 12 and 13: The Grotto at West Bend, IA, and Vermillion, SD

West Bend, Iowa, is a tiny town, stuck in the middle of county roads that drive past vast farmland and hopefully have a stray gas station every few dozen miles. But it's also home to Iowa's most spiritual and unusual tourist attraction: The Grotto of the Redemption. Built over several decades by Father Dobberstein from Germany, this shrine occupies one square block, and features its own campgrounds and cafe for the many Midwesterners who visit.

Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.

Jane, the tour guide, couldn't take us to her home in Pocahontas, as it was filled with her recently passed mother's belongings. However, she struck a deal with the Grotto Director, Rhonda, to let us sleep in the rock showroom -- a huge air-conditioned room with rock displays. And thank goodness -- the thunderstorms pummelled West Bend for the second night in a row, flooding fields of crops. We could see the lightning all around the town.

We met some other folks -- like the Maahs family reunion in the Grotto campgrounds, where the kids loaded Super Soakers and the adults played cribbage. We ate at the Wagon Wheel in town, where the vegetable burger on the menu means a hamburger with lettuce and tomato.

A glimpse at West Bend itself. No still photos of the terrible-smelling corn factory-type-place though -- but it will be in the big-screen version.

Spending most of our time in West Bend on our own was still an excellent way to expand our project. We took the opportunity to film a lot of ourselves, so the audience can go on the journey with us.

Today we wound through more of those farm highways till we hit I-29 aqnd crossed into South Dakota. We had interviews with Dr. Jack Niemonen and Dr. Leroy Meyer at the University of South Dakota -- both exceptionally kind men whose knowledge and storytelling are only matched by their love to share. From Jack, we learned about race relations, the ambiguity of the term "racism," and the ideology of "whiteness." With Leroy, we learned about the philosophy and culture of religion -- he also waited patiently while we explored the National Music Museum, the world's greatest collection of historical musical instruments, and one of Leroy's favorite places.

As we did in Grinnell two days ago, we chose to do a camera-less approach today. From the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner (staffed by one waitress and one cook, both young and white) to the Wal-Mart, we visited about eight different places and spoke with over 25 people. Having heard much about the Native American culture from Leroy, we were very excited by an offer of hospitality from a Native American in Wal-Mart -- but despite assuring us he would check with his wife and give us a call, we never heard from him.

Instead, we happened to run into Leroy Meyer's son, Andrew, working at the movie theater -- a bizarre coincidence, but Andrew, who is typically quiet and would have been much more nervous around the camera, ended up inviting us to the house he shares with three other college-age men. We ended up having a fantastic night with Andrew and his housemate Skylar -- the two are a hilarious pair, and they treated us to conversation, stories, and a trip to Spirit Mound, rich in Native American legend, and, unfortunately, hundreds of mosquitoes. My bite count is over 40, I'm pretty sure, but being on the mound, surrounded by plains, hundreds of fireflies, the nearly full moon, clear sky of stars, made it more than worth it.

Skylar and Andrew.

Yet another great night -- but also a tougher day than most. Keeping the camera and the details of our film a secret means that our question catches people far more off guard, and although some express genuine disappointment that they can't help us, many simply seem apathetic or even bothered that we asked such a silly question. Today we got lucky by meeting Leroy's son and having a connection to him -- but we could have easily ended up in the car, and our interactions with people in Vermillion would have amounted to just an awkward minute or two with each person.

A woman at Wal-Mart warned us that as we head west, the people will get less friendly. So as we lay down on Andrew and Skylar's mattresses on the floor tonight, we hope we discover something a little brighter.