Years Ago On The Iowa Spring Circuit

by Ann Billington
Colanmara Collies and Shelties



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  First of all, spring and Iowa are antithetical terms. There is no such thing as spring in the Midwest. For sure, there will be occasional interludes of relative pleasantness lasting five to ten minutes during the last six weeks of winter and the first six weeks of summer. A brave buttercup, daffodil or bashful hepatica may spring forth from the mud for an instant of glory before sudden burial in the next spring blizzard. Nevertheless, the shows in March, April and May in Iowa were known collectively as the Spring Circuit.

Mad with cabin fever, delirious with high hopes and driven by an uncontrollable urge to be anywhere but in Minneapolis, we would work long into the evenings training, trimming, chalking and priming for competition in every way possible. After school on Friday, we would load crates, grooming tops, exercise pens, food, water, grooming tools, quarts of Pepto-Bismol and the insanely-delighted dogs—who, thanks to their preliminary plastering with FooFoo, resembled corded Poodles more than Collies or Shelties. Proper loading always required a systematic analysis of what should be put where based upon what would be needed most and first. As there were always several opinions about this, the packing process was accompanied by ardent discussions which would eventually produce one winner and a couple of sulkers who could hardly wait to be proved right.

Once the dogs, people and gear were loaded into the Country Squire (no sport utility vehicles in olden times) we headed south. The car radio would warn us between rhythmic melodious tunes that heavy snows were imminent and of a fifteen-foot high drift blocking our highway just at the Iowa-Minnesota border. There was never any such drift. We figured that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce put this report out in order to keep tourist dollars from flowing from Minnesota to Iowa. However, about 20 miles into Iowa, we would encounter the first of many snow tunnels. Let me explain: the Iowa Highway Department possessed wondrous rotary plows which could tear into a mountain of snow with incredible power and carve an imposing canyon through the drift. These plows were only one lane wide, had many miles to cover on a stormy night and consequently when one entered at the narrow north end of the tunnel, one had no way of knowing what might be entering from the equally narrow south end. It was standard practice to hesitate before committing, honk your horn, blink your headlights and pray fervently. The wind would drown out the wail of the horn and the snow blocked out the headlights, but apparently prayer was very effective as remarkably few collisions occurred.

Another couple of hours into this polar adventure, one of the weak bladders would request a potty break. Invariably the requisite boots and mittens were located under the grooming top which was behind the exercise pen which was wedged up against the front seat. After much groaning, maneuvering and loud crowing by the sulkers enough winter wraps would be pulled loose to keep us from freezing as we disembarked at a convenient truck stop. The dogs would seize this opportunity of redistribution to see if perchance one of them could reach the liver packet and pull it into the crates. If this could be arranged, there would be dramatic results on the morrow.

The truck stop, not surprisingly, would be filled with solicitous truckers who counseled us not to continue. It was too dangerous for such delicate creatures to be out on a night like this with the snow increasing and the wind howling at gale force. Several chaps would dramatically relate being nearly blown off the road. As we considered the advice, a few more doggy types in equally well-stuffed station wagons arrived on scene. We huddled together and inventoried the snow tire and rope statistics. We were all hardy Minnesotans and what do truckers know from, anyway. Of course, they get blown off the road with all that wind resistance. Not one of us could resist such powerful logic.

So, off we go into the dark, the snow and the rising wind. Down the road five, ten, or fifteen miles, we would encounter the first “semi” that had indeed blown off the road. Well, less off it, than across it. We could see the flashing lights of the frantically working tow trucks and the waving arms of the embattled highway patrol officers—who, if they got to us, would declare the road closed and force us to return to the shelter of the truck stop. Ah, but we Minnesotans were too wily for them. I must digress for a moment to explain something to non-Midwesterners. On the flat prairie of Iowa, roads run in neat rectangular grids and if the wind is drifting the roads running north and south shut, it is most likely blowing the roads running east and west clean, usually. Thus, we would quickly turn onto the nearest section line road, which occurs every mile, detour around the blockade, then take the next likely section line road back onto the highway or a sister parallel highway and maintain our resolute forward progress. 

Eventually, we would reach Des Moines, Ottumwa, Dubuque, Waterloo, Council Bluffs, Sioux City or wherever the first show was to be held. Too late for our motel reservations, we would pull up to the auditorium where the show superintendent’s crew and the local club members were frantically attempting to put up rings, etc. Their problem was that the fans from the basketball game of the previous evening were sleeping all over the facility. In Iowa, basketball is an ubiquitous obsession. There is no way a mere blizzard would keep a single Iowa fan away from a Friday night basketball game. Knowing their weather, Iowa fans all come equipped with army cots and sleeping bags. We dog fanciers often thought of equipping ourselves similarly, but could never find the packing room without leaving the dogs at home, who were, after all, our reason for coming in the first place. So, we would gently shove a few sleeping Iowans aside, arrange our exercise pens, grooming tables, crates and dogs in commodious comfort, and find a more or less comfortable bleacher upon which to rest our weary heads for a few hours.

Bless the food vendors! They always came through, and many the coffee and hot dog breakfast I have enjoyed sitting on a crate while gathering the strength to commence grooming. Collies and Shelties were always blessedly late in the judging schedule. Those dear souls who arrange such things knew we needed all the time we could get in order to turn our chalk-encrusted blobs into creatures of rare and refined beauty. It was, as clouds of chalk dust began to arise from the Collie-Sheltie corner, that exhibitors commenced the remembering of what it was they had forgotten. Generally, it was anything other than the dogs. Though I do remember one instance when a tragically inept husband had loaded the wrong dog. Aside from that most unfortunate case, which ended in a not-amicable divorce, we all managed by begging, borrowing and discreet stealing to fill the needs of the needy with combs, brushes, stripping blades, FooFoo, bait, show leashes, water dishes, aprons, pooper scoopers, nylons, shoes and makeup.

Judging came and went in rather a blur, followed by the compulsory giving or accepting of congratulations. Then it was the rush to repack; noting that the station wagon must have shrunk in the cold because nothing fit as well as it had upon the first packing. Eventually the convoy would move off down the road in the direction of what consensus deemed the best route. By this time, the weather had warmed slightly and the snow had turned to a combination of freezing rain and sleet. Now every driver’s objective was less not getting stuck and more simply holding the road on even the slightest of banked curves. If we were very lucky, we would arrive in time to capture our motel reservation. If not, we would patiently wait our turn with the tow truck.

Iowa motels tend to be located next to Iowa cornfields. This may occur because the principal summer tourist activity in Iowa is listening to the corn grow or because practically everything in Iowa is located next to a cornfield. Over the years, the motel owners became close friends and welcomed us because they knew, like the robin, we heralded the approaching end of winter. When often in the morning we would find ourselves snowbound, the kind motelers would bring us up to the house for a hearty breakfast. Over coffee while waiting for the plows to break through, we would entertain our hosts with tales of Minnesota where winter was even worse than in Iowa.

And not to be forgotten, the adventure of exercising the dogs in a snow-drifted cornfield. It would all start out seriously enough with humans shouting helpful encouragement like, “Hurry and poop!” The dogs interpreted this as, “Have a good romp before you take care of any important business!” In a flash, we and the dogs would be romping and flopping and making angels in the snow. A snow- and ice-encrusted Collie or Sheltie coat that has been previously chalked is a delight to groom. All of which meant that the second and third days’ shows would be less prep and more story and adventure relating in the grooming area—which, by the way, was usually located close to the rings. It was jolly convenient to keep one eye on the judging, chat with spectators, who were mostly stranded basketball fans, and fiddle with your dogs. 

Talk flew as fast and furiously as the chalk and the brushes. The scoop was avidly shared on all the judges. What were their preferences, their idiosyncrasies, their passions? A surreptitious eye was kept on the professional handlers to detect any new and wondrous grooming techniques which would be instantly noted and pirated. In all truth, if the legendary Lex Lingonberry had spread tomato soup all over one of his client’s Collies, we would have dashed to the soup aisle of the nearest supermarket. And the loudspeaker often provided side-splitting entertainment as volunteer announcers struggled with the names of rare and unusual breeds or quivered in mortification as they announced, “Open Golden Retriever b-b-b-bitches to ring four!” Once an over-enthusiastic hosting club president remarked over the loudspeaker that Mrs. Reginald Hyacinth-Higgenblower had just pronounced this group of Pekingese the finest she had ever judged. Sadly Mrs. Reginald Hyacinth-Higgenblower was judging the Toy Group that evening. When the rest of the Toy exhibitors heard of her delight with the Pekingese, they all left before the evening’s predestined judging and started their hard journey to the next show. I never heard what happened to the Toy Group of one Pekingese.

Sadly and too soon, all mad adventures must end. After the last judging at the last show, we would struggle back across the Minnesota border through the mythical fifteen-foot-high snowdrift and slip into Minneapolis far too late in the night or far too early in the morning. We would return to our regular lives which, if not quite of quiet desperation, were certainly far less exhilarating than the Iowa Spring Circuit.

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Last modified: April 19, 2012