Oh, I Owe Iowa

There seems to be an inevitability to this growth/human potential/evolutionary process. When I left work in Chicago today, I decided to get in my car and drive home, or else drive to Iowa. I went to Iowa.

I hopped on Interstate 88, and drove 88 miles per hour. When I-88 morphed into I-80, I drove 80 miles an hour. I notice this same tendency when I’m on I-70. I’ll do a modest 70. And of course, on Interstate 55, that great River that’s Not a Road that parallels the lineage of Steinbeck’s hoary Mother Road, I’ll slip into the slow lane and do the speed limit. You’ve heard of Manifest Destiny. Well, this is the post-Eisenhower version of that. I call it Interstate Destiny. I feel compelled to drive at the speed that equals the number of the highway I’m on.

Okay, for all you Interstate newbies out there, even-numbered routes trend east-west, and odd-numbered highways go north-south. The three digit mamas are trunk lines that connect one interstate to another. I get into lots of trouble with the troopers on I-94. They simply don’t understand the inevitability of my behavior. And I’m continually disappointed at my lackluster performance on 355.

Anyway, I decided to just get in my two-door, black Blazer and go. Without any plans. Without any destination or map or anything. I love doing that. I’m almost assured of a time better than I could’ve planned for myself. That’s how it all works for me. Don’t make too many plans with my life, and my expectations tend not to claw their way beyond reality. If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans.

Of course, I’m sure God was also laughing as I suffered rush hour through three of the four Quad Cities (I skipped Bettendorf). It took me an hour to wend my way down the Mississippi River road that circulated though those towns, lined with old brick two stories and PSA billboards imploring parents not to shake their babies and kids not to rob with guns. I guess knives are easier to come by. Anyway, back to expectations.

My problem is that I can start something out without having an expectation (i.e., date with no sex), and the expectations sneak up like fast weeds in no time (sex with no date). I wanted a quaint, small town, and a state park to hike in nearby. Out came the crumpled atlas from underneath the seat. Open came Iowa. No state parks on this map. Maybe I should get another map.

Just as I started getting road weary and the sun slowed down above Des Moines, I gave up trying to read the map at 81 MPH with a horse trailer in front of me. The wind from the window slapped the atlas shut. All I needed was a quaint, picket-fenced atoll with matching grain elevators jutting out in the middle of the sea of corn, and some semi-wilderness to wander. I’d lay my head in the first place, and wade my feet in the second. I opened up the map again. The wind closed it, again. And as soon as that damn map of Iowa slammed closed for the second time, I looked up and saw the brown exit sign (brown means recreation areas): Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, exit 155. Also the exit for Prairie City.

I tacked right and made the exit, bidding the surprisingly busy traffic all the way out from Chi-town goodbye. I cruised through Prairie City, so small they posted neither elevation (a western habit) nor population (an eastern habit). This was perfect. A stand of stone-white grain elevators held up the center of town like the steeples of a medieval Cathedral in an English village. There were no McDonald’s or Walgreens or (God be merciful) Wal-Marts. Though the rural character of America rapidly erodes off the land, in some places as fast as flash floods, in some places more insidiously, that country would disappear here last. For this was Iowa. It was the center of Iowa. You couldn’t get any more Iowa than this, where towns were named What Cheer and Pleansantville. I’ve written much about Kansas. Now let me sing of Iowa. Iowa is, as the movie (and the book) Bridges of Madison County well told and visually sold, a sweeping, rolling, green kind of sod you want to sink your teeth into.

I swooped through town at the speed of 20 (it was highway 20), and scoped out the single hotel. It was a 40 year-old slab of rooms right across from the six pack, skyscrapers of grain. This motel would sport no exercise room, no shampoo on the vanity, much less conditioner. It wouldn’t even have a cheap alarm clock on the nightstand. Just a Gideon in the drawer. Perfect. No distractions. I’d register later. Now, it was time to go check out the wildlife refuge.

I don’t know who Neal Smith was, but I’m sure glad he died so they could build this Wildlife Refuge when he did die. NWR’s are American treasures. They’re free of fees and there are over 500 nationwide, so chances are, just like Wal-Mart, there’s one near you. As I drove through the mixed grass prairie, stiff goldenrod was already in bloom. The green fells above the road were brushed in yellow. And there were leadplants, the color of a rusty sunset, butterfly milkweed mixed in with Canadian wild rye, and pale purple coneflowers.

The sun rode lower over wandering hills tamed to gentility by long dead glaciers. I drove the smoky gravel past grazing bison and stopped to eye one, who was shedding the thick winter shag from his rump, spying me with that eye planted square on the side of his head. His build reminded me of Mr. Universe: a huge upper body with a hump over the shoulder, almost like the digging muscle of the plains grizzly which occasionally preyed on bison, but more often scavenged them back before Europeanization. We all know the common history: people nearly exterminated 50 to 60 million bison in an attempt to depopulate the plains of Indigenous peoples. But, like the bison, those tribes had the culture, sophistication and fortitude to ultimately resist the complete makeover of their land. It was ironic that the dry-land farming settlement experiment that supplanted both Plains Indian and bison was tattering, as one small town after another closed shop because when the kids finished high school, they escaped to the world made for them by TV. That world was out there somewhere, wasn’t it? That was the same world I ran from. I guess were all refugees from somewhere.

From the road’s shoulder, I watched this bull exhale with a moist and billowy whale’s gasp before he pulled up the tall grass with his teeth, making the sound the mule deer did at night browsing the short lawns of the South Rim in Grand Canyon Village. Snort, pull grass. Snort, pull grass. He tired of me more quickly than I of him. So if he was bored with me right away, then who really exhibited more intelligence, ruminants or humints? I jumped back in my car and road the gravel.

A ways up, another bull strolled the shoulder, headed up a hill toward me, swaying gracefully back and forth. In the distance, with his winter coat still blanketing his forequarters and the nappy, horned head that dominated every angle of approach to him, he made the outline of a woman in a long dress balancing a water jar on her head. Another car was tracking him, so I put on my parking break, killed my engine, and let the bison pass beside me, with his involuntary nodding gait as a thank you delivered from some Higher Source for my road courtesy.

As he crossed the road, and surmounted the drainage ditch with clumsy hoofwork, I started my horse up, put it in gear and flew past a pheasant with his bright red head, then more male pheasant corralling dull gray hens who flitted before my bumper like awkward road runners. They had taken the niche left by the prairie chicken, which are kind of rare now.
I wanted to get out and stretch my legs. For above all, I am a hiker. Urban. Suburban. Rural. Total wild. I walk through it all. I pulled alongside some bur oak savannah, being restored through controlled burns and the cutting of invasive species, just like they were doing to the woods back by in my home in Glenview, Illinois, six hours and 300 + miles east. The roadside grass was singed everywhere. I walked through bottomlands of wet prairie, past cordgrass, swamp milkweed and wild bergamot. On a long, sloping hillock beside me, two lone trees stood their ground from one another, 20 yards apart, like unsure lovers. One was a maple and the other a cottonwood, and both were just greening. A pair of red-winged blackbirds nesting in those trees escorted a red tailed hawk out of their no fly zone.
The two trees had all the sun and water they wanted, but the cottonwood, with its higher crown, sported a dead limb A brook babbled incomprehensibly as I stooped to pick a goldenrod flower. The fear and guilt in me shook their heads along with the swaying grasses, and said Don’t you dare cut off that thing’s head. Then a new voice, recently emerged like the springtime, spoke. It said that just because you pick the flower doesn’t mean you kill the plant. I picked it, sampled it’s odors with my stuffy urban nose, and gave it a home in my shirt pocket.

So many troubles back home. When I fly off on of these impromptu Midwest meanderings, I always seem to be gnawing on some dramatic introspection. Well, let’s see. What bricks are in my wall of worry this week? An IRS audit. I had received the very warm letter from the Incredibly Responsive System the same day I got the rejection slips for three more short stories in the mail. Then there was the unfavorable newspaper publicity connected with my day job because someone surreptitiously recorded me making irresponsible statements about a deceased Catholic priest I investigated on behalf of the Archdiocese of Chicago. My defamatory remarks had been sent to a journalist. And I’d signed a confidentiality agreement with Diocese that said: WHEREFORE, YOU MUSTN’T DO THAT. There was the woman who, after five dates, had finally started kissing me, and then abruptly broke off the kiss and told me she wasn’t attracted to me. And this was after I’d just broken up with my second, long distance New Mexico girlfriend in the middle of my plans to move out to the Four Corners region to be with her. That happened right after a 16 wheel semi-tractor trailer careened head on into my Blazer as I was headed to the airport to fly out for job interviews in Farmington, NM. It had been a tough three months, I suppose. Anyway, I’m the only 42 year old I know who still suffers from teenage angst.
I had six months of lock-and-grind city in me. Drive here. Work there. Flying around the country investigating horrendous cases of sexual abuse. Deadlines. Family crises. 14 hour days. And now, I found out that I didn’t slow down automatically just because I stood out here in the middle of the middle of the North American plate. I’m so impatient, even compared to the techno pace of the city on whose motherboard I am downloaded. My hero is Ted Danson’s Dr. John Becker, the harried, type A Bronx neurotic of the now defunct TV sitcom.

Now, I sat in the middle of an idyllic wood, embroidered in birdsong, but I had the urge to leave, to focus on the next thing, on what had to be done. I needed to go book that hotel room before they ran out of rooms, which was a metaphysical impossibility in a town like Prairie City. I wanted to: Eat. Sleep. Play with Myself. But hopefully not out here and not in that order.

I forced myself to sit on an industrial plastic bench on the wood chip trail, the one dedicated to the memory of Kathleen Vanderpool in the middle of this sunsetting islet. I glanced up at the faint crescent moon still nascent in the western sky, which I’d long ago adopted as a symbol of my Source, who I wanted to give a terrible performance review and fire from life after the past few months.

“Figures you’d follow me here,” I muttered to the moon. And then I became still.

The birdsong—the dirge of the mourning dove so similar to its melody back home, but so many other songs, too. Not just the black birds that would dart like butterflies, but the most exquisite arias from the meadowlarks and from more recent arrivals – the cape gray warblers and the gray catbirds that had just migrated in. All their notes melded and fit with perfection. None of them knew they contributed to a symphony. But that’s what they played, just the same. Even if each of them only sang a genetically preprogrammed chirp mixed with what each of them learned from mom and dad as his or her very own territorial audio marker, the combined result was unspeakable elegance.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers didn’t know the colors which they mixed through impersonal chemical reactions were perfect compositions against the deep green background of the prairie. It made no difference that the bison didn’t realize their heavy hooves, their grazing and their dung stimulated the growth of the grasses. Even if the whole synched creation was the result of mindless mechanistic laws that would eventually devolve back into thermodynamic chaos, the effect of the whole seemed conscious. The whole prairie was what made sense. Just like those people at college football games who spell out a meaningful message with the placards they hold over their heads. Any one of those placards is meaningless by itself, but each one contributes to a pattern that means something. One child may seem born by chance and prone to futility on the indecipherable scale of its one life, but all together, humanity makes sense. It’s the unconscious chromosome of the bee that eventually sculpts the honeycomb.

And my life made sense, too. All the seemingly broken, jagged dreams, the unfitting pieces of my psyche, the tiny tragedies I endured, they all fit together too, in the end. I just had to wait around long enough to see it backwards. What did Goethe say? Life had to be lived forwards, but it could only be understood backwards. That was right. Maybe I didn’t think I was making progress. Maybe I felt just another year older. And yes, maybe I’d turned down my wildest heart’s desire to move out West yet again, because I lacked the courage to live beyond the bounders of what I’d known. I had tried to crawl back into skins already shed, and made my life a Becker rerun. Yet right now, I knew that as long as I surrendered what I thought my life ought to be, relinquished the effigy of myself as a nobody moving through nothing, then I could be happy.

I didn’t know what my life was for any more than the acorns in the leaf litter at my boot’s edge knew they were to become trees. They didn’t have to think about it, or plan it. They just had to do it. I realized then that I had only two tasks in this world: one was to feel welcome in the company of myself. The other was to spread that welcome to others.

I stayed on that bench. I watched the sun gently brush a savanna of old oaks laid out in a half-circle, the jagged fingers of one just in touch with the fingertips of the next. They never moved an inch in all their years, yet they were wise, weren’t they? I reached down and picked up an acorn. I skipped it into the underbrush.

“Go make yourself a tree.”

© 2014 by Michael C. Just