I’m home right now. Not “home,” home. But returned. My roots. My genetic stamp. My when-I-die-and-the-angels-tip-me-over-and-read-my-manufacturing-label and say, “Huh, ‘MADE IN IOWA’” home.
Five hours of time travel, biome transition, language and dress alterations… changes of posture.
Those small towns. Those dying hybrids of John (Cougar) Mellencamp songs, 80s horror movies, and pop culture and statistical fodder for pundits during campaign season.
Iowa. The catch-all land of ideals, Midwestern stereotypes, but, mostly, in-betweenness.
I return to recharge. I return—like many parents still blessed to have their parents alive—to have adults other than me entertain my children for a respite so I can eat, catch-up on sleep, and be lazy in someone else’s home. The permission for a writer to stare at her laptop for fun and not be dubbed a neglectful mother… But I mostly return waiting to access that liminal space I cannot get in my true home.
I have two houses in Chariton. The childhood home of G.I. Joe rambles and fantasies. Where I learned I loved to dig in the dirt for the past, and to recognize my desire to pull away. But this house I sit in? The house that provides copious amounts of brownies, scotch, and flannels sheets that drag me to naps? This is the house of my ancestors.
But you cannot become too complacent or you will be lost in the mud… Where the streets, trees, and countryside are all burnished ochre and mahogany, but then slapped in a dingy, dust-caked frost–as if the surroundings were tailor-made to match the cars that haven’t been washed in weeks. A realm where God has drawn a giant dick on the windshield in a joke, saying “Wash Me.”
But for now? I step in with my son (a few weeks ago my daughter), my dog, boots, and an extra sweater. I step over prairie grasses not mowed, that bend down and undulate like hillocks around a pond. A pond of familial death, of community fairs, of frog spawn and snake holes. The barbed wire fences with gaps that temp the exploring child, the tetanus cavalier, the person unafraid of stepping off the map and into the land that bridges time.
I love tangling undergrowth—those branches and thorns that aren’t the hallmark of old-growth forests, but wild, angry young trees and their riotous friends who spring up as soon as the Ma and Pa of cultivated land disappear. The return of the wild. The overturning of order.
There’s a lot of that where I’m from. Run-down houses where you’re convinced no one lives there… until you see, yes, they do. Rotting barns where the wood is an ashen grey to match the soil, the surrounding trees, the shadows of glens and small valleys that hide it all.
This is not open, flat, Iowa. This is not the brazen, glaciated northern prairie of straight highways and flat horizons.
This is the southern, the dark, the twisty.
The round-a-corner-too-fast and you’re dead due to a [insert: deer, cow, motorcycle]. Valleys that nestle between “towns” now no more than four well-maintained homes and twelve corpses of structures that were once the land of coal mines, regional opera houses, and train stops between larger sister cities.
It’s where I stumble across quaint country cemeteries and wish I could live next door and tend to the scattered souls left behind. The land of a gaggle of sisters intermarrying into a family of brothers—where despite generations upon generations never escaping and pissing and moaning, the land rises up to remind you that this dirt has witnessed the birth of your brood for generations…
Of farmsteads showcasing the evolution of your branch of the family tree where grandma’s house sat next to Mom and Dad’s house, which sat next yours…
But one must return to see it. You must walk in fresh, foreign, with eyes and minds that have not lived in and among it for so long that you are now blind to it.
So I return. I fight to remember what to do, to explore, to figure out. The ridge you drive past, knowing somewhere up it a great-great-someone owned a… lived in a… did a… A forest that held such wonder for you as a child, but the chain and fence limits you and your kid to a future season ramble…
A twisty country lane that reveals quaint valley after quaint valley—but former classmates’ homes seem smaller, more run down, faded.
The magic. The fantastical. The frightening is there. The primal. But it stands alongside the dirty, the boring, the everyday. The monster in broad daylight. The majestic creature that everyone else shrugs at. The fear and terror of history and loss and rural drama that is nothing to those that pass through it every day.
Rusted cars in ravines. Cow bones. Sunken yards where old houses once stood. Dogs refusing to explore a hiking path as they smell more than you, aware you’re trespassing and under surveillance by a force stronger than you.
Not a land of a boring, chaste God, but a land of the pre-God—the seed, the mud, the manure. A land of the snake hibernating just under your mud-soaked boot. The land of the hunting dog, deer season, and preteens flying over the land behind the wheels of cars because they must prove to be self-sufficient before they can leave the nest.
The land of soil, weeds, familiar faces that all blend together. The boring for those who linger too long, but they are the magical, the transportive, the sentries who never cross over with you, but will watch you pass with a passive-aggressive note of your hair, your dress, your politics.
You are welcome, but you best not stay. Revel in the shocking. Try to record the beautiful. Respect the frightening. But it is not for you to live. To do that one must be callused and become part of that dusty, mud-caked land. Don’t dare see its beauty too much or one can become distracted. And then the work doesn’t get done.
If there is work to do. The carbs and brownies make one slow, you know. The jobs may not have returned. But the roots have sprung and run deep, latching you to the generations of bodies buried in the land. The voices, the names. The history that tells you your kind have been here for too long for you to ever leave. So, you glance back over your shoulder, knowing you are watched, hoping you can make a break and return to the comfort of your other home. Your new home. Your fresh start away from the mud and the dust and the highways of death.
But it is ever thrilling, because you know you can never not return.by