I wrote this letter home as I made my two-day drive from Colorado back to Iowa to visit friends and family. Home, for me, is many places, but I was surprised by my intense and joyous reaction in coming back to this home, a place where I sometimes, for many years, felt caged. Although originally written as a letter, I decided to also post this with a few necessary edits. Enjoy.
I awoke this morning to low, gray, soupy sky (clam chowder, let’s say) filled with clouds. I positioned my tent last night so that upon opening the flap in the morning I would have a view out onto Lake Anita – a bit of a letdown I might add, a small lake with much less majesty than what I pictured (Lake McBride does seem stuck in my head and I’ll admit I’ve placed high – and unfair – expectations on this little western Iowa lake by expecting the same). By 8 AM, when I peered through my well positioned tent flap, the fishermen were already lining the shore in scattered clumps – no doubt 8 AM is mid-morning for them, but I was happy to sleep in.
I arrived late last night, pulling into the campground at 10 PM, finding a spot along the shore in the darkness. The campground is certainly not full – I have several empty spots around me, but there are a dozen and half RVs in sight (blessedly, none of them are running generators). Typically, I would have set up in the non-electric portion of the campground, but it was isolated and devoid of any other human campers, and despite my recent purchase of bear spray, I was nervous to be there alone. It’s not bears I worry about here, but people.
I had intended to stay in a campground in Kearney last night, but since it was only 5 PM Central Time when I arrived there, I opted to keep going – although admittedly I think my true motivation to continue driving was to get to Iowa. I felt the excitement gnawing at me – perhaps that forever black hole pull that will never quite release its grasp, no matter how far away I relocate my legal residence.
So I drove on, and flew across the border at the best possible time to return to Iowa – May, for one, when the bright green bursts into your vision like a spotlight, the world fresh and new and ready to begin again, as if all the ugliness and mistakes of the past have been washed away with the melted snow – and at sunset, as the sun hid behind a towering cloud on its decent, sending streamers of bright white light heavenwards, and casting the eastern sky in cotton candy blues and pinks.
I had to get a picture – or perhaps I just needed to feel Iowa soil beneath my feet – so I took one of the first exits and turned onto a road that immediately became gravel, riding the roller coaster rolling hill down and back up to a place I could look over the landscape in all directions. I rolled down my window and was immediately hit in the face with a smell that made me laugh exuberantly – manure. Iowa, it turns out, smells like poop.
I got out of the car, spinning in my joyous return to this place that despite all my frustrations, all my disappointments, I still love so fiercely. The rolling hills that we know by the sweat of our brow and the bike pedals beneath our feet stretched beneath pastel skies, brown and green laced together like one of the homemade quilts in grandma’s closet. The road stretched before me like a red carpet celebrating my return and leading me onward, and grass in the ditch and along the fence line swayed and churned in waves as the breeze played with its strands.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy to return to Iowa – at Thanksgiving I felt I had not been away all that long (and for some reason, flying back didn’t seem to count) and after the Peace Corps evacuation, Iowa was, in some ways, the last place I wanted to be. But last night, welcomed by the Grant Wood painting in front of me, “Feels like Home”, a song by a Des Moines band playing on my phone, I reveled in my return. I bowed, and I spun, and I laughed, my hair whipping across my face in a wild frenzy, my laughter sailing on the breeze.
In true Iowa fashion, the second vehicle to pass me stopped, pulling over in front of my car. A middle-aged man got out and asked if I was okay or needed help. I reassured him, telling him I was on my way back after being away for a little while and had to enjoy the spectacular view. “Welcome back,” he said, before climbing into his vehicle and continuing down the road, leaving me in hysterical fits of laughter as I thought about how stereotypical Iowa that was. You could be sitting on the side of the road for hours in Colorado and no one would offer to help.
When I got back in my car, driving down the road four miles to meet back up with the interstate, I kept the windows down, raising my hand in the traditional Iowa wave to a farmer in a tractor who passed, giving me an identical salute in return. At the interstate, I had to turn the air conditioning on, not because I was hot, but because that familiar yet foreign feeling of dense, heavy air made me feel sticky, made the air feel tacky in my lungs, and I had to have movement to break the stagnation. I had to remind myself too, that there was no need to slow down at the bends in the road – here the turns are banked and wide, giving you no reason to slow down. In Colorado, slowing down on turns is a must, as the bends are tight, and too often, covered in snow.
Despite the chilliness and gray skies this morning, my exuberance remains. Robins scurry in front of me across the ground, on alert for worms escaping from damp soil. A crow calls in the distance, and geese at the waters edge offer their honks to a chorus of songbirds greeting the day. Last night, as I starred up at a dark sky freckled with stars, I heard the frogs and other midnight animal sounds, the night chorus. Perhaps we should give them a more elegant name – the Starlight Singers? The Moonlight Serenaders?
It's 9 AM now, though there is no sun to show the passing of time. I’ve not yet made coffee, or breakfast, as I was anxious to sit and begin writing, feeling this letter form in my mind, the words coming together like twigs weaved into a nest. I only paused to run to the restroom – noticing the end of the blooms on a lilac bush as I passed – and to pack up the contents of my tent. I have yet to pack up my tent – water droplets speckle the rain fly – and I had some hope for that drying while I waited, but of course here, where water surrounds us, where it is drawn in every breath, my tent will not dry.
So I will start my stove, make coffee and oatmeal, and pack my tent. Then I will leave this lovely place beneath the soupy sky, giving the birds a one-handed Iowa salute as I drive slowly away and continue my trek across this beautiful, intoxicating land. Reveling in my return to a place I can never let go of – home.