Welcome to Anamosa, Iowa. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)
Maybe it was the sun beating on the side of my head. Maybe I was trying too hard. Maybe the vista was too dead this time of year. I’m not sure, but whatever it was that was keeping me from finding it, it was pissing me off.
Some people drink to find it. Some people take drugs. Not me. I take an eight-hour road trip to Iowa to find it. But dammit, this time it wasn’t working.
The mental peace I get from driving long distances by myself can be intoxicating. It’s a chance for me to unleash my brain and let it roam without interruption. I don’t even try to rein it in, I just make sure to cool it down and wipe it off before I put it back in the stable. But no amount of radio flipping or CD playing was doing the trick. My mind wasn’t wandering. I wasn’t getting there. I was irritated, not calm, and to make matters worse, my cruise control had gone belly up and now my ass was starting to throb with four more hours of highway staring me in the face.
Normally the bowels of northwestern Indiana don’t bother me much, but this was different. Now I was wishing I’d have flown to Iowa. If not for thoughts of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens smoldering in a cornfield, I might have.
I became depressed. And why not? Who else could derive pleasure from driving to Iowa? Now I was just like everyone else, slugging along expressionless, mile after dead straight mile on westbound I-80, just like Henry Ford intended, but Iowa came quicker than I expected. I guess I was going faster than I thought. I had been banking on a third of the day behind the wheel, but when I arrived in Cedar Rapids early in the afternoon, only six and a half hours had elapsed from the time I left Michigan.
I wasn't hungry because I’d already eaten lunch on the road, and my room wasn’t ready for check in either, so with an hour to kill and nothing to do I stood in the hotel lobby and looked blankly at the wall.
The last thing I wanted to do was head back out on the road, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to stand there looking at the wall for another hour, so I put my luggage back in the car, pulled my cameras out of the trunk and headed east on the first country road I found. Maybe, I thought, just maybe I might be able to find my peace somewhere off the beaten path, or at the very least, a secluded spot where I could piss.
The road I chose was hilly and the corn was dead. Barely another car passed me as I continued east until I saw a sign for Jones County – birthplace of Grant Wood, the man who painted “American Gothic.”
This seemed promising. The last time I was in Cedar Rapids, I had driven to the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville and some amazing things had happened. I found it that day, that’s for sure. A few strolls through the magical corn rows in centerfield and I felt like a kid again, not to mention my car radio, which had been broken for two years, started working again the minute I left the parking lot. Maybe a visit to Grant Wood’s birthplace would fix my cruise control and save my ass seven-plus hours of agony on the trip home?
Local farmer's ode to Grant Wood. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)
Wood was born just outside the town of Anamosa, about a half hour from Cedar Rapids. I pulled into Anamosa and drove around a bit. It was small and quaint, but it had the most amazing state penitentiary I’d ever seen. I pulled into a small parking lot in the middle of the town and began to stroll around on foot, stopping to photograph things that caught my eye – an old VW van painted with clouds, a ball diamond across the street from the slammer, and the prison itself, which was very old, but definitely occupied because I could hear the inmates through the open windows.
Their talking started to loosen my mind a bit. Who’d have thunk criminal chatter would have done the trick? But it did. Not the turn-your-brain-loose-for-hours-on-end deal like a road trip gave me, but it definitely got me to thinking about more than the normal, mundane this-is-your-lousy-middle-aged-life-stuck-in-a-major-rut bullshit I was used to.
I started thinking about Iowa criminals. Were they just as evil as Detroit criminals? Crime isn’t the first thing that pops into your head when you think about Iowa, after all … farmers and pheasants maybe, but certainly not murderers or rapists. But there they were; chatting away not 20-feet from my trespassing self on the other side of a concrete wall built in the late 1800’s.
I asked a lady raking leaves across the street what kind of prison it was. She told me it used to be minimum security, but it had changed and now there were some pretty bad people in there. I asked her if it freaked her out to live right across the street from the prison. She shrugged her shoulders as if she hadn’t really thought about it much. But I thought about it.
I thought about Grant Wood too. He’d painted “American Gothic” 81-years ago, but he may as well have painted it last week – at least in Anamosa. If Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and computer games have taken over most of America, they somehow glossed over Anamosa.
Old neighbors stood at the ends of their driveways shooting the shit and drinking beer out of a can. Their laughter echoed off the walls of boredom. It was the kind of laughter I remembered hearing from drunken adults in my own small hometown in Ohio when I was a kid – a raspy mix of filterless Camels and Pabst Blue Ribbon guffawing out of their cancerous lungs, stomachs and wind pipes. They might die tomorrow, but Goddammit, they’re having a hell of a good time right now.
One of the neighbors gave me a friendly wave as if to say, “Drop them cameras son and crack open a beer with us.” I waved back and nodded the universal nod that says, “You keep havin’ your fun, you don’t need any son-of-an-Ohio-redneck intrudin’ on your good time by suckin’ down your stash of liquid gold – but thanks anyway.”
The friendly neighbor acknowledged my nod and turned back to his crew at the end of the driveway. Up the street, a young girl and her brother were roller-skating up and down the sidewalk in front of their house. Every now and then a motorcycle would pass by, but for the most part it was quiet, except for the chatter of the prisoners that wafted out into the street through the open windows of the state pen.
If these walls could talk - Iowa State Penitentiary in Anamosa. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)
After an hour or so it started to get dark, so I ended my brief excursion with rural America and headed back to Cedar Rapids. For the next day and a half I would switch gears and become a sports photographer at a major university. But I left Anamosa somewhat excited, because after eight hours on the road, my mind had finally switched on and I couldn’t wait for the drive home on Sunday.
The football game was a good one – nice and controversial with an exciting ending, but the one thing that stuck with me was how far off the weatherman was. A forecast of low 60’s and sunny skies gave way to a high of 39 with mid-day skies as dark as the bottom of a manhole cover. That was okay with me. I like gloomy skies and it never rained, so I didn’t particularly mind that I pretty much froze my balls off the entire duration of the game.
The other thing that stuck out about Saturday was that I left Cedar Rapids for Iowa City in the early morning dark, and I returned to Cedar Rapids in the evening dark. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worked from sunup till sundown, but I imagined there were a lot of folks in the state who could.
When Sunday morning arrived, it came with cloudy skies and 40 mph winds coming straight out of the south. Since I was driving due east, and Iowa’s cornfields don’t offer much in the way of protection from the elements, I knew this would make for some pretty interesting driving.
I decided to forego I-80, at least for a while, and take a road less traveled as I headed out of the state. It proved a wise decision. With little to no traffic, it didn’t really matter if a sudden wind gust blew me a little left of center since there was nothing for me hit head on but emptiness.
It was that emptiness that really hit home. I drove past field after field of dead, brown, bristly corn waving to me like the beer-swilling dude at the end of his driveway in Anamosa. I passed through small town after small town - each a carbon copy of the other – one gas station, a grain elevator, a pizza joint and a church, but not a human in sight. I half expected tumbleweed to be blowing down the street, but all I saw was an endless stream of freight trains, some a mile long I’ll bet, crawling parallel to my path heading westward, as if Manifest Destiny beckoned those coal carrying Conrails to a place where the grass was greener, and their payload burned cleaner.
The lines of the Iowa country road met the railroad tracks at the very same point well off in the distance. Maybe Grant Wood saw the same thing. Maybe every art teacher who ever taught perspective drawing stared out on the horizon from this exact spot in eastern Iowa, where all things come to a point on the horizon –roads, railroad tracks, cornfields, telephone lines ... and thoughts. They all started right there in front of me, just out of reach – always out of reach.
Off to the south the sun sliced through the clouds from time to time like a laser beam, blowing up distant silos in the middle of the fields with its bright beam of light that looked very much like an alien abduction was about to take place. When the sun hit my car, I wondered if some farmer looking out his window a mile away in that same field saw me in one of those same brilliant beams of light and found it just as amazing as I did? Or maybe he just kick off his shit-encrusted boots and poured himself a cup of Folger’s instant coffee without giving it so much as a second thought?
An epiheny? Or just a field? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)
It was that moment when I began thinking about my dead mother. I hadn’t missed my mom in a while, but I was really missing her now. I don’t think she’d ever even been to Iowa, but I felt like she was there, and when I say there, I mean inside my head.
I thought about my dad too. About how we don’t really have a whole hell of a lot to say to each other these days. Never really did. He’d been to Iowa plenty. He used to go pheasant hunting there every fall with his work buddies from Ford. I wondered if he’d ever traveled this same road, if he’d ever seen the brilliant shafts of sunlight blowing up the dead fields, or the railroad tracks and the highway coming to a point in the far off distance, or if he just slept the whole time while his buddies did most of the driving.
Whatever it was that had blocked my brain on the trip out, it had certainly been dislodged now.
“I gotta write some of this shit down.” I thought to myself. “There’s no frickin’ way I’m gonna remember all of this – hell, probably none of it.”
Everything seemed profound. Everything seemed real. My thoughts were flying around my brain so fast, I almost had to pull over. I was in mental overload. It was so overwhelming, I felt like I might actually cry and I had no idea why. Was it the corn? Was it the light? Was I happy? Was I sad?
Fuck if I knew?
I peeled off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I put on my sunglasses even though it was mostly cloudy. Ten miles ahead was civilization. Before long, I’d be crossing the Mississippi River and leaving Iowa behind in the rear view mirror. The next exit was my southbound turn back to reality. Back to the painful cramp in my ass and the continual formation of a blood clot in the lower half of my right leg as I cruised eastward on I-80 with its semi-truck traffic and zoned-out-latte'-junkies texting themselves into the medians and ditches of the world on an otherwise perfectly clear, dry day.
Author on the road. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)