Iowa heartland

Jennifer New describes the joys and dilemmas of being a traveler from Iowa.

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It was late February and an Arctic blast had descended on Iowa. Gone was the beauty of the first snowfall or the comfort of donning a favorite old wool sweater following an Indian summer. Now, dirty snow was piled in parking lots and boots were covered with the white smudge of salt stains. A molelike quality had overcome many people, due to both the cold and the short days. Bleak March was yet to be endured.

But I was in Los Angeles, swimming laps outside and going barefoot through the Huntington Gardens, sandals in hand. With any luck, it would be sufficient sustenance to hold me until spring. A friend and I headed north from the city one day in search of beaches and mountains. Stopping at a roadside fish and chips stand, we wedged ourselves into the only available space and shared a table with two hirsute guys. Between gulps of Snapple and bites of battered shrimp, one of them was considering his travel options. "You know where I'd really like to go?" The other man didn't look up from his fish. "Des Moines. They always dump on that place in the movies, so I figure it's probably all right. All right by me anyway. Then I want to see Cheyenne."

My friend raised an eyebrow at me over her dark glasses. I smirked and turned toward the ocean view, opting not to divulge my native Iowan status to the would-be traveler. I could have told him to save his money, that though Des Moines did not deserve such scorn, it also wasn't worth the price of a plane ticket. But I've found that it rarely pays to discuss Iowa outside the Midwest. From Ohio, Kansas or Wisconsin, Iowa is just another set of statistics, weather patterns and possible mutual acquaintances. But to talk about it from a place like L.A. is courting misinformation. Polar opposite stereotypes leap to mind, images of gingham wholesomeness competing with slow-witted depravity. Like any place, it is more complex than its media image.

Half the gain in traveling is the chance to see one's home and one's self through fresh eyes. It's as much about a change of scenery as it is about relearning the old. A house feels different after time away; the workday holds new angles. Who knows what that man might have realized about Southern California had he actually made it to Des Moines. No matter my point of departure, I've always traveled as an Iowan, measuring the fields of England and the olive groves of Israel against the neat lines of a soybean field in mid-July. I've talked to natives in Maine as the granddaughter of an Iowa farmer and experienced the baking, late-summer heat of wine country as one who has lived through a season in which it topped 100 degrees more than 15 times. Even during the many years when I lived in Seattle, I still carried the memories and residue of this middle-of-the-country spot with me. Part of my decision to return and settle here as an adult came from the realization that this is my point of reference, the constant on my compass. For all its grandeur, Mount Rainier and the Pacific Ocean could never replace the wide open skies and rustling oaks that inform my memory of the past and my vision of the future.

Traveling away from here is complicated, however, by the drawback that few people can find Iowa on a map. In France, I discovered an unlikely geographical explanation in Al Capone, a figure most French people seem to know, just as they know Jerry Lewis. When they'd ask where I was from, I'd say near Chicago ("Pres de Shee-cah-go") and they'd light up with recognition: Oui! Al Capone! That proved to be ample clarification. In Israel and England, people had some hazy sense that it was "in the middle." They were clear that it was nowhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty or anything they might want to see if they could ever afford to visit -- a shame really, since some of my most enjoyable times in those countries were far from the well-beaten path. On the other hand, I had a Hungarian landlord in Seattle who lived half the year on each coast and always drove between his two adopted cities. He was crazy about Iowa and always stopped en route; it reminded him of home, of Hungary.

The confusion is just as acute when dealing with Americans. I can speak
from experience that all those studies disparaging our geography skills are
true. Iowa might as well be Gabon or Belize. A high school student once
asked me if Iowa wasn't part of eastern Canada. And when I was readying to
move back, a medical doctor wondered if it was faster to drive to Chicago
or Seattle from Iowa. Incredulous at his utter ignorance of how his own
country is laid out, I blurted that the difference was 35 hours
vs. three and left it at that.

I first became aware that my fellow countrymen had no knowledge of or
interest in my state when I traveled to New York City as a high school
student. It was one of those chaperoned bus trips where teenage couples are
trying to make out in the bathroom of the Greyhound at 2 a.m. and the
teachers just want some sleep. After being herded from one predictable
tourist site to the next, we were allowed an afternoon of freedom. In
search of the Museum of Modern Art and a bit lost, I ducked into the
closest thing to a landmark I could find: McDonald's.

It proved to be a
topsy-turvy version of the Golden Arches I knew back home. In lieu of clean
tile, faux chandelier fixtures and fellow schoolmates behind the
register, the place was grimy and worn, with clerks who looked about my
parents' age. A patron with a torn jacket and patched scarf must have
noticed my dazed look and started an off-the-wall conversation with me, the
kind of interaction that city people know how to avoid. But it was 1982 and
I'd never seen someone toting as many oddly filled bags as this woman had
heaped on her handcart, so I answered her questions as the well-mannered
16-year-old that I was. "Potatoes!" she sang out when I told her where I
was from. "That's Idaho," I corrected her, a bit dejectedly. "Iowa is corn."

I've been correcting people on the differences between corn and potatoes and
between Idaho and Ohio, and on the route of the Mississippi River, ever since. I
sometimes wonder whether any of my impromptu geography lessons -- maps
sketched on airline napkins, countries drawn on the sands of a beach -- have
lingered with my momentary pupils. The woman nursing her McDonald's coffee
certainly hadn't seemed enlightened: "Oh, one of those places," she'd
chuckled with a little wave of her hand.

It was interesting to try on being a Seattleite. From cabbies to the
parents of friends, everyone seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, drawing
closer for insider information about the place du jour. The city had made
the cover of Newsweek and been given starring roles in several movies.
Grunge had been born and Starbuck's had begun its ascent. Whether it was a
party-goer in Chicago or a waiter in Boston, I was always getting pumped
for information from people who wanted to move westward. Talking about the
rain, Bill Gates and coffee became tiresome parts of the same tale. The
shallow repetition reminded me of how the lesser-known siblings of movie
stars must feel.

None of this is a problem with Iowa, of course. There was a short period
during the "Bridges of Madison County" craze when people, often overly made-up women, would ask horribly misinformed questions about covered bridges
(I've never seen one). But more often, the mention of Iowa leaves people
speechless. I can have a lengthy conversation with some happenstance person
at a museum or while sharing transport to the airport. We get along well,
perhaps to the point where I can even imagine having a coffee with this
person and getting to know each other better. Then comes the question, "So,
where are you from?" At my response, their face clouds as they try to
think of some interesting fact left over from high school geography. They
want to be polite, to have the right reply, but they're flustered. "Iowa.
Really?" they say, looking me over again to make sure they hadn't missed
some telltale sign. "How interesting."

Although I'm less defensive about it now, rarely enumerating the Ph.D.s per
capita in the college town where I live as supporting evidence of some
respectability, I'm still angered when someone is blithely dismissive. The
wife of an old college friend I met in L.A., for example, yawned when I
told her that I get daily New York Times delivery, saying that of course it
wouldn't be necessary to subscribe to the local paper since not much
happens where I live. Another friend invoked my ire when, after returning
from a three-month trip to some of the garden spots of the third world, she
refused to stop here on her way from one coast to the other. "Frankly," she
intoned, letting me in on a little secret, my husband and I had chosen an
"undesirable" place to live. I'll have to remember that, I thought, the
next time someone is throwing up on me during a crowded bus ride in the
outback of Kenya.

Though their ranks are fewer, there are others who surprise me. One New
Yorker, sporting the tiniest metal-framed glasses and the shiniest loafers,
let out a sigh, "What's it like to live in Iowa?" Before I could go into my
defense strategy, I noted the dreamy tone of his voice. I could see the
picket fences and rustic red barns floating in his eyes. When I told him
that life here is pretty good, he returned to his legal pad and tapped his
pen. "I'm sure it is," he muttered despondently. "I'm sure it is."

I have momentary doubts myself about just how dreamy it is. In the middle
of an ice storm and on the fifth day of below-zero weather, one wonders.
It's my first 24 hours in a big city, however, that most make me
reconsider. I ride high on a wave of culinary intake, thrilled by the
freshest goat cheese or the most authentic pad Thai. The shops and their
material promise are dizzying; the movie selection surpasses my wildest
hopes. But after the initial glut, I quickly get drunk on the mundane
repetition of things and money. The traffic and noise begin to take a toll
on my nerves, and people, costumed in their urban finery, look less
beautiful and more Fellini-esque. Stress creeps up and grabs me in its
hold, just as it did perpetually when I was a city-dweller. I want to go
home and walk the dog alone at midnight. I long to leave the house unlocked
with little worry. The sounds of cicadas and birds, even my neighbor Earl's
riding lawnmower, are welcome.

Flying in over the sleepy airport north of town, I look down at the fields
with their neat rows and black soil. For a moment, I'm embarrassed by the
plainness of what I see: It's so unadorned. But then my eyes refocus. I
downshift from whatever opulent scenery I've just taken in and I see the
beauty in the simplicity. My pace slows to meet the geography and I settle
back onto my true place on the map.

By Jennifer New

Jennifer New writes and swims in Iowa City, Iowa. Her last piece for Salon was "Iowa Heartland."

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