Sunday, October 10, 2010

Travelers We Three

We are heading out in the 1986 Chrysler Le Baron, a boxy vehicle with no cup holders and ashtrays in the back seat full of candy wrappers from my mother's purse. My father is a car person and he drove his first at age 13. This is when he and his bandit gang of friends would "borrow" cars from unsuspecting neighbors late at night. When he was 16 he took a curve on the north end of town too sharply and landed upside down. He remembers thinking there is something decidedly wrong here and his dad let him spend the night in jail to make sure the lesson would stick. And it did. Now when he would drive those borrowed cars he took the turns much more slowly. And most of his adult life he owned a second car , a convertible. He started with a '66 Chevy Impala and went through a series of MGs, some forest green and his favorite, the Blaze Orange.

We take turns in the wind tunnel that is the backseat. The rains have not visited the Iowa plains for several weeks and the mammoth farm machines chugging along on the sides of the highway are churning up blimp-sized clouds of dust. I won't need to foliate my skin for awhile. Also, not a good day for lip gloss, discovered too late.

Just beyond this bluff is the junction where the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers meet.
In 1673 Marquette and Joliet paddled their bark canoes down this tributary and became the first Europeans to see the land that would become Iowa. In 1805 Lieutenant Zebulia Pike of Colorado fame had evaluated this same place for a possible military fort, but decided not, and aren't we glad.

The German pioneers who settled this rich valley brought the names of their favorite Rhineland towns. We pass through Luxemberg, Guttenberg and a tiny berg, Osterdok. My great-great grandma Leora gave birth to her daughter Amanda here in the 1880's. She had come to this bleak spot to join her husband as he worked a winter logging camp. Logs transported more easily on frozen ground. Snow-covered lands, a makeshift cabin and an impossibly difficult life for the women of this time.

These bluffs are made of bedrock, a substance so hard it is impossible to plow up. Thus, these untouched areas are covered with forest uninterrupted by building or telephone pole. I know the views I am enjoying today are the same that greeted the Native American people as they made their way down the winding ancient buffalo trails to the river.
We buy honey and cranberry jam and a wreath made of bittersweet on the overbluff.

Sonny is full of conversation and easily convinces us that we must take this gravel path back behind the hills where a deserted mill town had once flourished. Is there any part of this state he has not explored? I see Dave grimace until he remembers it is not his car that will be crunching down the gravel.
My father has taught me that the most interesting sites a country can offer are at the ends of gravel roads.

Gretel Ehrlich has written that the Japanese word for autumn means "beauty tinged with sadness." And like most midwesterners I am longing for those nights by the fireplace hearing the lonely song of the winter wind against my well-sashed window and the crystallized snowflakes tap dancing on my pane. But essentially I know all the beauty I see today is based on a continuing death.

Empty limestone rooms and I wonder about the people who came here and worked and sang and sat in the sunshine and wondered about the people who came before them. Sonny and Dave are arguing again, two men too much alike when it comes to inborn stubbornness. I lose interest when the subject of ethanol comes up and I lean back in the car and let the wind swallow their conversation.

. . .how with time and a little tutelage
we learn to read the earth.
Kevin Koch in The Driftless Land


MrDaveyGie said...

Those building are fascinating. I want to travel more roads on a bicycle. I need to win the lottery.
Papa, argues, or maybe all us old guys do. :-)

LoRFLoR said...

i would have enjoyed this drive! wind tunnel and all!

Lizz @ Yes, and So is My Heart said...