American Culture

The promise of Iowa: an ArtSunday photoessay

by Andrea Frantz

And so for you, I came this far across the tracks,
ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt,
and I’d do it again,
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion,
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see,
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa and you were not thinking of me.

–Dar Williams, “Iowa”

Driving Interstate 80 from Pennsylvania to Iowa seems endless when I hit Gary, Indiana. Then Chicago emerges in the distance, and Iowa feels like it’s within my grasp. But this trek’s a damned sight better than the stretch of I-80 across the state of Nebraska, so most of the time I just count my blessings that I’ll park the car long before the Kum & Go at the Iowa-Nebraska border.

I’d moved from Iowa to the Pocono Mountain area of northeast Pennsylvania in June. But because of my teaching schedule, it was December before I ventured west again to visit the homestead. In the six months I’d lived in the northeast, I’d negotiated new cultural realities. I could no longer say “pop” when I referred to Diet Coke, lest my students think I was talking about some new form of illicit substance. Gardening in my backyard now required rock drilling tools and coyote urine sprinkled liberally around the perimeter. And of course, I’d upped my aggressive driving skills which occasionally also involved dramatic, well-timed hand gestures.

Mostly though, I’d had to get used to the hills and trees, which at first didn’t seem all that challenging. October in northeast Pennsylvania is a thing to behold. The sugar maple and oak covered hillsides catch fire in autumn, and when I snaked down the mountain around one of many curves on the highway to work, I’d sometimes catch my breath as the early morning sun glinted off a wall of redorangegold. Prior to this, I’d never experienced a place where there were more trees than people.

But I’m a flatlander. I grew up in central Iowa, and while Iowa rolls somewhat, especially along its river borders on the east and west, my comfort zone has always been big sky and wide open vistas of corn and bean fields broken only by the occasional silo or barn miles in the distance.

So as I drove west into the sunset through central Ohio on I-80 that first December following my move, I realized suddenly I was breathing more deeply. It was December and we were on the Interstate, but my lungs insisted on more oxygen, so I opened the car window. I could breathe. For the first time in six months, there was nothing to break the vast expanse of sky and the land had flattened. It wasn’t Iowa yet, but that air, the sky, offered the promise of it.

Time does funny things to scale.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to explore the house of my childhood. I hadn’t been inside it since 1985, though I’d made it a point to walk by every time I was in town to visit my mom. My sisters, mother and I, wine glasses in hand, toasted my dad the evening following his death, as we stood in the alley behind the old house staring up at the great oak in the darkening backyard and what used to be my bedroom window. But by then we’d been gone from the house for many years and we were outsiders looking in.

So when my sister arranged with the current owner for us to actually go inside and tour the old house, we speculated, reminisced, anticipated. Would the old wooden banister look the same? What might have happened to the ugly speckled linoleum in the kitchen? Had the owners kept the lead glass window at the landing or the ancient iron heat registers? The house of my childhood had been a vast, creaking, haunted playground.

When we walked in and presented the thank you apple pie to the owner, I was stunned by the shrinking effect time had rendered. The enormous landing between the first and second floors on which I had created whole cities of blocks and dominoes had not been altered. But now, only two adults could comfortably stand there together. The endless, dark hallway upstairs that I believed to be too long to run without being caught in the cold tentacles of sort of night spirit was now impossibly narrow and maybe ten adult steps in length. The front foyer–once dominated by an enormous wardrobe in which I could hide until I was 8 or 9, and my father’s upright Baldwin piano, siren to his former jazz gigging days–now seemed barely large enough for the few strategically placed decorative items there.

Scale is a distracting detail in Time’s elegant outfit. It’s the brazen-colored bra strap that can be neither tucked nor ignored.

Thirteen years after I moved east, I still take deep breaths when I return to Iowa. Its wide, open spaces remain, though I find now I am acutely more aware of the possibility of their impermanence.

When I meander the country roads near my old home, I breathe.

And shoot.

Breathe.

And shoot.

_____

Andrea Breemer Frantz teaches journalism at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, PA, though often still ponders what she wants to be when she grows up. She still has hopes NASA will come knocking, looking for middle-aged, female astronauts who don’t fully comprehend the science, but still want to walk in space and discover new frontiers. Until then, writing, photography, challenging students to know and understand the implications of the First Amendment, and pampering her high-maintenance mutt, Jennie, pretty much dominate her life.

5 replies »

  1. Andrea, this is marvelous. Between the well-chosen words and the equally poignant photographs, we are moved. Thank you for this contribution.

  2. Wonderful piece! As fellow Iowan who moved away, I completely understand how much you miss the broad expanse of land spreading out before you. Thirteen years ago my parents moved out of the farmhouse I was raised in and I have yet to stop to see it, even though we drive past at least once every trip back. While I would love to show my kids were I grew up, I’m wondering if it will be the same, or if time will have distorted some of my memories of it.

    I’m not sure where in Iowa you grew up, but the photos remind me so much the area where I grew up! And I completely agree with you about driving I-80 across Nebraska – that has to be one of the worst stretches of interest in the country.

    Oh, and for what it is worth, my children think it is sort of weird when they go to Iowa everyone calls it “pop”.

  3. Andrea,

    I loved reading this. You are one of the best teachers and writers I’ve had the pleasure to know. Thank you for sharing these amazing photos and your words. I’d love to go to Iowa someday. I’ve always loved that Dar Williams’s song too!

    Take care!

    Will M. Krisanda

  4. Love that story. It’s about homeland, childhood and familiar places. Feelings and rememberings described in the essay are well-known to everybody who onace moved away and loves to go back from time to time. Well done, Andrea!

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