Countryside Joyride

For nearly two weeks, I had intended to drive around the countryside, visit small “towns” (establishments with a population of approximately 10 souls) and photograph what I could from the side of the road. A countryside joyride, have you.

It was cloudy when I awoke, and dimples of rain misted my face as I trotted out to my car. I had had hopes for sunshine and expectations of the long wind.

Despite the overcast skies and damp air, I placed my camera and scribbled directions on the passenger seat of my car and headed north, readying myself for stretches of gravel roads, patches of dirt paths and empty, desolate villages where suspicious townspeople watch me, eye the girl-who-has-the-camera.

It was noon when I left Treynor, racing the hot Midwestern wind to L55.

It’s a sad wind, really; it blows steadily across hundreds of miles of flat prairie land and gently rolling hills. It’s melancholy; it comes from so far and blows so gently, yet so relentlessly. Leaves rustle, grass dances. The corn whispers to itself, its still-green stalks crackling. Terraces of soybeans or roadside weeds, it doesn’t matter, for they both sway in a symphony of sadness.

It never passes, the wind—it is unyielding, and it bestows a lifetime of dusty air into your face, your eyes. It’s gritty.

When you’re alone in the country, hills curvaceously smooth the horizon. Your eyes wander between terraces that snake and weave around Midwestern mountains and plant a labyrinth of rows. Alone, you forget who you are, briefly, until the breeze wraps around you and creates a camaraderie of sadness that follows you timelessly.

The wind and the sun and the hot rural silence make you sleepy, and yet you cannot sleep but for the memories the wind stirs within you. The scents, the sounds, the sights … they all brush past you like a stranger in a crowd. The rush of heartbreak is as smothering as an afternoon that does not end; the days—and the summers—and the lifetimes just flow, blow past you forever, patiently and tiredly.

When loneliness humbles you, you gaze upon the heartland. Katharine Lee Bates called this land “amber waves of grain” nearly 12 decades ago, and it is true—green in the summer, gold in the fall, buried under towering, virginal drifts in the frigid months.

Windmills, forgotten and broken, rusted and without blades. What were once hundreds of Aermotor windpumps are now pointed pyramids, deserted and dilapidated amongst corn and cattle.

There are still old establishments scattered throughout the region. Some juxtapose the rows of soybeans, while others sit at a dead-end crossroads where only the occasional car or truck or tractor disturbs the gravel.

They look old—ragged and tattered, windowless and exposed. The character of such places—barns, schools, churches, homesteads alike—is one that is acquired from slow, thoughtful and sometimes harsh living.

There are many to the north, a good hour’s drive from my house. They’re there—to the left, and to the right—as I drive up and down, up and down the roller coaster Highway 44, a scenic byway.

In the fall, the hills roll and sweep and are beautiful beyond speech but now, in the summer, each one I passed was but an old ghost. Ghosts of people I’d known, of things I’d done, of people I’d loved and left behind—ghosts of another life that is now gone. People and places—college, dreams from the night before, old friends—piled on my memory, and I drove in an excited misery of old thoughts.

On the back leg, Hell seemed far away.

I surpassed the point where I would frown and say, “Goodness, that place is … awful.”

I had become accustomed to rotten buildings, to fallen bricks and overgrown hedges.

Each element, natural or manufactured, grown or cultivated, stretched into a dull, continuous fact. Though not flat, the land is vast, and it emits a sameness, a perspective that was the same yesterday, will be the same tomorrow, and will be a hundred years from now. The farms, the corn, the cattle, the paths—they become the drone of a bee, and you hardly notice.

It is only at night, when the enveloping humidity surrounds you, when the breeze knocks the branches against your house and rustles leaves outside your window, that you dream again; dream of an adventure where you discover the lives the wind has blown to the past.


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