Iowa is my home.
Iowa is where I was born and raised; I’m saddened that most people I know are unable to find it on a map. I’m mildly amused that when told I am from Iowa, the vast majority of folks mention potatoes (Idaho, thousands of miles west) or Ohio (ack).
Iowa is in the middle of the middle; the center of the Midwest. I obviously did not choose to be from here; I guess it would be so much more glamorous to proclaim one is from Los Angeles or Boston or New York City, but Home is where you’re from, and I’m from here, and I’m proud to be from a place where life is vastly simpler, people still say please and thank you, and finding a parking spot is not an exercise in abject frustration.
My home for almost half my life has been the San Francisco Bay Area, with its complicated nature, extreme politics and jaw dropping beauty. It’s been so very good to me over the years, but Home is a place where I can reboot my soul.
There’s a trip I make when I am back here, whenever time and circumstance allow. I was able to make it this week. It’s a memory reset, this trip- I’m able to recall images and events, people and places that give me comfort.
Des Moines, population almost 500,000. The state capitol. More diverse and more interesting than you might assume. A wonderful visit with family there ends, and the road trip begins. It normally takes 3 hours to get back to home base. I’m going to wander a bit.
I head north to I-80 and hang a right, eastward.
Dad’s car has Sirius/XM satellite radio; a better alternative than local radio (thanks for wrecking the local flavor, mega corporate radio owners). I have dozens of channels to sample, every genre available, most commercial-free.
Leaving the multi-lane freeways and the Des Moines metro area, the landscape morphs to rolling hills and vast tracts of farmland. It can be quite beautiful in its own way when covered with snow, but today is not particularly pretty. The sky is an ashen grey, overcast; the ground is devoid of snow. The trees are skeletons of their summer selves.
I zip along for about 90 miles, then make my first stop.
Song playing on the off-ramp: Rush/Circumstances.
This is the fringe of the Amana Colonies, a series of German settlements that were established in the mid 1800s. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone on these roads who aren’t Lutheran (the imported Protestant religion from Europe).
Less than a mile off the freeway is one of my first homes- a modest white 3 bedroom house, a barn and a corn crib. My adopted father was a farmer, in partnership with my grandfather. I think I source my nostalgia for Christmas from this home. Mom decorated the tree with those (now) old-school bulbs, creating a soft blue glow that enveloped the living room. I was all of 4 or 5 years old, but the memory is vivid.
I pause, enjoy the moment, then make a U-turn, driving 1 mile south to my grandparent’s former home. My aunt calls to say hello as I pull in the driveway. Signs of life are evident; candy canes are stuck in the ground along the sidewalk leading up to the farmstead. I don’t know who lives there now., but it doesn’t matter. They aren’t interlopers, the inhabitants of this house- they are a family, likely, creating their own memories this Christmas.
The next stop is a mile south, back toward the freeway.
Frozen in time, Immanuel Lutheran Church has changed not one bit all these years later. We attended Sunday services here. My grandfather would get up early and fire up the furnace at the crack of dawn, so the building would be warm in time for services later. Mom and Adopted Dad were married there.
Behind the church is the cemetery. Grandma and Grandpa are buried there, surrounded by headstones with decidedly German surnames. Many strains of my adopted father’s family rest here.
I get out of the car. The sky is bleakly gray, and even though the temperature is in the mid 30s, the brisk wind is raw. It feels lonely here, the wind whistling through the empty trees.
I open the gate and walk over to say hello to Grandma and Grandpa, and visit with them for a couple of minutes.
Back on I-80, then I-380 north, I arrive at my next stop.
Song playing on the off ramp: Arcade Fire/Suburbs
Cedar Rapids, metro population around 400,000.
The University of Iowa and my beloved Hawkeyes are about 20 miles to the south in Iowa City. This area is where I was born, and where I returned to work my 2nd job in radi0; I started as a part-timer and was eventually hired as the full time overnight DJ at Q103 FM.
This spot was decimated by the Great Flood of 2008. The Cedar River crested at its highest mark ever on June 18th of that year, destroying about 15% of the city.
I was saddened at what I saw. Cedar Rapids is a little frayed around its edges, a little wrinkled and a little scruffy. Leaders of Des Moines and Dubuque (an hour northeast) have done a far better job in developing their public spaces and their downtowns. Ground Zero of the flood area still looks abandoned. The downtown zone is decidedly unimpressive. Parks and open spaces are plentiful here, and the newer suburbs are much spiffier, but the City Center continues to disappoint.
I cut through the city on 1st Avenue, the main drag of the town. Arriving at the corner of 30thStNE and 1st Avenue, I look to my left and see the apartment building I once lived in. I immediately think of two things at this intersection: XTC’s legendary album English Settlement, which I listened to constantly inside that apartment- and a girl. She looked like Laura Linney’s hotter sister (if she had/has one). She was a cocktail waitress at The Gin Mill, a club I DJ’d at in the 80s; I loved her that summer. Of all the women of my former lives, she was memorable for many reasons; smart, funny, wise- too wise to be a cocktail waitress.
A few miles north, I take a left into Cedar Park Memorial.
Song playing at the entrance: Drake/Headlines.
The area they rest is called Garden of the Cross.
I brushed the leaves and twigs off of their grave markers.
Standing next to Carl, I say aloud, “We’d totally hang out if you were still here. I miss you…”
My GF Cyndi and I had been playing phone tag all day. I called her on my way out of the city.
She asks what I’m doing.
“Oh, I was just visiting a few people…”
One hour later, Dubuque is in my sights.
Dubuque is khakis and penny loafers.
Nestled along the gorgeous Mississippi River on the Iowa/Illinois/Wisconsin border, this tidy area of almost 100,000 is “Home” now. Mom and Dad are here. This is where the family converges for holidays, July 4th fireworks, and trips on the river in the parents’ big, beautiful yacht.
This is a weird Christmas. . Mom and Dad’s home is normally packed to the rafters with kids and siblings- it’s usually a major production. Not this week- the house seems so much bigger with just me in here.
There’s one other person in Dubuque this week-my uncle. It’s his first Christmas in a local nursing home. His mind is fine but his body is failing him. He can get around, but he moves pretty slow. We didn’t want him to spend this first holiday in that place alone. I told Mom I’d hang out with him. We have had some good talks. When I’m wheeling him out of the nursing home I tell the staff we’re going to hit the bars. Uncle laughs aloud.
The long journey from Des Moines is almost over. I look in my rear view mirror:
Song playing at the city limits: The Black Keys/Lonely Boy.
The thick layer of gray is giving way to sunshine- but it won’t last long. It’s getting on 5pm. Dusk is a few moments away.
Today wasn’t sad-it was a reset, a reminder of where I’m from, where I’ve been, and of the people who have influenced me so much.
I hope that your home, whether it’s in Idaho, Ohio, Iowa or Where-everville, provides you with your own version of Ctrl-Alt-Del this holiday season.