the right place
I wasn’t lost. I knew, more or less, that I was heading south and that I should keep doing so.
I wasn’t lost, but I wasn’t on my intended route, either. A big highway with four lanes went directly to where I was going, but I chose a smaller and slower road so I could feel like I was “in” the places I was passing through. And then I accidentally left that smaller road, too. But I wasn’t lost.
It was a good Sunday afternoon to be not lost. I had plenty of time to reach my destination. The only urgency on this drive was a few miles ago. Entering a county seat town, with its central square and classic courthouse, I needed a restroom. The BP gas station looked like a fortress, but the Casey’s store a few blocks further was more welcoming, and somewhere in between, my route made a turn and I missed it.
Now, properly and gratefully relieved, I’m freestyling my way south by compass and gut-feeling. The map is in the glove box, out of sight. The GPS is in the cup holder, out of mind. It has no sense of adventure or serendipity, so I don’t want its help.
It’s the first pleasant day after a long heat wave, so I open the Subaru’s roof to enjoy it. Aromas of rich earth and fresh-cut hay pour in over me. You could sell this scent to city folks. Iowa is at its best right now: green and fertile. You just can’t stop life, here - the ground is too good, things just grow. The old corn-farmer’s adage “knee high by the Fourth of July” doesn’t apply anymore - it’s two feet too short.
Today, I’m one of those drivers that we all complain about - the Sunday sightseer - poking along, looking around at the sky, the clouds, the crops and the cows. Wandering around like I’m lost, but I’m not. Farmyard after farmyard I look at the country house, the paint or lack thereof on the outbuildings, the orderliness of the garden and I think, “that’s a nice place” as I pass. My casual pace is not a problem because I’m the only traffic - not an inconvenience to anyone else.
At another town, big enough for a school and an ag co-op, I go straight and lose the pavement. The gravel is loose and dusty which slows me down even more, and that’s fine. I have no reason to be concerned because I am not lost. Passing through towns I’ve never heard of on a road I didn’t know existed, I’m not lost.
The landscape rolls in waves: long views from the high points and cool creeks in the bottoms. Dogs and cats laze in the farmyards. People do, too - it’s that kind of afternoon. An old guy waves at me from his porch. I think he would be happy if I stopped to visit, and I think I would be, too.
Navigating without a map isn’t that hard in rural Iowa. Our roads are laid out on a grid in the cardinal directions. The key is to memorize a couple of boundaries. Today, I know not to go further south than the BNSF railroad tracks, or further east than Highway 218. The point where they meet is where I’m headed. If I stay in-bounds, I can hardly go wrong, so even if I don’t know exactly where I am, I’m not lost.
I don’t know if the next town is a town at all, there’s no name on the water tower. It’s twelve square blocks of peace and quiet. About twenty houses with neatly-trimmed lawns. A park. Some grain bins. Daylilies. Shade trees. An old Ford Mustang in a front yard - someone’s project. There’s no post office, no gas station, no convenience store. I don’t even see a church, a cemetery or a tavern, so I can only conclude that the place is free from sin and death. That, by definition, would make it heaven. Maybe I’ll get to stay longer some day. It’s as restful a place as I can think of, but today I’m just passing through.
We humans are pretty good at finding what we’re looking for, and we can usually find it right where we are. I could make this same drive and find despair, poverty and meth labs hidden along these back roads. I could make this same drive looking for, and finding, others who are lost and count myself among them.
But that’s not what I’m looking for today. Today I want to feel at peace. The radio is off so I don’t have to listen to another pundit telling me how right they are or another activist urgently recruiting me for their righteous cause. Today, I want a sabbath from all of that.
Today I want to see goodness and beauty and life and here it is. The deep ditches are full of cattails, the shallow ones full of Queen Anne’s Lace. Red Wing Black Birds “twee” at me from their powerline perches. Red Tail Hawks glide on high. I see productive fields, and people taking it easy. This is what I’m looking for, so I’m not lost at all. On this Sunday afternoon, my wrong turn was a right turn and my mistake was correct and I am in exactly the right place.