Searching for the Midwest Passage

So I helped my uncle work cattle in North Face boots the other day. It wasn’t until after, as I stood at a hydrant pivoting awkwardly and trying to hose the fresh layer of cow shit off my feet that I realized something. When I purchased these boots, this wasn’t what I had in mind. I had never seen a North Face ad featuring an even remotely similar scene. The signage in the footwear section at Sportsmans Ski Haus in Whitefish Mountain Mall didn’t attempt to promote the boots based on superior dung repellency. Even in Montana such usage hadn’t been foreseen. Instead they were touted for their sufficient insulation and negative forty degree rating. I bought them as a measure against the often harsh elements endured while working the lifts on Big Mountain, never suspecting that their durability would be further tested a few years later against Iowa barnyard slop.
Of course, stores here do carry a wide line of footwear intended for such a purpose. If not directly marketed, then certainly implied. Being firmly planted back in the heartland for over two years now you would think I might own such a thing (I certainly have in the past.) It was then that, standing there in regionally challenged attire and trying to avoid the splatters, an epiphany occurred. My life right now is sort of a paradox. At least at times and in part I’m torn between two worlds. There’s the existence here that I grew up with and have come to live again, and then the other. The life of outdoor adventure I discovered and cherished, in Montana and on the trail.
Let me step back and briefly tell the story of how I left Iowa, and ultimately came to return. After my initial stint in college and several road trips with friends, I developed an addiction to the mountains and a desire to see another side of life. In 2001, I pulled up stakes and moved to Whitefish, Montana, telling everyone at home it would only be for a little while. Iowa was just that; home, and I wasn’t looking to make a permanent move. I wanted to experience a new place and see new things. Some said that I’d fall in love with things out there and not come back. I didn’t pay them much mind. I felt in my heart that I would find my way home.
In the years that followed I did fall in love. I fell in love with Montana. I fell in love with Whitefish. I fell in love with long distance hiking, and traveled all over the country following that pursuit. God, I loved that. And I fell in love with a girl. I met Cris while hiking through Yosemite National Park on the Pacific Crest Trail, and a few months later all of my new loves joined in unison as she moved to be with me in Whitefish. Through it all, though, I maintained my loyalty to Iowa. I never faltered from the belief that in the big picture, this is where I wanted to raise a family and settle down. Someday.
Apparently I made mention of this somewhere along the way. Somehow, be it the fondness with which I spoke of my birthplace or thoughts of progressing toward that big picture, Cris developed an affinity for Iowa as well. She took a chance in applying for grad school at the University of Iowa, and being the genius that she is, got in. It was a good opportunity, too good to pass up, but brought some difficult decisions. At approximately the same time, I had been accepted into the journalism school at the University of Montana. I was deeply entrenched in mountain life, and now struggled with the prospect of leaving it behind. Sure, I figured I’d head back to the Midwest someday; but didn’t feel anywhere near ready yet. Long distance hikers, we now opted for a long distance relationship. I moved Cris to Iowa in June of 2009, left her in the loving care of my family, and made my way back to Montana’s big sky. The plan was to spend the summer and fall in Whitefish then move to Missoula and enroll for spring term. Life could determine where things would go from there.
Three months later, truck loaded to the gills, I pulled into Iowa City in the middle of a hot August night. My love for Montana was strong, but that for Cris proved stronger. (All together now… oohhhhh…) It didn’t take long for me to put my mountain man ego aside and realize that with her is where I needed to be. And so here we are. Two and a half years after and a fresh set of rings. We’re relatively happy in Iowa, but are we set to stay?
You see, once you’ve experienced certain places, they get in your blood. Be it the laid back manners of a western ski town or the freedom of traveling thousands of miles along a wilderness trail, new worlds are opened that can’t easily be left behind. Even when you have, they continue to haunt you. They pull at you, call to you, remind you that there’s another side. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Iowa farm boy or a California city girl; once you’ve known those wide open places, things are never quite the same.
This is meant in no way to be a slight against Iowa. Like I say, Cris and I are happy here. We’re focused on moving forward in our education and professional lives, and grateful to be surrounded by wonderful family and friends. However, in the absence of certain opportunities we both acknowledge the sense of a strengthening void. While living in Whitefish, we were treated to daily (fog jokes aside) views of Big Mountain. On a winter’s night you could look up and watch the groomers meticulously working the slopes. Here we look across the cornfield and see the flashing strobes from Matthews Memorial airport. Out there you could drive forty five minutes and be in Glacier National Park. The same commute from our current home provides access to Lake Macbride. It’s nice and all, but there’s no Highline Trail. And as if the area immediately surrounding Montana’s Flathead Valley didn’t offer enough adventure for a life time and more, a good half days drive can get you to places like Banff, or Yellowstone. From here, six hours in a car will put you ‘round about Omaha. Ever seen the stockyards?
Which brings us full circle, back to our conversation concerning cow pies and Gore-tex boots. Like I say, life here can sometimes evoke a sense of limbo. Cris and I go back and forth. We see the advantages of Iowa, yet miss the experiences of Montana. It’s the difference between having hearts fond with contentment or those racing with wonder. It’s a foundation of deep roots against proximity to that which is truly wild. Big picture plans have come within question, and once again we’re leaving it to life to determine where we should be.
For the immediate future (though not so immediate according to those little voices that keep calling) we’re going to be staying here in Iowa. I have a year of school left, and my academic junkie of a wife wants to go back for her second masters, in addition to a couple more years of licensure requirements. We have plans to start a family (though that can’t come soon enough according to those not so little voices of our mothers that keep calling!) and this will certainly take precedence in where things lead.
So in the meantime, how can someone quell that longing for wild endeavors that seem to make a daily resurrection? No, seriously, I’m asking. It’s not rhetorical. How? For the love of God, HOW?
Okay, maybe I do have some ideas. Cris seems better suited, or better adjusted in accepting all of this. She misses hiking, she misses the mountains, but she’s patient and confident those times will return. I’m the one that gets all fidgety; frustrated as I traipse around barnyards and such. One thing I’ve found that does help, and will continue to be a focus of my attention, is trying to reconnect with the natural side of Iowa. Don’t kid yourself, and don’t be offended if you live here, but there is little that could be considered true wilderness in Iowa. There are tracts of forest, limestone bluffs, a few trout streams and small plots of remnant prairie, but come on; it’s not the Bob Marshall. That’s not to say it’s not beautiful, though.
I have long said that Iowa has a subtle beauty. It may not be as easily appreciated as an idyllic mountain setting, but for those willing to look, it is certainly there. My goal for as long as I’m here, rather a couple of years or the rest of my life, is going to be to rediscover and build that appreciation. Also, through my writing and photography, I hope to inspire and pass this appreciation along to others. Just maybe there will be experiences in this familiar old place to get hearts racing with wonder again after all.
Rather searching for the wild side of Iowa can ever bridge the gap between these worlds I’ve known is yet to be seen. It’s a good place, and we still have a few years to figure that out. However, one thing was clear as I stood next to that hydrant watching the manure wash away…

At least I hadn’t worn my trail runners.

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