The following is a piece I wrote recently for a Magazine and Feature Writing class at the University of Iowa. It was one of those “introduce yourself to the class” sort of story assignments (literally, “What’s your story?… in 500-700 words.”) The professor seemed to like it, but commented that he saw it as having more literary than magazine potential.
I can see his point, and am considering reworking it and possibly submitting to some literary reviews, but would like more feedback. What works, what doesn’t, etc. If anyone would like to share their thoughts either in the comments below, on my facebook page, or by private message, I would be extremely appreciative.
And if you just want to read the story and move on with your life, that’s cool too. Those of you who read some of my earliar blog posts will notice that this builds from a topic I wrote about in my “Searching for the Midwest Passage” post from January. I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m down on Iowa, because I’m not. This is just an ongoing internal conflict that seems to surface aggresively from time to time, and writing is a way to cope.
Enough said. Here it is…
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, a little voice was telling me that this was not the time to stop and stare. At any cost, I needed to press on. But arriving at this vantage; to look up, view the icy ridgeline and those ominous peaks towering overhead, I couldn’t resist the urge to halt dead in my tracks and carefully survey the scene. Footing was stable from my current position, but as I eyed the rocky trail ahead, just above snowline, past lessons reminded there would be peril in every step. It wouldn’t take much elevation gain; seven, maybe eight feet, and I’d be stepping into another world. I was ready for that. Each quickening heartbeat begged that I move closer to that ridge.
Drawing a deep breath, I glanced back toward my hiking partner. She met my gaze with a precautionary nod, and then returned her attention to the sage colored cardigan held in her hand. Fluorescent lights flickered above and wire hangers scraped as a middle aged woman rifled through an Eddie Bauer merchandise rack nearby. The atmosphere percolated a nauseating concoction of elevator music, cheap perfume and neon signs; further augmented by the clamor of screaming children and Saturday afternoon commotion emanating from the mall corridor outside. An ambiance blunt in contrast to the black and white mountain-scape mural which had captured my focus from its position above the dressing room door.
“Anything I can help you with?” asked an approaching cashier.
“Yeah,” I thought. “Tell me how to get back there…”
Declining politely, I refrained from troubling the young girl with my dilemma. She probably didn’t even know where “there” was. Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I didn’t. If I had never left Iowa to begin with, maybe I wouldn’t understand how it feels to traverse such catwalk like ridges; sensing the updraft of air and marveling at the view of a valley thousands of feet below. Perhaps then my soul wouldn’t know the anguished irony of now whiling away an afternoon in this Midwestern mall.
I had left, though. While at the time I said it would only be for a little while, I left my native Iowa in 2001 and set out to experience new adventure beneath Montana’s big sky. I found work at a ski resort and fell in unconditional love with being a ski bum and the daily reverie of mountain lifestyle. I also took up hiking, and for the first time in my life came to know true wilderness. I learned what it meant to climb mountains; to physically feel the jagged rocks beneath your feet and the joy of earning vistas most would never see. I discovered what it meant to walk through wild places; the adrenaline inducing yet ultimately humbling sensory overload that comes when a single wildlife track declares you are no longer on top of the food chain. As years passed I traveled all across the country, logging thousands of miles by foot. Every winter I would go back to Montana, delaying my proposed homecoming a little further each time.
It wasn’t until my eventual wife, the one now holding the cardigan, was accepted into grad school at the University of Iowa that it became clear it was time to come home. She really was my hiking partner. We’d met in 2007 in Yosemite National Park while attempting a complete trek of the Pacific Crest Trail. Our courtship had consisted of over a thousand miles walking side by side. She’d also known wilderness, though apparently it didn’t exempt her from distraction by a half priced sweater.
And so I press on. My story is one of a returning student living in a world of emotional limbo. It’s been two years since my wife and I chose to return to Iowa and resume our educations. We’re happy here. Glad to be back around family and to be working toward improved opportunities in professional life. Yet there’s always this haunting reminder of passions Iowa can’t fulfill. Settling in here was always intended; but it’s not so easy now with knowledge of life on the other side.