Today I began a journey through the middle of the country often known arrogantly as “America” but which in 2020 is more accurately, Pandemia. As I expected, the beginning of this journey seemed as nondescript as the farmland-tamed prairie of the Midwest. The strip and outlet malls beyond the Twin Cities proper gave way to towns that may sound exotic to some, Owatonna, or characteristically pioneer-settler such as Northfield or Farmington, Lakeville. And then again, Albert Lea, exotic in a settler-colonial kind of way.
As I entered Iowa, the land was very much the same. Except, if one can imagine, even more mundane. The Ames’ juxtaposed with the Des Moines’. But what really catches the eye are the highway electronic billboards crying “Mine Protects You, Yours Protects Me, Mask Up Iowa!”. I found it interesting knowing that even as late as October, Iowa’s State administration had been resisting the demand to support use of masks and social distancing to evade infection from the COVID-19 virus. To be sure, it was a welcome effort. On numerous COVID websites, Iowa has been a particularly hot “red zone” where infections have been rampant. So, you can imagine I was quite motivated to rush through Iowa opting to fill up my gas tank even at half full just inside Minnesota so that I wouldn’t have to stop in Iowa.
I was doing quite well, using a rest stop on the Minnesota border (well-fashioned to be as contactless as possible) and, well, not quite “speeding” through the state, but, you know . . . maybe.
And then, I ran into Story City. “Story City, Iowa”? Here I am traveling into a disease-ravaged land to see its history and reveal it in a story, doing my best to avoid my natural inclination to explore, and what do you know? Story City. I had to stop.
Was this some magical place for telling tales; literary cultures? An American Ireland of written traditions that somehow I had missed in my blind disdain for a state that wreaks in usurpation of the tall grass prairie for the sake of . . . .corn and soybeans? Another “field of dreams” writ into a blandness, some sort of camoflauge of dull to hide a gem of lettered splendor? It even has a carousel!
I think that probably should have given me a clue. It turns out that Story City isn’t at all about books and words that draw pictures in your head. It is named after Judge Joseph Story a supreme court justice in the mid 1800s. He is known as a conservative defender of property rights, which is deliciously odd as he is also and best known for having written the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority decision in support of the kidnapped slaves aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad.
Story City, while not a place of story, did indeed have a story.
My brief fruitless drive into the city, however, does have an interesting twist. While I was driving by Carousel Park trying to take photos from my car–I didn’t want to get out unless I could get into see the carousel, unfortunately closed, due, you know, to the pandemic–there were some children sliding on a snow bank. It was, I thought, an idyllic piece of Americana that might serve as a nice photo of the times with all the pandemicing–solitude, isolation, in the cold. But in my reverie of vicarious photo-chronicling, some parents standing by a rust-bottomed red pickup truck, a man and woman, began eyeing me. I didn’t pay it much attention as I left the parking lot. I decided to look at the same scene from a farther view across the park and turned down the street across the way slowing down to lower my window and start shooting . . . photos with my phone. And then behind me, red rust-bottomed pickup. I swerved over to let it by. . . no, it turned to come behind me. Hmm?
I decided to head out of town. Rusty Red Pickup following me onto the ramp . . . . I wondered what was happening here and began, as one might do, to think about events that led to this . . . unlooked for adventure. Did the parents think I was photographing their children? What would make them want to follow me? Was I being particularly suspicious to them? Were they people who had kidnapped kids and didn’t want to be exposed? Were they a family in some witness protection program and I inadvertently caught them on camera? As notorious RRP (Rust-Red Pickup) kept following me I envisioned all the sheriffs SUVs I’d noticed at the local truck stop by the freeway just before my little Americana jaunt into storyland would be following behind red (and white and blue) lights flashing, me spread-eagled on the hood of my silver Elantra or, you know, worse. In between the bad episode of “COPs”, I also thought, would the little-red-rust-pickup-that-could just be some Proud Boys couple enjoying playtime with their kids before they, you know, begin marching around looking for somebody they think looks like a Black Lives Matter supporter or a CDC official “forcing” them to wear masks and I just happened to fit the bill, the BLM supporter , that is, ’cause I’m pretty sure I don’t come off as the CDC. For about 30 seconds, that and the whole my past life flashing before me, filled my thoughts while, well, trying to drive the speed limit in as much a record time as I could.
Red Rusty took the next exit ramp.
Yes, my new adventure has begun. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
But then, you know, as I’m sitting here in a safe hotel room, hoping that it is indeed safe and not some virus-saturated kill box, I begin to see how stories come into their own. I’m traveling because I know I need the space to face the dangers that have often traveled with me in my life. Stories actual and the more dangerous kind, the ones perceived. I have said this journey is an odyssey, replete with sirens luring you to mental rocks that kill your chances for any happiness, trials in threading through the danger of virus particles in some human air and those equally dangerous thoughts infecting you inside your mind for feeling unworthy, monstrous, overly emotional in your desired attachments. It is a story of unlooked for adventures, real places inhabited with the ghosts of the past, and real trials in finding clarity within yourself. I am glad I’ve started now. Regret nothing about how it’s taken all this time. It is the best time. Because I’m here.
Indeed, I am begun. You can guess for yourself what’s behind the mask, a smile, a frown? Elation or great sadness? I think you know