Full of Wide Open Spaces

Annelisa Leinbach_Full of Wide Open Spaces 2
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

My roommate is from the City — which means she’s from New York City, and which, when you say it that way, means that you aren’t from there. On the second day in the dorms we showed each other the places we still call home. On Google Maps, blurry New Yorkers hurry their way out of the corners of the crisp image of her Harlem brownstone. But the address I type in keeps pending and the “street view,” when it finally loads, isn’t a street at all, just dirt and pixelation. This is what Iowa means to Google.

But it’s not where I’m from.

7 Glencrest Dr., Iowa City, IA, is a gray wedding cake house with a mowed lawn and seasonally appropriate flower arrangements. There is earth stamped deep into the kitchen floorboards and every room offers its occupants an excess of places to sit. If you zoom in close enough, there is a girl inside who always picks the prickly velvet couch. She loves the craft basement stocked with years of accumulated pistachio shells, back issues of Martha Stewart Living, and hand-sewn Halloween costumes. From the front stoop, she watches her barking dogs send wild turkeys jerking back into the woods, and when the sky turns yellow, she watches the tornadoes come.

Her family takes road trips across flat horizons to see relatives who bring lemon squares to potlucks and put out specialized bird feeders. She used to love riding a red Schwinn, but it was finally stolen after years of getting left out front. At night, she walks barefoot on endless sidewalks through still neighborhoods, and in the soft light of lone headlights, she almost always feels safe.

In some ways, this is a map of Iowa, but in other directions the state stretches for miles and miles and she would make a terrible tour guide. Who can really say which parts of this girl with baby-fine hair and dark circles under light brown eyes are Iowan, and how much of her I brought with me?

It’s funny that the moment when you become from somewhere is the moment when you leave it — you will never again be part of that place the way you would have if you’d stayed. But there are other moments I can’t quite pin down, like every time I left city limits and entered the same suspended scene.

It only takes five minutes for the road to crumble to gravel and the world to be reduced to a single lateral plane, one vast expanse of rolling hills and rising cornstalks. The air bites like a crisp apple and fills up a sky so big and blue that you feel dizzy and philosophical if you look at it long enough. Barns sit in various stages of dilapidation next to brand-new tractors and cows I’d call middle-aged if I had to guess. My dad and I used to ride our bikes out here. He still does, whizzing past slow-growing rows and gently changing leaves.

The serenity in this space between towns is a little too quiet — full of what is unsaid: inches of black topsoil stripped from fallow land that can’t grow corn without imported chemicals and foreign oil anymore. Factory farms cannibalize family plots, and the families that do still farm raise kids who would rather be doctors. These kids take longer and longer bus rides to the last schools that haven’t shut down. Hardly anyone touches the curves of the earth anymore. Maybe they miss it, but all they have to say about the farmland is that it’s “flat” or “dry this year.”

Iowans will stop and chat with anyone about the weather or Hawkeye football, but almost everything else stays nicely unsaid. We’re unused to visitors, and we don’t relate to people in designer suits with nice haircuts. Almost half of our state legislators are not college-educated, and they work as postmen and elementary school teachers when the legislature isn’t in session. We’re amused when presidents roll up their shirtsleeves and pretend to love bratwurst — they call the door-to-door strategy that wins in Iowa “retail politics,” but we know we can’t be bought and we’ll vote for your opponent if you try. All we want is someone talking to us plain.

Iowans are shaped by emptiness and mowed lawns in the way New Yorkers are shaped by tall buildings. We grew into the people we were at the moment, in June of 2008, that the Iowa River swelled to six feet above its banks and we had nothing with which to stop the flood but sandbags.

You helped, if you could — stepping over half-submerged caution tape after you got off work.  Everywhere you went there were entire Amish families in little assembly lines, with little girls in long skirts and bonnets holding big shovels in small hands, outmuscling men but never meeting their eyes. They worked by little old ladies with gardening muscles, and by men who are used to rolling up their sleeves. Volunteer moms coordinated home-cooked meals for the displaced. At times, there were more people than could fit around the sand pile, all scooping and knotting and passing, sweating through their T-shirts and chatting more than usual with the people next to them. No one mentioned the futility.

These nameless people in this forgotten disaster are our hometown heroes. So when my friend Zach Wahls gave an impassioned speech to the Iowa Legislature in support of gay marriage in our state — and then a few days later it had been seen by more than 17 million people on YouTube, we were proud, of course. But we were also a little surprised at all the fuss. And we wondered what he had done, really, except talk. When he got a book deal and was interviewed by Jon Stewart and spoke at the DNC about marriage equality for his mothers, we were excited, of course. But we hoped it wouldn’t go to his head.

The Iowans with big names, all the ones who think they might be important — they leave. The people that stay are like my best friend Katherine Valde, who wrote in her eighth-grade journal that she dreamed of going to the University of Iowa because she could probably get a scholarship and she’d be close enough to go home on weekends — and although she might go to Harvard for law school, she would end up at a small law firm back in Coralville, Iowa with a house in the suburbs and two kids in public school. You’d have to Google her to find out she’s been interviewed by The Washington Post and CNN for her leadership in the Iowa Democratic Party. Even when she’s old enough though, she won’t run for office, because that would be too much.

I didn’t tell these people I applied to Yale. When I decided to go, my friends raised their eyebrows and reassured me that I’d find someone like me. My mom, accepted to Stanford and educated at Ripon College in Wisconsin, was startled that people smiled at her when we arrived on campus.

Most Iowans would never think to come here. They have more modest aims, and their connections are mostly with each other. They are small under the big sky.

Though they will always be my neighbors, I have many other stops to make on my way home. In the end, it won’t really matter when or how often I make it back — I came from a place that is paced for years of slow growing up, not weekend visits or touristy vacations. The road trips, the sandbags, the rows of corn and the lined-up driveways — those are where I’m from, even though I left.

You can’t Google that.

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