People often ask if I get lonely. I must admit I don’t, not really. I’ve been traveling alone so long that it feels natural, it’s become normal. As a kid, often grounded in my room, I spent a lot of time in solitude. I learned to like being with myself; there was peace and comfort in it. These feelings were reinforced last year in the desert where I understood I’m not alone, not ever.
Even now, certain longings I chalk up to nostalgia. There are things I miss. I miss Cuba, the aromas, the guitar chords drifting through decayed alleys, the exuberance of a humid night circled by cigar smoke and the taste of mojito. I miss Cambodia, the ruins at dusk, the candle-lit monks, the twisted roots and magic. I miss Haiti, its desperation and danger and beauty, its commitment to life, and death…full-throttle. I miss skiing, the snow, and being absolutely in tune with the mountain. But people somehow, I carry with me. They’re as close and retrievable as memory. I cannot explain, but they are more present to me than place.
Iowa I spent on my own. There were possibilities for home stays, dinners, warm-showers, and clean sheets to sleep in. But I found myself preferring the farmland, the company of lady-bugs which seemed especially interested in the hair on my arms, the dewy mornings enveloped by a shimmering world, entirely new, the fields glittering gold oceans.
Small river towns like Bonaparte and Bentonsport drew me in for strolls over cracked sidewalks, past untended streets signs. Gas-stations lured me with glazed donuts and people who shared what they knew about the road ahead. They pointed me toward Edon, which held the little house made famous by Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic”, of a bespectacled farmer in overalls with a pitchfork, and his wife (the farmer not really a farmer but the painter’s dentist, and the wife actually the painter’s sister, both living several hundred miles away). I got my picture taken in front of the house.
Gas-station tips also led me to Ottumwa and the state’s best loose-beef sandwich, basically a sloppy-joe’s without the sauce. Old Glenn Hupp sat across from me in a baseball cap, and reckoned he’d been eating there for close to 70 years. The staff recommended a malted milkshake at the even more venerable Graham’s down the road. By dusk I was in pretty Pella, a village containing Danish windmills amid flowers, and the nicest Walmart so far, obviously acquiescing to strict local building codes.
I’d seen a lot of covered bridges in my travels and dared not miss the country’s most famous in Madison County. The weather was perfect and the water under them shallow and cool. The bridges surrounded Winterset, a town with an imposing square and agreeable shops. It’s also the home of John Wayne, and a broad public park where I had lunch.
I zoomed through Des Moines just to see it, took a few pictures and continued on to Cedar Rapids, nearly running out of gas. The gauge got lower and lower, and I shook my head wondering why I often found myself in this situation, knowing it’s a form of laziness, but choosing to see it as optimism– there must be something within range ahead. There was; but someday my luck will run out.
I pulled off the highway, aiming for the Amana colonies, early German settlements arranged together to sustain culture and trade, housing silos and barns and stores full of crafts, cheeses, and local wines. I sat on a wooden swing, quietly watching the day end, the merchants closing their doors framed by yellow, yellow trees.
WiFi is where McDonald’s is; I have my routine: I roll in with my backpack, containing two laptops, and tangled computer cords. I look for an outlet. Newer McDonald’s, some even with couches and fireplaces, have a few outlets scattered on the walls. But most have only one, often near the soda machines. I stake my claim by it, leaving my pack, and then out of guilt and convenience, patronize their menu with the same order every time, a six piece chicken nuggets, a side of ranch, a milk, a cheeseburger, and a cup for water. I consider the soggy pickles, ketchup, and smattering of onions, as my vegetables. Tasks accomplished, food consumed, and depending on the time of day, I’d look for a park to work out in, or Walmart to sleep in.
Cedar Rapids offered an excellent taco dog and a nice art museum. Although I was nearly out of money, I splurged on the second movie of the trip, The Master, but kept my wallet folded against the popcorn and milkduds. Jaoquin Phoenix deserves an Oscar.
I was never into baseball, but respected the mystique of the game and the Americana that infused it. So I made a pilgrimage to the “Field of Dreams” on the way to Dubuque. The grass was perfectly green, the diamond well-kept; I had it all to myself. I reclined in the outfield walled by corn, under the bluest of skies. Dragonflies in pairs darted low over the grass like small blue helicopters, camouflaged and drifting upwards until they were lost in the sun.
In Dubuque I rode an elevator-car up a steep incline for a view of the Mississippi, and ambled the streets to find a bookstore which would part the last of my money from me. There’s a series of sculptures by the river, an aquarium I didn’t visit, and the oldest church in Iowa; its famous Tiffany stained-glass windows colored my skin.
Back in Cedar Rapids, I picked up trash at Shawnee Park for a few hours, figuring I’d get some exercise by doing lunges as I retrieved each scrap. A maintenance man waved as he drove by on a lawn-mower, some cars pulled in, thought better, and parked somewhere else. It’s been easy to find solitude in parks, people, families especially, tend to give my van and its unshaved occupant a wide berth.
I had some soap-bubbles left over from summer, so I released them into the air, the day glinting across their surfaces in tiny rainbows. The opposite of dragonflies, the bubbles floated up like a balloons, visible even at a distance, swirling on the lazy thermals until they were distinctly separate and on their own.
Fall is here, and I’m thinking about making a break for Alaska before it’s too dark, and too cold. Maybe I’ll drive up to Minneapolis and catch a flight from there, or maybe I’ll wait till I get to California, some months from now. I don’t know yet. But tonight I’m at a McDonald’s and have vowed to eat healthier (starting tomorrow). I’ll finish this up and look for a safe spot to sleep near the Minnesota border. The Chief will carry me, he’s my companion, made from metal and nuts and bolts, his red-carpeted interior my cocoon. We’ll course through the corn-fields in the moonlight together, and at some point I’ll get out and sit in the silent wind under the starry sky, solitary, but not alone.