…crossing Iowa on some train…
The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers then the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.
You do it like this, he said, dragging his knotty pinky finger through the dirt, and then like this, taking radish seeds from the package between thumb and forefinger, and then like this as he sprinkled seeds along the hollow little row he just made, and then this pinching the row closed with his thumb and forefinger, leaving a snow angel soil pattern as he went.
If it were any other time I would have glared at him wordlessly (I know how to plant radishes, dad) and he would have chuckled (message received). But dad was dying so I just listened.
In the coming days we would celebrate my niece’s wedding at the farm where dad was born and where my siblings and I were raised. It was a beautiful night. I have a video of my parents dancing in the big shed where the reception was held. My mom says jokingly to the camera, better take a look because it’s the last time you’ll see this!
It is a family wink and nod: my parents—seemingly mismatched—seen together in a way suggesting marital bliss always drew snorts of laughter from their kids and grandkids alike. Ope! You guys check it out; grandma and grandpa are sitting next to each other on the couch!
But it was of course the last time we would see them dancing together because pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. Before that summer was over, as I laid in bed with him the last day of his life, I said, dad, you know what?
He bit: what?
I love you.
And he looked at me through his bluest eyes and said the only thing I would ever expect: good.
After he died on September 4, 2018—after the visiting family and friends stuffed our fridge full of food and the garage full pop, after everyone visited my dead father laying in his casket, after they watched his four children lay the pall over it during his full-throated Catholic funeral mass, after the legion played taps and his oldest daughter stared into the dirt that would hold him for the rest of our lives—I looked at our radishes.
Them shoulda been pulled a month ago, I heard dad say. Hey Andy, why don’t you get them rotten things outta there?
I will but I gotta do this walk okay?
Silence means yes or no; the key is interpretation. I know how to read Leo Kopsa’s silences. Living or dead. In this case, it was, Yep jus’ make sure you do it when you get back.
Silence from me in return: duly noted.
But what it didn’t say is dad, I’m not sure I am coming back.
I am wearing sunglasses. I am wearing running gear though I haven’t been for a run in ages. I am crying and I cannot stop and it is okay if I just keep moving.
I head north a block and a half to where the blacktop starts and turn right. The smooth surface lasts a half block then gives way to gravel at the edge of town. I could walk to Illinois if I keep heading east. If I just keep moving, keep walking, I will be alright.
The gravel is dusty and hasn’t been shifted in a while. It hasn’t rained in a week or so. I remember it rained and rained when I first came to town a week (or was it longer?) ago, thinking I was just there to help out with dad’s upcoming appointment (which reminds me I have to cancel that when I get back to the house)—not knowing this was the end.
Just outside of town there is a house on the north side of the road and to the right a narrower gravel road that leads to an old graveyard hidden in a stand of trees behind the baseball field. I consider turning down that road. I love that graveyard. It is on one of the few small hills in our neck of the woods in Iowa where cows graze to its edges the graves shaded by tall oak trees.
I wish I could visit dad at that cemetery—not the boring flat Catholics-only one where he’s buried off the highway, fifteen miles away. Shit. I gotta move faster. The Last Day and Night are catching up with me and they are the thing I must outrun.
The September fields are mostly bare; others are ready for harvest, the stalks of corn turned from a deep summer green to brittle fall brown. I look across the field, the air thick with chaff.
A mosquito bites me on the ankle.
It is September; how are there still goddamn mosquitoes? I look at the ditches deep with grasses and wildflowers soaking at the root from last week’s rains. It’s part of Iowa’s plan to return to wildflowers and stop overmowing: give our pollinators a happy home!
My plan to keep walking forever runs into reality as I start to fry in the sun. A dog pops up just down the road. He lives at the little blue house set back thirty yards from the gravel road. He’s familiar to me because I’ve walked this way a million times.
In fact, I have run, walked, driven, and ridden this route for as long as I can remember.
This is the way to Wolf Creek park where we would camp with scads of other families when I was a kid. It was only three miles from the farm, but mom packed our air-conditioned camper with food, drink, clothes, towels, and dishes like we were moving away for good, not just the weekend. It was so big back then: a country unto itself, the creek snaking through tall grasses. We would go fishing with the other kids, our eyes peeled for the constant threat of snapping turtles, as our parents hooted, laughed, and opened beers.
When I was in 4-H, it’s where I took photos to enter into the Grundy County Fair. Dad and I got into the pickup: the blue Chevrolet Silverado with the white stripe down the side, woven polyester seats, the radio set to KDAO AM playing Marty Robbins, Dolly Parton, Kenny, or Cash. We smelled of Salem menthols and Corn Huskers brand hand lotion. Dad would start it up, adjust the radio, and I got to push in the cigarette lighter as we headed off down the road, my Kodak 100 Instamatic in my lap.
My crying starts to ease because of the dog. He’s a Golden, the kind of sweet pup that never met a stranger. He’s bouncing in and out of the tall grass and wildflowers of the ditches. He’s there one minute then poof! he’s gone, hidden by the wet tangle of happy pollinator homes, and poof! he’s back.
The dog is running toward me. His tail wagging madly back and forth with such joyful force it nearly knocks him off course. He comes with me for a while; my choking sobs settle down and I can breathe.
About a half mile down the road, my ankles twisting here and there on chunks of gravel, my dog friend turns and heads back home. I see the intersection ahead. Do I keep heading east? Illinois is about 200 miles that way, then Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, where I can finally walk into the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the Montauk lighthouse on Long Island. I hang a right and head south to Wolf Creek park. My cellphone, slick with sweat, drops out of my bra and lands on the gravel road under my feet.
The relief I felt? The somewhat normal breathing through wrenching bottomless sobs? It is gone by the time I hit the Comet trail approximately one mile down the road. Should I keep walking south to Missouri through Memphis then the long stretch of Mississippi to Louisiana where I-10 leaves the ground above the bayous toward New Orleans finally walking into the Gulf of Mexico or turn right and head west towards home?
The trail is named after our school mascot: a comet. I don’t get how a comet is intimidating. Earth hasn’t faced a celestial challenge like a comet since the dinosaurs. Maybe our mascot was a thinker. As in a comet bides its time. Threatens every 74 years to breach our atmosphere and wipe us all off the face of the Earth. Comets are master strategists: we outthink our opponents, like those bumbling Spartans from Grundy Center High School, for example.
The trail is a newcomer to the area. It used to be railroad tracks. Systems of out-of-use tracks have been ripped up across Iowa to form these biking and running trails. In winter they are used by fledgling snowshoers, snowmobilers, and some cross-country skiers.
Much of the trail is covered by a canopy of trees. After the tracks were ripped up, a layer of crushed stone was laid down and grass now mingles with the hard-packed rock. It is cool—a break from the sun on the open country road. It is like walking across a covered bridge like the ones made famous in Madison County. Birch and maple have grown up to the edge of the trail and wild tangles of ivy, trumpet vine, and even minute ferns are here, too. Red-wing blackbirds, sparrows, Eastern goldfinch, crows talk endlessly just out of sight in a bush or up ahead in a choke of overgrown jewel hydrangea.
If you are lucky you can catch a glimpse of one of these birds, but usually they are too quick; instead when you turn to look there is just an empty branch and rustle of leaves as the bird flies out of sight.
In the middle of all this shade comes a quarter-mile stretch that is open to the sky. I forget about this part of the trail all the time. That day in September it was an especially brutal awakening. My skin is burned away from the heat and beating sun and no new skin will ever grow back now that dad is dead. I am heaving and crying again. I feel the muscles of my limbs tighten like sending in reinforcements to hold my core together and upright; the tendons in my neck are taught in a silent wail.
I start to beg.
I beg for relief from the pain of my dad being dead, the physical and emotional pain, and I just beg for something…and then!
There I see it. But what is it? My face is covered with snot and wet and I am wiping it away like a wild woman. There is something just up there where the trees pick back up and I am so hot maybe I am seeing things?
A tree ahead moves with intention of its own volition. Orange flecks appear here and there—berries or flowers, maybe?—as it moves like a child hula-hooping for the very first time. I see them first in the air and I think there are just a few butterflies near that sentient tree.
But the tree isn’t a tree. It’s monarchs.
They are dripping from the upper limbs of a walnut tree, coating vines circling up bushes and round again, butterfly stalactites and stalagmites moving together, and I am swept up in the vortex. They are surrounding my eyes wide to the heavens. This is what I asked for—dad!
When I get back to the house I cannot wait to tell mom and my sisters that I had just been visited by dad, witnessed a miracle, that monarch tornado—sent just for me!
Mom: Oh yah they do that every year.
Mom: Yup they migrate through here like that every year.
I didn’t know monarchs migrated. I didn’t know monarch numbers were dwindling a number of years ago—so much so that conservation efforts were undertaken: give our pollinators happy homes!
I was just beginning to understand: I know absolutely fucking nothing.