Thursday, April 15, 2010


There’s nothing quite like the aroma of manure in the morning. It’s more effective than coffee at arousing you from slumber and almost twice as strong! These are just a couple of the semi-lucid thoughts that bounce around my head during my solo run down a dusty country road in the middle of July. It’s only 6:30 but the humidity is rising faster than the sun and adding to the acridity of my bovine bouquet. As I near the farm house where the scent is originating I catch my first glimpse of the putrid perpetrators. In their pen, a dozen cows stand motionless save for the slow turning of their heads in unison as I run by. The quizzical looks on their cowy faces only serve to re-enforce my growing sense that I’m a stranger in a strange land.

When I was a child, my family and I made numerous summer-time road trips to visit our relatives in America’s Heartland. And, in the summer of 2004 I decided to do the same with my own two children. 24 years had passed since I last set foot in the tiny town of Madrid, Iowa and when we drove up the only road that connected it to the Interstate, I wondered if it had changed as much as I had during that time. As it turned out, there was a very complicated answer to that deceptively simple question.

I pick up the pace a bit in an attempt outrun the smell and as I crest the rise in the road I find myself deep in yet another world. For as far as my eye can see, from my new vantage point, is row after row and field after field of sweet Iowa corn. It looks like an emerald sea of stalks and leaves interrupted only by the horizon. As a resident of the east coast, the ocean analogy is the best I can muster to describe this awesome sight. And, I wonder if someone from the Midwest seeing the Atlantic for the first time compares it to a huge blue cornfield. This thought makes me laugh as I head down the dirt road that parts this sea of green. I feel a little like a jogging Moses.

When we first arrived, the kids and I drove through downtown before heading on to my uncle’s house. From my point of view, through the windshield of our Honda Accord, things hadn’t changed much from when I was a 12 year old riding in my uncle’s late-model station wagon. Main Street and the town center looked the same as I remember it did in 1980. There weren’t any strip malls or shopping centers that have popped up like a plague in our own New England neck of the woods. However, upon closer inspection, the quintessential American small town from my childhood memory had, in fact, been radically transformed.

I jog to the end of the quiet dirt road and turn left heading back towards town. This new road is paved and flat and stretches out for miles. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me”, I think. It seems I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this run. The humidity is starting to take its toll on me and Madrid seems so far away now. I put my head down and zone out, trying to cover the distance as quickly and painlessly as possible. My “Zen-like” state is shattered by the sound of a horn and the rush of air as a side mirror whizzes past my head while attached to a truck that swerved to narrowly just miss striking me. At this point I’m not sure who’s more shocked; me, at the prospect of being killed, or the farmer behind the wheel, at the sight of a runner on the road in the middle of Iowa. I carefully continue on my way eager to finish in one piece.

When I looked more closely from the seat of our car I could see that the town was markedly different from the way I remembered it. The movie theater and roller skating rink had closed, the five & dime was boarded up and the for sale signs out numbered the few weary residents we saw trudging along the sidewalks. The town had not been altered at the hands of a greedy developer but by the gentle hand of time. Like the marks of wear and tear that were beginning to appear on my own chassis, Madrid was sadly starting to show its age.

I round the bend and head straight for the center of town as my run is thankfully nearing its exhausting conclusion. Now, from my slow moving position, I can clearly view the changes that have occurred over the last 24 years. There are a few houses that have been left vacant and are in various states of disrepair. Some are falling in on themselves. Others have been burned to the ground leaving only the skeletal remains of their foundations to show where they once stood. A few teenagers are hanging out by the convenience store and stare at me as I shuffle past. I hear one of them mutter to the others once I’ve gone by them. Something about “nice legs” and “why don’t I put on some real pants.” I try my best to ignore them, but I grow more and more upset as I near my uncle’s house. This really isn’t the same place I remember from my younger days.

When I was 12, Madrid seemed like the happiest and friendliest town on earth. Most kids my age looked forward to vacationing in Disney World, but not me. I liked Iowa. It was a real place where it seemed there was always something going on. Even if it was nothing that was happening, it felt like something when you were there. It also had real people who would do anything for a neighbor and, unlike back home, truly seemed to care if you had a “nice” day.

These thoughts of memories of the past and realities of the present cloud my head as I approach my uncle’s house. His home is the pretty one on the corner. It’s small, white and has a porch that wraps the side and front with a big ol’ swing that faces the tree-lined street. I finish my run and collapse in a heap on the front steps to stretch my sore muscles. I’m feeling sorry for myself and depressed at the loss innocence, both mine and the town’s, when my aunt appears at the screen door. But, before I can express my sadness over how everything has changed, she says, “Your breakfast is ready, Mikey. I hope you like blueberry pancakes. How was your run, dear? You look tired. Why don’t you come on in and rest awhile?” And, in that moment I realize that the even though some things are different, the things that mean the most to me have stayed more or less the same. So, as I head on in to my aunt and uncle, my kids and my big plate of flapjacks, I am reminded that some bright person once said, “You can’t go home again” and, while I do understand the sentiment, I couldn’t disagree more. I think the home of our past is there in the closing of our eyes, but the home of our present is here in the sharing of our family’s lives.

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