Tuesday, October 29, 2013


There’s nothing quite like the smell of manure in the morning.  It’s more effective than coffee at waking you from your slumber and nearly twice as strong!

These are some of the semi-lucid thoughts that bounce around my brain during a solo run down a country road in the middle of July.  It’s only 6:30am 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 a glimpse of the putrid perpetrators.  In their pen, a dozen cows stand motionless - save for the slow but synchronized turning of their heads as I run by.  The quizzical looks on their cowy faces only serve to reinforce the 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 period.  As it turned out, there was a very complicated answer to that deceptively simple question.

I pick up the pace and attempt outrun the smell. As I crest the rise in the road I find myself deep in yet another world.  For as far as my eye can see is row after row, and field after field, of sweet Iowa corn.  It looks like an emerald sea of leaves interrupted only by the horizon.  As an easterner, the ocean analogy is the best I can muster to describe this awesome sight.  And, I wonder if someone from the mid-west, upon seeing the Atlantic for the first time, compares it to a huge blue cornfield.  The thought of this makes me laugh as I head down the dusty road that parts this lush 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 this point of view, through the windshield of our Honda Accord, things hadn’t changed much from when I was 12 and riding along in my uncle’s late-model station wagon.  Main Street and the town center looked pretty much the same as it did in 1980.  There were no strip malls or shopping centers that had become an all-too-common plague upon our New England neck of the woods.  However, upon closer inspection, the quintessential small American town from my childhood 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. I begin think that I've bitten off more than I can chew with this run.  The humidity is starting to take its toll and Madrid seems so far away.  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 mirror whizzes past my head.  The mirror is attached to a truck that swerved to narrowly avoid 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 continue on my way, and eager to finish in one piece.

After looking 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 that the kids and I saw trudging along the sidewalks.  The town had not been altered at the hands of a greedy developer but by the gentle hands of time.  Not unlike the wear and tear that was appearing on my own chassis, Madrid had begun 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 much slower pace, I can clearly view the changes that have occurred over the last 24 years.  There are a few houses that are vacant or in various states of disrepair.  Others are literally falling in on themselves.   Some teenagers are hanging out by the convenience store and stare at me as I shuffle past.  I hear one of them share a joke with the others.
No doubt at my expense.  Something about “nice legs” or “real pants.”   I try my best to ignore them, but I grow even more unsettled 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 like there was always something going on. Even if it was NOTHING that was happening, it sure felt like SOMETHING when you were there.  It also had REAL people who would do anything for their neighbors and, unlike back home, truly seemed to care if you, in fact, had a “nice” day.

These memories of the past and realities of the present cloud my head as I approach Uncle Jack’s house.  His home is the pretty one on the corner.  It’s small, white and has a front porch that wraps around to the side with a big ol’ swing that faces the tree-lined street.  I finish my run and collapse in a heap on the steps, feebly attempting to stretch my sore muscles.  I’m feeling sorry for both myself and the town at our shared loss of innocence, when my aunt Louise appears at the screen door.

But, before I can express my sorrow over how everything has changed, she says, “How was your run, Mikey? You look tired. Why don’t you come on in and rest awhile, dear? Your breakfast is ready. I hope you like blueberry pancakes! ”  And, in that moment I realize that the even though some things are different, the things that mean the most have stayed more or less the same.

And, as I head on in to my aunt, my uncle, my kids and my big plate of flapjacks, I am reminded of some bright person who once said, “You can’t go home again” and, while I do understand the sentiment, I couldn’t disagree more.  I believe that 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 lives.

Aunt Louise & Uncle Jack


  1. My parents and grandparents all grew up in Iowa. I was born there and then spent 14 years in northern Missouri and another 3 in Nebraska. There is something special about the heartland. I loved spending time on my grandparents farm when I was younger!

    1. It feels like Iowa is far away from everything, but very close to something.