The Heartland

The other weekend I took a road trip to visit my grandma. To start, I drove straight west on Highway 7 for two hours, then southwest for another two. I hadn't made this particular trip by myself maybe ever, and for a while I lost myself in my college CDs, the open windows, the sunshine highlighting the tops of hills and the bellies of little crooked streams. We'd had days and days of rain, so the land was lush.

It didn't take long, though, maybe an hour west of Minneapolis, before I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of farms. Grain, dairy, turkey--they spread out on each side of the highway, patchwork squares extending into the horizon. Flyover Country.

I did not grow up on a farm. My grandmother did, in Iowa. Two of my cousins did, in Pipestone. A few of my high school friends did: Elisha, Robyn, Mary Jo.

But, no. What many easterners and westerners might think about the heartland--everyone tied somehow to a barn and a silo--isn't true, at least not true for most of us, not anymore. My family bought milk from the store. We didn't have a cellar. There were no fences to mend or cows that got out or dinner bells to ring. Waking up for chores at five a.m. was something I only heard about, like a war story, and on those below-zero winter mornings, I thanked the Lord that I was a businessman's daughter.

Still, I am a child of this region, and though the intricacies of farms and farmers are unfamiliar to me, I've watched the fields every season of my life, always aware of the height of the corn. 

So that morning it felt like a betrayal, a jibe against something I should have admired, when I found myself admitting that the acres of farms I was passing were not beautiful. What was aesthetic about a flat square of soil? About box-shaped homes? About yards filled with implements and old tractors and ramshackle sheds? There was not landscaping; there was function. An elbow of sturdy oak woods left to stand as a windbreak on the northwest side of the house. Lilac bushes, tall and wrangly, along the highway for some semblance of privacy. Worn tractor tires turned over next to doorsteps and filled with dirt, sprigs of basil and chives growing inside. A mousing cat waiting at the end of a gravel driveway with no ears.

Surely it's because of such images that some leave for mountains, for vast oceans, for cosmopolitan high-rises that do not, for all their height, overlook one plot of uncultivated land. I can understand that. We live in a time where we have every right and ability to choose the view from our windows. To follow our hearts.

I, for one, have always chased beauty. My desire to travel, to experience every faraway corner of the world is so strong, that it often drives my husband crazy and leaves me anxious for all I have not seen, for all I might never see, as time does not stop, as I keep getting older, as the rains keep falling and the sea levels keep rising and the islands keep sinking into places beyond my reach. There are moments when I am hyper-aware of all that I’m missing.

But then in the midst of those thoughts, in the midst of a morning drive west through farmland, I crested the smallest possible hill on the quietest stretch of highway in the most unassuming part of the Midwest, and a black calf was in the middle of the road one hundred yards ahead, just standing there under the wide sky, skinny-legged and unsure, glancing toward the fence he’d squeezed through.

I stopped the car. I got out. I walked a few steps toward him, a corn field on my left, a corn field on my right. Clouds were rolling in, tinting the land. I kneeled on the pavement. The grasses swished in the ditches. Birds called from fence posts. And we looked at each other, he and I, for a long time.

This essay was also published on


  1. Love this. Great visual! I love road trips, in fact I am getting ready to go in July to Colorado...solo. Lots of time to reflect on life. Lots of time to meet new friends like calves, chickens, coyotes, biker dudes, and the occasional dragonfly.

  2. Wow, now I feel like I know about 100% more about you than I did before I read this piece. Exquisitely well written. My favorite sentence, and one that will stay with me for a long time, "I hadn't made this particular trip by myself maybe ever, and for a while I lost myself in my college CDs, the open windows, the sunshine highlighting the tops of hills and the bellies of little crooked streams.", sets the tone and puts all of your readers exactly where you intended.

    This writing so honest and refreshing, and somehow shows the personal passage of time and changing attitudes that opens up the world to all of us as we get just a little bit older.

    Simply wonderful!

  3. ND: I love road trips, too. There is something about that consistent movement forward that allows ones mind to move forward too, or back, or sideways, or--most rewardingly--inward. Good luck on your cross-country trek! Sounds wonderful.

    Bill: Thanks, as always, for your kind comments. Maybe you thought I'd grown up on a farm? :) I sometimes wish I did, actually. Although the ones I passed tended to lack aesthetic appeal, they're still places of wonder for me and draw me in in other ways. So much land! So much to learn! And I think I'd like raising a few chickens...

    You're right, though--the older I get, the more honest I'm able to be with myself about what I do and don't value, and why.

  4. Beautifully written! I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, just a few hours south of you. Family in Minnesota (Mankato, the Cities, Fairmont). I know the feeling of wanting the leave the "drabness" of that landscape. Funny thing, though. We lived in New Mexico for awhile and when I visited back, it looked.....exotic. It was green, and we lived in desert. Even the soybeans and corn caught my eye. I guess it all has its own beauty, but sometimes we have to go away for awhile to see.

    Keep it up!


  5. Hi Randy -- Thanks so much for your comment and for stopping by. I love the blog you and Nadia have begun. Beautiful words and photography.

    I also appreciate your insight about going away and coming back. I remember on a return flight from dusty Texas a few years ago, I felt washed by all the green when we approached MSP. It's so easy to take for granted the landscape that is most familiar to us, isn't it? I'll do my best to see the field out my windows today as "exotic." :)


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