by: Scotte Burns
Sunshine changes the world under your nose. There’s one kind of smell from pavement right after it rains, and a slightly different one when the sun heats it to a muggy steam afterward. Freshly mowed grass becomes muskier under the sun’s blanket, pine forests sharper in its embrace. On a motorcycle, immersion in the land’s constantly changing hues, from roadside to horizon, is inevitably chased by these shifting aromas, the speed of light being a bit faster than the speed of smell. And so, as we dove and crested blue-line highways through the pillowy hills of Iowa farmland between Council Bluffs and Des Moines, clouds burned away from the face of the sun, encouraging freshly tilled fields, wildflowers, and sheep farms to vie for dominance in color and scent.
Reveling in those constantly evolving senses as our bikes rumbled through the curves amid oceans of trees, lost in the deep green rustling of summer, I imagined their glory when donning their fall coats. New corn in the fields nodded its agreement, waving tiny arms just inches above the soil, but promising to be “knee-high by Fourth of July,” another year’s bounty by the time the trees turn their red and gold faces to the autumn sun. In this frame of mind, every turn and hill became a promise of renewal. Gratitude and wonder are inevitable when earth, or even just the little piece of it called Iowa, offers up so many possibilities for life and purpose and beauty.
Nearing Winterset, birthplace of John Wayne, we passed yet another rusting hulk of yesterday’s farm machinery, sitting like a Midwestern palace lion at the foot of a dirt drive. An American flag flew proudly from the cab of the old, stripped combine, waving back at the farmhouses up the road, a reminder that this abundance, this promise of plenty, is the product of many labors of love. Rising with the sun that strokes this countryside, generations pour their hearts and lives into feeding a nation, caring for this land, and leaving a legacy of faith and sweat and hard-earned wisdom. The family names on the mailboxes as we ride down Iowa’s (and Kansas’s, and Georgia’s, and Idaho’s) small-town Main Streets are repeated on the shop signs in town, in the farm names painted on the sides of pickups, and on the headstones in the cemeteries by the churches. Just as the change of seasons promises an unbroken cycle of growth, plenty, sleep, and rebirth, the people of America’s heartland quietly go about keeping their own promises of hope and renewal over generations.
On one wall of my parents’ home hangs a photograph of my grandfather walking past the old tree behind his farmhouse near Troy, Missouri. In the frame, surrounded by cattle, he seems a part of the land as much as the grasses and birds and that old, solid tree itself. His figure fades into morning fog as he walks down the hill past the old chicken coop and toward the barn. On my summer visits, I saw him take that walk many times. Not until much later in life did I come to appreciate the everyday miracle that walk represented, every dawn a mutual promise with the land—to sweat and bleed, weep, worry, love, and laugh on that soil each day, and in return, it offered to grow and nourish and provide God’s promise of plenty for those who help themselves, amen. And when hail, bugs, bad markets, or illness stood in the way of that promise, he must have had to do the only thing he still could to keep it. Take that walk again and keep his side of the bargain. Even now, long after he and Gramma have moved on to the greenest fields of all, and the old barn rests, unused, a landscape feature for the houses and condos that sprouted from the old farm as the city crept ever nearer, that walk, and the resolve it held, remain in the memories and lives that followed him. Though trees and grampas and farms eventually pass, that love remains forever with us, the legacy of a promise kept.
I thought of Grampa today, as the folded lands of the Iowa countryside rolled past, and I heard an echo of his laughter as we slowly passed a father teaching his son to drive a tractor, the old beast kicking as the boy popped the clutch and rocked the flatbed trailer it pulled. Dad barely held on. Parenting is like that sometimes, on the farm and off, I suppose. But there was a continuity to it all that made me smile as we edged around the two of them and picked up speed, the sun peeking out again and raising the humus of the freshly tilled and seeded land. On that farm, and the ones all around it, were more promises made and kept. Grampa would understand, and if there’s work to be done in Heaven, he’s probably still up every dawn and getting to it.
In the joy and memory of all the farms we’ve visited or passed on the Love in America road, waving at other grampas and dads, grammas and moms, sons and daughters of the heartland, I wonder if some folks think it’s called that just because of its geography, resting in the breast of the body we call America. But to ride through this country’s back roads and blue-line highways is to course through her arteries. Shaking the hands of the people who call those lands home, you can feel America’s pulse, hear the beat that gives the land that name. And if you ask them to tell you what love means out here, they’ll likely just smile, wipe the sweat from their brow, and tell you:
It means keeping your promises.
Scotte Burns’ writing has appeared in OnStage Magazine, Westword, Black Hills Pioneer, The Rocky Mountain News, The GNU Journal, and Nth Degree sci-fi/fantasy magazine. A longtime English/Literature teacher, he has had a varied career, including adventures as a long-distance motorcycle rider, a Renaissance festival swordsman, photographer/videographer, music business consultant, songwriter, and musician. With his wife, Burns hosts Love in America, a podcast devoted to inspiring listeners through tales of love discovered on the road and in American history and culture. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from National University, La Jolla. See more at: http://www.loveinamerica.us/