It was a gray, melancholy morning. On the bus to work, I leaned my head against the glass and watched the streets pass, arced in autumn leaves and reflecting the lights in the wet streets. Across the aisle from me, a teenaged boy idly played with his lighter, sending a flame shooting higher and higher up the back of the seat before him, and a part of me hoped the bus would catch on fire, just for the glow of the orange flames against the wet cement.
Mornings like this always make me nostalgic. (Of course, what doesn’t?) Autumn makes me homesick, even now that I’m back in the Midwest. I get wistful, for Madison, for Grinnell, for Iowa….
Much of the time I say I’m homesick for Iowa, I actually mean the drive between Grinnell and Madison, one that I drove a million times between 1997 and 2003. I miss, with a physical ache that tugs at my chest like a lost lover or friend, the first turn on to 151 near Verona, the highway cut through rock as it sweeps through farmland, the lovely winding hills between Platteville and Dickeyville, the broad expanse of the Mississippi, the quiet towns of Monticello and Anamosa, the curve of Highway 6 around Homestead….
I don't know why this is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that every time I drove on that road, in either direction, I was on my way home. Perhaps it has to do with the least complicated version of home, and the most ideal: the promise of home, rather than the fact, whether it meant escaping the stresses of Grinnell or escaping the confines of my family, whether it meant running to my mother's cozy, comfortable house or to my dearest friends and our cozy, comfortable life. Perhaps it is because I almost always drove it alone, and in that four hour stretch had plenty of time just to be by myself, listening to my mix tapes and doing math in my head and processing whatever dramas were ongoing in my life at the moment. I planned stories and untangled paper topics and replayed lectures and analyzed every word my crush and I had exchanged at the most recent gardner show or meth house party. I listened to countless hours of National Public Radio and stopped for crappy gas station coffee and oatmeal cream pies. I watched for wildlife, saw deer and wild turkeys and raccoons and red-tailed hawks. I drove past cats slinking through the tall grasses on the sides of the highway, cows moseying along the hillsides, people on horses riding parallel to the cars.
When my grandfather died, I left Grinnell but didn’t get far before I literally had to pull the car over to the side of the road because I was crying too hard to drive. It was a spitty gray day. I put my head down on the steering wheel and wept. When I looked up, there was a red-tailed hawk sitting on a fencepost a few yards from my car. It seemed to me a symbol, a message from the world, if you will, that everything would be okay. (This is a long-held item in my personal mythology, that seeing a red-tailed hawk means that things will be Okay. Later, when I told this story to someone with whom I was terribly in love, he picked it apart and made fun of me for my magical thinking. Um… don’t do that. It doesn’t help anyone to ridicule personal myths.) Anyway, the sight of this red-tailed hawk helped me pull myself together and get back on the road. For the rest of the drive, I saw another red-tailed hawk every few miles, every single time I started to get weepy. They led me home, beads along the necklace of Highway 151.
There were other times I cried, too: driving back through the pouring rain after a disastrous weekend in Madison with my boyfriend, coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t going to make it. Leaving my dad when he was sick; driving to Madison when I knew I would leave the Midwest; pulling out of Grinnell after I’d cleaned out my apartment and given away or sold all my furniture, after Ali and I had spent hours finding just one more thing – one more thing – one last thing – that needed to be done to delay my inevitable departure.
There were times when the drive felt like getting out of jail, and times when it felt like a death sentence (my 21st birthday, Easter Sunday of our junior year, Ali and I were so desperate to postpone our return to Grinnell that we stopped at the Wal-Mart in Alamosa and felt the need to purchase a Disney princesses CD). Times when it was scary: my boyfriend and I driving home in the earliest hours of the morning, through dark, thick fog, on the long stretch of road between Alamosa and Dubuque when there’s nothing but the occasional farmhouse, and talking about the scariest movies we’d ever seen. Times when it was dangerous: an ice storm in December of 2000 which was so brutal we had to pull over every half mile to clear the windshield of ice, until we gave up and turned back. And times when, as Jennie says, it was like driving through a postcard.
Do I miss it because it was pretty? Do I miss the person I was, driving those roads? Do I miss the heady sense of freedom, the exhilaration of escape? Or do I miss the feeling that, regardless of direction, I’m on my way home?
Does it matter?
There are so many kinds of homesickness, so many instances where, indeed, you can’t go home. Grinnell as I knew it only exist in my memories; the exact confluence of buildings and students and professors will never occur again in exactly the same way. My childhood home is still there, but so many of the people I called home, in childhood and in high school, have left, have married, have grown up, have moved on. But anytime I want to, given enough time and, perhaps, some excuse for travel, I can drive that road again, I can follow those twists, the rises and dips, moving in and out of shadow. You can’t step twice into the same river, Heraclitus told us, but that doesn’t mean you can’t long to do just that. And isn’t it sweet to know that sometimes, sometimes, you can?