Now that the winter winds have stopped howling across the harvested fields, and the ambient temperature has climbed reliably above that on the surface of Pluto, we who live in the Great Flyover start thinking about that most Midwestern of Springtime traditions.
No, I don’t mean drilling in the beans and corn, or getting your kitchen garden planted. I don’t mean farrowing, or lambing, or hunting morels in your favorite, secret grove. Nor do I mean cataloging the waves of Spring ephemerals that compete with the ‘shrooms for our attention when we walk in the woods. I’m not talking about adding birds to your life-list as the migrants pour through our skies headed to their northern breeding grounds, and I’m definitely not talking about dragging the lawn mower out of the spider-webby shadows of the garage, to see whether you can kick it into life for one more season (Some would say that’s not, strictly speaking, an exclusive rite of Midwestern spring, but they haven’t met a prairie lawn).
No, I’m talking about a roadtrip.
We on the prairie have been shut up inside, more or less, since Thanksgiving. We’ve watched the fast-falling snow and the faster-falling thermometer, and have tried not to entertain the notion that this year, finally, winter will decide not to leave, and will instead usher in a new Ice Age. You can only stream just so many episodes of Westworld or Orphan Black to stave off claustrophobia, and you can only play just so many games of Monopoly or Hearts on Family Game Night before your loved ones start looking at you across the game board with blood in their eyes.
The roadtrip is our go-to cure for cabin fever. Though I lack the stats to prove it, I’d be willing to bet there’s a significant uptick in the number of oil changes, tune ups, and tire-rotations that occur in Midwestern garages about the time the snowbanks start shrinking. We want to get out. We want to go somewhere. We want to go anywhere.
A roadtrip, to my mind, is the best way to get to know what’s compelling, beautiful, sui generis, about the prairie region. Our home place is like us—a bit reserved, not overly showy, warm-hearted once you get to know it. It is most itself away from the Interstate, where it yields its secrets to those who will slow down, dawdle, and pay attention.
If you follow this prescription, you’ll see unforgettable sights along our region’s roads—for instance, the seven eagles my then-wife saw roosting in a tree along the Iowa River, or the time when I was driving through Nebraska and scored a wildlife viewer’s trifecta, simultaneously seeing, from the shoulder of a state route, prairie dogs popping out of their burrows, pronghorn antelope grazing the horizon, and Sandhill cranes passing overhead. One doesn’t see such things unless one gets out and looks for them, usually by taking the least direct route. One of my colleagues at Grinnell College, Will Freeman , knows what I’m talking about. As we go to press, word has reached us of a monumental road trip that he’s planning for this summer—an expanded version of a trip he took with his twelve-year-old son some years back, which he wrote about in his book, <em>The Quest</em> . On this summer’s adventure, Will plans to drive his Morgan three-wheeler 18,000 miles—a trip during which he will visit all 48 contiguous states. I can’t think about Will’s trip without feeling a stab of envy. You can follow his adventure on his blog . So: with all this in mind, it seems appropriate to me that our Spring 2018 issue features essays on three different road trips. I hope as you read the work of Tracy Harris, Damian Johansson, and Colin Lewis-Beck, it will lift you out of whatever remains of your own winter doldrums, just as it did us, when the pieces came in over our transom.
Last modified: 7 October, 2021
Mark Baechtel received his B.A. in print journalism from The American University in Washington, DC, and his M.F.A. in fiction-writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was selected as an Iowa Arts Fellow. He has nearly 30 years of publishing experience, and is author of Shaping the Story, a textbook guide to short-story writing (Longman, 2003). He has taught at the University of Iowa, Grinnell College and various art centers, as well as working as a professional book editor. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies, nationally and internationally. He is currently polishing the stories in a collection of short fiction, titled What Moves and What Is Still, and is at work on a novel titled Renovation.