Walking through Iowa; reading through Europe

Goals to keep mind and body fresh.

Shoes & BookI’ve set two goals for myself this winter: one walking and one reading. In just the first few weeks of the year, I’ve found some interesting links to these goals, beyond the fact that I do them at the same time.

  • My walking goal is to traverse the diagonal distance of Iowa, from the southwest corner to the northeast. A map taped to the wall offers a ready reference for logging my miles and noting the towns I figuratively pass through as I take to the treadmill.
  • My reading goal, as I shared in another post, is to read 10 works of historical fiction in 2014 as part of the historical fiction challenge. That’s in addition to all the other books I know will pass through my hands this year.

I began my trek in Hamburg, the southwestern most town in Iowa. According to the 2010 census, Hamburg’s population was 1,187. This little town was nearly wiped off the map in 2011 when the Missouri River breached the levee protecting the area. Despite great adversity, the people and their town survived.

It’s interesting (to me at least) that Hamburg is named for Hamburg, Germany, since the book I was reading at this point was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Set in Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who lives near Berlin during WWII. This child and her foster parents face great adversity as they risk their lives to befriend a Jew they hide in their basement. The book explores the ability of books to feed the soul.

Since leaving Hamburg (Iowa), I’ve traversed almost 50 miles, passing through towns I’ve never heard of – Essex – and some I have heard of but never visited – Shenandoah and Red Oak.

Coincidentally, I “walked” through Shenandoah at the time Phil Everly passed away. Phil and his brother, Don, grew up in Shenandoah from early childhood through early high school. They sang with their father on local radio station KMA before going on to achieve fame as The Everly Brothers.

Walking at 3.8 miles/hour, I can read comfortably and have completed several books, including:

  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. My choice for our book club to read this month, this novel took me to the coast of England to search for fossils with two nineteenth century women whose discoveries upset the scientific and religious worlds of the day. I found this book noteworthy because the author had a unique way to describe characters. One “leads with her eyes,” another “leads with her hands,” another “leads with her chin.”  As soon as I read this descriptor, I realized I know people like this. I admire authors who trigger that spark of recognition in readers in an unusual way.
  • The Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. This book about a lesser known part of American history, when some 250,000 children were taken by train from east coast cities to find homes in rural areas, drew me in because I have a thread on the Orphan Trains in my upcoming novel, Go Away Home. This is the one book I’ve read so far this year set in the United States.
  • Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, by Jennifer Worth. The sequel to the book that is the basis for the the PBS series, this book caused me to consider the scope of creative non-fiction.  Worth was a nurse midwife in London after WWII.  Her life experience and writing are fully engaging. I do wonder, though, if it is appropriate to categorize much of this second book as memoir since several of the stories were not about things that happened to Worth or that she saw personally. Terrific stories, though, and a powerful look at a difficult time in English history.

As I continue to walk, I’ve crossed the Channel to France where I’m on a gastronomical journey with Julia Child in her memoir, My Life in France. She is making me very hungry. 

Sharing goals helps ensure I stick to them. So, I’ll share updates of my reading and walking musings from time to time. If you’d like to chime in on books you’re reading or places you’re traveling or goals you’ve set for the year, I’d love to hear from you.

The value of a fresh look at writing? Priceless

Bryce Canyon, Utah - Arch

Bryce Canyon, Utah

A fresh read of a manuscript points out all kinds of problems: flat characters, scenes that though beautifully written go nowhere, leaps in logic that were clear to me in the writing but not to a reader. A fresh location can also inspire a fresh look.

A few weeks ago, I met my writing partner Mary Gottschalk in Moab, Utah, for what has become an annual tradition – a week devoted to our writing. 

I’ve written about retreats before, but I was particularly excited about this one. Having given the full manuscript for my work in progress, All She Ever Wanted, to Mary for a complete, start-to-finish read, my goal for the week was to fill in the holes and trim the fat she saw on this read through. She didn’t disappoint. Her critique offered both big picture and fine-tuning feedback.

Reading with clear eyes, she found sections that could be eliminated entirely or reduced to a line or two of backstory. With her comments in hand, I set about hacking entire scenes. Once I embraced the idea of eliminating anything that didn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, I found other scenes that were surprisingly easy to send to the cutting room floor.

But it wasn’t all about cutting. In the course of the week, a character who started off as a minor player at a holiday party took on a major role. By the end of the week, Harley was challenging my heroine Liddie to grow up, speak up, and face the reality of how quickly gossip can travel. To accommodate this troublemaker, I wrote new scenes and changed the tone of others.

In addition, I fleshed out the historical setting, adding richness of detail to the story skeleton, based on research I’d been doing. The war in Europe (WWI) had a broader impact on the U.S. than I’d realized it did, years before the U.S. sent troops into battle in 1917. Every American was being taught economy. Women were called to eschew foreign labels in their clothes and buy American. Clothing designs took on military influences.

At the beginning of the week, I hoped to be able to respond to Mary’s comments on the first half of my manuscript. What an adrenaline rush to find that I could tackle the entire manuscript. By the time we were driving back home, I could visualize having my manuscript ready to put in the hands of beta readers by the end of April.

A fresh look and a week with focus let me take some very big steps in that direction.

A memoir told in geology

Bryce Canyon, Utah, Hoodoos

Bryce Canyon, Utah, Hoodoos

A drive through the southwest United States invariably inspires my interest in geology. The seismic power of uplifts reveals sheer walls of stone. The layers of red, white, green rock tell of eons of floods, the arrival of shell fish, the retreat of water. The progress of the earth’s development is stripped bare and we see both pain and beauty in this brilliant and honest memoir.

In the past few days, I’ve visited the canyons of southern Utah, where wind and water have created some of the most amazing land formations one is likely to see on earth. Even the pictures I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.

Hoodoos are columns of weathered rock shaped by the wind and rain over thousands of years. Layers of softer and harder sedimentary rock cause the erosion to shape the spires into infinitely varied shapes limited only by your imagination. You might see Abraham Lincoln, Medieval castles, Cleopatra on her throne, or Casper the Friendly Ghost. An overlook called Inspiration Point provided a view of thousands of hoodoos in tight formation reminding me of the soldiers in the famous Terracotta Army in China.

The alluvial fan on the left is beginning to birth new hoodoos.

The alluvial fan on the left is beginning to birth new hoodoos.

A park ranger shared pictures of some of the hoodoos taken 60 years ago and pictures of those same hoodoos taken in the past year. Erosion has taken its toll. Eventually the spires will be too weak to support themselves and they’ll crumple to dust. The erosion is steady and significant. The rim of the canyon erodes at the rate of 1 to 4 feet each 100 years.

This made me a little sad, as reading memoirs sometimes does. What would be here for future generations, I wondered.  The ranger offered hope. As the erosion continues, new hoodoos emerge out of the alluvial fans.  If you look closely at the left side of the picture, you can see it happening. Today’s hoodoo soldiers will fade away to be replaced by the new recruits of the future.

Timing is everything

Saguaro cactus and a carpet of yellow, Mexican poppies.

Saguaro cactus and a carpet of yellow, Mexican poppies.

With so many things in life, timing matters. In my experience, that’s never more true than when it comes to seeing the wonders of nature. My travels this week have brought me to the desert southwest and Phoenix, Arizona.

I’ve enjoyed Arizona’s deserts many times over the years, visiting family and friends or on business. But in all these years, I’ve never seen the desert in bloom. That is both a matter of good timing and the right weather. This week my timing was spot on.

Desert blooms, Lake Pleasant, Arizona

The yellow overpowered the more subtle, yet equally beautiful, lilac and purple blooms.

Last week it snowed in Arizona, even in Phoenix. This week the desert took advantage of that moisture added to earlier rains to put out a spectacular display of color. Sweeps of yellow Mexican poppies; delicate spires of purple flowers that looked to be in the Lobelia family, tiny lilac colored stars.

Yesterday, my friend Carol and I hiked near Lake Pleasant, though hiking is somewhat of a misnomer for our walk, which was constantly interrupted by my exclamations about how spectacular the flowers were and the innumerable stops to take pictures.

Desert booms, saguaro cactus, Lake Pleasant, Arizona

A carpet of flowers covered the desert floor.

As an Iowa girl, I’m very fond of green, but the desert has its own beauty. And never more so than when the flowers bloom.

Have you seen the desert in bloom? Have you experienced a moment of very good timing? Please take a moment and share your story.

Profiles in teenage courage

"Harriet Tubman" by Jane DeDecker

“Harriet Tubman” by Jane DeDecker

Could I have been so brave? That’s the question I found myself asking yesterday as my travels took me to the Clinton Presidential Library, to sculptures like this one of Civil War abolitionist Harriet Tubman along the Little Rock riverfront, and finally to Little Rock Central High School.

In 1957, nine black teenagers, dubbed “The Little Rock Nine,” stood up – stood against – segregation to attend previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. The naivete they operated under on the first day they showed up for classes was soon erased as the angry crowds that met them each morning became increasingly hostile and the National Guard troops present in the first days were replaced by ill-prepared and frightened city police.

Yet they continued to brave the gauntlet, never faltering, never letting anyone see them cry. They feared for their lives and yet they continued to show up. Only when President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Army with bayonets fixed did those teenagers begin to feel safe again. And even then, their fight was far from over.

The Old Testament of the Bible includes the book of “Esther,” which is the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen to a powerful king. While she is queen, the king is convinced to give the order to kill all the Jews. Esther’s uncle tells her she must go to the king and convince him not to carry out the order. But Esther fears for her life. If she goes to the king when he hasn’t called her, she could be killed. (Harsh, yes, but that was the law.)

Esther’s uncle says to her: “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14 New International Version)

The bravery of these black teenagers in 1957 astounds me. Times were such that if they had chosen not to walk the gauntlet in Little Rock, it is likely that someone else would have eventually done it – just as Esther’s uncle advised her. But also like Esther, the Little Rock Nine were there at a time and a place in our history when they could step up and make a difference. They looked hatred in the face, and they kept moving forward.

Children if you are tired, keep going.
If you’re hungry, keep going.
If you’re scared, keep going.
If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
— Harriet Tubman


A high-class problem

The Hare - Crystal Bridges Museum

The Hare – Crystal Bridges Museum

If you could choose to do anything, what would you do? That’s a question life coaches ask to encourage their clients to explore where their passion really lies. What would make them the most happy/satisfied/fulfilled. It’s not an easy question to answer.

In a limited way, I’m exploring that question this month as I take a week to drive from Iowa to Utah for a writing retreat. Though I’ve often traveled alone on business, I’ve never made such a long driving trip on my own. I found the prospect hugely exciting and also challenging.  Every step of the way, I would decide – what, when, where, how. In other words, I have to know myself.

Rather than take the direct route west, I elected to head south for Arkansas – the only state I’d never had occasion to visit.  Now that I’m here, I have to say, I don’t know what took me so long. The land is beautiful, the people friendly, there are far more things to see and do than I can accomplish in the two days I’ve allotted.

Yesterday morning I spent wandering the trails of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, enjoying both natural and man-made art, relaxing on stone benches where I could appreciate both a bronze bear and spring temperatures that promised flowers soon, wandering off the paved trails to follow meandering trails with flagstones banked to test the skill of bikers and to make me think I was walking the Yellow Brick Road. When I finally wandered inside the museum, I found a wonderful collection that I spent only an hour or so exploring. Not nearly enough time, but after soaking in so much beauty outdoors, I found myself less interested in what hung inside.

I went back outside to my car to think about this while I ate lunch. As I ate, I unfolded a map over my steering wheel, dug out a variety of flyers from the welcome center, and considered my options. Return to the museum refreshed by lunch? Go back into history and visit the  Pea Ridge Civil War National Park? Search out the artist conclave at Eureka Springs? I could do anything. But, what?

At that moment, a man returned to his truck parked next to my car. When he got in, he opened his windows just as I had. It was a beautiful day. He looked over and asked, “Would you happen to be lost?”

“Oh, no,” I answered. “I’m just thinking about where I may go next.”

He laughed. “That’s a high class problem to have!”

“Yes,” I responded. “I guess it is.”

New California weight loss plan

An Edith Ann moment.

Remember Edith Ann, the little girl in the great big rocking chair played by Lily Tomlin on Laugh In? Yesterday I got to be Edith Ann. Or at least I got to sit in a very big chair and feel very much like a child.

A friend and I were driving down Arnold Drive south of Glen Ellen, California, and we passed this really big chair. I couldn’t resist. I whipped the car around and we went back. How often do you get a chance to sit in a chair like this?

Before that day, I’d been feeling as though I needed to lose some weight. Now I realize I don’t really need to lose weight. I just need to get really big furniture!

In honor of one of my favorite comediennes, here’s a clip of Edith Ann.

What is it about BIG?

The Biggest Pumpkin – Iowa State Fair 2012

Big things fascinate me. Maybe that’s true of most of us. The biggest anything is almost always a draw. At the Iowa State Fair, the Biggest (fill in the blank) will always have a line of people waiting to see or take pictures.

After ogling big tomatoes and big horses and big pumpkins at the Fair, my husband and I took a drive to western Iowa last week. The primary goal of this trip was to see in person all the things in that part of the state that I’d written about for The Iowan magazine but had not yet seen. Along the way we saw some things we hadn’t expected to see. Some really BIG things.

Albert the Bull – Audubon, Iowa

Albert the Bull, for instance. Albert is the biggest bull in the world, standing 30 ft. tall, weighing 45 tons, requiring 65 gallons of paint to cover. Definitely bigger than the Big Bull at the State Fair. Albert draws people to Audubon, just north of I-80

The 50-ft. tall Molecule Man is visible from both I-80 and I-29 in Council Bluffs. The 33,000 lb. sculpture by artist Jonathan Borofsky is part of an ambitious public art project transforming the Council Bluffs landscape. There are only three other Molecule Man sculptures in the world and they stand in Berlin, Germany, Los Angeles, CA, and Yorkshire, England. I guess I don’t know if these are the Biggest Men in the world, but they have to be right up there. Certainly the biggest men in Iowa.

Molecule Man – Council Bluffs, Iowa

We saw other big things on this trip. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, for instance. It is not the biggest bridge, but it is the longest pedestrian bridge, a 3,000 ft. span, across the Missouri River, and connecting two states – Iowa and Nebraska. Impressive. And fun to walk across.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – Council Bluffs & Omaha

Most often we stand there, shaking our heads in amazement and asking, “How’d they do that?”  The making and installing of these works of art – whether pumpkin or bull or stainless steel men or bridges – are fascinating stories. Worth a drive. Worth a picture. Great for tourism.

We’re heading west later this year and plan to see more really big things both man made and nature made, including the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.

We expect to be amazed.

What price freedom?

An armored vehicle guards the government buildings in Lima, Peru

Four years ago, I toured Lima, Peru. When our group stepped into a square bordered by government buildings, a school and shops, I was surprised to see armored tanks at each corner of the plaza, with soldiers manning the machine guns. Just as surprising was that the public went about its business seemingly oblivious to the military presence.

Our guide explained that not all that long ago Peru had been all but taken over by terrorists. Peruvians were afraid to say anything for fear of reprisal, even though they knew who the bad guys were. It was only when the terrorists left a car bomb in an area of residential high rise buildings, timing the explosion to occur when the greatest loss of life would be women and children, that the citizens of Peru said, ‘Enough!’

From then on, the bad guys were singled out and reported, time and again. Gradually, the rule of law prevailed. The people of Peru regained their country, but not without a cost to their personal freedoms.

For instance, Peruvians can speak freely. They can hold demonstrations. We saw a group exercising this freedom. But our guide said that should the demonstrators move toward this government square, in moments, heavily armed soldiers would be shoulder to shoulder to block them.

I was reminded of this on Saturday when Iowans held a veterans parade recognizing and honoring all the men and women who have served and are serving our country in the armed forces. 

MRAP in front of the Des Moines Capital

At one point an MRAP – Mine Resistant Ambush Protected – vehicle rolled by. Right in front of the Capital. Where demonstrators gather regularly on the steps and in the parking lots to make their voices heard. To complain. To argue. To cheer.

When I saw this armored vehicle and the others that followed it, I couldn’t help but think about what our lives would be like if we saw tanks and soldiers on our home streets every day. Not as part of a parade, but because the threat was so great they were our only chance at safety.

I lean liberal. I believe our rights, our privacy, are precious. And we should do what we can to retain these rights. But seeing the situation in Peru gave me serious pause. I wondered what freedoms I would be willing to give up? And what would it take to move me to that point?

We are more blessed than we know here in the United States. As I watched the men and women who serve our country in the armed forces, I found myself struggling time and again with tears. I am so proud of them. I am so grateful to them.

Finding what’s new. Staying fresh.

National Balloon Classic
Photo by Ward & Diane Roscoe

I was born and raised in Iowa and have spent (I hope) most of my life in a reasonably aware state. So you might think that in the past 60+ years I’d have seen or heard about most of what my home state has to offer. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

I am reminded of this every two months as I set off to find stories to write about for The Iowan magazine. As I research and write, I learn so many new things, and I learn so many new things about old things.

For the just published July/August issue, I learned that:

  • There is a tug of war between Le Claire, Iowa, and Port Byron, Illinois, that shuts down the Mississippi River. That’s right, Tugfest uses a 2,400-ft., 680 lb. rope to close down one of the world’s major waterways.
  • Iowa wineries invite customers to help harvest grapes. After a day working in the vines at Two Saints Winery VIPs (Very Important Pickers) enjoy a glass of wine and watch the just-picked grapes be skinned and crushed. Valuable labor for the winery. A fun day for the customers.
  • Hot air balloon pilots are licensed and regulated by the FAA. At the National Balloon Classic held in Indianola, aeronauts compete in races using the layers of air at different altitudes to make their balloons go up and down quickly. The most peaceful, serene races ever.
  • For 130 years, stonecutters at Rowat Cut Stone in Des Moines have cut and fabricated stone for 90% of the municipal buildings in Des Moines and surrounding states. They still work out of their original building, a couple of blocks from the Iowa Capital building.
  • The Lincoln Highway celebrates 100 years in 1913 and hundreds of Model Ts will cross the state next year in a commemorative ride to celebrate this first road that crossed the entire U.S.

As an Iowan and a writer, I don’t think I could have stumbled into a more perfect assignment. While I write my novel – a project that has spanned years – these assignments for The Iowan fulfill my need to see a writing project completed. Since the stories of interesting people doing interesting things in my home state appear to be endless, every two months I have a chance to say, “Wow! I didn’t know that! That is so cool. And it’s Iowa!”

It’s easy to get in a rut. To take the same route to work. To go to the same events every year. To get stale. I’ve found the assignment that keeps recharging my batteries. I’m curious how you stay fresh? Leave a note, I’d like to hear from you.