Writing to a friend the other day, I closed with this sentiment: “I love my home state.” I knew she did not feel such affection for her own. She and singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg were from the same place. When a Rolling Stone reporter asked him about his tribute song, “Illinois,” he seemed sheepish. His allegiance apparently changed once he saw more of the world. For decades, my friend has been a Californian. Maybe, she said, some places are like soul mates.
My childhood was pretty hemmed in. I was twenty by the time I saw a mountain or ocean. My family went to the same lake in Minnesota every summer, often making a side trip to Lake Itasca. The irony of splashing in the little stream that turned into the mile-wide river in my hometown escaped me as a child. It was like my family had never left on vacation, still tied by that umbilical cord.
Unlike my friend, I didn’t grow up longing to get out. Sure, I wanted my own place, my own little perfect family. The closest I came to her longing for the West Coast was my own strong desire to live in a river town, but by “river,” I meant the Mississippi.
If you ask me where I was born, I make a point of saying, “Davenport, but I lived for almost a decade in Colorado.” It seems important to establish this fact, that I’d gotten out, made a home elsewhere in a place very different from Iowa. Maybe, when I first moved back, I was showing off a bit, or feeling a little defensive. Sure, I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life, but hey, I got out for a while. Sometimes I felt like a pioneer, pulling up stakes to head west.
Now that I’ve been in Dubuque for going on twenty-seven years, I mention my geographical side trip just because it’s interesting, and it might provoke a kindred story from the person asking where I come from. Iowa and Colorado may not be the two most dissimilar states, but they come pretty close. Iowa: Big river. Colorado: Big sky. Iowa: Wild roses. Colorado: Tumbleweeds. Iowa: Flat. Colorado: Mountains.
How in the world did I end up there? One word: Marriage. Soon after our wedding reception, I packed up my Chevette so my new husband could pull it behind his Dodge back to Colorado. He was born in Michigan, coming to Davenport when his dad took a job at Bendix. We met in junior high, dated in high school, broke up in college, and somehow got back together after that. By then, he had moved to Colorado, climbed a 14,000-foot mountain, and put down solid new roots.
When we married, there was no question of settling in Iowa. Even when I produced my parents’ only grandchildren, we remained a two-day drive away. We made our home in Brighton, a small town thirty miles east of the foothills and north of Denver. Drought had turned everything dry and brown. I missed the green grass, green fields, and green trees of Iowa. My dad asked, “Is there a place out there where all you can see is corn?” I said yes, because there was, but I didn’t tell him that what grew around our town was mostly beets and onions.
Sometimes, you have to leave a place to learn how much you love it. Willa Cather is famous for writing about the Great Plains only after she left Nebraska for New York City. I understand that now. Iowa’s long twilights, soft humidity, and black earth became more dear to me by their absence. I missed the tree-lined streets, the lush parks, the comforting cemeteries punctuated with my family’s names.
I’m not saying I didn’t come to love Colorado. We could see the whole front range from our living room windows, from Pike’s Peak in the south to Wyoming up north, and if I’ve said that too many times, well, once you see it, you’ll know why. There was always snow on the peaks, and one unbearably hot day, we decided to drive up Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the continental U.S., just so we could throw snowballs in July. When divorce brought the kids and I back to Iowa, I looked back at the mountains through tears.
My kids remember little about their own native state. This saddens me, especially because my daughter has a new friend who was born near Brighton, and because my son has become, of all things, a geologist. Still, he studied geology at Iowa State, and one Christmas he gave me and his sister the priceless gift of fossils and geodes (Iowa’s state rock!) picked up on field trips in Iowa.
Maybe the only real difference is mountains vs. rivers. The eastern plains of Colorado are flat and scrubby, mostly a place for cattle and oil pumpjacks. As for those tumbleweeds, I learned that in spring, they’re covered with tiny periwinkle-blue flowers. It snows in Denver, just like here, although its proximity to the sun tends to foster melting so fast I once was startled by a fly while shoveling. I found it much easier to ride my bike in Brighton than in Dubuque. Iowa has hills; Colorado is flat until it’s vertical.
If Iowa is my geographical soul mate, maybe Colorado is a fling I took long ago. Even then, for those ten or so years, my love of Iowa hummed along, just below the surface. I have no regrets about the fling – I’ve been back three times to visit, pulled by those mountains and aspens – but I’m always happy to be back here, in the arms of the state that raised me.