Before I began my freelance work, I was an in-house writer and editor for a company that published continuing education content. On any given day, a random assortment of courses and books would cross my desk. I never knew what the day would hold.
One day, a professional engineering course showed up in my inbox to edit. These courses were often the most unexpected topics: ponds, power distribution, bridges, laws, ethics. Today, it was a course about gravel roads.
One wouldn’t think that gravel roads would be a hot topic, especially for engineers. The Federal Highway Administration, however, reported in 2012 that about 35% of America’s more than four million miles of roads were unpaved. In some states, these roads account for a large percentage of fatalities and injuries—up to 20%. There are a lot of reasons for this like, apparently, poor visibility, sharp curves, narrow lanes, not enough shoulder space, limited sight distances, obstacles and non-compliant (or no) signage. So of COURSE engineers would need to learn about how to properly build and maintain these unpaved roads.
I was flooded with memories as I read through this particular course.
I grew up in Iowa, where more than 60% of the roads are unpaved (according to the Des Moines Register). I dealt with the challenges of living with these roads and regularly traveled them to visit friends and family.
There were unpaved roads near where my mother’s sister and her family lived. I would ride along with my older cousins in their old, dusty-smelling cars. They would drive too fast over the steep hills. I would laugh, despite being a little scared, begging them to go faster. The hills’ drops would “tickle my tummy.”
I moved south over a decade ago. I’ve never really looked back. The Midwest was a different lifetime—a life that was good at times and cruel others. (Admittedly, both outcomes would be due to my own decision-making processes, which were often faulty.)
In my “bad dreams” (the word “nightmare” is too strong), I’ve found myself back in the Midwest—a place where the winters drag on and on and on. My seasonal affective disorder would rear its head. Year after year, I would plunge back into the dark depths of depression, like clockwork, in October. In my dreams, I would emphatically insist that I needed to live—and had lived—in a place where I didn’t have to deal with this nonsense. I cried, wanting to go back where the sun would shine.
This course made me confront memories and truths.
Iowa was my home—a place where the pavement would sometimes just stop, and loose rock would begin. The landscapes were dotted with red barns and tall silos. There were grain elevators in every town. Iowa was a place that could raise characters from John Wayne and Donna Reed to the mask-wielding, numbered nightmares in Slipknot.
Last year, I traveled back there for the first time in ten years. I had conflicted feelings about Iowa throughout this decade of exile. Thinking about it made me feel trapped, claustrophobic and landlocked.
It was also, however, the place where I would find myself in guided relaxation or sleep tracks when I was asked to think of a “peaceful place.” In my peace, I would envision myself in the country on a warm summer day, walking down a cow pasture path behind my cousins’ hay barn. I would walk toward the small pond where we used to swim and fish. Sun-dried cow patties dotted my path. If I walked a little farther, I would come to a wooded area. A small creek ran through these woods, which was one of the feeder sources that would later become the Skunk River. My brother and I used to play there, climbing over fallen logs, splashing around in the water or playing with Matchbox cars. In Iowa, there was nothing sweeter smelling than fresh-cut hay and clover on a summer evening.
I rented a car and drove out on these gravel roads, past the places I remembered as a child. Nothing looked the same, except for the gravel roads. The weather had been dry, so dust billowed behind the car in a plume.
I kept driving, trying to recapture the sights and smells of my youth.