When Mike Drives to Madison County to See Beth
The next Friday evening found Mike on his way to Iowa again. He had gone on a whim, packed an overnight bag with some of his best clothes and left without a word to anyone. It was even a surprise to his parents when he arrived late that evening with intentions to spend the night on the way down. Beth, he had not called. He wanted to surprise her, to show up and make himself helpful, even handy if he could. He remembered from his last visit that even though she had filled some positions on the farm, so much of the work was still in the preliminary stages and Beth was doing much of it herself.
The next morning, he started making the drive into the rolling central farmlands near the juncture of two of the major highways that crossed the United States almost from coast to coast, and meeting as though for a chance encounter in the heart of the Hawkeye state. Mike exited the one he was on, Interstate 35, and took the ramp onto I-80, headed west. For a moment he took in the sensation of being at the junction of these two arteries which funneled cars, semis, pickups, and motorhomes in and out of the various organs of America: cities, towns, and geographical regions numerous and diverse, cultivated uplands, river valleys, foothills, mountains, forests, coastal plains, and deltas, each contributing the energy that transformed the raw materials of the land into the building blocks that sustained the country. All this fed the lives and ambitions of almost four-hundred million souls who lived out their existences thinking little or nothing about the great body that fueled their conveniences.
Mike left I-35, that stretch of tarmac that bridged the distance between frigid Duluth all the way to the Mexican border at Laredo. As his old Chrysler K-Car bumped itself up on to I-80 west, Mike joined a route that had its origins in New York City, and leading west from Des Moines, would briefly follow part of the route of explorers Lewis and Clark before it rose onto the arid plateau of western Wyoming, passing Salt Lake City before finishing in San Francisco. On the cusp of what he hoped was a momentous day in the journey of his own life, he took courage from the fact that his destination lay along such storied and significant routes. Could his second meeting with Beth serve as the bridge of sorts, one finally connecting the east to the west of his own life?
But Mike was a practical man. He allowed only a moment’s consideration of such notions and returned to the details of his trip. For instance, what was he going to say to Beth this time? And would he even find her at home? And, was this all a monstrous mistake? With so much to do to prepare for exams at the end of the semester, whatever was driving him to return to Beth’s farm was certainly not practical or reasonable. But maybe that was what also made this so exciting. This could go either way, west or south. Mike hoped for the west as he took the exit twenty miles beyond Des Moines that ran south through the little hamlet of Earlham, and still a little more south, fifteen more miles to Beth’s estate.
As Mike entered this locality, he passed a region of undulating fields that rolled gently between wooded boundary lines. In the early spring, the terrain was a quilt in browns, tans and other drab colors, corduroyed with the furrowed ridges of last year’s planting, fence lines and county roads further dividing the landscape into what seemed, as he passed, to be perfect squares. He knew that as the season progressed, the quilt would literally come to life in a hundred hues of green, with the texture of each crop, be it corn, soybeans or alfalfa for livestock feed, adding the impression of an artist’s brush strokes. Mist hung over the lower fields where snow still lay in protected crevasses, and the smell of newly-manured land seemed partnered with the mist, as though a prayerful incense had been offered in hopes of a good harvest in later months.
Mikes thoughts drifted to a summer long ago, when his and Beth’s families had taken a joint vacation to the beaches of Lake Michigan. He had been ten, an awkward sixth grader dreading his entry into seventh grade in the fall. Beth, a full two years older was about to enter her first year of high school. The difference between them physically had never been so dramatic. Beth well into her development, both mentally and physically, she was a good six inches taller than Mike was at that point and growing in confidence. While Beth spent much of her time reading magazines and imagining herself even older and capable of wearing the fashions depicted in her editions of ‘Teen, Mike had brought his collection of action figures, hiding them in the sand and digging them up over and over again. At that point childhood still loomed larger for him.
But that changed the day he and Beth had gone for a walk in the dunes area of the state park where some of the mountains of sand were over three hundred feet tall. They were breathless when they reached the top of their climb, and they sat in disbelief when they discovered that the dunes extended as far as they could see looking north along the tranquil, azure waters of the lake. Mike had struggled to make it to the top, his pre-adolescent legs not having developed enough yet for such exertion. But Beth had no trouble. He remembered sitting next to her breathing heavily, suddenly enamored by her strength and beauty, the flow of her chestnut hair and the tanned smoothness of her skin. From that point on, he always felt she was higher than him. They did not talk much that day, but he remembered Beth smiling at him and teasing him. Her attention, though rooted in their childhood friendship, had flattered him in a new way. He had always remember that day as the beginning of his interest in girls. Though none of the girls in his seventh grade class could hold a candle to Beth. None ever would.