“The Loess Hills”
By James Robert Smith
My son and I were driving back east after two weeks in SouthDakota and Montana. We had already ferried my wife to the airport in SiouxFalls so that she could fly back home ahead of us while we pulled the traveltrailer across most of the country.
That same day my son and I were on the Interstate cruisingalong, not necessarily enjoying the scenery in Iowa, but findingit interesting all the same. We were driving through a section called the LoessHills. As I drove and as my son sat I did what I always do because I have readtoo much and have a big mouth. I explained to him about the geological originsof those damned hills, so he had to sit there and listen to me explain aboutcontinental glaciers and rock flour and vast deserts of soil beingtossed aloft and carried hundreds, even thousands of miles by westerlyprevailing winds to be deposited in layers two hundred feet thick and nowrevealed as plateaus and hills made of fertile dirt without a rock in sight.
To our left as we drove relentlessly east was a big verdantgreen wall, the tremendously rich soil delivered in the wake of theglaciers, fertilized by millennia of colonizing grasslands and enriched by thedung of hundreds of millions of roving bison and extinct giants like mammoths,mastodons, camels, horses, and countless other creatures long sinceexterminated by the indigenous peoples of North America.
Blah blah blah.
It was getting late and we really needed to find a state orcounty park where we could pull in, hook up the trailer, and get a good, quietnight’s sleep. The sun was still in the sky, but it never helps to linger oversuch concerns. We did not want to have to pull into an Interstate rest area fora noisy night adjacent to some rattling semi with its generator running to feedthe demands of a freezer. Nor were we attracted to the idea of an eveningparked in a shopping center or hospital trying to get a few hours of rest.
The GPS device I was using could detect no county parks. Wecouldn’t even find a private campground that was not cheek by jowl with the howlingInterstate. “Screw it,” said I, and took the next exit, aiming our truck/traveltrailer rig for the looming wall of those loess hills of which I had read somuch but never seen. We were going to climb to the top of that giant mound offertility and find a campsite in a nice park and be done with it.
The truck pulled us up–200 vertical feet to the top. Italmost felt like we were climbing the foothills of the Appalachians, but notquite. In short order the engine stopped laboring and we were on the summit ofthis vast, undulating, emerald barrier that stood above the plains below, thebig Interstate highway appearing as a beige ribbon on the flatlands. We couldn’teven hear the whine of those tens of thousands of tires.
After climbing those slopes we expected to see itdropping off on the other side. Not so. The loess had been deposited not like atall set of hills, but rather like a fantastic plateau of richness that stretchedon to the horizon. We had merely been introduced to it by way of its leadingedge. There we were, atop the sweetest stack of grass-friendly soil on thecontinent. Wonderful dirt that had birthed vast, almost unending vistas of wheat andalfalfa and maize that had fed and fueled the invading swarms of Europeans since thisfrontier had been wrested from the native peoples through murder anddeprivation.
These were thoughts that tickled along the corridors of mybrain but which I decided not to inflict upon my son. Instead, I asked him tosee if he had cell phone service and could locate us a park while I drove. Hetried, but had no luck.
At the next intersection I hung a hard right, taking usfurther east, paralleling the big federal highway hidden to us by trees andgiant fields of green corn growing as high as that elephant’s eye, as promisedto us by Oscar Hammerstein. (Or was he talking about wheat?)
“What are we going to do now?” Andy asked.
“I’m just going to drive until we see a sign for a statepark or a county park with camping. Then we’ll pull in and rent a space.” Itwas a sure thing, a piece of cake, a walk in the park.
We drove on. No parks. We passed by lots of farms. Almosteveryone seemed to be growing corn, but we saw other crops, too; all of itridiculously green in the August sun, those fields bursting with vitality.
“Try your phone again, or ask the GPS if it can locate apark.” Andy did that, but no luck.
We pushed on. Not through the big muddy, but along anidyllic two-lane state road, emerald to our left, gorgeous green to our right.
Soon, it was crowding six o’clock, about the time when moststate and county parks were closing their offices and sending everyone home forthe night. Occasionally we passed a pickup truck or a big sedan, or they passedus. People, but no parks.
“It might be the rest area for us tonight,” my son finallysaid, foreseeing defeat.
“Maybe not,” I told him. We had just passed a city limitssign. Another small burg on this interminable hilltop of farms and fields,trees and cornstalks. Maybe they had a park or a private campground.
I slowed down. The town came out of the green to meet us. Wesaw houses off to the right and left. They were like something out of Ozzie andHarriet. We saw a mom and pop grocery. And a malt shop as we slowed to meet thespeed limit of 25 miles per hour. A malt shop. Such as you’d see in an Archiecomic book.
“Look at this place,” Andy said.
“Uh huh,” I nodded. The town was small. What we sometimescall a postage stamp town. One street light where we caught the red and had tostop. It was quiet. We saw a group of kids, their blonde hair shaved in similarcrew cuts. I swear to Almighty God, they were wearing crew cuts. Flat tops.Three of the kids were riding Stingray bikes. I shit you not. One of them wavedto us as they passed. Yeah. Blue eyes and perfect teeth.
The light changed and I pulled forward. There were fiveteenage girls walking past the local grocery store. They were wearing sundresses. Fine hair, all of them in pony tails. One of the girls was wearing aribbon in her hair about the same color as the blue sky in spring after therains have fallen for the season and the soil is just beginning to give up someof its hoarded wealth to those endless rows of corn.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Place looks like it stopped aging in 1958,” Andy told me,enough of those old TV shows under his belt to know what he was talking about.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked him.
“Yeah. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
So I hung a right at the very next state highwayintersection and we were once more moving at 65 miles per hour, the tires onthe truck singing that drone as we headed to dark where I knew I would pullinto a rest area and snag four hours of sleep, my travel trailer vibrating fromthe powerful rumble of some generator growling away to power a refrigeratortruck.
It seemed better than risking our fading luck in that littlebit of blonde, blue-eyed weirdness up on the hill. Because something told us itwas not a dream, but the alternative.