I reached up and clicked off my headlamp. The spotlight on the rickety barn diminished, plunging the field into darkness. I knew the barn stood twenty feet or so ahead of me, but without ambient city light I couldn’t make out its sloping form. Hoping the lens was focused appropriately, I opened the shutter. Clicking my headlamp back on, I hopscotched through rows of gangly soy bean sprouts and hurdled knee-high rows of corn to the end of the field. I shone my flashlight back along the edges of the hayloft and traced the wildflowers spraying up from the base.
Nebraska City, Nebraska had beckoned because my family lives there. Visiting for the first time, we had taken a detour through Missouri before heading through Iowa to the farm town. After spotting a granary with wheat trucks lined up to unload their hauls and cruising past acres of cornfields, their rows marching into the distance off I-29, I nicknamed the trip the “Learn Where Your Food Comes From” visit.
My aunt lives outside Nebraska City, along a dusty gravel road. Each morning during my run, I’d jog past a field of grazing cattle. Sprightly calves noticed and trailed after me, their plastic ear tags rattling as they skipped along on spindly legs. Not knowing what the ruckus was about, their mothers joined. Before long, the herd of thirty was following along beside me. When they stopped short at the property line, they seemed confused about how or why they had arrived there. Farther along the road, a farmer, likely up long before I was, had mowed a hayfield and swept the stalks into large rolls. He waved from the seat of his tractor as he growled across the field collecting the rolls.
The next day, we drove into Iowa to visit Hamburg, where last year the banks of the Missouri had swelled through the small town. We visited Stoner’s Drug, a pharmacy and gift shop with an old fashioned soda fountain. Bellying up to the formica counter, we ordered ice cream sodas and malts from a kind high-school student. She dutifully scooped and fizzed our drinks, handing them to us in tall glasses with a vanilla wafer on the side.
One afternoon we toured the town, driving along the wide avenue through downtown and peering into the brick buildings that housed hardware stores, thrift shops, and beauty parlors. My aunt’s narration involved a lot of “Such and such used to be there…” It’s become a common narrative in downtowns these days—stories of what came before filling the spaces of boarded up businesses.
Standing in the darkness of the field with only fireflies for company, I basked in the quiet. This area of the country is an unassuming place where residents draw their livelihoods from the land, even as that becomes more difficult to do so. It felt as though I’d stepped into a snapshot of vintage America—a part of America so often idealized but which many of us so seldom touch.