I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it.
Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey”
It’s January in the middle of Iowa; you’re finding your footing on new terrain. You’re under the great open skies of the Midwest on a seventy-five acre refuge: part timberland with a small swatch of remnant prairie. For the first time in weeks, it’s one degree above freezing. The ground is partly frozen, partly thawed; partly cleared but mostly overgrown—a trail bed broken by deep, cloven prints where deer have dodged fallen branches. There are no maps to carry, no posted signage. Change is a wild locale. You’re several steps behind your guide, a colleague from your spouse’s new visiting MFA gig at Big Ag. Being here is all aspirational, part of a time-honored American tradition—get out into the wild and away from what ails you. Midlife worries, malicious code, institutional malfeasance? A whiff of fresh weather is goodbye to all that—a walk’s wishful thinking and more. Those micro-fleece boots collared with faux fur you bought back east, in a whimsy of weather panic? They signal exactly how much of a hiker you’ve been. Fields, where you hail from, are mowed and mapped with white lines for athletics.
The landscape’s a text you’re trying to thread yourself through. The route you’re tracking plummets; the trail through the tangle is marked with ribbons. Raptors shriek overhead. The land starts to slope downward; you follow a turn through dense overgrowth and start to lose pace, periodically struggling for traction. Your host for the trek, Professor Z, saunters ahead. You have a hard time wrapping your head around geological time, the fact that this “emptiness” once thrummed with herds of bison. By its nature, a space of preservation is also the footprint of everything that’s been lost. Taxonomy trips off your host’s tongue: the agro-forestry projects that spawn three species of fungus; the milkweed and meadow blossoms planted for prairie restoration; the practice of bringing students out to the property with “no agenda” other than appreciation of place—the word for which, you’ll learn, is topophilia.
Branches of thorny locust (Gleditsia tricanthos) mar the path and have to be pushed away. You draw a deep breath. The indigenous trees possess a virulent armor: barbed spikes at least a finger’s length long, reddish thorns of near biblical proportions. Your Canon Powershot Elph zooms in on a network of carmined complexities. Your spouse preps for the semester in a sunlit apartment on temporary lease, the cat curled up on a futon, your Portable Joyce splayed out on the carpet. A percolator burbles on the kitchen countertop. The brick townhouse you share in Baltimore’s suburbs is seventeen hours away. You push away thoughts of semester separations. The ideal pilgrim travels lightly—giving into the wild, leaving the village behind.
In the here and now of the walking trail, the eye is constantly drawn away from the upcoming turn to the next revelatory thing. And this is what lends the walk a welcomed atmosphere of escape. Downed trunks laced with lichen still bear the teeth prints of beavers that felled them seasons ago; they linger in the quiet, strange shrines, silent valedictions. The sun drifts behind clouds; the temperature begins to drop. Up ahead, through the denuded trees where the sound of the current rushes in, Bluff Creek—a tributary of the Des Moines River—drives its way over and under a few jagged islands of ice and worn granite stones: glacier rubble that’s been placed to bridge the banks. A campfire stained with ash anchors a small clearing—the only sign of grad students who sometimes gather here in warmer weather, notebooks or beers in hand. You snap a few panoramas, swing back to the return loop of the trail.
Thoreau famously chided his fellow citizens for being “faint-hearted crusaders” rather than free men—by which he meant that those who have said their farewells and paid their debts, can strike out with keener sense of adventure, can forget the world that is not the woods. By those standards, today’s walk is a tame stroll, not an “expedition,” and half of it, he would have quipped, is merely “retracing our steps.” But you know he isn’t quite right: to walk outdoors is to weave a path beyond the rooms you inhabit, to let headspace expand—a quiet labor of resisting modern life’s frenzied pace.
“The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also,” writes cultural environmentalist Robert Macfarlane, who holds the same view on landscape as George Eliot—that it “can enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.” Weeks will unfurl; your sabbatical coincides with your spouse’s first semester here, and together you’ll amble through arboretums, take runs on trails that pull you further on, toward the ever-visible horizon.
The day to retrace your steps comes sooner than either of you would like. Three years later, you’ll give away bookshelves, balcony stargazing chairs, kitchen counter bar stools. Plotlines unfold; a gig comes to its end. At the farewell, you’ll join your spouse and clink glasses with the grad students who’ve come to know you, too. Faculty friends will offer toasts; Professor Z will e-mail her regrets. Outside the neon-lit taco bar, Lincoln Way will be laced with snow. You’ll divest the apartment of futon, well-worn platform bed. Before you step into the small car packed to capacity, you’ll take one last look at the sky, the horizon line clear against a rare winter color—mapmaker’s blue—and snap your last few photos. It’s so beautiful, you’ll say, watching crows track above the stubble fields. The wind will gutter your breath.
But for now, in the January of your arrival, you keep up your end of the conversation, listen through the registers of Midwestern nice. I know right away when I take people out here, who will fit in, who’ll want to stay. What is a welcome; what is a test? Will you learn to read markers along the trail? Professor Z is ranging through topics, talking about apiary projects—the bees that didn’t survive the recent cold snap, how caretakers found them flash-frozen, how strange to see the swarm trapped in their imperiled, waxed abode, poised as if preparing for flight. Her Prius warms quickly as the wheels spin free of a muddy spot, the emptied hive a white blur in the rear view mirror before it vanishes in the distance.