Friday, August 12, 2011

One Year in Iowa: A Brief Look Back

I am rushing out the door to the Iowa State Fair this morning. Seems I am always rushing these days between the demands of the Pitchfork Pie Stand, my ongoing book edits (one more round to go), entertaining a steady stream of house guests, and caring for my two dogs. How I've managed to create such a hectic life in such a small, quiet town, I'm still trying to figure out. The fact is, I've been so busy it only just occurred to me today that I have now been in Iowa exactly one full year. And what a strange, long -- but good -- year it's been.

Last August I packed up my MINI Cooper and left all my belongings in storage in Portland, where I had been living, and drove to L.A., where I was planning to return to and live after my cross-country jaunt to Iowa to judge pies at the state fair. My mom had already been apartment hunting for me in her beachfront neighborhood. But as we all know, life often (never?) goes according to our plans.

From the moment I crossed the Iowa state line I felt little nubs sprout from under my feet. I didn't know it at the time, but they were roots. I was born and raised in Iowa, left at 17 (even graduating early from high school to "get the hell out of here"), and have lived all over the U.S., let alone the world, ever since. (My dad still complains about how many pages I've taken up in his address book.) I hadn't visited Iowa in five years, and that was only for a two-day weekend for my 25th high school reunion. But last August, with the sun shining, the puffy clouds all white and picturesque dotting the blue sky, and the fragrant scent of pig manure permeating the air, I was filled with a sense of groundedness and calm I hadn't felt since before Marcus died (which, in case you're not keeping track the way I do, will be two years ago one week from today).

I spent 12 days at the state fair, lured in by all its vibrancy and wonder. I ogled over giant-size everything from sci-fi-esque farm implements to 1,500-pound pumpkins to the "Big Boar" weighing in at 1,200 pounds. I ate my way around the fair grounds sampling foods from peppermint ice cream bars to juicy watermelon to plump and smoky corn dogs to pork chops on a stick (my personal favorite). And, of course, there was the pie.

I had come back to Iowa to be a pie judge at the fair, "As research," I insisted, "for my pie TV show." (It can be a little difficult for Californians to understand why anyone would willingly travel to the Midwest.) For 12 days I sampled pie of every flavor and texture. Some of it was good, some of it was inedible, and some of it was off-the-charts memorable (like Lana Ross' French Silk Pie). Either way, it was a whole lot of pie.

After the fair, I took a small road trip to the southeast corner of the state, to the city of Ottumwa, to visit my birthplace. I ate lunch at the Canteen in the Alley, drove all over the town (pop. 25,000) snapping photos of my childhood home, my grade school (Horace Mann), my grandparents' house, my dad's old dental office, and more. It was a nostalgia-filled day, one that while I was still mired in grief over Marcus, helped to soothe my soul.

From Ottumwa, I was en route to Fairfield when I happened upon the road sign for the American Gothic House. It was a fork in the road, one that I obviously took, one that unknowingly would alter the course of my life.

When I left the West Coast for Iowa, I had no idea I would not be returning to L.A., that I would simply call up a moving company and have them deliver my furniture without me having to go back. And when I rented the cute little 130-year-old famous farmhouse, I had no idea what the rest of the year would bring -- a book deal, a completed manuscript, a successful little pie stand, a slew of national press, new friends, an array of cultural experiences, a heart that has healed (mostly), and, get this, the promise of new love! (More on that later...let's just say Match.com didn't disappoint after all.)

Today, one year later, I am, incredulously, still here in Iowa. My roots are still growing and burrowing their little nubs deeper and deeper into the fertile soil. My life is richer and fuller now -- and, surprisingly, busier now -- than I ever could have dreamed. What a difference a year makes.

And with that, I better fire up the engine of my MINI. I have a 90-minute drive to the fair grounds and some peach pie to judge.