The magic of Madison County
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Editor's note: The University of Iowa offers lots to do throughout the year, from arts performances to readings, and lectures to recreation. But sometimes faculty, staff, and students want to explore areas beyond campus. So University Communication and Marketing is publishing a series of "daytripper" stories, pointing to fun, interesting, and uniquely Midwestern destinations within a day's drive of Iowa City. Other stories in the series can be found here.
I knew about the covered bridges in and around Winterset, even though before this summer I had never read the book or seen the movie (both aptly named The Bridges of Madison County) that helped make them famous. I decided to flesh out a daytrip to the State Fair by visiting Winterset in Madison County, a bustling little town about 35 minutes southwest of Des Moines.
I printed out a map of where the bridges are located, brewed a half-pot of coffee, kissed my sleeping kids and wife goodbye, and got in the car at 5 a.m. My dog gave it his best to see me off but merely managed an open eye and flick of his tail. We are not early risers in the Murray family.
Just a little over two hours later, I took the DeSoto exit on I-80 about 20 miles west of I-35 and headed south towards Winterset. The map that I printed from the Madison County website got me to my first bridge with ease and with no missed turns. It had been a while since I had driven along dusty gravel roads; the clouds kicked up by my car reminded me why I like it. It’s a tangible indication of moving forward and leaving a mark, fleeting as it may be.
I’ll gladly admit: seeing that first bridge was a pretty cool thing. I got out of the car and walked around, on, and under the bridge. The air was very still, and I was the only one there. The planks of the bridge creaked a low rumble that my mind had predicted they would. There were initials, names, and dates carved into the walls, floor, and ceiling. Most of them proclaim the seemingly obligatory “I was here.” A few had hearts haphazardly etched around a pair of initials.
I spent a lot more time there than I thought I would. It was simply peaceful.
I got back in the car and traveled to three more bridges. Each trip was just like the first, and I kept trying to spy the bridges before I made it around the numerous bends in the roads.
I stopped into Winterset and was pleasantly surprised by its energy. A lot of the information I read online championed the slow pace and down-hominess of yesteryear. The architecture certainly allows for that feel, but people there are just as busy and digitally connected as the rest of us.
John Wayne was born in Winterset. I stopped into the gift shop and museum that is located next to his birthplace home. Everybody was friendly inside and offered up fun facts about Wayne without prompting. It was very busy, and as I was leaving a small pack of Harley riders pulled into the parking lot. We talked for a little bit about cameras and motorcycles.
There was one more bridge I wanted to visit, so I left Winterset—assuring myself that I would come back soon with my family.
At that last bridge, I met two women from Colorado (this was the only bridge where I saw anybody else at that day). The older of the two was taking the other, her daughter, back to college in Chicago. We talked for a while about the bridges we had visited, and they implored me to read the book and watch the movie. I promised them that I would at least watch the movie someday soon (I did, but won’t go into a review here). We bid each other safe travels, and I packed up my camera equipment to head over to the Iowa State Fair.
As I walked through the bridge, a small, folded, torn piece of notebook paper caught my eye. It was stapled to one of the beams at my eye level. In ink, someone had written a letter:
9 Aug 2013, To My Darling wife of 54 years. We had a lovely life together but you passed away 3 years ago and I will never forget you. I cry every day and will miss you forever. Your forever loving Husband, Fred
Fred included his last name as well as the city and state he lives in.
I read that letter over and over and found myself looking up repeatedly, half-expecting to see Fred walking back to his car. I did manage to call the two women from Colorado back before they got in their car and all three of us read it several more times.
Over the years, I have read (or at least have tried to read) poems that attempted to describe or define what love and loss really are, and how they affect us, ultimately fragile and temporary human beings. I can’t help but think that this letter has done that for me.
For the rest of that day, I had so many questions running through my mind. Who is Fred? Who was his wife? How did they meet? How did she die? What made him write the letter? Can I talk to Fred? If I could, what would I ask him? Why that bridge? Why on a sheet of paper that can’t possibly last for any significant amount of time? Why not etch it into the beams along with the others?
The idea of permanence, or at least what I thought the idea of permanence meant, hasn’t been the same since that day.
I think videography and photography appeal to me because deep down I get some comfort thinking that after I leave this earth and after any person who ever knew me leaves this earth, I will have left tangible artifacts of my existence. My own “I was here” etching. A photo or video of my making might be sealed in a confluence of lucky circumstances that keeps it preserved for future scientists to dig up 1,000 years from now.
(My daughter and I write to each other in a journal and put words and phrases in it specifically addressed to future scientists to try and figure out what they mean. Things like sharknado and astroturf.)
I don’t know Fred’s intentions, but I feel that his expression of love and pain to his wife in that very succinct letter is a permanent entity that can’t be eroded by time or devastation or loss of memory or whatever life throws at it. I haven’t had the courage to do it yet, but I want to meet Fred and hear his story. Selfishly, I want to record/film/photograph it and share it with others, but if I do get in touch with him, I will respect what he wants to do with his story.
With its friendly people, rolling scenery, and covered bridges etched with history, I can’t help but recommend a day trip to Winterset and Madison County. Not because you can get away from it all and experience life like it used to be in a simpler time (as a lot of the marketing might suggest), but rather because you can experience life as it exists in this moment.