Flatlanders: The Loess Hills of Iowa

A good deal of the interior of the nation is flat lands where roads are long thin straight lines. The flat of it all can summon in many a sense of fear and the oppression of endless sky and boredom from lack of engagement.  At times in this pantheon of geological wonders there crop up some distinct natural features that give some resting place for the eye.  Nature may offer subtle gifts to ponder.  Hillocks, creeks, shade thrown by an elder tree out in a field.  This allows the rest of the range to be then better appreciated, measured and understood.  In an entirely flat land, it is hard to get one’s bearings.  Travel must then be based on other elements, much as out in the open ocean one must use coordinates of sun, moon, and stars.  The flats of muddy Mississippi to the prairie leading past Denver up to the rising spikes of the mountains are of soil that is distinct to the area and formed by those same glacial forces that pushed and shoveled the northeast.
To a New England Yankee of sorts, the flat landscape is alien. To see for miles at a time is strange, and at times the beauty is of a mild quality.  There is no sun drifting behind a mountain range, or the rock cliffs and ledges of a gorge or a waterfall are lost out in a country of horizons, of distant lines and boundless and featureless sky in all directions.  It is perhaps not a wonder that the more stoic nations of Europe provided the people to settle these western lands who could more immediately appreciate the features and not look for the brash and brazen showmanship of the rocky mountains, the coquettish harlequinism of the Hudson Valley sunsets, or brazen showiness of Grand Canyons.  People who are not agoraphobic certainly.  People who were ready to brave a landscape where there was no place to hide.  No glens, hollows, cliffs, caves, gaps, cloves, ravines, canyons, or other spaces where one may shelter from the blowing wind and driving snow.  When the wind blows across the prairie, it is endless and drives onward.
There is a bias in this Great and Storied Nation to flat lands and those who dwell there.  I remember a long ago time when a girl from the mountains of Maine referred to those, not of the mountains as “Flatlanders.”  Flatlanders, in this definition, was closer in meaning to the expression “city people” since the mountains were those of Maine and the flatland that of Long Island.  I would propose, however, that Flatlanders would be those who live in what is otherwise called “the fly over,” those states of the Union that grow shit, make stuff, and you can see a sunset light up the sky and a cluster of truck stops from miles away. Many of these places are where friends and colleagues “come from.”
Many people in our coasts have “come from” those flatlands and worked hard to escape the towns and byways of their youth.  There are always those who don’t fit in where they were born, and while a lower number may escape to the hinterlands, the states of the interior are the butt of jokes for many of the coastals.  The discourse is somewhat lopsided today.  Media has drained out of these interior lands as newspapers closed merged or fled and today media rests in pools and webs on the east and west coast.  The old presses of the heartland have shuttered for the most part so there are few venues of exchange that may promote or defend the flatlands as once they did.
In some areas of these flyover states, there are surprising features that arise.  The flowing and darkly rich fields of Iowa give way to a series of hills called the Loess Hills from a soil distinct to the interior.  These hills, as many of the features of northern North America, was formed by the ice age.  While some mountains and valleys were formed by the scrape of massive sheets of ice, the Loess Hills are the result of blowing dust.  This dust was the result of grinding rocks, smashed and powdered stones and that was then blown by the cold, cruel winds.  For centuries this dust was blown into shifting dunes.  These dunes were shaped and reshaped that crossed the landscape and for some reason, known only to geologists, settled into forms then cut by the Missouri River.
The Loess Hills run in piles cut into bluffs by wind and water.  In and out of these hills run dusty farm roads connecting one set of hills to another.  Towns are small and for the most part, are dismantled into a collection of unused buildings and broken equipment.  These dots on the map have strange names like Ute, Oto, Pisgah.  Off the paved roads, the fine particulates don’t provide the solid clay roads of New England that then turn into muddy butter in the rain.


At the top of one hill was a platform and a memorial naming the spot, “The Spot.”  I would imagine that for a place where flat rolling ground provided even a small hill, it would then make sense to build an observation platform as strange as it may seem for those who live in more mountainous regions. The hills were brown as while warmer than normal it was still late winter.  After taking in the view I carefully drove down one dirt road to another.


Driving on many of these country lanes was similar in areas to driving in several inches of snow, and I can only imagine how treacherous it must be to drive in the Loess mud in flashing splashy summer rain.  The hills rise and fall and around the turns in the road were many surprises.  Little farms, old paddocks, an area fenced off to provide a habitat to buffalo who once free to roam are now corralled in for their own protection.  On my drive, I drove my little rental car carefully since the roads are raised, and there was a soft shoulder that dropped off into the damp mud.  I did not want to be that city person who needed a farmer with a tractor to pull a car out of a ditch like every bad movie about city folk and country people having mishaps.


When I had returned to the coast, and to Gotham, it was hard to describe those landscapes to people who were not “from there.”  There are not exciting terms to use to talk about looking for and not seeing buffalo, miles, and miles of brown grass and dead trees, or long thin dirt roads and small hills.  I cannot brag to friends that my time in the Loess Hills was thrilling, or that I was there at exactly the right time.  The hills there present a healthy dose of boredom. A quiet moment to reflect.  It presented an opportunity to be away from people.  To listen to the wind blow through the grass.  To take in the timeless flat of it all punctuated by hills and cliffs of fine brown dirt and that endless sky.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s