The following article was originally published in the Des Moines Register on November 14, 2017.
When I told my friends in Austin, Texas, that we were moving to Iowa, I received looks of shock and dismay — even pity. It was amusing had it not felt sad that people can so easily write off an entire state.
“Have you ever been to Iowa?” I’d ask. They’d shake their heads. “What do you know about the state?” I got muddled responses and shoulder shrugs. My wife’s friends were even worse, “How could you?!”
It’s been 35 years since I lived in Iowa. Upon graduating from college, I couldn’t wait to leave. I saw it as a badge of honor, like a rite of passage. New York City was my first move in a quixotic journey that would land me in seven different states as well as Brazil, The Netherlands and Switzerland.
My story isn’t that unusual. Migration from Iowa has been well documented. A report published 80 years ago by the National Resources Board claimed that by 1930 more than one third of people born in Iowa lived elsewhere.
Yet all along the way, I was reminded that you can take the boy out of Iowa but you can’t take Iowa out of the boy.
I remember arriving in New York City for my first job to find my native Iowan pedigree was like a calling card from the Better Business Bureau, proclaiming “hardworking and honest.”
I received a similar welcome when I moved to Los Angeles a few years later. That Iowans had made an indelible impression gave me confidence, instilled a sense of pride but also planted a seed of responsibility.
At times, being from Iowa felt like I was a member of an exclusive club — like when I’d bump into another Iowan at a party and suddenly we would find ourselves entertaining folks with little-known Iowa factoids or a Who’s Who of our native sons and daughters.
As I grew older, I felt the pull of the Iowa landscape. I dreamt of sights and smells from time spent in small towns and on family farms. I noticed a profound sense of peace descend over me every time I drove west across the Mississippi. For years, I went out of my way to fly home via Chicago, renting a car — sometimes because it was cheaper, mostly because I couldn’t resist experiencing the awesome presence of that majestic river or the calming phenomena I felt as the flat Illinois terrain gave way to the melodic rolling hills of Iowa.
There has always been something bordering on mysticism about Iowans’ attraction to the land. While homecoming is a universal theme and poets and writers from Homer to our own Marilynne Robinson have explored its symbolic and psychic impact, I believe that Iowa’s farming culture and values rooted in the soil make our connection to home deeper than most.
In a fabulous book titled “Iowa: The Definitive Collection,” editor Zachery Michael Jack compiled writings by Iowans about Iowa going back to the 1830s. In two of the earliest accounts, one writer glowingly referenced Iowa as America’s Garden of Eden.
“In the book that gave Iowa its name” according to Jack, Albert Lee wrote this in 1835: “The general appearance of the country is one of great beauty … for convenience of navigation, water, fuel and timber; for richness of soil; for beauty or appearance; and for pleasantness of climate, it surpasses any portion of the United States with which I am acquainted.”
Texas is the only state where I’ve witnessed a similar pride. While Iowans swoon over the land with poetic elegance, Texans’ sympathies for the hardscrabble soil manifest as defiant loyalty. Our love affair is whimsical and dreamlike, like a Grant Wood landscape, while Texans’ native passions are bombastic and in-your-face patriotic. Perhaps we’d react that way too, if Iowa had once been a country.
My decision to return home came with no small amount of trepidation. I had become comfortable in the anonymity of city life. I was concerned I’d find Iowa too small, too provincial and too narrow for the big-city appetites I’d developed. I was even more worried about my wife — an Austin-raised, New York native.
When I picked up a two-page spread on RAGBRAI last summer in the Austin American Statesman complete with gorgeous photos and a writer gushing about Iowa friendliness, hospitality and way of life, I lost any nagging fear about returning.
We moved into our home in Iowa City in July and immediately, my wife Polly marveled at how helpful everyone was. I was reminded that Iowans descend from a near 200-year-old prairie tradition of farmers rallying around neighbors in need. When her admiring comments turned to how straight-forward folks are and “what you see is what you get,” I realized I’d become cynical by living three decades out of state. I’d forgotten that this is a place where honesty is more the rule than the exception. I’d forgotten that the slower pace is actually a virtue. I’d forgotten that this is a place where humility is practiced like an art.
Misunderstandings of Iowa will not cease (if my own are any indication) and perhaps that’s OK. After all, Iowans are used to sneaking up on people’s expectations — sort of like our football teams in a good year. I’ve encouraged our Austin friends to visit, as I take great pride in seeing the recognition in others’ eyes that a certain kind of magic happens between these oft-overlooked farmer’s fields, rolling hills and rivers.
Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. A former medical device and digital healthcare executive, he now lives in Iowa City working with the University of Iowa to help foster innovation.