This week’s adventure took me in search of the far northeast reaches of Iowa–or, more precisely, the exact geographic northeast corner. My new friend Barry P (who is an incredible photographer) is doing a kind of photographic journey of Iowa, and offered to take me along on one of his trips as an “apprentice.” To be clear, I have almost zero knowledge of the inner workings of a camera, and know precious little about things like aperture and film speed. The delicate equations that involve things like shutter speed and light sensitivity make sense to me sort of in the way that the laws of thermodynamics do–someone describes them and they sound perfectly reasonable and easy to replicate, but upon trying it solo, I come to see it as nothing short of magic. So “apprentice” was a generous term.
I confessed this in the beginning, so as not to surprise Barry. This was, after all, an all-day trip. Once you get off the main road, there’s no going back. Lucky for me, he was not deterred.
Our first stop was Anamosa. Barry handed me a sweet little Leica, a manual camera from the 1960s, and said, “This is what the apprentice uses. Isn’t is great?” It was ten kinds of rad and, yeah, now I want one. He went on to tell me that a friend of his is doing a documentary about this project, so he could use some photos of himself working. “You don’t have to shoot a whole lot of me,” he said, “but if you find yourself needing a subject, I’ll be one.”
Now is a good time to mention that Barry seems a bit camera shy. Like me, he confesses that he 1) does not like most pictures of himself, and 2) his favorites are of him working. And, like me, he rarely has anyone around to take pictures of him working. Enter the apprentice. (My other job, self-appointed, was to make sure Barry didn’t get run over in the street while taking shots, like of this dry goods store. Isn’t it funny how the perfect spot is right in harm’s way?)
Along the way, I learn some interesting things…like Barry used to be in a band that toured with Yo La Tengo. And that, even though he carries a light meter in the pocket of his cargo pants, he can always take one glance around him and calculate the perfect aperture setting. It’s like he’s counting the light particles swirling around us. (It’s eerie and fascinating, in the same way that some people can glance up at the sun and tell you precisely what time it is, or point dead-on to magnetic North.) Also, I learn about the rule of Sunny Sixteen, and that Barry always wears this same shirt and pants when he’s shooting, though whether it’s more akin to superstition or uniform, I can’t quite tell.
He tells me he always feels a little weird scouting locations by himself, and that people are often suspicious. Somehow, he says, it’s not weird with two people. I see this first hand as we are tooling around Lansing––he with his Serious Business camera, and me, stumbling along with the Leica around my neck, my little point-and-shoot dangling from my wrist, taking a photo with my cell phone to send to my fella so he can have a virtual field trip while at work back in Iowa City. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a man stopped us and said, “Hey, are you tourists?”
I never know how to answer that question. “No, I’m just up from Iowa City”? “Yes, I’ve been wanting to get out this way”? “Yes, but we’re all tourists, aren’t we”? It turns out he was the pastor at the church around the corner, and loved telling visitors about the hidden secrets of Lansing. Like, if you drive up to the top of the hill, you can see the widest part of the Mississippi. And the sharpest bend of the Mississippi. And if you keep going, there are hiking trails. And on a clear day, you can see all the way to LaCrosse.
So we drive up to the outlook, and we see the widest part of the Mississippi. And I have to say, it’s weird seeing this in Iowa. And it’s weird hearing “Mississippi” in these parts. But it’s striking, seeing all of this green, and all of this forest. We take a highway called X-47 that hugs the river, and each time we turn off of it, we are immediately back in pastureland, with hardly a tree in sight. It’s startling how fast the landscape changes.
Along the way, we stop at Effigy Mounds. Barry says, “I could easily spend all day here, but I allotted about a half an hour–is that okay?” Of course, I say, because I’m scouting today too, and I’ll certainly be back. He asks the ranger what we can see in a half hour. His suggestion: the museum and the nearest mound, which is 150 feet from the visitors’ center.
Inside, there is a map of the mounds. I think the one we walked to is vaguely shaped like a weasel. Perhaps a mink. Some small, slinky low-to-the-ground Northern mammal. (See the one farthest to the right, closest to the road?) From the ground, it looks decidedly less like a weasel, but I’m told if you opt for the hour-long hike, you arrive at a lookout that offers a more impressive view.
I’m instantly reminded of Moundville and Cahokia, and feel little teeth of regret nibbling at me. Once upon a time I worked as an archaeological technician, dreaming of being Indiana Jones. (That is how I learned to shoot pool, distinguish chert from shale, distinguish whiskey from bourbon, and cut birthday cake with a trowel. Those were the good old days. But those are stories for another time.) It was a career that didn’t pan out, but I find that now I get to incorporate those interests into my life in other ways.
Suffice it to say, I was reminded of the circuitous nature of my life that day. It’s funny how we travel in circles. For a long time I thought that was some kind of failure, to end up right back where I started, but now I see it differently. Now I see it as patterns, indicative of the things that drive us, and fascinate us, and inspire us. It’s like that old saying about how you can’t fight your nature–some things are meant to be in our lives, and they just find their way back to us. Those patterns mean something–it seems they are ingrained, and to ignore them is to be sure that they will surface again and again to remind us of this fact. You cannot hide from the things you love. It seems you will always collide with them. And for that, I am grateful.
I became a little more fond of Iowa that day, and a little more sure of my course–perfect timing, naturally, because lately I have felt decidedly off-course, like a ship down in the Triangle with its instruments spinning and wheezing. I wish I’d known about this place sooner, this whole northeast wonderland. If I had, I’d have driven up here every time I started to get homesick for North Carolina. It might have reminded me that the world isn’t quite as big as I think it is on those cold lonely nights, and it might have reminded me sooner that as far as I seem to stray, I always end up back where I should be.
Special thanks to Barry, for letting me tag along and snap some pics to remind myself of this little outing with a super sweet vintage camera. If you don’t check out his website, you are missing out.