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  • Writer's pictureBriana DeSanctis

America on Two Feet: The People of Iowa

Last month was quite busy and I barely even hiked. Within an hour of submitting January’s issue I was looking to get on a plane to take care of a dying loved one from the Appalachian Trail. Seeing someone at the end of their life can be a stabbing feeling, like when you fracture a bone and the pain feels wrong. How many damn-its can you say when you aren’t ready for him to be gone forever?

Through the pain and grief I am ultimately reassured that I did the right thing. It was important for me to be there for him during his last days because I wanted him to know that I cared that much. The way we handle things can be very important. We need to remember that a dying person is also going through a new (although the last) phase in their life for the first time. It was heartbreaking but it was also a learning experience, and in the end it has helped me to be a stronger person.

The trail was quiet and cold and dark for me in the first few days I was back on it. I don’t love this trail like I love other trails so it is easy to have a bad attitude. I’ve hiked amazing miles out of anger and sadness in my lifetime. My outlook quickly changed once I gave myself a pep-talk and marched my ass out of the funk. Entering into Iowa helped, without a doubt.

I crossed the mighty Mississippi River on foot for the second time along this trek. The last visit was this summer when Smiley and I crossed from East St. Louis in Illinois over to St. Louis, MO. The powerful body of water now had chunks of ice floating in it. I was many miles north of that bridge I’d crossed in late June… and lifetimes older.

Mississippi River.

With the sun shining brightly I sadly watched a piece of cardboard fly off a truck and agonizingly make its last voyage down into the watery abyss, nearly floating like a feather to its final destination. It remained suspended on the surface for a long time before slowly submerging into the river.

I’d been eyeing a small-town church which looked unassuming enough where I could pitch my tent for the night, and by the time I got to the Beach Pub in Buffalo, I only had a few hours until the sun went down. I walked in and put my backpack on the floor. The back of my jacket was much wetter than usual but I chalked it up to being sweaty and overdressed.

Sam was tending bar and greeted me with a warm smile and a few questions. I explained what I was doing to the patrons of the bar and asked for some leads on how to contact the appropriate caretakers of the church. Sam immediately helped me to find not ONE, but TWO places to stay for the next nights ahead, which were going to be very cold. As I put my backpack on to leave I noticed a large puddle of water on the floor. My water bladder punctured inside my pack and had leaked everywhere.

The first night in Iowa I slept in Pat’s garage. I felt quite comfortable there since he had inherited some machining equipment I was familiar with. We hung out in the garage and talked for a while before I went to bed in my sleeping bag on a cot in front of the wood stove. Pat’s hope for me was that I didn’t forget about the little town of Buffalo, Iowa and its hospitality. Now, it is forever written in history.

I made it to Muscatine the next day where Steve had graciously offered me to stay at his empty house that was on the market. It was a great place to recharge my batteries and get some chores done. Steve’s brother Jimmy brought over some dinner the second night and a jar of homemade wine. Everything was delicious and I slept like a baby on the carpeted floor.

A few days later I was walking along a very well maintained rail trail until it suddenly completely disappeared. This was irritating to me and as I trudged up the hill on a road, trying to piece a detour together not knowing how far ahead the trail was demolished. A truck slowly drove past me and immediately started backing up. Before the driver could say anything I informed him I did not need a ride… but they already knew what I was doing.

Kyle and Sarah were able to show me how to get back to the trail (I would have had a very frustrating day if I’d taken the old way), and next thing you know they invited me for a full service stay with dinner included. Just so happens that they have a very prominent wagyu beef farm and I ate the best steak of my life with them that night. We stayed up late talking and eventually made arrangements to meet up a little further down trail. Some people you just really click with.

I left the farm and successfully tested out the new route of the trail. A local brewery in Solon was closed on Mondays but there was an American Legion across the street so I stopped there to try the local brew. Yolanda and Sarah were working and as the locals trickled in and heard my stories, I found myself coming back from the restroom with another full beer in front of me. Things were about to get hairy so I called my new friends Jim and Melanie to pick me up. They live a little bit off trail but we have a mutual Appalachian Trail friend and were able to connect. The people at the beef farm sent me with goodies to share and Melanie cooked a fantastic meal and we had a fun night full of food and conversations.

Iowa has been simply great. Would I live here? Probably not, but I don’t see myself being stuck anywhere in particular at this time. I’m glad the American Discovery Trail leads me through small towns. I am not a city girl, and my upbringing has earned me respect from the people of these tiny communities.

Odie’s Bar & Grill in Ely filled my belly and my soul. I left with another new hat, and even Schulyer the manager offered to let me pitch a tent in his back yard if I needed a place to stay later that evening.

I’ve still got hundreds of miles to complete in Iowa, and thousands of miles left in this hike. The day it is finished will still seem like no time has even passed, and I will leave the trail wondering if anything has changed in the world. The most bittersweet feeling of all is perhaps to realize that I am the transformation but still have to return to the same society I escaped from, feeling more alone in a crowd than ever.

Why do I do this? Because I have to make the most of my life, and I can’t imagine not having a dream to chase. To leave behind adventure for ‘safety’ is completely absurd; it is injustice to your very being. Is it really safety, though? I believe it’s security that people crave.

Y’all can stay secure right where you are. I’ve got many miles to walk, people to meet, vistas to enjoy, and freedom to take. See you next time.

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