AWOL in Iowa: Exasperated Urbanite Finds the Sweet Life

fairfield ia, fairfield iowa, cafe paradiso
An East Coast wanderer finds his field of dreams in small-town Iowa.

It was April 2012, and I had been working as a contract writer in Reston, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., when an email floated in from an organization in Fairfield, Iowa. Oprah had recorded a show about the cool small town, trumpeting its achievements as a hotbed of creativity, innovation and consciousness. It was the state’s Entrepreneurial Community of the Year. Check it out, it said.

After a career that included working as a writer in Hollywood, running marketing communications for technology companies, and managing publications for nonprofits, I was burned out. Staring at that email and feeling at loose ends, I wondered if Iowa might be a place worth looking at.

I considered where I was living. Reston, as a town, is disturbingly incongruous. On the surface it appears to be a gentle, leafy suburb, but after you’re there awhile you realize it’s actually an epicenter of gladiatorial combat, home to perpetual life-and-death battles over government contracts (many military related), a fiercely aggressive place dominated by people who under ordinary circumstances might be pleasant and neighborly, but cast in this milieu have become adversaries in cut-throat competition for jobs/promotions/traffic lanes/parking/groceries/space/air/pie.

Traffic jams in the region are often measured in the tens of miles, and if you have good vision, you can sometimes actually see the malevolent stare on the face of the driver tailgating you, whose thoughts will generally run along these lines:

I must get to work! You are an impediment. Curse you—and your family, your kids, your grandkids (whenever you have them), and your parents, too. Disappear! Die!

Living amid this, I realized I’d become clenched. Fortunately, I had just completed my six-month contract at the corporation, and I was a free man.

So, when the word Fairfield floated up off the laptop screen from that email (well, it seemed to be hovering between me and the computer) it appeared, somehow, significant. I understood what I had to do. I knew how I could reclaim sanity and my soul, which bit by bit had become scattered around Northern Virginia’s business parks, strip malls, and freeways. Sometimes I’d see it on my drives, and pull over, but it was so light and ethereal it flew off in the slightest breeze.

I closed down my affairs over the next month. And before you could say “Midwest OMG what am I doing,” Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio were rolling under tire, disappearing in the rearview mirror.

fairfield ia, fairfield iowa, jefferson county courthouse
The Jefferson County Courthouse sits just a block north of the Fairfield square.

Fairfield, population 9,476. Cool, mellow, eco-friendly. A mix of spiritually inclined folks from the Transcendental Meditation community (there since 1974) and native Iowans. Priuses parked beside pickups. Square dances with locals and local millionaires.

When I arrived, it wasn’t much to look at—just some old houses, middling parks, limited shopping, not much in the way of landscapes or views, and little to no nightlife—all of which, I discovered, is a ruse intended to deceive. Camouflage. Why flaunt the bounty? The richness, I came to discover, was definitely there, though it was as much about what’s not in this place as what is. Often, it’s in the town’s hidden populations.

Driving around on my first night, a phone call came in, so I pulled into a deserted parking lot at Waterworks Park to take it. Within a few minutes the moonlight shining off the hood was obliterated by the powerful spotlight of a police cruiser. The officer checked me out and told me the lot was closed after hours. I said no problem, I’m on my way. “No, that’s okay,” he said with a smile. “You go ahead and finish your call.”

Huh? I stared at him, speechless. What kind of a cop tells you to finish your call?

The following day, in a fast food joint, a teenage boy took my order. He looked into my eyes and smiled, and I realized with shock and disbelief—for I had rarely seen this in any East or West coast teenager—what I was witnessing: the absence of hostility. No latent anger, no surliness. No murderous stare. No general pissed-offedness. Just peacefulness, serenity, being okay with life, call it what you will. And not put on. It was real.

I went about my business, at the retail stores, keeping an eye out, finding it virtually everywhere.

fairfield ia, fairfield iowa, cafe paradiso
Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield: home to the best coffee on the planet and a great place to catch up with friends.

At the DMV, the doctor’s office, the market—more of the same. I saw it in Mount Pleasant, Burlington, the town of Washington. Friendly greetings. Eye contact. Even, if I can venture the sentiment, neighborly caring.

In time, the vibrating anxieties of the D.C. area began to disperse, and I started to unclench, to feel the spaciousness again. I commenced to collect up those wayward bits of soul, and released the battle stance. My thinking became clear and unencumbered. I got back to working again. I began to enjoy the little things. A coffee conversation. A walk, even if it wasn’t Rock Creek Park or Great Falls. A tree, even if it wasn’t old growth and awesome. Even, dare I say it, a trip to Walmart or the Hy-vee supermarket.

Oh, Iowa.

I’ve learned much during my time here. Even this: Don’t be so quick to delete marketing emails.

A few weeks ago I drove down to St. Louis to visit a friend with whom I’d grown up in Baltimore, and told him where I was living. “Iowa?” he smirked. “Why? There’s nothing there.”

I had to smile. Good. Fine. You go right ahead and think that.

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