Monday, January 11, 2010

An Impromptu Pilgrimage

I recently returned from my Iowa Christmas vacation to visit family and friends.  After one and one-third days in Des Moines, I took my travel agent/hostess Tonia to the airport and then decided, being on the south side of the city, to take I-35 down to Highway 34 and straight west into Red Oak.

I didn't get very far along the interstate before I spotted a brown road sign that read "John Wayne Birthplace."  Being my father's son and a red-blooded American, and since I had no timetable on this particular Saturday morning, I decided to make the little side trip.  It became an all day tour of the Iowa countryside.

I left the interstate at County Road G14, several miles north of Highway 92 which offers a direct route to Winterset.  Doing this presented a pleasant surprise: coming down the off-ramp I saw another sign directing torward "St. Patrick's Church."  I thought to myself, St. Patrick's:  didn't John Paul stop there?  So I made the second impulse decision in as many minutes and turned down the gravel road.

St. Patrick's at the Irish Settlement is a little white church planted amid farm fields nearly 150 years ago.  It was locked when I arrived.  I could only see through the windows into the small narthex, where plaques and a bust of Ven. John Paul II commemorate the great pope's October 4, 1979 visit

Behind the church a short stroll, gravestones rose out of snow drifts.  There too is a native limestone altar and site marker of the original church.  I trudged among the plots, among beautiful old headstones mottled by 150 years of Iowa weather, praying for the people whose graves I passed.  What a peaceful place to await the Lord's return.

Though I was the only living person there, John Paul's 1979 reflections on rural life and the Gospel still seemed to be captured in that serene monochromatic December morning.

From there I returned to the county road and zigzagged through fields, hills and bluffs toward Winterset.  A couple miles from town I was sidetracked by yet another road sign.  It was a small brown sign reading "Hogback Covered Bridge," with an arrow pointing down a side road.  That's when I first realized I was in Madison County.  So, having never seen any of the famed covered bridges, I made the quick right turn.

Most of the covered bridges are tucked away on gravel back roads.  The road to Hogback (left) dips down through dense trees and scattered homes to the North River valley.

Nineteen bridges were built throughout the late 1800s.  The trusses were covered with sides and a roof in order to protect the expensive wide flooring planks from the elements.

Of the six remained bridges, half (coincidently, the three I saw) remain in their original locations.  All six had been renovated during the 1990s.  One--Cedar Bridge--had been destroyed by arson in 2002 and rebuilt two years later using authentic material and building methods.  All of them are on the National Register of Historic Places and open to foot traffic only.

Before leaving Madison County I also wound my way through the countryside to see Holliwell and Roseman Bridges.  Holliwell (above right) is the longest, and Roseman (left) is the most "famous," due to its prominence in both the book and movie The Bridges of Madison County (neither of which, for the record, have I read nor seen).  Roseman is also said to be haunted, but I can't speak to that either.

After leaving Hogback I finally reached my intended destination.  Winterset is a quaint little Iowa town, the kind you think of when you imagine America's small towns.  It is slightly smaller than Red Oak, with an inviting and lively town square.  Two-story store fronts with the traditional "downtown" architecture surround the limestone county courthouse.

The John Wayne Birthplace is two blocks south of the square.

John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907.  The thirteen-pound baby was delivered by the town's female doctor (a rarity for the time) in this four-bedroom house.  His family lived in Winterset for three years before moving to Earlham, where Wayne's father, Clyde opened his own pharmacy.  Four years later, the family left Iowa for sunny California, and the rest is history.

The house is decorated with period furnishings and includes a multitude of film memorabilia--props and costumes (even the eyepatch from True Grit)--photographs, and the original birth announcement from the town paper.  Next door is a small gift shop.

This little excursion was a chance to see unseen parts of the state I've left behind, to ground it as a distinct place with history.  And since I happened across both the birthplace of a deathbed Catholic and the church grounds hallowed by a future saint, it was also something of an impromptu pilgrimage.