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Holinger: The long way home

Not long ago, I picked up Amtrak’s California Zephyr on its way through Iowa in a town I walked the length of in 10 minutes. Its station, old as it was, fit my mood – hot water radiators kept me warm; antique benches kept me comfy; and a bedroom-sized café kept me caffeinated.

When the train finally wheezed in on its long cross-country run, passengers were rousing themselves from a restless night’s sleep. As we crawled to cruising speed, I gazed at a practically humanless countryside, much like that that graced the Fox Valley when I first moved there, 35 years ago.

Dirt roads beginning and ending nowhere ran beside endless harvested fields rising and falling like leaden tsunamis. Oz-emerald green swaths snaked through a few golden crops still untouched. Outside one lonely farmhouse, a rider mower offered itself “4 Sale” on black hand-painted plywood.

As we slowed for the next station stop, somewhere behind me a man said, “Guess I better help pack up.”

“You’d just be in the way,” a woman answered.

“I know. Gotta offer, though.”

“That’s right.”

In front of me, two men argued NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard): “If ya don’t want power lines going by yer house, get off the grid. Long as yer suckin’ it up, take yer turn.”

Next to the tracks, surrounded by vast, empty fields, a man in an orange sweatshirt stood by his car in a graveyard smaller than a football field.

The woman beside me told me her second son grew organic produce in his garden.

“I eat only organic,” she said.

Maybe 70 or older, she was all denim above leather cowboy boots. Behind us, a girl hummed a private melody. In the distance, a John Deere eight-wheeler pulled long rows of steel fingers scratching the earth.

With her station nearing, the mother across the aisle instructed her daughter, “Help your brother clean up.”

“Help me clean up,” the brother demanded.

“I don’t want to,” insisted Sis, whereupon the brother clubbed her with a half-empty water bottle. She struck back with a colorful plastic microphone.

Leland’s gathering of grain elevators loomed like silver missile silos. A coal train roared by, its cars’ identical ebony mounds at eye level. Outside of town, widow’s walks perched on farmhouses where wives might climb at midnight to search for pickups ferrying their husbands back over black oceans after long hours adrift in downtown taverns.

Reaching Plano, my vision blurred into memories of The Variety Store where my uncle bought me “Beetle Bailey” comic books. We pass above an angler wading Rock Creek, his cast looping into thick blue-green water. To the east, a subdivision long ago buried a cornfield’s gravel road where I learned to drive stick shift on my brother’s ’66 Volvo.

And then, with the advent of familiar landmarks, the train tunneled into today and I was home.

• Rick Holinger lives in the Fox Valley where he’s taught high school since 1979. His poetry, fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals. He founded and facilitates the St. Charles Writers Group and has a Ph.D. in creative writing from University of Illinois at Chicago. Contact him at

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