Winter morning for me means a walk with the dog. We head west from the house to the park and then loop south through the neighborhood to our own back door.
There are many waypoints along this journey, signposts both literal and figurative. El Mago, our mini sheepadoodle (imagine a curly, stuffed toy panda) sniffs his way past transformer boxes, fence posts, a guy wire and a large oak to the yard where a noisy spaniel lives. Then it’s on to Sawmill Bridge, where Mago tracks the rail to the far side before a hard switchback to the right and down to the water’s edge.
There is an urgency to Mago’s travel. I sense it in the tension on the leash. Each spot must be checked, sniffed, assessed. His buddy, Rocky, lives here. And here is where the school superintendent’s two hunting dogs cross the street. That oak tree—Mago jumped a squirrel at its base one morning and bolted to the leash end, startled by this small but entirely new adversary.
Naturalists call places like this a “local patch,” a term I learned only recently. Local patches are those small pieces of landscape that we have traveled through and over so many times that we come to know them through the accrual of a thousand tiny moments. They are mapped by remembrance.
I’ve thought a lot about local patches in the last few weeks because I will soon move away from Northwest Iowa. I have accepted a position with Trees Forever, a nonprofit conservation and community development organization, and in February will move across the state.
When I first arrived in the Iowa Lakes Corridor six and a half years ago, I was frequently and emphatically lost. On the day of my interview, I climbed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck and wound up in Storm Lake. I remember nothing from that journey. Soon after I was hired, two of my coworkers drove me from Spencer to Superior by way of Terrill. Had they dumped me out the door at any point, I may never have returned.
Steadily, magically, I began to find my own waypoints. I discovered a tall row of wispy trees that signals the right turn to Estherville. I learned there are three turns off Highway 71 to Storm Lake and my favorite is the second. And then, I’m not sure when, I began detouring away from the highway to Linn Grove to check the height of the river and breathe deep among bird song.
As my final days ripple away, though, I am coming to realize that people, not places, have transformed the Corridor into my local patch. Estherville is a certain former mayor who says “life is great at the top of the state” and actually means it. Storm Lake is the lady at the restaurant counter who takes my order for tacos in English, warm and efficient, and then barks Spanish commands to the cooks in a voice that could make a sloth snap to attention.
My kids attended school in Dickinson County and their pals have become my pals. The hours I’d most like to live again in Okoboji were not on the water but spent throwing batting practice at Wildcat Field in Arnolds Park.
And, as for Clay County, it will always stand for Alyssa and Joanne and Jonna and Libby and Kathy and Brian and Tim—a team that sheltered me like family.
Really, I have a thousand friends and more in this, my new local patch. I would like to name and thank you all, but I don’t feel a need to say goodbye. You all will go with me, alive in the geography of my memories.