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Visiting Iowa

YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A VEGETARIAN to love hogs: To slaughter a hog on the farm where it was raised, I was told, is far more humane than taking it to the slaughterhouse. Greg's mother, Karen, who is married to a farmer and whose son is a farmer, has a collection of hog-inspired objects—hog ashtrays and pitchers, sunbathing hogs and sprawling hogs, hogs in costume and naked hogs, sows with bosoms and hogs vanishing into barns, as well as, naturally, a hog mailbox. Needless to say, about 10 yards from her front door there are hundreds of real hogs. "You have to love what gives you a living," Karen told me. "Want a pop?" It took me a couple of seconds to understand I was being offered a soda.

We joined Greg, and he took me up on his tractor for a ride. As I sat on the armrest of the only seat, we drove to town to deliver the corn and have it weighed at the co-op—it turned out to be a 34,000-pound load. There was a little mound of soybeans on the floor of the weighing station, and Greg handed me some to taste. Then he gave me a few corn kernels. "I like the corn much better," he said. The soybeans were soft and buttery, but the kernels were tastier.

In his pickup truck, Greg took me out to where his father, Wayne, was harvesting a neighbor's soybean fields. "Everything my dad owns is red," Greg said, "his tractor, his pickup truck, his house." Greg insisted I get up on a combine. Wayne was too shy to do the honors, so he left the driver's seat to his son, and we went up and down the field, cutting and threshing. The blades separated the stalks and grasses from the pods, and the hulled beans were miraculously conveyed to the back of the combine. We advanced through a mist of dust rising from the blades. The seat was wide and comfortable, unlike that of the tractor. We were 10 feet above the landscape, with nothing but fields and sky in every direction and the sight of other farms in the distance.

Greg showed me the abandoned one-room schoolhouse across a narrow dirt road on his grandmother's property. Schoolhouses like this were the inspiration for the "Alton School Room," one of many themed guest rooms at the Hotel Pattee in Perry (others were the American Indian and the Bohemian rooms). I'd chosen to sleep in it because I'd been taken with Herbert Hoover's Quaker schoolroom in West Branch the day before—whitewashed, with dark wood trim at elbow height, wooden desks, and portraits of Lincoln and Washington.

Hoover's schoolroom wasn't much larger than the house Mr. Hoover Sr. had built for his young family after finishing his rather grander ironsmith's shop across the street. It was a "starter home," as the guide diplomatically put it. When the cast-iron stove was brought indoors during the winter months, it took up much of what counted as the family room; the only other room was the bedroom, where five slept—the parents on the double bed, the boys on a trundle bed stored under it, and a baby girl in a cradle. I liked the crescent moon carved in the outhouse door and the quote from Herbert Hoover painted on a sign by the picket fence: "This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life."

I TOLD GREG OF MY FASCINATION with his upbringing, so unlike my own, which was scattered over every continent. I presumed that he had always lived in one place, but he shook his head gravely. "Oh no," he said, "I moved, too, you know—three times," and pointed to the three houses where he had lived, including his current one. They couldn't have been more than an acre or two apart. "My favorite is still my parents' house. I'm a mama's boy and proud of it."

"Did Mollie tell you how we met?" he asked abruptly. I said she hadn't. It was some story, he said. He had gone to a party, and toward the end of it, he danced with a broom. He liked it so much, he named the broom Mollie. When his female friends heard he had a girlfriend called Mollie, they were bitterly jealous, but he wasn't too bothered, because if they wanted to be jealous of a broom, that was fine by him. Then, when he met a real Mollie a fortnight later, he told her, "Did you know I've been dating you for two weeks already?"

In between stories, Greg gave me a crash course on how pigs are rounded up, inoculated, and weaned—"by that time their mother doesn't mind, because the piglets have teeth." When the sows are ready to be bred, Greg lets them out into the open fields, and they go running about, coming back only for water: "The commotion brings on their heat, so I let eight boars into the fields and, after a day or so, replace them with eight fresh ones."

"No man should want more than fifty hogs," Greg's grandmother never tires of repeating, and he carefully avoids telling her that he has about a thousand. He took us behind her house, where the piglets are confined once they're separated from the sows. The youngsters all came forward eagerly, a wiggling stream of pink and black bodies and damp snouts. When Greg picked one up, it squealed so stridently and insistently that anyone less knowledgeable of a hog's antics would have put it down immediately. I could understand the woman I heard about later on a plane out of Des Moines who kept a pig as a pet and fed it cough drops and Oreos. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?" Greg asked as we left the sty.

Driving away, feeling nostalgic already for the place I was leaving, I almost laughed at the notion of being accused of vegetarianism, counting all the steaks and chops I'd eaten during my stay in Iowa. After buying a bag of freshly picked Macoun apples at a gas station soon after my arrival, I'd slipped into a regime of apples by day and steaks by night, and never felt better: maybe it was the climate, or the quiet of those days spent driving, discovering that no two cornfields look alike, even after you've seen a hundred. Perhaps you can eat red meat near a cornfield but not in a city. It's we poor city people who need organic produce most, since we don't have much of an organic life.

Back in New York after a week in Iowa, I found that there were too many restaurants and not enough bowling alleys, too many people and not enough hogs, but more than anything, too much concrete and not enough cornfields. When I declared my new allegiance, one woman said, "Oh, you're such a snob." I wasn't offended. I just explained about the winding, empty roads, the sunsets over cornfields, the hogs, the cows, the Mississippi bluffs, John Wayne's birthplace and Herbert Hoover's, and how I hadn't even been to the Loess Hills or to Dubuque. And at the end she conceded, grudgingly, "Sounds wonderful."

But I say that the sights in Iowa are just a pretext to take to the road and cruise down it while admiring the scenery. Charcoal roads, like a satin ribbon unfurled on the landscape, rise and fall over green and gold hillocks. I drove some 1,200 miles in my periwinkle blue Mercury Mystique and felt I had been initiated into the wonders of the American heartland, quite as if I had been a raccoon, a prairie dog . . . or a haahg.

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