ON SOME BEAUTIFUL FALL DAYS OUT HERE on the emerald cusp of the Great Plains, it’s not hard to believe that we are not where we are. Warm southern breezes swing up from Texas, the sun smiles with a gentleness not seen since June, and the spacious sky reigns over everything in azure glory.
Early on exactly that kind of fall morning, I like to bring my writing classes to what I call a ghost town, Highland, Iowa, ten miles west and two south, as they say out here on the square-cut prairie, a town that was, but is no more. Likely as not, Highland fell victim to a century-old phenomenon in the Upper Midwest, the simple fact that far more people lived out here when the land was cut into 160-acre chunks than do so today, when the portions are ten times bigger.
What’s left of Highland is a stand of pines circled up around no more than twenty gravestones, and an old carved sign with hand-drawn figures detailing what was home for some people—a couple of Protestant churches, a couple of horse barns, and a blacksmith shop, little else. The town of Highland once sat gloriously atop a swell of land at the confluence of a pair of non-descript gravel roads that still float out in four distinct directions like dusky ribbons over undulating prairie. But mostly, today, it’s gone.
I like to bring my students to Highland because what’s not there never fails to silence them. Maybe it’s the emaciated cemetery; maybe it’s the south wind’s low moan through that stand of pines, a sound you don’t hear often on the Plains; maybe it’s some variant of culture shock—they stumble sleepily out of their cubicle dorm rooms and wake up suddenly in a place with no walls.
I’m lying. I know why they fall into psychic shock. It’s the sheer immensity of the land that unfurls before them, the horizon only seemingly there where earth weaves effortlessly into sky; it’s the vastness of rolling landscape William Cullen Bryant once claimed looked like an ocean stopped in time. It seems as if there’s nothing here, and everything, and that’s what stuns them into silence. That morning, on those gravel roads, no cars passed. We were alone—20 of us, all alone and vulnerable on a high ground swatch of prairie once called Highland, surrounded by nothing but startling openness.
That’s where I was—and that’s where they were—on September 11. We left for Highland at just about the moment Mohamed Atta and his friends were commandeering American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, so we knew absolutely nothing about what had happened until we returned. While the rest of the world stood and watched in horror, my students, notebooks and pens in hand, looked over a landscape so immense only God could live there—and were silent.
They found it hard to leave, but then no one can stay on retreat forever, of course, so when we returned we heard the horrible news. All over campus and all over town, TVs blared.
I like to think that maybe on our campus that morning my students were best prepared for the horror everyone felt—prepared, not by having been warned, but by having been awed.
Every year it’s a joy to sit out there with them and try to define and describe the beauty of what seems characterless prairie, but this year our being there on the morning of September 11, I’m convinced, was a kind of blessing.
For Plumbline, James C. Schaap, Professor of English, Dordt College