This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, August 20, 1995
It was a hot, blue-sky, green-corn July day in Madison County, Iowa. I was driving along a dusty gravel road when I saw the farmhouse. Something inside me -- call it a hunch; call it an instinct; call it a deep-rooted yearning to have a good anecdote with which to start this article -- told me that this was the right place to ask directions to the Roseman covered bridge.
I pulled into the driveway, stopped the car and got out. I would like to say here that, as I walked to the kitchen door, my body was -- like the body of Robert Kincaid, the romantic lead in The Bridges of Madison County -- taut and lean and sinewy, as the result of years of hard work and life on the road. But the fact is that, as a result of years of rarely doing anything more strenuous than chewing, my body has essentially the same fat content and muscle definition as a McDonald's Breakfast Burrito.
Nevertheless I was able to walk all the way to the door without once stopping to rest. I rang the doorbell and waited. I heard no movement inside the house. I was just turning to leave when I heard her voice, from somewhere behind the house.
Never miss a local story.
"Is someone at the door?" she called.
"Yes," I called back, walking toward her voice. I came around the corner of the house and there, in the garden, I saw her. She turned toward me, and she . . .
* * *
. . . she will have to wait a while. First I need to tell you the reason I was in Iowa. Basically, it was a mistake. What happened was, back in June, when the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County was coming out, The Miami Herald Living & Arts section ran a story that began with these words:
There are no bridges in Madison County, Iowa. In fact, there's no Madison County.
As it turns out, these statements are not, technically, true. There IS a Madison County, Iowa, and it does contain bridges, not to mention approximately 173 trillion soybeans. The Herald had simply made an assumption without bothering to check it out. This practice is, unfortunately, common in journalism, which is why newspapers regularly print statements that later prove to be wrong, such as DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN and ELVIS IS DEAD.
After the Living & Arts story appeared, many ex-Iowans now living in Florida called to point out the mistake, and The Herald printed a correction. Then, on June 11, The Des Moines Register printed an editorial about the incident, headlined "Yes, there is a Madison County." This was a takeoff on the famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial from the 1897 New York Sun.
The Register editorial said, in part:
Yes, Herald, there is a Madison County, Iowa . . .
We can understand why your disbelieving little friends told you it didn't exist, Herald. They've all lived too far from places like Iowa for too long, and can't fathom its down-home charm. Miamians are too jaded by the boredom of endless summers, the mind-dulling impact of endless concrete and the pressures of the urban lifestyle.
Actually, what you ought to do, Herald, is check it out. Send an envoy. How about Dave Barry?
Dave Barry Schlepped Here
As you can imagine, when I heard about this invitation, I immediately forgot about it for five weeks. Then one day I was talking to my boss, Tropic magazine editor Tom Shroder, and we decided that, of all the stories that I could investigate this summer, the Madison County one had, more than any other, that special quality that best characterizes a typical Tropic story; namely, tardiness.
And so I went to Iowa. I wanted to see if I had, in the words of The Des Moines Register, "lived too far from places like Iowa for too long" and become "jaded by the boredom of endless summers."
I frankly had my doubts about that latter assertion. I have spent 10 endless summers in South Florida, and not one of them has been boring. I don't want to suggest here that The Register would ever make an assumption without bothering to check it out, but I'm guessing that if Des Moines were to experience any one of a number of typical South Florida events -- a hurricane, let's say; or large numbers of desperate people rafting ashore; or a local elected official losing his toe after getting hit by a gunboat while pursuing his own foreign policy in Cuban waters; or Customs officials seizing cocaine shipments the size of recognized geological formations; or alligators wandering into populated areas and attempting to chow down on dogs, golfers, etc. -- if one of these events were to occur in Des Moines, I sincerely doubt that The Register would find it boring.
But I do agree with The Register when it suggests that most of us South Floridians have no clue as to what Iowa is really like. I think most of us view Iowa as I used to -- essentially a big blob of agriculture squatting in the sun somewhere out in the middle of the country, emitting a manure odor strong enough to be visible to the naked eye.
Well, it turns out that I was wrong. There is more to Iowa than just hogs and cows and soybeans and corn: There is also at least one truly humongous cabbage (more on this later).
And there is romance. I'm not talking about a few people in love. I'm talking about something big, something unique -- an organized and fast-growing romance industry, drawing people from all over the world, busloads of romantics, thousands and thousands of misty-eyed lovers of love, descending upon Madison County in a gigantic hormone tsunami that has not, as far as I can tell, even begun to crest.
Ted Gorman, publisher of Madison County's leading newspaper, The Winterset Madisonian, a man who has been interviewed half to death about all this, put it to me this way in a bar one night: "People are just overcome with romance. It's weird. It's magical. It's . . . out of control."
The cause of this phenomenon is of course Robert James Waller's book The Bridges of Madison County, which has spent an incredible three years on The New York Times bestseller list and has sold, worldwide, almost 10 million copies, which works out to one copy for every truly bad line of dialogue in the book. I'm not saying this just because I'm jealous of the book's huge success (although of course I am). I'm saying this also because of passages such as the following, which appears in the scene wherein passionate yet constrained Iowa farm housewife Francesca Johnson is telling studly yet sensitive artist/philosopher/poet/ demigod Robert Kincaid (who, as he is described in the book, bears a striking coincidental resemblance to Robert James Waller) that she cannot leave her dull yet cow-oriented husband to run off with him:
"Robert, when we were making love last night, you said something that I still remember. I kept whispering to you about your power -- and, my God, you have that. You said, 'I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.' "
I'm sorry, but if you're engaging in an explicit sexual act, and your partner announces that he or she is a highway, a predatory bird AND a large quantity of sails, I don't care how passionate you are, you're going to start wondering whether this person is getting an adequate flow of oxygen to his or her brain.
So it's not the writing quality that draws people to The Bridges of Madison County: It's the story. The plot is simple: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy and girl both eventually grow old and die and have their ashes scattered from a covered bridge. There's something deeply compelling about this tale of a love that could not be, something that exerts a powerful pull on people, especially -- and here I'm going to generalize, but it's the truth -- middle-aged and older women wearing large, comfortable shorts.
You see them wandering around the streets of Winterset in groups of three or four, carrying cameras, gazing dreamy-eyed at the places they recognize from the book and the movie (which was shot right there in Madison County). Here's the Northside Cafe, where Clint Eastwood, playing Robert Kincaid, had coffee! Here's the Corner Tavern, which in the movie became the Blue Note blues club, where Robert took Francesca, played by Meryl Streep, and they danced slow! And here's the intersection, right outside M. Young & Sons feed store, where Francesca, sitting in her husband's truck, sees Robert standing in the rain, looking at her longingly with raindrops and tears streaming down his face, his heart breaking, knowing he will never see her again; and then he gets into his truck, and Francesca and her husband are right behind him, and they stop at the traffic light, and the light turns green but Robert doesn't move, because he's waiting for her, hoping desperately that she'll change her mind and go with him, and Francesca puts her hand on the door handle and starts to pull on it, because she knows this is it, her last chance to be with the One True Love of her life, now or never, and the whole theater audience is thinking, "Do it, Francesca! Go with him! He's a peregrine!" But the dull husband honks his horn; the moment is lost; Robert makes his turn and drives off; and Francesca, consigned now to a life of cows and corn, collapses against the seat, the agony of her loss almost unbearable, and the whole theater audience is sobbing, and . . .
. . . and the women in large, comfortable shorts stand and gaze at the very spot where this scene was filmed, and the streets of Winterset, Iowa, run wet with tears and hormones.
A Bridge Too Far
It doesn't matter that it's fiction. In fact, many people don't realize that it is fiction: They're convinced that the book and the movie are true, that there really was a love affair, right here in Madison County, between a Francesca Johnson and a Robert Kincaid, and they sometimes burst into tears when they learn otherwise. Some people are even convinced that Francesca and Robert are still alive, which makes absolutely no sense. I mean, the book AND the movie both prominently note that Robert's and Francesca's ashes were scattered from the Roseman covered bridge, so if you did believe that the story was true, then you would pretty much have to also believe that Francesca and Robert are both currently, no two ways about it, dead. But for whatever reason -- call it a hunger for romance; call it a low IQ -- there are those who come to Winterset looking for them.
"Oh yes," said Doug Hawley, executive vice president of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. "We get people coming into the chamber asking, seriously, 'Where's Robert? Where's Francesca?' You wouldn't believe some of the people. We just had some people who saw John Wayne out at the airport."
As it happens, John Wayne was born in Winterset. Before Bridge Mania struck, his birthplace was the town's major tourist attraction. Also, just a few miles out of town is St. Patrick's Church, where, in 1979, a Mass was said by Pope John Paul II.
But as famous as the pope is, he does not cause hormones to rage, nor was he ever played by Clint Eastwood. The undisputed heavyweight attraction of Madison County, the one that brings the buses, is the story of Francesca and Robert, which has spawned the romance industry that has semi-overwhelmed Winterset. Most of the stores around the classically quaint heartland-America courthouse square are selling some kind of Bridges-of-Madison-County items -- T-shirts, hats, mugs, paintings, photographs, cookbooks, calendars, shot glasses, an ice-cream-and-pie dessert named "Francesca's Regret" ($2.50) and no end of covered-bridge postcards. The Corner Tavern has a sign that says HOME OF THE BLUE NOTE IN THE MOVIE. Several store windows display movie props, including FRANCESCA'S BICYCLE, USED IN THE MAKING OF THE FILM THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Another store window has a life-size cardboard cutout photo of John Wayne in full cowboy getup; the cutout is wearing a purple-and- aqua Bridges of Madison County apron. The Duke is rolling over in his grave (unless he's out at the airport).
I'm pleased to report that not every commercial enterprise in Winterset is trying to cash in. On the sidewalk outside one of the stores on the south side of the square sits -- I am not making this up -- a VEND-A-BAIT vending machine, from which you can purchase minnows, night crawlers and turkey livers. To their enduring credit, the VEND-A-BAIT people are not suggesting that these turkey livers were in any way portrayed in The Bridges of Madison County. Or maybe they just haven't thought of it yet.
Over on the north side of the square, the appropriately named Northside Cafe is definitely benefiting from the romance industry; locals complain that nowadays they often have to wait for seats at lunchtime. The booths are full; motherly waitresses bustle around carrying plates of the Meatloaf Special ($3.95, including corn, mashed potatoes, gravy and a dinner roll). Groups of women in comfortable shorts take turns photographing each other sitting on the Very Same Counter Stool where Clint sat, in the scene (which is not in the book) where he encounters a local woman who has been ostracized by the community because she had an affair with a married man.
I spoke briefly to the Northside's busy owner, Ken Billeter, as he was simultaneously ringing up my check and arranging seating for a large group. I noted that, in the movie, his restaurant -- and by extension Madison County -- is portrayed as a mean-spirited place, populated by self-righteous small-town busybodies.
"Does that bother you?" I asked Billeter.
"It don't bother me a bit," he said, putting my money in his cash register. "It's just a movie."
City of Stars
Well, maybe to him. But not to the romantic hordes. In addition to wandering around Winterset, they almost all set out, in their cars and buses, raising dust clouds on the county's gravel roads, to visit the places where Robert and Francesca met, fell in love, and Did It. A pilgrimage of passion.
For $9.95, you can purchase an audio tape and map and take a Self-Guided Audio Tour of Madison County, which will take you to various historic sites, including the Winterset bed-and- breakfast that, according to the map, "starred as the Eagle Rock Hotel in the 1968 film Cold Turkey with Dick Van Dyke." (Think about it: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, John Wayne, the pope and Dick Van Dyke. Winterset: City of Stars.) Of course the tour is mainly devoted to the Actual Movie Locations used in the filming of The Bridges of Madison County, including the now- famous covered bridges, which were built in the late 1800s (the roofs are to prevent the bridge beams from rotting).
All but one of the county's six remaining covered bridges are closed to traffic. They're tourist attractions now, and most any time of day you'll find people wandering around in large, comfortable shorts, taking pictures, figuring out what movie scene happened where ("This is where Clint picked the flowers!"). A lot of people are inspired to write messages on the bridge's interior walls. Some messages offer comments on Waller's story, such as:
I read the book. Didn't really get it. Nice bridge, though.
She should have left him. I did!
But most messages are romantic. One couple professed their passion with these touching words:
I love you, Tits!
I love you, Buns!
A man wrote a multiverse poem that begins:
Its in your eyes
The eyes of a dove
Reflecting the moonlight
This is probably nit-picking, but I myself would not be attracted to a person with bird eyes, which generally are small and beady. But it's the feeling that counts, right? And feelings run strong at the bridges. I watched an older couple, probably in their 70s, as they walked through the Roseman bridge, which is the most famous one (it has become a popular place for weddings). The man seemed embarrassed, kind of hanging back, but the woman was really into it.
"It was down there where Clint was walking," she was saying. "And here's where she left the note for him to come to supper."
At the end of the bridge, she took out a pen and wrote something as high as she could reach on the wall, then called the man over. They both looked at what she'd written for a few seconds, then started walking back through the bridge. I went over and read the message, which said:
At the other end of the bridge, Harold reached out his left hand and gently patted Helen a couple of times on her butt. Then, holding hands, the two of them walked down the path to the busy Roseman bridge souvenir store, where you can buy, among other romantic items, a vial of Roseman bridge soil, or a Roseman bridge Frisbee.
Roseman bridge scores big on the Hormone-O-Meter, but the true orgasmic highlight of the Passion Pilgrimage is Francesca's House. That's what everybody calls it; there's a big sign on the main highway, just before the gravel-road turnoff, that says FRANCESCA'S HOUSE 1/2 MILE. Francesca's House has become a major historic landmark in Madison County, comparable to Monticello.
It was an old abandoned farmhouse when it was discovered by the movie people; they transformed it into the Johnson place, which is the setting for much of the movie. This is where the love story begins, in 1965, when Robert Kincaid, on assignment for National Geographic, drives down the lane and asks Francesca, whose husband and children are away at the state fair, how to get to the Roseman bridge. This is where Robert and Francesca danced in the kitchen; this is where they got into the bathtub together.
If Kincaid were to drive down the lane today, he'd have to pay a $4 entrance fee at the little booth -- built in the shape of a covered bridge -- at the end of the lane. The man who took my money, Jack Jeffs, told me I could apply my $4 toward a guided tour of the house's interior.
"It's $4 for seniors and $5 for regular," he said.
I asked Jeffs if many visitors believe that Francesca and Robert were real people.
"There's some that know it's a fiction story," he said, "but there's plenty of them that know it's true."
There are port-a-johns in a parking area outside Francesca's House, and groups of women in large, comfortable shorts walking around taking pictures. Inside, tour groups are led through the rooms, which have been painstakingly restored to look exactly as they did in 1994, when the movie people tried to make them look exactly as they might have in 1965.
My tour group was led by Jean Jeffs, who's married to Jack, the ticket seller out at the entrance booth. As we're waiting to get started, a member of the tour group asked her how long the tour would take.
"It depends on how long people want to sit in the tub," she said. "We have the original tub from the movie. We cannot get some women out of there."
When the tour group was finally assembled, Jeffs noted with approval that it included a couple of men.
"It's fun to have a man," she said, "because they see things a little different from what women do. Women are thinking about the story; men are looking at the structure of the house. We had one man upstairs that spent 15 minutes looking at the hinges."
The tour took us through the parlor and kitchen ("This is where they have that sad scene, when he knows she's not going with him and what have you"). Then we went upstairs to the bedroom, and the bathroom that contains the famous bathtub, which you can climb into and get your picture taken in. Also featured in the bathroom is the original commode used in the movie. If you lift up the lid, you see a hand-lettered sign that says THIS IS NOT A WORKING TOILET.
Pork and Queens
After the tour, people bought souvenirs and roamed the grounds, examining with great care the various historic locations, such as the exact spot by the pump where Robert Kincaid washed up for dinner. It did not seem to matter to anybody that none of this ever really happened. I've seen tourists at many genuine historic sites, where genuinely dramatic things, featuring actual people, truly did take place; those tourists, as a rule, do not appear to be anywhere near as fascinated as the ones at Francesca's House. Because this is better than reality: This is romance.
But is it Iowa? Forget about all these love-struck tourists mooning around. What are the Iowans like?
Well of course I don't really know. I was there only four days (the exact length of the Robert-Francesca affair). I definitely concluded that your basic Iowan is nothing like the small-minded yokels depicted in the movie's cafe scene. Your basic Iowan, if I may generalize again, is a friendly, outgoing person with a sense of humor, mildly amused by the romantic hordes, willing to make a dollar or two selling them food or souvenirs, but not looking to rip them off.
I did not detect an especially high Romance Quotient among the residents of Madison County. The only time I heard anybody even talking about a relationship was one night at the Gold Rush bar, when I overhead some men discussing bachelor's parties.
"After the bachelor's party I had," one man observed, "it's a God's wonder that we're still married."
My impression is that the people of Madison County are not easily swept away by emotion. This is a down-to-earth place; even the more glamorous endeavors tend to have a practical edge to them. Here, for example, is an item that appeared in the "Who's News" section of The Winterset Madisonian the week I was there:
Madison County Pork Queen Jan Eivins, daughter of Lillian Eivins, attended the Pork Queen Finishing Seminar held June 29 in Ames.
The purpose of the seminar, conducted by the Iowa Pork Producers Association Queen Committee, is to prepare queens for their role as public relations ambassadors and present information about the state queen contest.
Nearly 35 county pork queens participate in sessions covering pork nutrition, industry issues, media interviews and promotional activities.
Speaking of pork, on one of the main highways leading out of Winterset is a sign directing motorists to the BILL MITCHELL SWINE TOURS. I drove out there on a Saturday afternoon; it was a swine-breeding operation, a group of low and pungent agricultural buildings. A man wearing jeans, boots and no shirt came out of one of the buildings and told me they were closed for the weekend. He said the tour consisted of them bringing various swine out to you, and you looking at them.
"They can't allow people out on the farm, for disease purposes," he said. It was clear, although he was too polite to say it, that they were not concerned about you getting a disease from the swine; they were concerned about the swine getting a disease from you.
I asked Ted Gorman, The Madisonian publisher, if he'd ever taken the Swine Tour.
"No," he said. "My whole life is a swine tour. There are pigs all over the state. Why would anybody pay?"
Agriculture is of course very big in Iowa; in fact -- sometimes, in journalism, you get lucky -- I happened to be in Iowa during National Soybean Week. In observance of this event, The Madisonian printed an eight-page special supplement (lead-story headline: SOYBEAN INDUSTRY'S CONTRIBUTION TO IOWA EQUALS MORE THAN JUST BEANS).
Speaking of agricultural journalism, I was lucky to be in The Madisonian office on a Friday afternoon when another major story broke: A woman named Darline Walker -- she lives out around Bevington -- called to report that her garden had produced a cabbage measuring 42 1/2 inches around.
I went out to cover this story with The Madisonian's news editor, Chris Dorsey, and reporter Sandy Pickering Kordick.
"We get a lot of calls like this," Dorsey told me. "You know, people with potatoes that look like Dwight Eisenhower."
(When you get right down to it, a lot of potatoes look like Dwight Eisenhower.)
We got out to the Walker place. Darline Walker met us and, with her two Pekingese dogs yapping along behind her, led us down to the vegetable patch.
"Tom!" she yelled, calling her husband. "Tom!"
Tom showed up, and the Walkers displayed the cabbage for the news media. We agreed it was definitely the biggest cabbage any of us had ever seen, in or out of journalism. The Walkers, who have been married for almost 50 years, posed for photographs -- Darline on one side, Tom on the other, the cabbage in the middle.
As Darline walked us back to the car, I asked her if she was familiar with The Bridges of Madison County. She said she was. I asked her what she thought of it.
"It's a book to read," she said, shrugging. "I've read lots of books like that."
No big deal. A similar view was expressed in The Madisonian's letters-to-the-editor section the week I was there:
"The Bridges of Madison County" movie has been playing for three weeks in Winterset. What is a teenager supposed to do? We don't want romance movies -- as a teenager we like adventure or action packed movies. We now have a curfew and what do we have to do since the "Bridges" movie is still playing? A lot of teenagers and older people aren't interested in the movie. When can we see a good movie come to Winterset again? A free dance would be nice -- it would have to end before our curfew time.
And that is the reality of it. For the romantic hordes, Madison County can be a passionate place, because they don't live there. For those who do live there, it's like any other place: familiar, routine, predictable, not particularly glamorous, even if you're the Pork Queen. Life is not a love story. Things don't happen to real people the way they do to characters in books and movies.
Or . . . do they?
This brings us back to the opening scene of this article, wherein I -- a stranger to Madison County, here on assignment -- drove up to a farmhouse, looking for directions to the Roseman bridge. Hearing a woman's voice out back, I walked around the corner of the house, and there, in the garden, I saw her. She turned toward me, and she . . .
* * *
. . . she was an older woman, kneeling among some well- tended vegetable plants. I could see there was something wrong with her eyes. I asked her how to get to the Roseman bridge, and she gave me directions. Then she said: "I'm completely blind."
I asked her how she was able to keep her garden so neat, and she said she did it by feel. I told her I was impressed.
"I can see perfectly fine," I said, "and all I've ever been able to raise was weeds."
She said her name was Doris, and that her husband was over by the barn, doing something with hay. I told her it was a nice- looking farm; she said it had been on TV once.
"Oprah did a show from the Cedar bridge," she said. "They used a shot of our farm."
I thanked her for the directions and went back to my car. Doris went back to her asparagus, which was coming along nicely. Although it was frankly not in the same league as Darline and Tom Walker's cabbage.
© 1995 Dave Barry This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.