Iowa is pig-breeding country. Renee’s family farms an area the size of Wales. The plane banks left forcing me to frame my eyes against the glare from the bleached white landscape.
It’s six-feet deep down there. God help the pigs. And God help us if we fall from the sky. In six months time I’d be chipped out of the ice with chisels and a blowtorch. I’d still be clutching my airline wipe-clean towel and reading the sick bag. Renee’s brother, Brian Patrick, is out there in his pickup chucking feed into the void. It’s been 25 minutes since we took off from Chicago O’Hare. It’s almost a total whiteout. Here and there a telegraph pole or cabin sits in the carpet of snow, dotted like cloves on bread pudding.
I shuffle in my seat. I’m the only one to fly back from New Zealand through the States. Sitting at LAX reading Sports Illustrated and stuffing Hershey bars into a backpack doesn’t cut it with the gap-year set. I’ve sold out and gone corporate and they glare at me across bag carousels and check-in desks. I haven’t seen Goa, haven’t lost three stone through dysentery, haven’t haggled over a rickshaw ride. I stayed in hotels with free shampoo and used taxis. I’m going to buy a Chicago Bulls vest because I want one. I want a shirt with Michael Jordan on it, not Che Guevara.
We taxi up to the tunnel and I stretch in readiness, my legs glad to feel blood coursing through them. A sign says Welcome to Cedar Rapids. I tug on my New Zealand Hills hat. It’s a Clint Eastwood touch I can’t resist, but the beauty of travel is anonymity. It’s highly unlikely anyone from my high school is going to bump into me here, but I pull the brim down just in case. I step into arrivals and scan the room. Nick shouts and waves. He’s wearing a lumberjack shirt and boots from LL Bean. He looks like an extra in Fargo. He’s holding a crumpled piece of card torn that says ‘Mr R Sole’ on it. An airport security guy is squinting at the card.
‘That’d be me,’ I say.
Renee offers a hand, forcing a smile. Like most Americans her perfect dentistry makes me close my mouth. Bad plumbing and bad teeth would be most Americans’ assessment of my country. The security guy scratches his chin and begins to walk over.
‘Shall we go?’ Nick says.
He’s been here long enough to know American cops hate a smart ass. I step outside and gasp. The air’s sucked from my lungs. I have to breathe through my fingers. I’ve sat in departures at LAX and O’Hare and Auckland but I haven’t stepped outside since Christchurch. I’ve been in a controlled, heated environment and now I can’t feel my ears.
‘Cold isn’t it?’ Nick says.
We step into the car park. I’m rubbing my hands trying to make sparks. Renee’s car has a thick blanket of snow on the bonnet and roof. I’m expecting chains on the wheels, but there’s none. We jump in. It starts first time and she pulls out into the drift. The dash is dark oak and the seats a rich, chocolate brown. It belongs in a Steven King movie, blinkers flashing on some lost highway. Renee drops us off outside the Deadwood Tavern, but I’m starving, so Nick suggests some Mexican. We find a fast food restaurant and order burritos that come wrapped in silver foil. The food’s hot and tasty and my ears start to thaw. Nick tells me you pay a set rate and they keep topping up your coffee. So I keep nodding. Mexican food back home is stodgy and acidic. It’s advertised by Lou Diamond-Phillips lookalikes in sequined jackets playing Spanish guitars. There’s usually a fountain and a senorita with roses attached to her dress because that’s shorthand for Mexico. I can’t finish my burrito or my coffee but know I’ve had value for a handful of dollars. We cross the street. Iowa City is small and neat and a bit like the town in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a bar and a cafe and a drugstore. I can’t see it but I bet there’s a neat privet hedge in front of a town hall. When Americans watch films about Britain they see men drinking coffee in big shirts and powdered wigs and talking like Dr Johnson. So I thought Hill Valley from Back to the Future was the American’s false equivalent. I was wrong because Iowa City looks just like that.
‘I’m freezing. It’s bloody Baltic,’ I say.
Nick stares at the loose denim shirt covering my T-shirt.
‘You’re well dressed for it.’
We go into a sports store and I grab armfuls of the thickest sweaters. The kind you could lag pipes with in January. American sports shops sell stacks of College gear. They sell pro gear like British stores, but all the local colleges have dazzling collections of leisurewear too. This is something that simply doesn’t happen in Britain because we don’t have the Collegiate system. Back in the UK its hard to imagine kids rushing out to wear a vest that says ‘University of Central Lancashire’ across the chest.
We head into the Deadwood Tavern. I’d wanted saloon doors, but then I wasn’t a regular in a pub built on a frosted prairie. Nick orders a pitcher of Miller. It is slid onto table ice-cold with beads of condensation dripping from the glass. Nick points at the weather report. A woman with starched hair that moves when she turns is sweeping her hand across the screen.
I’m looking at numbers that don’t make sense. Numbers like minus forty.
‘And that’s not taking into account wind chill,’ the woman says as if answering me.
‘Sioux City,’ Nick says, shaking his head.
I’m about to say ‘I’ve got reservations about going there,’ but decide it’s probably a racist joke. Nick sips his Miller. I decide to wait mine out. It has to warm up at some point. I think of some poor little guy shivering in his tepee. He didn’t even have burritos.