Mount Vernon, Iowa
In a gray brown autumn the clouds hung low in the damp air, and the morning’s thin coffee made us think we needed to stop again. Week after week for years I’d driven through this small college town on my way to the crag and peeked out at the health food store, the artist studio, the diner, the coffee shop with dark windows and FUEL Espresso in large white letters. This time I slowed.
Little bells clanged on the doorknob. Warmth startled me. A farmhouse kitchen behind a downtown storefront. The young woman at the counter brewed a single coffee in my climbing partner’s mug. Said she’d make it strong. Checked on the cookies baking in the little oven behind the counter. Heated water in a white kettle. She was tall, thin, wearing a calf-length black dress, a white apron.
I only had time to look about briefly. It came as a rush, and I only vaguely held on to the small couches and antiques on the walls, the chalkboard menu, the wire-mesh basket over a plate of peach scones. I was wearing my Carhardt’s and Capilene, a Bolivian hand-knit hat, my worn-out Sportivas. I was the out-of-town girl just passing through, but for the hundredth time. I should have had books and a scarf, a hip bag and long earrings. I should have been one of the college students lounging about over their notebooks. I bought a scone and my coffee and walked out the door. We were hurrying off to climb.
What came with me was mostly that feeling. The slow ease from the yellow light. An autumn haze broken. An instant of clarity. I drove on towards Monticello and kept thinking about the tiny artsy town in rural Iowa, the product of a little college and liberal airs wafting from farther south. The type of place I’d write into a story or think about in moments for years to come. The type of town that makes me feel awake in its simple charm. I climbed well that day on my project but never sent it without falling. My partner didn’t get his route either. By the end of the day a slight fever was giving me chills and my stomach quivered. It must have been the damp fall day. The settling in of October. An autumn now and fumbling. Dull browns and muddied golds.
The sunset seeped a thin pink stripe breaking out of the clouds over the empty cornfields. We drove home at dusk and the day slid to a close. It was just that once, just that cold, gray morning at the little kitchen café.