The sign on the interstate beckoned Laura every time we drove to Iowa. The Bridges of Madison County exit south of Des Moines reached into her heart and tugged as we flew right past the exit. When we traveled again to Iowa for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship earlier this month, I promised her a trip through the structures that have come to symbolize romantic passion to the 50 million that purchased the famous novel and the many others that watched the movie again and again.
If you are too young to remember the 1992 novel and the subsequent 1995 movie, here is a very brief synopsis as I remember. A National Geographic photographer comes to Madison County, Iowa, to photograph the historic covered bridges. He meets an Italian woman living the life of a farm wife out of devotion for her husband and children, but her life lacks the fire of real love and passion grown dormant over the long years. Over the course of four days, however, a brief affair with the photographer ignites new life in the woman and singular ever-lasting love for the photographer. Of course, as novels often do, that love remains unfulfilled as the woman reluctantly chooses her family over the photographer as he travels on to the next assignment never to forget the woman he loves. Whew!
Understand, please, that I am not downplaying romance and passion, but the book and movie both were overwrought. Throughout all the excitement, my sole interest was that I know the photographer that was the basis of the fictional Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaide. Anyone that has ever worked with real-life National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey knows that the character so closely matches Harvey it cannot be coincidental.
Even Chris Johns, the current Editor in Chief at the famous Geographic magazine, and a Topeka alum, believes the major portion of the character stemmed from Harvey’s exploits. Trust me, Harvey easily could have brought real passion to the life of farm wife, Francesca. From the day I met him at the Topeka paper in 1969, “dashing” perfectly fit Harvey. When Laura met Harvey two years ago, she instantly agreed.
With all that in mind, Laura and I finally took that exit off the interstate and entered Madison County. We wanted to cycle to the six remaining covered bridges from what was were once 19. Our first stop was the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge. Built in 1870, this 79-foot bridge features one of the two pitched roofs of the group. We discovered that to preserve the large flooring timbers, the covers proved more cost-effective. The intricate pattern of the workmanship fascinated us, though all the graffiti ruined the complete effect. Yes, we found it very romantic. Our only real disappointment was that the bridges no longer are in use, except for one recently renovated bridge. Our ride through the bridge was only ceremonial and not passionately romantic.
The other bridges required riding on heavily gravelled roads. Forced to choose our spots to ride, we used the car to kick up dust to many of the five bridges we viewed throughout the morning. We stopped in Winterset, the site of much of the filming and enjoyed seeing the birthplace of John Wayne. Truthfully, we both agreed we enjoyed a good Wayne western more than the Bridges book or movie.
That journey was nearly three weeks ago. Since we have driven north on I-35 again for a vacation trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin. This time, we drove right past the exit with no mention of the Bridges.