RURAL AMERICA — On a Magritte-cloud-blue-sky day recently, I was surprised to hear a tapping at the window beside me; nothing so ominous as Poe’s raven, but a Northern flicker which seemed pretty sure she could fly through the window toward a window on the other side of the room. I watched as she tapped again at the glass, a gorgeous tan and black creature, not remotely interested in the human face across from her. I said hello and then she was gone.

And at dusk two days ago, I heard one of my favorite sounds, a barred owl in the woods behind my house calling out, likely just checking to see who else was out there. Who-who-who-whooooo. I have lived out here for more than two decades, and there has always been a barred owl to keep me company — large, beautiful birds with a wingspan of more than three feet.

Fossils indicate barred owls have been around for at least 11,000 years, which makes my time in the woods seem meaningless. There is comfort in knowing that these ancient winged creatures continue to patrol the meadows in the hollow and will do so long after I am gone.

Last week, I reluctantly rode the ridgeline to the nearest town to pick up food, and I regretted it as soon as I pulled in the store’s parking lot, noting very few customers wearing masks as they entered the store. Once inside, I encountered a couple of customers to whom I had to suggest in a not-very-nice voice, “please don’t stand so close to me.” I could have used Sting at my side.


You likely know the small town to which I traveled. The state is filled with hundreds of them, places where old white guys are still in power, where Main Street is populated by knick-knack shops and empty storefronts, where the clerk at a convenience store calls everyone “honey,” where if someone steals the political sign in your front yard you call the police. And where masks in public are uncommon.

Speaking again of masks, I implore everyone, don’t be selfish and, yes, stupid. For the past eight months, a modern, efficient death ship has been slowly making its way across the state, never stopping, never slowing, churning, churning through the waters of our lives, gathering the COVID dead from every county, and I don’t want the ship docking at your house.

The past months have been difficult. I’m drinking more whiskey then advisable and my gray hair hasn’t been cut since early February. There are days when I am tempted to tune my Fender Telecaster, drive east to O’Hare Airport and board an overnight flight across the dark Atlantic to Dublin to join buskers on Grafton Street. Buskers are street musicians. Located between St. Stephen’s Green and Trinity College, Grafton Street is not really a street in the conventional sense but a pedestrian-only walkway enticing visitors to high-end clothing and jewelry stores. The buskers are generally quite young, playing for tips, so I’d be the anomaly, not playing Ed Sheeran or Billie Eilish but stumbling through Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, the music of old men.

This is crazy thinking. A vaccine cannot come too soon. I’ll be first in line.

Ullrich is a free-lance writer who resides in rural Jackson County, Iowa. His book, “The Iowa State Fair,” is available from the University of Iowa Press.