“Those cows are mine,” the horse dog, 4 trombones, and other tales from south of the border

I know this is oh-so-late.  Forgive me. 

In the midst of a very emotionally and physically trying few weeks at work, I was granted my Memorial Day weekend and traveled to Decorah, Iowa.  I had previously only been to Iowa once and my experience can be summed up as: sludge in the hotel pool, stale donut for breakfast, an airplane engine for an air condition, and Ft. Madison prison.  Other than this trip, my ideas about Iowa came mostly from pop culture references such as:

This I like because, even though I don’t know these guys, they are demonstrating an important fact about Iowa– the highest elevation in the state is in a corn field. 
So, against my best judgment, I let myself be carted across the border on a sunny Friday afternoon, headed to Iowa.  Decorah, specifically, a place where 80 percent of the homes have gnomes in their yards or windows and no fewer than half the flagpoles fly the banners of Sweden or Norway, is an incredibly peaceful respite from the hustle of the Twin Cities. 
On the way, Aaron taught me a car game that I feel is perfect for driving through the heart of the Midwest: Those Cows Are Mine.  The rules are simple– if you see a herd or small grouping of cows, you simply exclaim to all other people in the car, “Those cows are mine.”  There is no counting of cows or herds; there is no score.  And if you see a cemetery, you want to be the first person to unleash havoc on everyone else’s cow collecting by declaring, “Your cows are dead.”  In all fairness, the passenger has a clear, insurmountable advantage in that they can look far and wide for the most hidden heard of cows to quickly claim as their own. 
Once I had claimed all of the Minnesota-Iowa cows I could, we arrived in Decorah and drove straight to Luther College, Aaron’s undergraduate institution of learning and tromboning and other things uniquely college/young 20’s.  The self-guided tour included the following distinct features of Luther College: The CFL, where music is played on a grand stage for a packed house; the Union; the library, including a Japanese rock garden under the stairs and a visit to the study corral Aaron used to do much of his research and writing; the library lawn; the music practice rooms; the art building; the science building; the gym where an infamous “Hard Body Plan” once took place; and various other significant buildings, landmarks, and lawns.
Decorah has a certain magnetic pull that seems to be an especially strong force on young men with large brass instruments in their trunks.  We met up with two of Aaron’s closest friends from college (as well as the joyous fiancee of one of them), who also are accomplished trombone players (trombonists? tromboners? I am not sure…).  One of the best parts of the trip was driving down some rural roads just outside Decorah, 5 young adults in a powder blue Prius, sunburnt and relaxed after a day of site-seeing and frisbee golfing, to a small white farmhouse.  We pulled in to see four chairs and four music stands pre-arranged for the evening festivities– a concert by a garage band, if garage band means impromptu trombone quartet.  It was an incredibly soothing experience for me, having just come from a city literally torn apart by disaster, to laze in a chair in the middle of the country and listen to four gentlemen make music and shoot the breeze.  It is here that we also met the horse dog, Magne.  Magne is a giant black Great Dane with the running gait of a fish out of water and sweet, sweet eyes.  While Magne is Norwegian for “fierce warrior,” I would describe him as a pretty gentle giant. 
I am realizing this post is starting to get long, and probably isn’t very cohesive… I apologize, but it is hard to weave into my own experience each of the stories shared by the young men about what the people and places in Decorah mean to them and this very strong kinship between them and this sort of fairytale place.  Every story has this fantastical, larger-than-life quality that makes you fall in love with all the characters.  I can say, hopefully with great clarity, that it is always wonderful to be welcomed into a group of close friends nearly immediately and with such warmth.  So much so, in fact, that sleeping 5 across in a 4 person tent is only crowded, but never awkward.
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