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The Big Hill

Richard Willis

The price of progress.

When we looked out the kitchen windows of our house on the farm, there was a big hill standing like a wall about a half a mile to the east. The road went up and over the crest of the hill, so that our view was cut off entirely in that direction. When cars roared by our house trailing their enormous coils of yellow clay dust, we saw the last of them dropping out of sight over the big hill. That was the end of them. They might just as well have fallen off the edge of the earth.

No matter how hot the weather might have been, no matter how oppressive it was anywhere else, there was always a cool breeze at the top of the big hill. As a kid, I used to go to sit in the shade of the two oak trees that grew there, and to try to puzzle out my life. When that didn't get me anywhere, I stayed to enjoy the shady breeze and the view out over the Iowa River valley, while I let slide what I couldn't understand.

From the hilltop I could see almost four miles looking northwest toward town - where I wanted to be. At that distance, the town seemed to be a mat of treetops, like something painted by Grant Wood. Three spikes broke through the trees to show that there was a town there at all: the water tower near the depot with MARENGO painted on it in big black letters, the court house tower with its red tiles, and the black spire of the Catholic church topped with a white cross.

Across the river valley to the north, farmhouses and barns looked like toys, the tiniest dots of color. Occasionally a flash of sunlight glanced off the windshield of a car so far away you really couldn't see it. Hawks floated around in slow circles over the fields on the near side of the Iowa River.

We called the hill where I sat enjoying the shady breeze the "Eighty Hill," because it was part of an eighty-acre piece land that Aunt Mary had brought as her dowry when she married Tom Willis, Aubrey's uncle. They also owned the farm where we lived.

Not so many years in the past, the entire hill where I sat had been wooded, but by the time we moved to the farm in 1933, almost all the trees had been cut down, and the hill was covered with stumps. We broke them off, or pulled them out of the ground, and used them for firewood. On the east side of the hill the pasture was all pocked from someone having used dynamite to blast stumps out.

My pals from town and I pretended those scooped-out places were rifle pits. We used them to fight off Indian attacks, or to defend our lines against Civil War rebels. Later, as we learned about the war in Europe, we called them foxholes. Only two oak trees were left at the top of the hill, lonely reminders of the thick stand of timber that had once grown all over that field.

Old farmers in the neighborhood told me about an Indian trail that was supposed to have run somewhere near the bottom of the hill - no one knew exactly where. A short distance beyond the toe of the ridge, however, there were three mounds, one large and two smaller. People said they were Indian burial mounds. We didn't know anything more about them than that, so I made up an explanation for myself: the big mound was the grave of a chief, and the two smaller mounds held the bodies of his squaws.

Aubrey talked about digging into the mounds to see if we could find any stone relics, but he never got around to doing it. While we often picked up arrowheads and spear points in our fields, the graves that might have contained more of the same kind of thing remained undisturbed. Later, when the fence was moved over to include the mounds as part of the cornfield, the three hillocks gradually disappeared under cultivation. That seems sad in one way, and yet maybe it was right for the last traces of those ancient people to vanish like that, absorbed back into the earth they thought of as their mother

Before our roads were graded, the road over our big hill seemed wickedly steep. All the rest of our road was sticky clay, but that particular stretch over the hill was sandy, and no one ever got stuck there when the roads were bad. Wet sand isn't hard to drive a car through, and for that reason, the steepest of all the hills on our road was also the least troublesome. Later, when roads all over the county were graded, the sides of the banks were sliced down, the top of the hill was scraped away, and the approaches to its crest were filled in. Then, summer or winter, the hill no longer presented any significant challenge at all.

It may have had something to do with the fact of the Indian burial mounds, or maybe because I often went to the hilltop to mull over my concerns, but the big hill came to have a kind of religious aura for me, although I never told anyone about that. After Aubrey died in 1975, I had what I suppose might properly be called a vision related to that place. I wasn't asleep, so I can't say it was a dream, but suddenly, for no reason, I saw myself as a small boy sitting on the grass with Aubrey in the shade of the trees at the top of the big hill. He seemed to be quite young, twenty-five or thirty at most. He was strikingly handsome, and he was dressed all in white.

We were looking north from the top of the hill, out over the Iowa River valley, and he was telling me what a beautiful place it was. He made a broad gesture with his arm taking in the entire valley below us, as if to say he was making me a present of everything we could see. That was all there was to it, nothing more. But it was real to me, as if it had actually happened.

Recently I've been thinking that when the time comes for me to die, I'd like to have what is left of me taken back to the farm. I got in touch with the people who now own the place where I grew up, and got their permission for my ashes to be scattered under the trees at the top of the big hill east of the house. I discussed my idea with their neighbor, the man who now actually farms our old place, and he endorsed it. "It's right that you should come back here to where you started."

I thought I had it all satisfactorily worked out. Then, about a year later, there was a terrible storm in the fall of the year. Timberlands all along the Iowa River were devastated. Trees were blown over in such numbers it looked as if a giant hand had pushed them down flat. The worst of the damage was in the valley close to the river, but, even as far away as our farm, trees went down, including one of the two that had survived for so many years at the top of the big hill. When I first saw what had happened, I felt as if I had lost an old friend.

It was silly, I suppose, for me to have assumed that those two trees would be there forever, but now that one of them is gone, I'm not so sure I want that hilltop to be my final resting place after all. Why the absence of one tree should make such a big difference to me, I really can't say. Maybe I just don't want to die, and I'm looking for an excuse to get out of it.