Posted by: trevormeers | April 25, 2011

Nepal on the Mississippi

I never arrive at the house of the enormous wooden beams except in the dark, which means my inner 8-year-old always endures a few moments of fighting down a rising case of the willies. The large house sits far back in the northeast Iowa woods, at the end of a winding gravel lane that dives precipitously into the timber off the main road, then bounces across a small stream several times on the 1.5-mile journey back to the house. Once inside, I gaze up at the ceremonial Nepalese masks with the fangs, pointed ears and scowling eyes. Then I head up to the room where I sleep so I can get reacquainted with the replica Egyptian sarcophagus, the plastic wolfman beside the bed and, perhaps most disconcerting of all to a Baptist kid, the Beatles poster by the window.

Thus reacclimated, I can settle down to my yearly admiring of the house itself. The home, owned by a friend’s aunt and uncle who spend a lot of time living overseas on teaching gigs, has been my home for an April weekend over most of the last seven years. It commands about 100 acres of woods in the steep hills that roll inland from the Mississippi like great waves that eventually break on the shore of the endless prairie. Of this country, Mark Twain said, “Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages–everything one could desire to amuse the children.”

He could’ve said the same about this house, which you can dismiss as a “log cabin” about as much as you can call the Queen Mary a “boat.” The house looms in my world as the ultimate turkey-hunting headquarters, and without committing myself to a lot of research, I feel pretty confident saying it provides the best taste of the Himalaya between the Lady Luck casino and Davenport.

Three stories high in back, the home stands on a foundation of limestone blocks carved from the surrounding hills. The woodlots blanketing the nearly vertical terrain yielded the logs milled into massive square timbers at a DIY lumber mill set up in the meadow below the building site. Square pillars shoulder the structure’s weight, standing firm even after twisting about 10 degrees counterclockwise over the years, like cedars torqued into a slight spiral by a prevailing wind. The sum effect is an exotic palisade perched above a forest glen.

It’s not just the decorating that skews to the quirky end of the spectrum by American housing standards. Bedroom and bathroom walls rise only about 8 feet toward the 20-foot ceilings, ensuring there are no secrets among the family living here. Every light switch and power outlet requires an Easter egg hunt. The showers feature what we hunters have come to know as “the salad bowls,” huge copper dishes set on tiled platforms about 18 inches high. Bathing here exists somewhere around the intersection of interpretive dance and life as a Caesar salad.

I’m sure, however, that it’s the kind of thing that fills Nepalese decorating magazines, if there were such a thing. There’s no denying the home’s Himalayan cred, springing as it did from the minds of the owners, who drew their inspiration for the intricately notched logs and wrap-around porches from the homes they encountered while living among the prayer flags and stratospheric mountains in the spot where India and China collided long ago. Much of the work, in fact, carries the imprint of genuine Nepalese hands, courtesy of a man named Kancha, who moved to Iowa for a year to assist with the building. (“They hired a Sherpa to work on it,” a local shopkeeper told me when I was passing through town this year.)

The year-long commute to the States was most likely the story of a lifetime for Kancha. Uncle Ric probably paid him over 12 months what would’ve taken five or 10 years to earn in Nepal. But the benefits for Kancha weren’t all paid in U.S. currency.

On weekends, the little work crew headed to the White Springs Inn, a local landmark of a supper club that dated to the Prohibition days and still relied on a natural limestone cave to keep the beer cool. While all the Iowans snapped up their favorite items off the relish tray that survives as a staple at supper clubs in this neck of the Midwest, Kancha waited for the basket of rolls to arrive. And to be specific, the butter that came with the basket of rolls. When the plate full of little balls of butter landed on the table, Kancha started popping them into his mouth like the world’s most buttery version of popcorn.

When the house was complete and Kancha was packing his suitcases to return to Nepal, Ric glanced into the suitcase and noticed that Kancha had elected to take virtually none of his clothes home. Instead, he’d lined the suitcase to the lid with packages of Keebler club crackers, a delicacy worth toting across the Pacific and into the high reaches of the Himalaya.

Several days each April, I slide down the steep hills, using trees as handholds and watching for a glimpse of the big beam house as I make my way out of the turkey woods. When I finally spot its sweeping porches and carved corbels standing halfway up the bluff, I think of Kancha and how he helped erect this house here in Iowa, leaving something of a portal to the far side of the earth. And then I like to imagine that if I poked around the house long enough, I’d eventually stumble into a tunnel leading to a village where I’d pop out to find little kids in colorful knitted hats, still dipping into a precious supply of Keebler crackers carried in from a strange, far place called Iowa.

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