DELAVAN, WIS. — A late-summer sun bathes cornfields in hazy light as my father and I drive along a country road in southern Wisconsin. The speed limit is 55, but on this particular stretch, a blue car ahead of us slows the pace to a leisurely 50.
No matter. It's a beautiful Saturday, and we are in no hurry. The reduced speed gives us time to savor the lushness of the rolling countryside, to read hand-lettered signs at a farmstand ("Tomatoes. Sweet corn. Honey"), and to notice golden cylinders of newly harvested hay dotting a field.
But suddenly a black SUV appears in the rearview mirror, tailgating. Impatiently, the driver weaves in and out, looking for a chance to pass on this curving two-lane road. Finally he spies an opening. In a burst of noisy acceleration, he is off - a motorized hare leaving the calm tortoise in the blue sedan far behind.
Such urgency seems comically misplaced in this rural landscape, where the tempo is more suited to pokey tractors than aggressive tailgaters. But in a so-called 24/7 world, where work and play cycle around the clock, more and more people like this driver appear hard-wired for hurrying, even when no appointments beckon or deadlines loom.
Every few Saturdays for the past three summers, my father and I have traveled this road, driving 40 miles into the country for lunch at a popular restaurant. Beginning in May, before corn and soybeans have sprouted in the rich black soil, and ending in October, when dried cornstalks have been trimmed to stubble, we track the growing season. We joke about watching the corn grow.
We are hardly alone in finding pleasure in this bucolic activity. All summer, a Web site called IowaFarmer.com has been attracting fans from around the world - 600,000 at last count - who log on to check the growth of corn on an Iowa farm. A digital camera in a cornfield clicks a picture every 15 minutes.
To those leading busy urban lives, an afternoon in the country, with or without cornfields, serves as an idyllic retreat.
This is a world dotted with quaint towns and sprinkled with poetic, pastoral names - Morning Glory Farm and White Oaks Road.
It is a world where nature, not man, dictates rhythms, schedules, and deadlines.
Yet it is also a world that produces its share of contradictions.
Day-trippers from the city talk a good line about wanting to slow down. But many also secretly revel in busyness, toting overstuffed date books.
Day-trippers romanticize the pleasures of "a place in the country." They love leisure, but also crave excitement.
Day-trippers shopping for cider at an orchard may be charmed by a label touting its "old-fashioned country goodness." Yet how many could manage without a new-fashioned city supermarket nearby? And don't forget the international newsstand around the corner.
Behind its placid exterior, even the country can't escape workday tensions of its own. As any farmer can attest, rural life offers the original 24/7 routine. Cows must be milked twice a day. Crops must be planted and harvested as weather and seasons dictate. Vacations? Forget it.
Country folks versus city slickers. Rural versus urban. Slow versus fast. The debate goes on.
For many of us, nature beckons, but civilization calls us back. In any contest between the City Mouse and the Country Mouse, the City Mouse appears to be winning. But even the City Mouse understands the refreshment that only the country can offer.
On this September Saturday, my father and I stop at a roadside stand to buy corn. The owner, an engaging man in bib overalls, calls himself "Tony the happy farmer." For Tony, the pleasure of standing under a yellow-striped tent in a grassy field, selling the bountiful harvest from his son's farm, is evident.
We day-tripping city mice know we couldn't do what Tony does all four seasons. But we also know our lives would be less rich if we didn't watch the corn grow at least once or twice a year.
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