Travel Notes

Exploring the Bridges of Madison County

As a 20-something millennial, I’m pretty late to The Bridges of Madison County fan club party.

Pretty sure I was somewhere between binge watching My Little Mermaid VHS’s and leaving my latest lost molar under my pillow for the tooth fairy when “The Bridges” made its daring debut.  A love story about an Italian born Midwestern farm wife and a vegetarian National Geographic photographer form the Pacific Northwest would probably have received the same reception from me as the “cooties”.

But fast forward 20-some odd years, to a time in life where my dressing up like Ariel has been replaced with an academic career as a business professor, and I receive a free copy of the bestseller The Bridges of Madison County at our local library book sale. I didn’t think much of the book at the time – looked like a good rainy day read for when our rural Wi-Fi leaves Netflix buffering – but boy, was I in for one of the best reads of my life.

Springtime in Kansas is quite predictable (lots of thunderstorms) and that rainy day reading date, with my book sale find, a cup of tea, and my scraggly puppy didn’t take long to come around.

​I’d anticipated The Bridges of Madison County to just be another dime store romance novel, with typical 90’s sex censoring (aka: no Fifty Shades of Grey) and a rather “blah”, “love at first sight”, “happy ever after” story line that so characterizes works from the 90’s. However, within the first few pages, I discovered Francesca and Robert, the main characters introduced in The Bridges of Madison County, were anything but “blah”.

Maybe it was the familiarity of the characters – my husband is a veteran and photographer named Robert that’s postwar “dream” life could be characterized by living out of his truck and examining the world through the lens of his camera.

Or maybe I identified with the book setting, knowing full well what it was like to move from exciting, fast-paced places, only to find yourself living in a Midwestern community that would make Norman Rockwell’s renditions of rural life look scandalous.

Whatever the reason(s), The Bridges of Madison County – its characters, its setting, it’s plot – all spurred something within that compelled me to read the book all in one sitting, along with planning a trip to Madison County, Iowa and her illusive covered bridges.

While Madison County hosts a Bridges of Madison County Festival every year in the fall, I didn’t want to wait that long to walk the echoing tunnel of Roseman Bridge, so we scheduling our trip for May. Setting our GPS destination for Winterset, Iowa, a quaint farming community that’s developed as the “hub” for bridge seekers, we arrived early on a Thursday morning, hoping to beat the weekend crowds and score some good landscape shots of the iconic landmarks.

In case you’re new to the Bridges of Madison County Club, check out the movie trailer below for a Cliffs Notes version:

Ode to Cedar Bridge

​There are currently six historic covered bridges located in Madison County: Cedar, Cutler-Donahoe, Hogback, Holliwell, Imes, and Roseman. Unfortunately, Cedar Bridge – the one featured on the cover of The Bridges of Madison County book– was set ablaze by a spurned lover just weeks before our arrival.  Locals informed me that this was the second time Cedar Bridge had been the target of arson. When I dropped by the site, to assess the charred remains of this literary icon, a fellow bridge enthusiast met me as I approached and hollered, “Some dumbass burnt the bridge!” Admittedly, I shared his angered sentiment as I surveyed the damage, muttering, “What a shame…”



The Bridge Brigade

​The five remaining bridges were just lovely, and we were able to get several fantastic shots of these historical relics in between tour bus loads of retirees meandering along Iowa’s infamous bridge trail. The cultural significance The Bridges of Madison County book, film, and musical has brought to our society was extremely evident, even on a seemingly quiet weekday before the summer vacation season. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was the only bridge hunter left twenty-five years from the book’s well received debut, but judging by the hundreds of tourists I surveyed the bridges  alongside, I’d have to say The Bridges of Madison County’s cult following is still alive and well.

Clint Eastwood’s Café

Breaking for lunch, we had to dine at the Northside Café, a charming restaurant that was established in 1876 and made famous when Clint Eastwood incorporated it’s setting into his box office hit, The Bridges of Madison County film. Alongside another traveling couple (also from Kansas) we were able to snag a picture of the seat Eastwood sat on during the movie. Northside’s offered more than just a famous bar stool – the food was fantastic. As many of you fellow road weary travelers know, local eateries can be luck of the draw, but Northside’s food was divine, healthy, and budget-friendly!


Peacocking Around Winterset

​Following our hearty meal, we walked around Winterset square, chatted with some locals, visited some darling shops, and took lots of pictures. I spotted several older gentlemen wearing the wide-set, orange suspenders Robert, one of the book’s main characters, was noted to wear. I’d not seen similar suspenders being worn anywhere else within the Midwest, so spotting these flashy wardrobe accessories made me chuckle. My husband suggested the local male residents may be dressing like Robert from the book to spark conversation (and possibly other things) with the busloads of female travelers arriving in to visit the bridges and fulfill their sensual romance fantasies in Madison County.



Francesca’s Farmhouse

​I was able to get the address of the farmhouse used as the set during the filming of Clint Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy’s movie from a local shop keep.

​Driving out northeast of Winterset, following sixteen  miles of dusty gravel roads, we eventually came to the abandoned homestead that provided the backdrop for Francesca (played by Meryl Streep)’s home.

For years this charming farmhouse was open for tours during the summer months, allowing book and film fans; however, on October 6, 2003, the house was set ablaze by arsons, and much of the memorabilia was lost in the fire. The house owners were unable to cost effectively restore the house, thus, it sits uninhabited, closed off from the public view.

​Traveling Into Dimension Z

​Waller’s Bridges of Madison County present a story of star crossed lovers that discover a love within another dimension – Dimension Z, as Robert describes it – that challenges traditional views on commitment and romance, leaving the reader quite conflicted on what’s “right and wrong” when it comes to defining love. Should one follow their heart, even when their attractions evolve beyond socially accepted norms? Or should one confine their expressions of desire to the western world’s ramifications of marriage and family? Such are the questions The Bridges of Madison County presents, and their visitors seek to answer.

Follow my latest travels on Instagram: @MotivatedGenY 

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