In late September of 2009, Sherry and I walked across the state of Iowa, north to south. We had hatched an ambitious plan to walk through each of the 50 states. We chose lonely county roads for our meandering so we could touch, hear, taste and smell all that was local and precious.

Sherry and I figured, by the time we were finished, we would be weathered, wealthy and wise. After all, the memories we store up in our minds over a lifetime are far more priceless than the material items we own (you know, those things covered in our insurance policies).

Iowa was the fourth state on our list. About noon on the third day of our journey, we came around a curve and spotted an old white farmhouse with cars and pick-up trucks lined up on both sides of the road for a quarter-mile.

Everything on the farm was going through a foreclosure auction. We spotted an old couple watching from under a weeping willow. They were holding hands and consoling each other as tractors, sewing machines, coffee cups, mattresses, dressers and picture frames were grabbed up by neighbors and strangers alike.

We sat on the hillside, inhaling the whole rural scene. The auctioneer’s clipped words cut through the whispers of young couples looking for bargains. People raised auction signs with numbers on them. Nearby, a group of boys swung on a rope swing. Farm ladies served up generous pieces of homemade apple and cherry pie. Seasoned farmers walked around and around the larger pieces of John Deere combines and balers.

And the whole time, the couple under the tree pressed hands as they peered out over 50 years of memories being sold to friends and strangers. What would happen to those objects of early morning breakfasts, of child-rearings, of clothes flowing on a laundry line?

I wanted to rush over to this couple and hug them and tell them nothing truly important was leaving them that day. I wanted to say that all that was good had already been captured in their clasped hands and watery eyes and in the character of their children and their children’s children and on and on.

But I was just a hiker, an intruder on a county road in Iowa with many miles to walk before the dark.