The Adventure Traveler Who Lives in the 'American Gothic' House

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Beth Howard spent decades scuba diving with sharks and baking pies for movie stars before she fell in love with a historic Iowa farmhouse. For $250 a month, she now calls it home.

howard-top.jpg"In Venice Beach, California, you'd pay $5,000 bucks a month for something that cute," says Beth Howard, explaining her move from the West Coast. (Art Institute of Chicago; Evergreen.edu)

Were he alive today, artist Grant Wood might be surprised to discover who's living inside the Eldon, Iowa, house that inspired American Gothic, his relentlessly parodied painting of a dour farm duo. In 1930 an ornate window on a stark farmhouse prompted Wood to sketch it and fantasize about who might live there.

Today, that 700-square-foot home is occupied by Beth M. Howard, a former participant on the MTV adventure show Eco-Challenge 10-Day Adventure Race. Howard has spent the past three decades roaming the world as a journalist specializing in adventure travel: Her assignments have taken her sky diving, dog sledding, and scuba diving with sharks. She's an Iowa native, but she's spent much of her life in such far-flung places as Kenya, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. It never occurred to her that she'd return to the state she left at age 17. "I was never going to come back," she recently confided.

She did come back in August 2010, but it was meant to be for a temporary visit. That was when she first discovered the American Gothic house, a landmark she hadn't even realized stood 15 miles from her childhood home. She spotted a sign while driving along a state highway.

"I thought, 'Of course, I'm going to stop,'" Howard recalled. "Who hasn't seen the painting -- the couple with the pitchfork?" (She was less familiar with the painting's origins: "It's embarrassing to admit, but I thought the painting was by Norman Rockwell.") Howard took the six-mile detour to Eldon.

At that time, Howard was at a crossroads in her own life. Her appearance on the MTV show had led to a job at San Francisco-based Quokka Sports, an interactive website featuring videos and articles about outdoor adventure. "They needed content editors and producers. It was very cutting edge, very innovative, forcing me to stretch and learn and grow," Howard said, "and they were paying big bucks. Really, I was so grateful for that job."

But in 2001, Howard decided to leave the company. As an active person who counteracted her own 18-hour days by running up Mt. Tamalpais or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, she was tired of simulating outdoor adventure to keep people sitting in front of computers. At her exit interview, she surprised herself by blurting out, "I need to do something with my hands. I want to go make pie."

People ask Howard if the house is haunted. "It isn't," she said. Still, her first nights alone there were a little bit gothic.

After leaving Quokka, Howard moved to Malibu, where she visited a new café to sample its pie. When she learned the owner, Mary Spellman, had been too busy to make any that day, Howard offered to bake some. When Spellman asked for her qualifications, Howard retorted, "I'm from Iowa. I come from the land of pie."

In fact, Howard's mother and grandmothers had never taught her to bake. She'd made her first pie at age 17 under the direction of a pasty chef, a retired merchant marine, after he caught Howard and a friend stealing his apples during a bicycle road trip in Washington State. At Evergreen College, Howard continued baking pies -- mostly to impress guys. "It doesn't take much more than an apple pie to get someone's attention," she reported.

Under Spellman's tutelage, Howard perfected her pie baking. During the year she worked at the café, she made over 2,000 pies. Robert Downey Jr., Dick Van Dyke, Steven Spielberg, and other celebrities consumed them. But the superstars didn't faze Howard any more than the $7.50-per-hour paychecks did. It was "the lively chatter" and "the warm happy buzz in that kitchen" that kept her there, Howard said. "Mary nursed me back to life from that dotcom job."

Her reputation as a baker drew her back to her home state in 2010: she was invited to judge a pie-baking contest at the Iowa State Fair. She accepted the invitation, in part, because a painful anniversary was approaching: On August 19, one year earlier, a congenital heart condition had killed her seemingly healthy husband, Marcus Iken, at age 43.

Guilt complicated Howard's grief: on the day he died, Iken was slated to sign divorce papers in Portland, Oregon, to end the couple's six-year marriage. Howard had instigated the divorce. After her husband's work relocated him to Stuttgart, Germany, she decided to stay in the States. Howard hoped the trip to Iowa would help her get through the memory of that difficult time.

After taking the turnoff to Eldon -- a tiny cluster of buildings with a population of 927 -- Howard spotted the small white house in the distance, between the public works office and the visitors' center. "I just started laughing when I saw it," Howard said. "I thought, 'That is it, of course, but it's so cute. It's just so cute.'"

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Cheryl Fusco Johnson is a writer and editor who teaches at the University of Iowa's Summer Writing Festival and the Institute of Children's Literature in Redding, Connecticut. She hosts the radio show Writers' Voices at KRUU in Fairfield, Iowa.

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