Ten minutes later, we were standing in front of a house on the edge of town, knocking on the door that ostensibly belonged to Darcy Benton's aunt. A woman in a white apron over a blue-and-white-checked blouse came to the door. She smiled when Sarah mentioned we were students. And even though she didn't invite us in, she did explain where we could find Darcy's mother.
"It's up around a bend and over the hill, kind of in the country," she warned us.
And so it was. Around the bend and over the hill, we shared a sigh of relief. There it was. A big, white farmhouse.
We knocked on the front door. "I think I hear a TV," Sarah said. But no one answered. So we peeked in a couple of windows. Nothing.
After loitering in the yard for several minutes, it was decided by unanimous vote (the dog didn't get a say) that we would drive up the road to the next house and inquire as to the Benton family's whereabouts.
"People in small towns know everything about their neighbors," I told Sarah. "They'll know what to do."
Up the road was an attractive, two-story house with a circular drive. After we rang the doorbell, movement in an upstairs window caught our eye. Framed in the open window was an older man in an undershirt, with wet hair and a towel around his neck. A woman standing behind him held a pair of shears.
"We'll be right down!" the man shouted almost merrily, as if getting his Sunday haircut interrupted by a couple of scraggly-looking strangers was exactly what he'd planned.
A minute later, the woman opened the door. Sarah gave her the spiel about being a student and looking for Darcy and wondering if by any chance this lovely woman happened to have any idea where her neighbors might be.
Just then, a car drove by on the road behind us.
The woman smiled. "That's them right there," she said. "But you better hurry. They're meeting us at the community picnic in half an hour."
Enter the car chase. After a hasty thank you, Sarah and I jumped into the Volkswagen and peeled after the Bentons, barreling down the two-lane at a pretty fast clip, slowing down only after we realized for certain they were pulling into their driveway.
Sarah parked the car along the roadside. As soon as the Bentons were inside, we headed for their door. A man answered.
"We're looking for Darcy Benton," Sarah began.
"Ah, then," said the man, "you need to talk to my wife."
He invited us to follow him. Here we were, in Darcy Benton's living room.
The man's wife – Darcy's mother – came in from the kitchen. Sure, she said, she'd be happy to tell us about Darcy. She showed us a few pictures. Darcy had never intended to do pageants, but a man who ran the pageant happened to see her – where, I forget now, but it was somewhere mundane, like a bowling alley or the mall – and he cajoled her into getting involved.
"She's not crazy about that sign at the edge of town still being there," Darcy's mom said.
Of course, Darcy didn't still live in Elwood. She lived in St. Louis, with her husband and kids. "Here," her mom said, "let me give you her cell number. I'm sure she wouldn't mind."
Before we left, they invited us to join them at the picnic. We could tell they meant it, too. If we didn't need to be to Indianapolis that night, we probably would have gone. ("That would make great tape," Sarah, the budding radio documentarian, said later.)
We headed toward Illinois brimming with ideas for how Sarah could turn this into a radio piece worthy of submitting at the conference. But by the time we made it to our eventual destination halfway across the country, time had run out. We never called Darcy. We didn't so much talk about her again until last week, when Darcy found us, after a Google search of her own name turned up this blog.
And so, in honor of finding Darcy, coupled with March, the Month of Lists, this is what I learned...
- People are generally friendlier than we give them credit for.
- There is something beautiful about a way of life where it's still okay to talk to strangers (and hand out your relatives' phone numbers).
- It never hurts to ask.
- Inspiration can come from anywhere—even from a 20-year-old billboard in the middle of an Iowan cornfield.
- The journey is always more interesting than the getting there.