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A jilted arsonist couldn't keep lovers away from the iconic bridges of Madison County  4 Days ago

Source: USA Today  

WINTERSET, Iowa — The charred remains of this famed wooden bridge in Madison County may seem like the worst possible landmark to commemorate Valentine’s Day: The very portrait of the blackened heart of dead romance.

The beloved Cedar Covered Bridge, one of Madison County’s six historic covered bridges that are linchpins of local tourism, was torched in April, allegedly by a 17-year-old and his two accomplices.

Police said Alexander Hoff was striking back at his ex-girlfriend. 

He was spotted on video surveillance while buying a gas can at 2:15 a.m., left the can behind in the ditch and then was spotted by another camera near the bridge at 3:15 a.m.

Needless to say, if he is convicted, Hoff's revenge won't be the savviest on record by a misguided Romeo. The alleged arsonist incinerated not only his own memories but those of lovers worldwide.

The Cedar Bridge arguably is Iowa’s No. 1 romantic icon, considering it graced the cover of the late Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel of a whirlwind love affair between a roving photographer and a farm wife. The book sold 50 million copies and spawned the 1995 Clint Eastwood-Meryl Streep film.

The bridge was set ablaze only a month after Waller, 77, died on his Texas ranch. 

That was the second time the Cedar fell prey to arson, after an initial unsolved case in 2002. 

So this reporter made a pilgrimage this week, parked my car and trudged through the snow to the foot of Cedar Bridge. That's where the deeper and more hopeful truth began to come into focus.

Even the furious blaze hadn't stopped couples from scrawling their endearing declarations of love on the bridge. 

Mick and Kim inked their names inside a heart in August. 

Marc and Amy also were there. 

It's the same for all of Madison County's 19th century bridges, which draw wedding parties as well as tourists.

If Valentine's Day in Iowa has a modern public canvas, it's these archaic bridges carved and covered with generations of Valentines.  

Several miles west, Hogback Bridge bears the traces of Timothy and Pamela, Linty and Jake.

“RT” and “GT” from Pilot Mountain, N.C., stopped in August 2017 while celebrating 42 years of bliss.

Kenny and Shonna (Sept. 16, 2017). Tyler and Ashley (Sept. 9, 2017). Nate and Ky (May 24, 2014). 

Randy left a poem for Debbie in 2003: “If I had a flower for every time I thought of you I’d walk in my garden forever!”

And then I noticed the curious box that hangs inside this bridge, holding what’s called the “Hogback Dreamer Journal.” 

That led me less than a mile down the road to the journal's caretaker, Rich Mills, perched next to the bridge in the North River valley. He's “four generations deep in this county,” as he put it.

He lives on 50 acres with his wife, Mayumi Ameku, and their boxer-terrier dog, Bella. They’re about to build a new straw-bale house behind their current home, nestled higher on a wooded hillside where they’ll enjoy a direct view of Hogback Bridge. 

These bridges are as firmly etched into Mills’ family heritage as the lovers' initials are inscribed into the bridges' weather-beaten lumber.

His maternal grandfather apparently was crafty at the subtle art of wooing: Back then many of the covered bridges also had doors on either end, Mills said, to provide better shelter in case of a rainstorm.

So the story goes that Mills’ grandfather scrambled to take his sweetheart on a buggy ride whenever dark clouds heavy with rain rolled in from across the prairie. Thus chances were good for an “emergency” stop inside a bridge to wait out the storm in romantic seclusion. 

Think of it as the horse-and-buggy equivalent of the car suddenly "running out of gas" while on a date. 

“I’m here, so it must have worked,” Mills said.

The couple collects a few journals per year from the bridge — at least 36 since 2011, with about 300 messages apiece. One or two have been stolen, but they held few entries. 

The only negative message Mills remembers is a girl's cathartic screed about how her parents had tricked her into visiting the bridges by telling her they would take her to the mall. She was thoroughly bored.

“Shoot me now,” she wrote. 

The journal was Ameku's idea, sparked by a story she heard about a similar tome kept near a lake. 

She was 10 years old in 1973 when she emigrated from Okinawa, Japan, with her mother and stepfather. She was living in Kansas and working for the Geary County Convention & Visitors Bureau when she met Mills in 1991 during a convention in Nashville. 

Mills had been a chamber director in Winterset in the 1970s. His family sold their local Chevy-Cadillac car dealership in the '80s. He launched a local internet provider in the 2000s. 

Ameku eventually joined him in Madison County. 

The wiry Mills, 64, with his tousle of gray hair and a goatee, is a spry figure whose malady is betrayed only by the constant tremble of his right hand. A decade ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

He reckons that staying active on a bicycle (more than 30 RAGBRAIs since 1976) and daily walks to Hogback has helped keep him ambulatory. 

“I’m still riding a unicycle,” he said.

But now Ameku is battling uterine cancer that was diagnosed in December. A CT scan in March will determine the effectiveness of her current regimen of chemotherapy. 

On a lark last week, feeling some urgency, the longtime couple finally got married at the local courthouse. They’re planning a big party in the spring. 

The first Dreamer Journal in August 2011 began with a love poem from Mills to Ameku, who was far away at the time he wrote it: 

Mills finds comfort in paging through the journals, marveling at all the personal stories shared by strangers. 

Carl and Andi stopped during their honeymoon trek from Michigan to the California redwoods: “We’re madly in love, and we love this area — IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL." 

Ronda and Richard from Denver: “Here with my sweetheart, love of my life. I asked to see them and he went out of his way to bring me. Loved him since third grade and though we spent 20 years apart, he came back. Love lives and what a lovely place to share it with those we love.” 

A 97-year-old military veteran of three wars left his photo.

A family from Buffalo, N.Y.,, taped a buffalo nickel to the journal page. 

“Some of the stuff they’re talking about just rips your heart,” Mills said. 

One note from July 2013 was accompanied by a sketch of the bridge: “Michael came here while traveling ‘so-low’ and missing his lovely wife Kristina.” 

“Dan from Chicago”: “Stopped by on a goodbye trip for the love of my life. She died this year from cancer. Just one of the many places we went together. I love you, Peggy.” 

"They found the bridges to get back a restart," Mills said. "You can tell they’re at their wits end. I’d like to know where these people are now.” 

Mills has toyed with the idea of starting a Facebook group or page for his Hogback Dreamer, so people check back in after they've returned home or achieved some sort of resolution to their journey. 

Some people end up calling to request a photo of their entry in the journal, because the bridge marked the beginning of a relationship that has blossomed. Mills loves “being Cupid’s helper.” 

Meanwhile, Madison County recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise the remaining $40,000 of nearly $600,000 necessary to restore Cedar Bridge. 

The accused Cedar arsonist reportedly wrote on Instagram, “The hardest part of life is knowing which bridges to burn and which to cross.” 

I don't blame a 17-year-old for his naiveté. But thousands of other visitors to these bridges, including Mills and Ameku, know that what's truly hard is to persevere with romance despite all life's obstacles.

That's why they leave behind encouraging notes, not a violent blaze.    

Happy Valentine’s Day to all you builders, re-builders and repairers who flock to these bridges, whether in celebration or solace. 

Keep filling the pages the Hogback Dreamer Journal for years to come. 

And please remember that the only torch you should bring near any of these bridges is the one that still burns in your heart. 

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