Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).
We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.
For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)
Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.
But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.
Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green. For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.
A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)
Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.
Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.
In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.
The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.
Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.
After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.
I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.
Die before you die. There is no chance after.