My aunt told me that one of the worst drives she had ever completed was one from Iowa to Washington D.C. I listened to her, listened to the accent she had inherited from my now-deceased grandmother, one where the letter ‘r’ is introduced into words where it is otherwise absent. “That drive was awful,” she said, “I hated driving to Washington. Hated driving because Illinois, Indiana, Ohio … it is all one giant, flat cornfield.”
It’s hard to argue, especially when you’re used to ups and downs and curves and swerves. When I cross the Mississippi, switch my eyes from the expansive, slow blue to the downward slope of the bridge, the road evens out, flattens, jolts me and my car as I transition from bridge to ground. Flat, endless ground. The hills have disappeared, faded, dissipated into nothingness, into those endless cornfields.
It’s a land of rural harshness. A land of nostalgia. Of fields and farms, agriculture and animals. Of forgotten homes, abandoned schools, dilapidated businesses. It has been unchanged for decades. Unchanged, save for the juxtapositions that dot the hillsides—technologies that balance decades of agricultural tradition.
I document things, drive past stereotypes and Midwest hilarities for which my “California friends” would tease me. Without a recorder, I reach for my phone, the digital holder of my reflections and observations. “Tell your friends you drove past a town called ‘Mud Creek,’” I say, the microphone inches from my lips. “Tell them you think this land fits as many stereotypes as it defies. I mean, both Iowa and Indiana are forgotten by the mainstream, forgotten by urban development. They’re similar in that way, but, yet … they’re so different.” I sucked in a breath of air. “So various in accents and eatings and habits and cities and … weather.” I wrinkled my brow. “All the same, that which is humble is often forgotten.”
I drove. I drove. I drove. The caffeine with which I abused my body forced me to stop frequently, forced me out of the car and into the warmth of Illinois welcome centers, each with its a distinct, regional name. “Spoon River Rest Stop?” I absurdly ask, to no one other than myself. My boots click on the tiled floor as I cross to enter the restroom. “SPOOOOooooOOOn RIIIIIIIIIVER …. Sixty-second mIIIIIiiiile….”
Illinois holds other oddities, and as I speak to Hans and my mother—letting them know my progress across the prairie—I notice a rest stop vending machine, one stocked with jerky and Corn Nuts and dill pickles. “I need to get out of the Midwest,” I remark to my mother, who laughs when I inform her of the machine’s encapsulated “fair food.”
Another stop, another trip to the restroom. It takes a few moments for me to realize that the toilet handle is above my head; I reach for it, pull it, hear the familiar swoosh of water and briefly feel as if I am in a distant country—one that employs suspended water tanks and pull-chains. Feelings of grandeur are fast-fleeting, for it isn’t long before I see a license plate with the abbreviation “PORKLVR.”
I laugh. Finally laugh. Giggle to myself in the car, giggling as Straight No Chaser hums their way through “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” “Not long,” I tell myself. “You’re almost there.” I glance at the cache of Mountain Dew bottles, the half-eaten box of Goldfish crackers. I sip more of my Monster, the sweet acid dripping down my throat and into my veins, which convulsed with manufactured energy. “Almost.”