A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest.
Once you post it on social media, you own it. Doesn’t really matter what it is. It could be something as sweet as an approbation or as vile as a slur. Like it or not, it’s yours to keep.
When it’s all still in your head, you’re window shopping, kicking tires at the car lot.
You can toy with the idea of skydiving but once you’ve put it out on Zuckie’s scandal sheet there’s really no backing out while still managing to save face. With that one mouse click you’ve cleared the table of any future claims of acrophobia.
Whatever you put on social media you’ve paid for and taken home. Worse yet, you’ve tossed out the box and the packing, the point of no returns, no refunds, no in-store credits.
And so on July 7th, 2020 I went on Facebook and took ownership of a planned road trip through the American Midwest. I advertised it as a weeks-long solo journey with no firm plans other than to point the car towards somewhere and drive. I’d make some stops here and there but it wasn’t clear exactly where. And somewhere along the road to somewhere it was likely that I’d turn towards somewhere else.
It would be a white lined mystery box. In midsummer I was turning that mystery box over in my head as one inspects a wrapped package, wondering what’s inside.
Soon after putting up the post, I thought about taking it down.
I was having buyer’s remorse, worried that the chunk I was biting off might be a lot bigger than I could chew. This long, strange trip was something that had developed in my woozy mind during one of those three in the morning moments when I toss around wild ass possibilities in the hopes they’ll lull me back to sleep. That never works of course. A wild ass possibility is just the first domino in a winding queue of dominos that topple around in your skull until you realize, too late, that picking up a book about the History and Politics of the Prussian Army might be a more fitting vehicle to steer you back to sleep.
Without a tranquilizing book to turn to the wild ass dominoes continued to fall until they weren’t so wild ass anymore. In fact they’d become a perfectly logical idea. The idea actually had its infancy three months before and had since gone through a growth spurt. By the time I got up in the morning the idea had reached adolescence.
Adolescence. That confusing, questioning time.
And there were questions, questions aplenty, my own and from others, the most direct one being…
And why the Midwest of all places?
The Midwest. I think I’ve heard it all. In fact I’ve probably repeated most of it at some time or another.
Everyone there owns a cow, and at some point during childhood belonged to the Four H Club or the Future Farmers of America. Coaxing milk from a bovine udder is in their genes.
Why own an alarm clock when you can wake up to a rooster?
The Midwest, maligned as dull, hokey, inelegant and starchy. The land of corn and corny.
“Once you’ve seen a cornfield you’ve seen the Midwest, buddy. After that you can turn back for home.”
Why go to a section of the country whose population I have so many philosophical differences with?
Why go to a place that pisses me off every election year, when it re-elects the Republicans already in office and every two years adds even more Republicans to its ever growing, ever maddening, GOP collection?
Not only was I planning to visit conservative states, I intended to drive back roads, farm roads, county roads, country roads, dirt roads and places with only traces for roads. On top of that my plan was to avoid cities, the only places that harbor more than a lonely smattering of kindred liberals. In other words true blue me intended to hit the brightest, bloodiest red stains in the reddest of states. Why?
Why drive through states that I often malign as being behind the times?
Why would I, a liberal Californian from San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi-land, risk getting verbally hosed by the locals?
Why would someone who assiduously avoids church and taps his foot impatiently when Thanksgiving grace is being recited, go to a place where prayer and Sunday go to meetin’ are said to come as naturally as breathing?
And why do it during the middle of a pandemic denied by the very people I’d be rubbing elbows with, and even worse, exchanging molecules of air with?
Maybe the questions were the answers.
Maybe my road trip would steer me to a more enlightened road, away from the simple, effortless path of least resistance, the reliance on a little screen that we scroll through while slouched in an easy chair.
For too long we’ve lived in an era in which we don’t want to take the effort to encounter something on our own because we can get it all from the convenience of our living rooms. And to compound the sin, to turn it from the venial to the mortal, we don’t go through the trouble of separating the kernels of fact from the chaff of innuendo. We just take as gospel the (mis)information of a friend or some random stranger who carries no bona fides other than a YouTube account.
Maybe a lot of what I thought I knew about the Midwest sat in a squishy base of bullshit.
I wanted to see America, damn it. Unvarnished, un-prettified/un-uglified America, sans big city glass and steel. I wanted, no, I needed, NEEDED, to discover an America I’d never seen. And I wanted to do it on my own terms.
This Midwest, that gigantic swath which grows my cereal, squeezes out whatever mystery meat that goes in my sandwich, and that holds sway over the electoral college and the Senate, has long been for me something of an enigma. I’d only known it through rumor, pejoratives or jokes told on a late night TV monolog or by broadcasters doing Cleveland Browns football games.
I’d judged the big “book” of the Midwest by its cover. Worse than that I’d judged the Midwest by a library of anecdotes. Not the stories told by Midwesterners themselves, but the accounts of pundits, CNNers and the hifalutin, self-styled cognoscenti from the left and right coasts. What I knew of the Midwest were tales about rubes and hayseeds, passed on by the people who looked down on Iowa from their high brows. And I had to admit that I was one of those cognoscenti.
I needed to see the Midwest for myself, to make up my own mind and to write my own story, if not on paper then at the very least in my own consciousness.
Out there between Denver and Pittsburgh lay a broad land with its own culture. I wanted to solve that vast riddle of America’s middle.
I’d been to the American South and the East Coast, the Mountain States, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. I’d even been to Hawaii. All that was left was Alaska and the Midwest.
But there was a more pressing reason for wanting to take to the road. By the Fourth of July holiday I was feeling restless, morose. I felt as if something had been left unfinished.