Sitting in the cab of a small car, alone for many hours and over many days while traveling cross-country, will produce a lot of rethinking of old problems and the discovery of more than a few new ones. In that enclosed space, I have come to the not so subtle realization that writing (and reading) is very much like traveling. An exploration. In fact I write by question, from inquiry to inquiry, like a journey with no absolute course.
“Why did he do it?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
I do have a purpose, an ultimate goal, but I tend not to pre-determine its length or breadth until a shape has been conjured out of an accumulation of questions and answers–words chosen one by one for how they illuminate the path ahead. I think it’s the way many writers do it.
This is risky. I’ve found myself up many dead ends. I’ve had many false starts. But writing in this manner, I have discovered unexpected things. I’ve been surprised and horrified. Even when unsuccessful, I have learned something worthwhile every time. And it’s a greater pleasure for me than only trying to explain what I think I already know (I’ll leave that sort of task to the academics). In this way, I’ve found answers which I didn’t yet have the questions for, and questions I’m still trying to answer. I’ve learned to write again after many years of believing I had failed to accomplish the singular goal in my life.
After all, I didn’t want to write novels that were just like the novels that have been written before.
When I was younger, I used to plan my stories. Chart a course–an arc to explain something I had already determined. The fastest way from a to b and then to c. I’d actually map this trajectory out in my notes. Minding my Strunk and White, I’d try to pare my sentences down and use fewer and plainer words wherever I might. I’d read that many writers used this method as well. But for me, this did not work.
The metaphor of travel matches very well.
I was recently in the midlands. The American Midwest–Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. It is a country I love, and my affection was renewed by avoiding the sterile flight of travel over the interstate and instead driving along the two-lane state routes where the bend of wonderfully named rivers, like White Breast Creek, the Fabius, The Maquoketa, The Racoon (North, South and Middle), Peas Creek, the North and South Skunk, and the several iterations of the English, can carry you away from your compass heading for mile after mile, until, thinking you will never get on course again, at last the trail straightens at a dusty bridge and the wanted course lies in front of you like a taunt ribbon. The up and down of the Indiana hills is as joyful as a carnival ride if your lunch is at least an hour behind. The more gentle waves of topography in Iowa would easily offer up that better known image of a green ‘ocean of corn’ in the earlier season, but cut down to stub and tattered husk, the fields shine like old silver in a lowering sun of Autumn.
On any mile of road I might find a new question to ask.
Why, on Route 224 amidst the wide-open farmland of Ohio, just a short distance from a cluster of grain silos, is there a magnificent cathedral rising from the plains at Ottoville. You can certainly read the story of the Immaculate Conception Church and its splendid stained glass windows easily enough, but nowhere was it explained exactly why this should be here, with a population density that would normally support little more than a chapel. I was immediately reminded of the medieval ages and the building of the great cathedrals of Europe. There is a true story at Ottoville and more than a few to imagine, knowing that the power of such faith can drive men and women in odd ways.
The towering silos and grain elevators are, by themselves–as the skyscraper is to the city–the true visual symbol of the Midwest. They are as ubiquitous and awesome as natural phenomena. The grain elevator is both necessary and dangerous, directly affording a living for tens of thousands, and indirectly for us all, yet there are very few novels that take place around and about them. Calumet ‘K’ comes to mind, an excellent story by Merwin and Webster, but none others. I wonder why?
Another darker icon of the Midwest is the derelict house.
I have a habit of stopping at forsaken buildings. I cannot tell you exactly the reason. Perhaps it is that singular aspect among a remnant of yard trees grown gaunt and wind shattered, yet still guarding over the memories of the several generations who lived there. I’ve seen thousands of abandoned houses on the prairie through the years, with windows haunted now by odd lights, and more thousands of swaybacked barns and empty corn cribs posing as the desiccated remains of great beasts, with perhaps a single watchful crow knotted at a rusted cap of tin.
These dwellings evoke something in the heart of this city-boy that is not the same as the pity for a derelict townhouse. I wonder if it’s a memory within my genetic code, planted there by all those farmers who were my forebears. But by their solitary stature, these isolated fragments beg to be reconsidered. They begin or end in stories that you can only re-imagine–but you can imagine.
I stop briefly at a Gothic masterpiece of tall windows and double doors–two tall stories beneath a sharply pitched decorative slate roof with several thin fluted chimneys of brick. Looking for decay, the blood red band of colored slate accented the keen level of the roof line. The peeked caps on each of the dormers were repeated large above a front porch and again at the side above a veranda…But all of the windows were boarded over with raw lumber which had turned gray with age. As I rolled just beyond, I caught sight of a small brick ranch style home, just behind the larger house, which shared the same driveway. There was a fenced yard there and a dog and the color of children’s yard toys.
What was the story there? A contested will? A son who would not live in his father’s house? A young wife who could not bear the ghosts of a past she did not comprehend?
Barns, by themselves, take an infinite variety of form and shape amidst the fields. Each one is an individual study in functionality and purpose. They are vernacular. Rectangular more often than not, but dissimilar in many more important ways. So when I see an odd door with a knob, but no window, high on a singular turret above the fields, with no stair or apparent other use, I wonder why. My bookish brain conjures the unfinished tower at the House of Shaws from the novel Kidnapped and Uncle Ebenezer’s attempt to do away with young David Balfour on a dark and stormy night. Or, when I see the odd words ‘Mail Pouch’ writ large for all from a quarter mile away on the weathered boards, I am compelled to ask, what is that?
My grandfather chewed ‘Red Man’ tobacco and I was never exposed ‘Mail Pouch.’
Look. Far out amidst the furrows of a hundred neatly tended acres is a single column of brick. It is not so surprising to see this ancient chimney there, without the house it once warmed, so much as awesome to contemplate the reverence of the farmer who takes the trouble each season to wield his mighty John Deere combine around this obstruction, out of hallowed respect for his ancestors.
Further on, and quite suddenly, at the side of a road where deep gullies had defined mile after mile of farmland, a curb appears. This edging of stone has been battered by snow-plows and ages of road repairs, but it endures. Slowing, I looked about the empty autumn fields for some sign of its purpose as I roll by, and then it curves to an end and perhaps ten yards further on it rises again. I stop to look closer. There is nothing about me but the shiver of yellowed roadside grass, a tire-smashed soda can, birds on a telephone wire, and a house so distant I cannot see if it is modern or old–but close to the brim of the road, running up to the granite edge which is still as proudly straight as the day it was set in place, there are cobble stones. Ahead, I can see the curb has ended again and then starts once more, like hyphens on the prairie page. Across the road I see the collar of another curb now, peaking out of the gravel there.
Once there was a whole town here–on this spot. I’m standing on what had been a single block of a neighborhood now vanished–of a hundred or a thousand lives lived and gone…and I turn in search of the river that must be close. Instead, and finally, like the fool wandering in a forest upon first noticing he is lost, I see the straight low ridge where railroad tracks once filed, running away to a darker horizon.
Where did it all go? A tornado perhaps? A prairie fire?
The first automobiles must have parked at this curb. There would have been a gas station at one of these corners with two round glass heads on the pumps standing side by side. A dry goods store must have done well out of the passing traffic and the occasional Saturday extravagance of families cash poor but rich in all else. An ice-cream parlor could have been right there, too. I’ve read that they were crazy for ice cream at the turn of the last century. And before the Second War, over that way across the road, perhaps a Hy-Vee tried to make a go of it selling groceries against the self-sufficiency of Iowa farm frugality. And a church or two must have towered to one end or the other. They might even have had a mayor for a time, and a bank…Was the bank closed the evening Jesse James stopped here to rest his horses on his way to the ignominy of Northfield. It could have been…And all of that well before the railroad trunk lines were made useless by the Interstates.
Driving on, there is a interesting mix of self-wonder and frustration when I voluntarily halt on my way at an abused stop sign marking only a vague corner. A dirt road divided at the center by tall grass meets the gray of the asphalt without even the usual arc of muddied tractor wheels, and with not a soul to be seen for miles in any direction. This halt is not to avoid being ticketed by an unseen state trooper hiding in the grass. I do it as a hat-tip to civilization, past and present. But as I obey, I still must ask the question, why is this sign here?
Who once died at this place, and do they who pass here now each day still remember? Or have neighborhood kids simply found another small outlet for their creativity. First imagining the habitual turn of eyes upon a father’s face grown old many years too soon, I choose to smile at the possibility of a prankster instead.
My one repeated wish, as I go along, is that I could be driving a pick-up truck instead of my little Ford Escape. As it is, entering a one-street town, I have announced myself by the time I find a place to park. The woman at the counter of the feed and hardware store knows I am a tourist before I can phrase my first question. If I was in an F-150 I might possibly get past a few sentences before she is on to me and offering polite suggestions while pointing up the road toward the I-80. I want to eat in the cafe where she ate her own breakfast the hour before, not the Bob Evans at the interchange. I would have liked to have slept in the motel that was built by her Uncle Frank back after he came home from Vietnam, not the Day’s Inn. His picture is there, beside the display of 4-in-1 oil. But she is trying to be helpful.
Several times I drove on with eyes ready for the cluster of cars that might signal the local eatery, only to find a hangout, a tavern. The smell of sour beer in the morning does nothing for me. The faces that turn to catch the light from the door strike me as a nest of mice uncovered beneath the cushion of a couch. We have such places in the city, I know, but this dark den out on the wide-open spaces seemed anomalous–and odd too.
I cannot get over the sense that those furrows in the fields are the ripples of a shallow sea and the farmsteads are like islands. Then, the other image comes to mind again. Placed as they often are on a breast of earth, the silos are turrets and the barns are battlements and the house and trees become castles above the plain, miniatures of what I saw once with my wife in Spain, and suddenly I am whistling a Broadway show tune as I race across and between.
Everything is in translation, of course. The visual language about me is turned to the words I know out of my need to comprehend it, but then I worry over the possibility that my own vocabulary is determining what I see. What is incomprehensible becomes invisible. I must look harder where I can.
In central Illinois I am often honked at by locals for slowing down where there is no more obstruction than the simple dumbfounding beauty of what they get to see every day. A cop pulled up behind me where I’d stopped beside the road to watch horses play in an open field. I looked in my rearview mirror as he called in my license plate number before getting out to speak with me.
He asks, “Is there a problem?”
I grab up my roadmap in defense. “Just checking my directions, thanks.”
Should you admit to a cop that you’re a sap?
Later, when the sun sets itself down on the earth with no ridge or building or tree-line to interfere, I cannot help but be taken with the beauty of that fire which seems to exude from every small pore and cut upon the skin of this great body from which we have come and to which we will return. The Bible may be understood at such a moment, and no particular religion is necessary.
In the night, red lights blink from distant towers, sandwiched far out in the darkness. The road is a dashed ribbon of white disappearing shortly before me. The air is sweet with hay. I love the smell of hay, in spite of my allergies. I’d rather sneeze than miss it. Having gotten well past a hog raising area, the window is now open to the bluster of this perfume.
When a scattered rain begins to splatter amidst the stains and shadows of bugs on the windshield glass and turning the switch gets only a great grisly smear from the wipers where a clearer view was wanted, I pull over to let the dried remains of countless miles soften and rinse free. Cocooned within the little cab, I feel oddly unsafe, even with hazard lights blinking furiously. Perhaps it is the lightening that raises the hair on my neck. But there is no one else. I can see the fields about me as they alight with each flash and they are as empty as they will likely be until spring.
I step out into the weather. Two nights previous I had stood at a low ridge in Iowa and stared upward at stars vaulted from rim to rim. Here, lightening flares against the upside down terrain of clouds above. For the moment, I stand suspended upon an earth adrift amidst glistening bits of water set ablaze only by the lights of the automobile. I turn the motor and car lights off. The red beacons of the towers have been swallowed by a thicker downpour perhaps two or three miles away. There is no other up or down here, but for the fall of invisible rain that strikes at my raised face as if in anger. The sputtering flashes amidst the clouds are no closer–and perhaps even moving away–but they maintain the sense of the hollow gap between heaven and earth, though not which is which. The rumbles are harder to distinguish. I am more alone, on my journey then, than before. Just for that instant, without the balancing perspective of the road, I might as well be half way between heaven and hell.
And then, over the mile behind me, a white beam trails up the dashed line in the asphalt. Someone else is coming and I’d better turn on my own lights again and be on my way.
I was up to speed by the time the pick-up reached me, so there was no danger on the narrow road. But my mind begs a different thought. What would have happened, had my motor refused to start. What would have happened next?
He would have stopped to inquire, of course. “What do we have here?” he would have said.
In college, I remember getting a lift once from a white-haired gent in a pick-up while hitch-hiking just below White River Junction on Route 5 in Vermont. A fierce rain had come up unexpectedly. All the way to Brattleboro he lectured me on dressing better for the weather and the foolishness of youth. That old fellow has probably passed on now, but remembering, I place the man, probably then no older than I am now, in the truck behind me. I watch his lights in my mirror for a mile or two to keep my distance in the rain. But shortly, he turned off the road toward a single small house with windows illuminated in yellow amidst a copse of trees. The red of a barn is visible in a flare of lightening. There is a silo as well, with a sign near the top I cannot read in the dark.
Driving on in the tunneled darkness, I imagine the skeptical look of his wife as she welcomes the stranger her husband has found on the road.