States of States
“Ascension seemed at such times a natural law. If one added it to a law of completion — that everything must finally be made comprehensible — then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of the hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”
- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
We left home on a wet, hot day, after a tearful night of bumper pool and Corona in the Sutton Place garage. Sweeney, with his broken finger, and me, with a swelling wasp sting, took off on the Taconic State Parkway with most of our worldly goods to a campground just outside of Ithaca. We were leaving for two years, a fact I did not feel fully until we hit a barren stretch of highway between Wall Drug and Rapid City, South Dakota about five days later. We listened to Bonnie Prince Billy and stopped in Monticello, one of the many towns whose bottom dropped out about forty years ago, for apple pie, ice cream, corned beef and latkes. Back in the car, All Things Considered continued coverage about the Catholic church bullying Women Religious, an international group of admirable and righteous nuns who, berated for (among other things) not taking a stand on abortion, answered How could we? Said Sister Pat Ferrell: “It’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives… Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That’s where we spend our days.”
Western New York is such a different creature than the five boroughs and their famous suburbs, which, seen on a map, are as slight as fingernail clippings, and yet consume the national imagination of the entire state. More than a quarter of which is national park. We rolled through hilly farmland that reminded me of Oregon. Ithaca, Utica, Troy and Rome carry on in the dark, rocky wilderness, bearing names of an ancient empire. In Binghamton, which, other than being home to the top SUNY university, seems wedged in slate and rust, we stopped for coconut water from a gas station across the street from a derelict Masonic temple. And when we entered Ithaca, I wondered how that quaint city had avoided the fate of the others around it. With its sloping leafy streets, sunny gorges, brightly painted craftsman homes. We swam after hours in the falls at Robert Tremaine State Park, and only when we were good and tired realized we were short on supplies. We hurried around a Wal-Mart in damp clothes, cooked dinner in the dark, and tried to sleep through the lightening and rain. I laid under the Pendleton blanket three girlhood friends had gifted us at the wedding, relaxing into the silence until the next peals of grenade-like thunder smacked the wilderness.
We woke up with percolator coffee, and continued West. That afternoon, tornadoes touched down thirty miles from where we camped, warnings persisted through the exact route we’d planned. Caught in torrential rain, we stopped on a Seneca reservation near Buffalo for cigarettes at Ken’s Smoke Shop, the register manned by a big white guy, but what do I know? He let us sample the mysterious reservation brands right there at the counter, which cost about twenty-five dollars a carton and which source tobacco from the same places as Marlboro. Just up the road was Salamanca, the namesake of Walk Two Moons’ heroine, whose roadtrip we were incidentally taking. And I just kept thinking, Who was the guy that first decided to fill that sovereign American Indian land with cigarettes and casinos? And I realized I had no idea how they determined laws, nor how at what rate their borders had been hemmed in the last century. We stopped in Jamestown, the birthplace of Lonely Christopher and Lucille Ball. And All Things Considered kept us updated on the Syrian revolution, where people continued to keep their shops open and drink coffee in public plazas, in spite of the flying bullets.
Toward the end of my junior year in college, I embarked on what I intended to be an epic piece of fiction about a dying romance called “States of States,” the chapters, and all atmospheric effects therein, dictated by which ever state the two lovers happened to be passing through. Sweeney and I had just split up. Also I was in the throes of a class about Western allegory and most of the stuff I was working on at the time more or less looked like this (including, but not limited to, a story wherein every character is named after an astrological constellation), and while I was perhaps onto something, the thing fizzled out after Kansas. When the chapters were reduced to quick, lazy paragraphs, I knew I had to stop. I hadn’t thought it through. The scope was far too big, and I was under the burdensome impression that I had special knowledge about the spirit the states. I wanted to express these places through things the characters felt, and the ways they acted, as they crossed each border. As wild as it was, I still love the idea — though it probably requires a great deal more humility. Because, after this trip, I still believe that some new humor is felt at every state line.
While Sweeney and I have undertaken some serious continental travel in our years together, none of it ended in semi-permanence. Once, with a bag of baby carrots and two hundred bucks, we drove to Savannah, Georgia and back for no reason but curiosity. With complimentary airfare we spent five days camping around New Mexico the week the housing market crashed. In 2009, we went on a ten-day book tour from Brooklyn to Madison, and a hitch-hiking tour later that summer up and down the West Coast. A midnight haul to Cape May for a christening, readings all around New England. But as we drew West, the sense of no-return filled us with a newfound vulnerability — and I began reading Housekeeping aloud. On US 20 through Ohio we passed a thruway called Lost Nation Rd., and we wondered how many times the Cuyahoga River caught fire, and for how long? We passed through Cleveland around sunset (bright, open, quiet, semi-Classical, semi-70s) and stopped to scramble down forested paths and swim in Lake Erie a few miles outside of town.
It continued to rain through our continental breakfast, and across the rest of The Buckeye State. We arrived in Detroit in the early afternoon, though the city limits blurred in with the highway. We never saw a sign. We just drove in on this wide boulevard toward city center, surrounded by burned out auto body shops, rows of vacant, crumbling buildings, poor neighborhoods you might see on the outskirts of any major American city, and I thought, This is not so different from Baltimore. But the outskirts never ended. And it’s bigger than Baltimore. Michigan Central Depot, a storied, Classical building, stands at the edge of Woodward Ave utterly gutted, and the railroad itself has returned to prairie, dipping in and out of empty storehouses. We drove up and down Rosa Parks, through the Southeast and Northeastern neighborhoods, for two hours, and part of me thought the whole thing was sick, my anthropological interest in a “fallen city” where people are still living their lives. But I wanted so badly to see. Miles and miles of big, grand, free-standing, two-family houses — brick, gingerbread, with big yards and balconies, totally reclaimed by the natural world, trees growing through windows, entire blocks of what were once the homes of an apparently enormous middle class — empty, full of snake grass and Queen Anne’s Lace, abandoned cars and buses rusting away in side yards. Without Ford’s strength, everything fell apart, and after the Detroit suburbs grew to the top wealthiest counties in the country, and after the service economy championed all, there was no going back. Of course we saw plenty of people, too, sitting out on their porches with a few family members, on a street they shared with one or two others, or none at all. Since 2005, 100 public schools have closed in Detroit — and there were schools for sale all over. It began to pour rain, and we ended up at a BBQ place called Slows next to a loan office with a “Going Out of Business” sign from 1967. And we watched the Olympics and ate brisket and drank Michigan IPA, and outside it rained and across the street was Michigan Central Depot.
Now, don’t let me tell an anti-fairy tale: there’s burgeoning commercial districts in the Motor City, and a booming hip hop scene. Sweeney and I were probably the last people to come marvel at the ruins. There’s a lot more to it than that, and a self-proclaimed renaissance that began long before I realized that Detroit had ever fallen at all. But we’d apparently elected to take the Rust Belt trail across America, which landed us again and again in these urban ruins, in the dispossessed expanses of this enormous and difficult country.
From Detroit we stopped in Ann Arbor, a mere hour-and-a-half away and in a state of college-town bliss. It was confounding that the two could be so close. And we sailed through Michigan, a stony-feeling, mitten-shaped place, Indiana, and Illinois, the edge of Chicago, reading and talking and listening to the radio until very late, and we stayed in a smoking room in Motel 6 about an hour west of that. West, and ever wester! Traveling west comes with the feeling of heading ever-farther away from the known world, toward an uncharted darkness, though it grows only flatter and lighter. We’d gone so fast because we wanted to spend a whole day in and around Madison, where we arrived with some friends three years back, and had loved instantly.
Once we crossed into Wisconsin, people started talking to us. It was a clear, balmy day, and the gray, used-up landscape of the Rust Belt gave way to the dense, lush agrarian greenery of this new, lake-pocked state. We’d been seeing corn, but now we were seeing more than ever. What would happen to all this land if we caught a corn blight? We stopped at a lake, and a kind, older couple talked with us in the picnic area for an hour, and their accents were so thick Sweeney thought they were Dutch.
Madison was as idyllic a college town as we remembered it, a lovely mix of independent commercial districts, on an isthmus surrounded by lakes, and a lively university community that is well integrated into the city. Good German-inspired food, and a student union on the lake that’s open to the public. We swam in Lake Mendota, whose banks were surrounded by 19th Century fraternity mansions. Some frat boys and sorority gals were hanging out in one of the backyards, and Sweeney got the brilliant idea of asking if we could camp on their hidden, rolling lawn for the night. They enthusiastically granted us permission, and we joined them for Keystone Light on the rickety dock until sunset. At dark we wandered up the street to the Union beer garden where a live band was playing old funk and Motown, and we came across a contingent of Couch Surfers who were congregating for a summer fest, and we drank, and danced, and played cards with them late into the night.
We woke up early in the morning in our backyard campsite to the sun rising over the lake, took a dip, and headed on through Minnesota (with a stop at Devil’s Lake). It is then, in the southeast border of the state, that the West truly began. It’s hard to explain why I know this. It’s just — the trees grew denser, taller, darker purpley-green. The Mississippi River created a sudden, verdant valley, and at the first rest stop, the historical placard began speaking of Lewis and Clark, Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox, the Green Giant, and all myths, real and unconfirmed, that I associate with the wild, mysterious dreams of the frontier. Windfarms popped up like alien invasions, and the Amish, and nice people at truck stops, like a cowboy wearing a yin yang ring with an iPhone and a joint and naked lady pictures on his dashboard who told us all about his life, and who I suspected had post-polio dystrophy.
And then South Dakota, which goes on forever. Giant tee-pee replicas adorn every rest stop, and it is as flat and bright and dry as you can imagine. We narrowly missed the Corn Palace and the fossil dig in Mitchell, and an old lady at the chamber of commerce gave us recommendations of where to camp. A tourist attraction called Wall Drug advertises itself for four-hundred miles (5cent Coffee! Camping supplies! Dougnuts! Fireworks!). Brontosaurus models pop up at gas stations and signs for Gutzon Borglum’s legacy, the sculptor who designed Mt. Rushmore, rise up on the painted-undersides of shipping crates positioned along the highway. On South Dakota Public Radio, bad news from the Pine Ridge reservation surfaced, and broadcasts about the meth epidemic, and occasionally in a mini-mart we’d come across a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. At 3,000 feet above sea-level, on these pre-historic feeling plains, I began to feel light-headed, and suddenly very far away from anything I’d ever known, and this is when I realized it was really happening. We entered the Badlands, with it’s toothy canyons, ribboned sandstone, and crumbling ridge, and took pictures in the heavy, dusty heat, winding through formations that, for a short time, thwarted the pioneers’ movement. It really makes you wonder: what the hell were these people thinking? How brave and psychotic must they have been, how powerful and vivid their fantasies, to drag their family (and heirlooms and china) by ox-and-cart across this desert, and eventually over the continental divide?
The Badlands were breathtaking, and spit us out right in the seat of Wall Drug, whose signs had commanded our attention across the entire state. Sweeney bought a pocket knife, and I got Tampax, in the faux-Western facades of “ye olde” Main Street. Here we were, near the border, and heading towards the mouth of the Black Hills National forest — a small, inexplicable mountain range the rises out of the plains, and becomes verdant, full of lakes — “black,” perhaps, because of its dark appearance in the distance — and night was falling. Here we were, near the battleground of Little Big Horn, when the Sioux won and Custer fell, and here we were in the holy land of the Lakota, where, in 1868 the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty protecting the area from white settlement forever, and where, a mere six years later Americans started mining for gold anyway, and the US government violated the treaty and forced the Lakota to remote reservations, and where (are you with me?) in 1934 a Danish-American who was an active member in the Ku Klux Klan began drilling the faces of four founding fathers in the rock formation where the Lakota believed the world to have begun. The interpretive center at the monument, which we visited the next day, represented none of this, but rather claimed it as a space where one’s patriotism could be refreshed.
We camped for two days in a remote campground in Custer State Park, by a little creek, and saw a wild buffalo, did laps in Center Lake, and were swarmed by my least favorite creature of the region: yellow jackets. And after that we carried on, across the border, into the marvelous, uncultivated, open space of Wyoming…