From our front seats, we elide, then emerge, syllables in the mouth of an old soul singer. Not tumbling out into thick vinyl grooves or thin air, but gliding along the tongue, the bridge offering sure passage across the Illinois River.
This is our new sea level and, today, this is our prayer:
May the farmland rise up to meet you; may hunter green fields—cool and fine in each fold and promise—keep you; may they swallow you until heaven and earth feel like one.
If ever I am swallowed up into the world, I want you beside me.
So forth and so on we go, through a July afternoon pointed toward Champaign. That Old 97s song always causes a laugh, the one where Rhett Miller sings, “Oh then, if you die fearing God / And painfully employed / You will not go to heaven / You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois.”
Seeking entry to share the lyric, I open my mouth once or twice, then swallow the song. We watch what we say in front of our boy, watch what we sing in the car. I doubt you’re in the mood to resolve country-rock chords, to untangle the idea—however good-humored—of the Midwest not as flyover country, but a place of purgatory.
I pray to be enveloped by something, to lose myself in the strange atmosphere of somewhere.
Whenever you drive, I sleep or thumb a few pages of Leaves of Grass, Whitman coaxing rapture in one line, choked laughter with the next. The last time I crisscrossed the country without you, just me and the boy, I alternated Edward Abbey’s monk-like Desert Solitaire and Kerouac’s manchild On the Road to and through Arizona.
On the Road? On the nose. But I am exhausted from life in the thin places, so weary from knowing my skin and bones in the frail manner of the Psalmist. I pray to be enveloped by something, to lose myself in the strange atmosphere of somewhere. Turn me loose inside the great elemental reaction of sentences and scrub trees and the cold desert moon, between the sound of Kerouac’s smile, the everlasting syncopation of jazz, and ambient conversation carried on wisps and waves of diner coffee.
Reading now, I hear Jack clearly in Walt and Walt so clearly through Jack. And I remember how the lines we draw between our egos and our gratitude, between reckless love for the world and believing this world exists to love us, remain filmy forever and ever.
And so forth and so on we go.
Springfield offers as much Lincoln as a person can fit under their own stovepipe hat; still we cling to the blacktop. Déjà vu settles over the outskirts of Decatur till I realize Decatur looks just like Dyersburg, Tennessee, at least from the highway. Same box stores, same streets to pass through like ghosts.
Between mile markers, I see some farmer’s lousy witness nailed to a tree. Don’t forget Jesus, the placard reads. I avoid counting up all the days I’ve tried and failed.
Instead, my near-photographic recall sifts pages of the Gospels, locating all the parables this sign from God misunderstands. Words about beating your breast and what trees yield and the secret places. Center-left, somewhere in Matthew. Top right, according to John.
Illinois on this Sunday drive, northern Michigan by Monday, and an old feeling—younger than déjà vu, at least as old as us—returns.
Argenta announces itself like a prelude to some sweet bossa nova, a beaten nylon guitar playing on the breath of drums. But the town promises just one shelter beyond the exit, and so forth and so on we go.
We will not see Chicago this trip, though we circle its presence, sense the great city in the evidence of things unseen, if not the substance of our hopes. Our son barely remembers our last orbit round Chicago, brushing Glen Ellyn and Wheaton, out on the road to chase a dream. That dream withered before our understanding caught up, before we knew how the dreams you force to come true suck two, maybe three years from life together.
Illinois on this Sunday drive, northern Michigan by Monday, and an old feeling—younger than déjà vu, at least as old as us—returns. I watch the miles peel away, wish upon our destination. And yet a tenuous peace lives here, with you, with him, a peace I cannot leave or take but weigh, against resting the gears in park and opening the doors to somewhere else.
No one asks me about the secret of sticking together on the road for 20 years, moving through weather, past dubious landmarks, and a thousand people’s stories. Maybe it’s not a secret—the only one of something—so much as a mystery unlocking other mysteries. Whatever you call the thing, I’m feeling generous. I’ll write it down.
Let your imagination run: not wild, not free. Just far enough ahead to ready, then seal each moment. Just far enough ahead to believe no two people could know these roads and bridges, could feel their way across them, like you. This keeps you in motion, through the so forth and so on, through the two miles forward and yet another back, until terms like heaven and earth, journey and destination stop sounding all that unlike in your ears.