A View from the Windshield of My Car

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Buffalo, Badlands, marriage, harvesters, Deadwood, the Missouri River, interstates, rest stops, Council Bluffs, heliotropic current sheets & The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.

He hangs the earth on nothing. —Job 26:7

My sense of place is in the moving.

October 5, 2011, on my way from Kansas City to South Dakota on I-29, I see a detour sign. It is in northern Missouri, nearly on the Iowa border. I follow the line of traffic east on a narrow road to Tarkio, Missouri, in the opposite direction I was going. In Tarkio, the detour turns north on Highway 59. I drive mile after mile in western Iowa. At Council Bluffs, the detour turns west, back toward I-29.

Gray fields line the interstate. Something had happened.

There is water in fields on both sides of the interstate. It is the summer flood of the Missouri River. I travel often and don’t check road information before I leave. There’s always been a way through.

I realize the gray is mud and silt left from the floodwaters. Then I realize that flood has closed I-29. Mud has been bulldozed on the reopened sections of the highway. There is a barrenness there, where something had been.

A small orchard beside the road is underwater. A few trees standing in water do not have leaves. But on the Loess Hills farther to the northeast, the leaves are turning. DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is closed—closed, and closed all up and down the interstate. The water in the fields beside the highway reminds me of the sloughs in South Dakota, where I’m headed.

Hours later, at Sioux Falls, I turn west on I-90 and start across South Dakota. It is at least 400 miles to the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. I am driving because I want to bring my books and files. I have another destination after Deadwood—a conference in San Diego. I retired from teaching. I now have time to spend driving.

The evening sun sinks into the earth. A thin string of clouds girds the sun, making it look like Saturn with a ring around its middle. The air is dusty. There are harvesters in the fields. I could look straight at the sun with the ring around its center, as if a huge planet sat on the horizon.

Traveling after dark in South Dakota, harvesters’ bright lights stir clouds of dust. I stop at the White Lake rest stop west of Mitchell and crawl over the seat to lie down. Rest areas are motels for travelers who don’t have money to spend.

I have a file box on the passenger side that I cover with a pillow and blanket as though someone is sleeping there. Sometimes I cover the driver’s side with a blanket too. I pin strips of an old sheet to cover the rear windows so no one can see into the car. My back windows are darkened anyway.

In The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford writes about women who traveled. He says, “All carts had the same black covering…Common women drove a lumbering ox or a wooly yak before their heavy laden carts…but in her older years, Hoelun [the mother of Genghis Kahn] drove a high-stepping camel…She was known to travel long distances very quickly and even to travel at night.”

In her older years, the mother of Genghis Kahn drove a high-stepping camel…She was known to travel long distances very quickly and even to travel at night.

I think in my dreams I keep traveling with the Earth through the sky. Everything is moving. Even in sleep, I am aware of cars and trucks that enter the rest area and start out again on the road.

Before the sun comes up, I am awake. It is a raw, plain dawn. I take down the pinnings from the rear windows, go into the rest stop and wash my face. I return to the car and sit a moment. The earth is covered with early morning dew. There is an ugliness to it. The wind bends tall reeds in the sloughs across the plains as if a warning.

Cars travel the interstate with puffs of exhaust following them, each of us in our own little units traveling in odd groups in the cold dawn. A car passes on I-90 with mud flaps and several long aerials and antennas. It is a South Dakota car that knows how to cover long distances.

I’ve been over these roads before. South Dakota has four square corners. It has flat, brown fields with a few stringy trees in the distance. The same can be said for North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas. I passed the harvested fields of milo. Corn. Sunflowers.

I think of my 99-year-old aunt in Kansas City. In her head, it is snowing and the folks from the farm are coming. She should start home any minute. Every time I visit her, she has no idea who I am, or who she is. Nor does she know where she is, or when it is. When she talks, she weaves in and out of the past.

Traveling those distances by myself, I see I have been alone after all. My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a fugitive of sorts, separated from his people by circumstance. Though I have family and friends, I am a loner at the core, as maybe everyone discovers. After the dissolution of a marriage in which I put my trust. After I did what I thought I should do. I returned to church. I believed.

I-90 crosses the Missouri River, then passes Lake Francis Case. Next comes the wrinkled Badlands. Then the Black Hills. There are road signs for trading posts, Western wear, saddlery and buffalo burgers in Rapid City. And, of course, Wall Drug, for which there have been signs for 400 miles across South Dakota.

I think of the lonely road through South Dakota. The fields. The distant farms. Yet there is life buried there. A network I cannot see and am not a part of. My mother’s people were farmers in eastern Kansas, and I still felt the string of connectives to them, as did my aged aunt. I think that in these lonely times I yearn for something significant in the distance beyond which I can see. It is windy on this trip, as trips usually are across the northern Great Plains. Flags at weigh stations stand straight out. Wind buffets the car.

A sign at Bear Butte, just beyond Rapid City, warns, “Buffalo are dangerous. Stay in your vehicle.” The road winds through a field of grazing buffalo to a parking lot across a cattle guard, where it is safe to get out of the car. There are Lakota medicine and prayer bundles tied to trees as I walk a short ways up the path toward the butte.

In Sturgis, I see a boxy postal truck with flames painted on its sides—as if a mail truck could compete with the motorcycle roundup every summer. I spend three days in Deadwood at the book fest, then drive south on Highway 85 through another gray dawn. I drive through Black Hills National Forest. It is the fir trees that make the Black Hills look black. But there are also yellow birch and aspen leaves. Tails of fog hang over the tops of the hills.

From Highway 85, I turn west on 18/20 to I-25 south through Wyoming. I’m on my way to San Diego. There are tunnels in the mountains. From several peaks, I see the mountains turn blue in the distance as if putting on the sky as a coat.

From several peaks, I see the mountains turn blue in the distance as if putting on the sky as a coat.

I drive until it is dark. In Utah, there is a full moon. I-70 passes between huge rock formations. In the atlas, they are called the Book Cliffs, San Rafael Swell and Cave Cliffs.

October 10, six days after I left Kansas, I sleep at a rest stop in the mountains of Utah. At dawn, I see large rock formations with a white horizontal stripe through the pillars. I remember the evening sun in South Dakota with a warrior stripe around its middle. In travel, there are patterns that follow one another.

I drive I-15 south through Utah and California into San Diego. I visit the beach for a day. At the University of California San Diego, I attend the &Now new writing conference. In one of the sessions, a young woman presents her paper. She was abandoned as an infant in a cardboard box. On the table before her is a small cardboard box with a lid. She opens it and picks strips of paper at random from which she reads various aspects of her life. She has broken the whole of her life into manageable pieces. She has defused the difficult experience of her abandonment by fragmenting it.

In my aunt’s case, it was what age has done.

October 14, I start back to Kansas across the California desert on I-8. In Arizona, I take I-17 north to I-40. I sleep in a rest area east of Flagstaff, then continue east through Arizona and New Mexico to Oklahoma City, where I-35 heads north to Kansas.

October 15 [actually 2:00 a.m. on Sunday the sixteenth], two days after I left San Diego and ten days after I left my house in Kansas, I return to my house in Kansas. A trip of 4,038 miles.

I think of the evening sun that sank in South Dakota. The sun is made of plasma, a gas that is something like travel: nothing solid you can hold in your hand. The sun is a state of matter similar to gas in which certain particles are ionized. Wikipedia says that heating a gas may ionize it, or reduce the number of electrons, molecules or atoms, thus turning it into charged particles.

I pick these pieces at random. The heliotropic current sheet is the surface where the sun’s magnetic field changes from north to south. The shape of the current sheet results from the influence of the sun’s rotating magnetic field on the plasma. It sounds the same as holding an oscillating lawn sprinkler and moving it in my hand vertically up and down while my body rotates.

Travel is a road full of jumping waves connected to the eye of the solar system. Just look at the sun during a total eclipse. The black Earth is the pupil, the cornea or corona. Nothing more than a lumbering ox or wooly yak pulling a cart on a road through the dark.

Diane Glancy was a finalist in the 2015 Nowhere Fall Writing Contest. She is professor emeritus at Macalester College. Her latest books are Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education (creative nonfiction), University of Nebraska Press, 2014, and Report to the Department of the Interior (poetry), University of New Mexico Press. 2015. Wipf & Stock published three of her novels, Uprising of Goats, the voices of 10 Biblical women, One of Us, the BTK murders in Wichita, and Ironic Witness.

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