An Unlikely Pilgrimage

By Jennifer McGaha

Admittedly, the Midwest is an unlikely place for a pilgrimage. In the vast and wide-open landscape, one doesn’t have the sense so much of going inward, but rather of being exposed, flayed open like a trout. Had I had more money or more time to contemplate my path, I might have gone to Lumbini or hiked the El Camino. As it were, it had been less than a week since I had applied for a semester-long teaching position at a rural Illinois university. I had interviewed via Skype, received an offer, grabbed a few essential items—my mountain bike, my dog, my computer—and headed west. I left behind four other dogs, my husband, and my two sons who attended North Carolina colleges.

My Lab, Hester, rode shotgun as we drove through torrential rain all the way from North Carolina, through Tennessee, and over the rolling hills of Kentucky. Then, just as we hit Indiana, the rain eased, the sky grew wide and clear, and Hall and Oates came on the radio. Hester and I cranked it up and jammed all the way through the Hoosier National Forest. Finally, we were passing mile after mile of corn and soybean fields.

I had lived my entire life in the Appalachian Mountains, and the only thing I knew about living on a prairie I had gotten from Little House on the Prairie. As I looked across the varying hues of green that grew deeper and darker before finally dipping into the horizon, that information seemed a bit dated. Eventually, I passed some signs of civilization—a few gas stations, a sign here and there announcing the village populations—400, 800, 1200—a hotel or two, a billboard indicating the university was just ahead, and then, a row of highrise dorms. The dorms were stark and bleak, their concrete façades more closely resembling housing projects than any dorm I had ever seen.

We have made a mistake,
I told Hester. A really big mistake.

But there was no time to reconsider. Moments earlier, the writing director had called to tell me that I needed to be on campus to sign my contract by 4 p.m.. Or what, I don’t know. Classes were to begin at 8:00 the next morning, hardly enough time to find another English teacher. I turned left at campus, eased up the hill past the cemetery, and followed the directions to the renovated boxcar where I would live for the next four months.

Before I left home, I had looked at the structure on Google Earth. Flat and oblong, it was a Lego project in progress. When I zoomed out, the Legos—and the tiny town around it—became an island in an immense sea of fields. Now, I could see that the building was low-lying and painted train red. On one side, a fenced yard was full of lovely, untame things—a sagging fence bordering a bed of wild, overgrown asparagus, an unruly thatch of mint that brought to mind a really strong mojito. On the other side of the house was a fence covered in hundreds of thick, ripe tomatoes.

The boxcar was actually what remained of three boxcars that, years ago, a homeless man had hauled over from the nearby railroad station. He had sawed and hammered and nailed until he connected the cars in such a way that they made a house. Sort of. Eventually, the story goes, the man decided to build a church onto one end, so he sawed off the end of one of the cars to create an addition where he proselytized to his family and anyone else who would listen. The Hobo Arms, the neighbors dubbed it.

Years later, the house was divided into this duplex, and in the 1970’s, a band called the Rainbow Riders lived in the back apartment. They had large, rowdy rehearsals in the front yard and a pet goat that occasionally wandered over to the neighbor’s pool. It seemed that everyone I met here had a story about this place. People had smoked weed there, dropped acid there, made love there.

Had I researched this place before leaving, I would have known that summers on the prairie are sweltering, and I would have packed shorts and sundresses instead of sweaters and wool pants. My sheets dried on the clothesline outside in the time it took me to run inside and eat a tomato sandwich, and one day in late August, when the temperature peaked at 112 degrees, I found myself standing in front of the Redbox machine at Walmart, my shirt drenched in sweat, my breathing heavy, trying to decide whether I could make it back to my car without collapsing.

In the evenings, when the temperature cooled to the upper nineties, Hester and I were downright giddy. We headed to nearby Colchester where Lake Argyle was surrounded by the steepest hills I had seen since Kentucky. Prairie grass stirred in the hot, thick wind, old ladies fished for walleye from the bank, and teenagers stretched on blankets by the water, cans of beer and sunscreen scattered amongst their prone bodies. Hester and I walked along the paved road and across the dam, retracing the steps of the miners who had extracted coal from these hills. At dusk, we made our way to a dirt road where we stood in the fading light and watched the sun sink over the prairie, a hot, red orb that turned pink, then orange before sinking into the horizon.

Within a few days after arriving, I also joined a bike group. We met early on Saturday mornings, before the sun became a scorching globe over the fields. Each week we rode to a different tiny town where we stopped for breakfast before riding home. We rode to Acadia, Bushnell, Colchester, Industry, Tennessee—to places where the cook was also the waitress and the cashier, where banana pudding was considered a side, where posters announced that a local pool hall offered haircuts for only three dollars, where handwritten signs above the toilets commanded us to use the facilities properly or not at all.

Everywhere I went, people were friendly, engaging. Usually, I was happy to have someone other than Hester to talk to, but, at times, I found all the camaraderie overwhelming. In the dog food aisle at Hy-Vee, a woman wanted to know what kind of dog I had, then what I was doing here and if I had a husband. In the produce area, three different people stopped to ask me what I planned to do with the fennel in my buggy. When I was strolling through the neighborhood with my dog one day, a woman blocked my path to inform me that dog water bowls were on sale at Farm King should I wish to buy one.

Unlike Midwesterners, Southerners, I have since been told, are not actually friendly. We are only polite, a distinction which implies distance. And yet despite these differences, there was something about these people and this place that was also instantly familiar. When I was growing up, I had spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ home in Canton, a tiny mill town just over the mountain from my hometown. The intimate cafes here, the strong pro-union sentiment, the elaborate Labor Day festivities that essentially shut down the town, the incessant, mournful sound of trains passing through day and night were all reminiscent of my childhood. Now, most of the factories in North Carolina had been shut down, the railroads in our area largely dormant, the people a confusing, conflicted blend of new and old and new-trying-to-seem-old.

By mid-September, I was starting to feel just a little Midwestern. Rural Midwestern. I was remembering to stop at train crossings. I had mastered the four-way stop. I had learned to fill up on gas before I headed out on a long road trip. And I had learned to buy any alcohol I wanted for Sunday on Saturday. One afternoon around that time, I was sitting in my office catching up on some grading when my officemate cleared her throat. I looked up.

“So,” she said, “what exactly are you doing here?”

It was a question people repeatedly asked me in different ways, but the question was always essentially the same: What is wrong with you? What was so wrong with your old life to cause you to end up here alone? When most people asked, I told them part of the truth, that I had spent years teaching as an adjunct and that I needed the money. But for some reason, maybe the fact that I was particularly tired that day, that I had pulled out a shirt to wear and that it smelled so strongly of wood smoke, of home, a home that I no longer recognized as my own, I told her more.

In the months before I came here, we had lost our Cape Cod home in the country to foreclosure, and we had moved to a very rustic one-hundred-year-old cabin in the woods. And then, in rapid succession, three of my family members had died—my great-aunt, my great-uncle, and my grandmother.

My grandmother’s death had been particularly difficult as we had always been close, and I had been the one caring for her the night she died. I was haunted by the memory of how I had found her the next morning—curled on her side, her head resting in the crook of one arm, her lips a grayish-blue. I blamed myself for her death, for not going into her room when I had heard her cry out once the night before, for the fact that while I was sipping wine and watching “House” reruns, she was in the next room slipping quietly away.

My officemate was in her early thirties. She wore short, clingy dresses and stilettos to work. Her long brown hair was tinted blond, her freshly manicured nails crimson. While I talked, she made sympathetic faces, turned her lovely rose lips into a sympathetic groan.

“Oh,” she said when I was finished. “So you’re resetting.”

“Yeah,” I said, tapping my pen on my desk. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m doing.”

I’m resetting, I told myself over and over in the days to come. Suddenly, instead of being a dropout from my old life, this thing I was doing had a name and a purpose, and I began to settle into it, the way you ease into pigeon pose in yoga class if you just breathe slowly and deeply enough.

One evening in late September, just after the daytime high temperature had dipped into the eighties, another colleague, Karen, invited me to a potluck picnic sponsored by a local food advocacy group. We sat at cloth-covered tables surrounded by vases of flowers and decanters of water and wine and ate curried sweet potato soup prepared by a former member of the Rainbow Riders and pound cake made by a biology professor who was also a jazz singer.

On patio next to the serving tables, a man sold honey and fresh chestnuts. The grass in the yard was green, but in the bare spots around the yard, deep cracks marred the parched earth. The prairie grass just beyond was stiff and dry, and beyond that was a lake with a wooden dock and a rowboat. The air was stagnant and buzzing with insects, but the lake was surrounded by cool, lanky trees. From my vantage point on the hill, the white tablecloths and wine decanters and the long, slow, dipping sun almost made me believe I was in a photo shoot for Bon Appetit, only instead of tweed-clad stockbrokers and high-heeled investment bankers, we were an odd amalgamation of professors and farmers and hunters donned in long, flowing blouses and camo hats and boots.

As the sun began to set, we gathered our jackets and made our way to the fire pit outside. A circle formed near the fire—men with harmonicas and fiddles, women with guitars and voices like lazy rivers. The sky was wide and full of stars. I stood next to the fire, and our host came over. Before long, as often happened around here, the conversation turned to deer hunting.

The deer here weren’t like the deer in North Carolina. In comparison, North Carolina deer were scrappy, scrawny animals. The deer here were the size of elk, and they were everywhere. In fact, the largest deer ever shot in the U.S. was supposedly shot in this county. I knew that hunting was a big deal here, but other than the previously aforementioned facts, I didn’t know one thing about it.

But I was becoming a better listener here in the Midwest than I had been at home, and so I listened while our host told me about the best places to hunt, about the largest deer he had ever killed, about the differences in bow and musket and shotgun season. He told me his son was a forestry major and that he himself had never had the opportunity to go to college, but that he had always wanted his son to go. After he moved on, I stared into the fire and tried to picture this son raised on deer and guns and broad, open spaces, and I wondered what there was about this place that made grown men tell perfect strangers what they most hoped for their children.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” someone said.

A man I had seen earlier stood next to me. He was older than I was, in his sixties. He wore jeans and a ball cap and held a Heineken in one hand. He gestured toward the circle of musicians.

“They’re great,” I said.

The harmonica was somber and woeful, a long coal train bound for the Mississippi.

“Do you teach at the university?” he asked me.

It wasn’t a hard call. Pretty much everyone here taught at the university or had taught there at one point.

“English,” I said. “I’m just here for the semester.”

I took a sip of my Blue Moon and moved to a log by the fire. The man eased onto a log next to me.

“Where did they find an English teacher just for the semester?” he asked.

“Online,” I said. “I found the job online.”

“Is there like a Rent-An-English-teacher website?” he asked.

He had bright blue eyes and a certain thing about him, a spark, a glow, an easy smile. Together, we chuckled about the low prestige of my position, the crazy randomness of it all.

“I’m Chris,” he said.

“Jennifer.”

Now, the band launched into a rendition of “Wagon Wheel.” Back in North Carolina, “Wagon Wheel” was an anthem of sorts, an evocation of regional pride. I had first heard it when my oldest son learned to play it on the guitar when he was in high school. He would head to his makeshift studio in the garage and belt it out so clearly that, standing in the back yard next to the wilting apple trees, I could make out every word. Now, I told Chris about how Old Crow Medicine Show made “Wagon Wheel” famous but then Darius Rucker played it, and it just never felt right when he sang it.

“Really?” he said in that way that people do when they are not the slightest bit interested. And then, “How old are you? About 40?”

I frowned at him and downed the rest of my beer.

“Don’t even,” I said.

He laughed, and though I never sang back in North Carolina, I begin to sing along. I sang to Chris and to the fire and to the stars, which seemed to be stretching further and further across the sky. When the song was over, Chris was ready to leave. He got his coat, spoke to our hosts, then came back over and crouched beside me. He leaned into me, put his hand on my back.

“Are you homesick?” he asked me.

In the two months I had been here, not one person had asked me this. I guess they assumed that if one took off with less than a week’s notice to the Midwest to live in a boxcar alone with one’s Lab, one must be so miserable at home as not to ever be homesick. And, actually, had he asked me this last night or the night before, I would have said yes.

Never before had I spent so much time alone. When I was seventeen years old, I had gone from my parents’ house to college. And, then, while still in college, I was married and pregnant with my first child. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was divorced and remarried with two more children. Ever since then, my house had been full of the sounds of children and dogs and all the things that went along with children and dogs.

At first, the large spaces of silence I had here had seemed infinite. Anxious for the sound of someone else’s voice, I lay in bed at night, mentally clicking off how many days I had left before the end of the semester. Hester sprawled beside me, her head on the pillow, her large, hazel eyes peering into mine, as if she, too, were pondering the strangeness of our circumstances. But then at some point—not at a particular time or at a particular event but at some vague, indefinite moment—I had begun to ease into this new life, and the silence, instead of being a void, had begun to have its own weight and texture.

Now, the Big Dipper hung just over my head, so low I felt I could reach up and take a gulp of cool, clear sky.

“No,” I told Chris. “I’m not homesick.”

The band was playing a Gillian Welch tune—“Elvis”—and Karen was singing, her voice a low, longing croon.

“That’s good,” Chris said and patted my back. “That’s good. Sometimes we need to do new things.”

Long after he had left, I sat there, the fire warming my back, the harmonica strains drifting through the trees.

A few weeks later, just after the harvest, when the Asian beetles had swarmed from the fields and stuck to car windows and doors, to light fixtures and porch railings—a virtual modern day plague—a tornado skirted our town and devastated a small community just outside of Peoria. Hester and I were walking at the lake when the storm hit.

The sky turned gray, then an odd, purplish black. Limbs hurled through the air. We jumped in our car and as we drove home, street lights and power lines shook so violently Hester huddled onto the floor and refused to move. We arrived home just as the storm was easing. I parked the car under the breezeway in the driveway and called my husband.

“You wouldn’t believe the storm we just had,” I told him. “The wind—the wind was incredible.”

I described the eerie, lonesome howling, the way the lake water had turned dark and fierce, the cracking of the tethered boats as they slammed against the dock. And then, suddenly, as if the storm had pried something loose in me, I was filled with panic at the thought of leaving this place, of leaving friends who had loaned me spare bikes and baked me homemade bread, who had invited me to Sunday dinner at their farms, who had helped me trap mice and shared their homegrown tomatoes.

“They’ve asked me to stay here another semester,” I suddenly said.

My husband cleared his throat.

“But you won’t, right?”

There was a pause.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“We talked about this, remember? You’re coming home in December.”

Lightening streaked the sky. Branches and leaves littered the yard, and through the cracked car windows, the scent of mint filled the air.

“I mean, it’s just that I can imagine this whole other life,” I said.

The pause then was so long and deep that I took the phone away from my ear and looked at the seconds ticking away to make sure we were still connected. Finally, my husband spoke.

“You have a life here,” he said.

“But I have a life here too,” I said. “I have friends. A job. People I have formed attachments to.”

They were disjointed thoughts, disparate pieces trying to come together to say something about how I was not the same person who had left home months before. But how do you say that somehow, in the midst of teaching eighty-five kids from innercity Chicago, of learning what “YOLO” and “turnt up” meant, of scuttling down canyons in Starved Rock State Park and bike riding along the Mississippi and chatting with the next-door neighbor while our dogs chased an errant rabbit back and forth in an endlessly entertaining game of bunny volleyball, I had come to understand some important things about myself and who I was? How could I explain that, for a few moments, there were people whose lives had lined up next to mine and eased my grief, made me feel less broken?

It wasn’t something I could articulate—not then, not ever really. My husband’s silence was filled with raw, shrill aching.

“I’m coming home,” I told him at last. “I am. It’s just going to be hard.”

That winter would be one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record for this region, and the December day when I left for good, it was six degrees below zero, my front porch covered with a thin layer of ice. I had packed all of my belongings the day before, and the entranceway was covered with bags and boxes. Before daylight that morning, I dressed and put on two coats, a pair of gloves, a hat, and boots. I gripped the handrail on the porch staggered outside, carrying box after box to my car. Hester stood shivering on the porch, her eyes roaming from the boxes and suitcases to the car to me.

“Come on, girl,” I said to her when I was finished.

She bolted down the steps, out the front gate, and directly onto the box of student papers in my back seat.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. And then, “We’re going home, girl.”

She flicked her tail. I made one final run to campus to return my students’ papers, and then Hester and I headed south. For hours, we rode past snow covered fields until, finally, the ground became wavy again, then rocky and jagged. Over twelve hours later, we hit the Great Smokies.

It was dark outside and misting rain as we zig-zagged through the gorge outside of Knoxville. Fog hovered over the highway. I turned on the defroster, and as we crossed into North Carolina, I could hear my grandmother naming each community along the way. Fines Creek. Jonathan Creek. Crabtree. Newfound Gap. They were places she had known her entire life, places she understood in relation to her own life and the people she had known, which is, I suppose, the way we all understand our lives, the paths we have taken, the people and places we choose to call our own. My grandmother had had a cousin who lived in Crabtree, a brother-in-law on Newfound. And she could tell you the weather in any of those other areas simply by looking out her own living room window.

“We’ve got about five inches of snow out here,” she would say. “So they’ve got upwards of eight inches out at Fines Creek.”

In another two months, my grandmother’s home would be sold. The garden, the walkway lined with peonies, the grapevine where, as children, my brother and I flicked Japanese beetles into Mason jars and doused them with gasoline before lighting them on fire—all of those things would belong to someone else.

As I passed the exit to my grandmother’s home, I thought of a worn black and white photograph my grandmother kept in an old shirt box along with all the family photographs. In the photo, two young men wore cowboy getups—jeans, boots, hats, flannel shirts. Each man had a guitar slung over his shoulder.

“Who’s that?” I had asked her when I found the photo.

“Just an old boyfriend,” my grandmother had said. “They were musicians. I liked that one,” she placed her forefinger on the shorter guy, the one with the shy, crooked smile, “and my sister liked the other one.”

My grandmother was married to my grandfather for almost seventy years. Their relationship had been so close, their roots so deeply intertwined, that I rarely thought of them as individuals. Together, they had been one powerful spiritual force, a two-tiered anchor, a double-sided talisman. But now, it occurred to me for the first time to wonder if my grandmother had ever considered living another life, if she had had any regrets, if on that last morning, while I was cooking oatmeal and spooning Folgers into her coffee mug, she was dreaming of all the places she had been and the people she had loved, or if, in the end, she had simply taken one giant leap and become a part of it all.

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