The weather turned cold overnight with a strong wind blowing. It’s a gray 54 degrees when I check out of the Kelly Inn, but it feels a lot colder. “Not ready for this, I can tell you,” says the woman who invites me to sign the guest book at the World’s Only Corn Palace (World’s Only is part of its official name) a few minutes later. In the space for “State,” I put, “WA/MN.” I’m still neither here nor there, though wherever I am, it is now two hours later than my body thinks it should be.
Driving across time zones doesn’t eliminate the shock to the system, though it does soften it a little. It still makes no sense to the mind or body when a small sign whizzes by announcing the change from Pacific to Mountain (it whizzed by so fast, I totally missed that one), or Mountain to Central. I did catch that one, and a few miles further on, so did my car’s clock. It must have done it the day before too (or was it the day before that?), but I was so focused on the number of hours of driving still in front of me that I was strangely oblivious to the actual time.
Mitchell’s Corn Palace, while unique today, apparently had to jockey for its position among the competition when it was first established near the end of the nineteenth century. Its original purpose was to “prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate.” Judging by what I saw around me as I drove across the state, the point has been proven, at least as regards corn. The exterior is redone every year, at a cost of $130,000. This year’s Circus mural (I don’t know what else to call it) is still a work-in-progress. The decorating motif of the interior is unremittingly corn(y), but it was fascinating to get some insight into the history of this region. Nonetheless, I was not tempted by the signs inviting me to move there.
I’ve learned to look ahead on the map so I can plan on when to fill up the car. With half a tank left, I decide now would be a good time. This is the first gas station that hasn’t taken my credit card at the pump. The screen instructs me to pay inside. The wind is blowing so hard it pushes me across the parking lot.
“How much do you want?” the angular young woman at the cash register asks me. I am taken aback. “Uh,” I stumble. “I’m not sure. I just want to fill it up.” “Okay,” she says, “so let’s say we put $50 on your card and you’ll get whatever you don’t use back as a credit.” We agree on $30. On my way out, I am once again taken aback, this time by the size and quantity of the liquor bottles that line a shelf occupying half the front of the store. On my way in, I had been struck by the sign warning hunters to secure their guns. The same sign had been in the Kelly Inn’s lobby and pasted to the door of the Corn Palace. I do my best not to think about the number of guns in my vicinity and trust that no one will shoot me if I take a picture of the signs.
An hour and a half out of Mitchell, I make my first stop. I’m tired and need a break. The layer of clouds has broken into a patchwork, so now the sky is bright. It is still, however, cold and windy. According to the signage and the flag waving beside the Stars and Stripes, I am in Minnesota. I check in with my tracking team. “Find My says you’re still in South Dakota,” they tell me. I look across the expanse of highway to the westbound side of I-90 and see what I’ve come to recognize as the South Dakota teepee. Apparently, Find My can’t handle the subtleties of eastbound vs. westbound.
There are notices when I enter the small building about awards won as best rest area. Neat rows of tourist brochures. Maps. Flowers in the ladies room. “That was me,” says the woman at the desk. “I used to put them in the men’s too, but they kept dumping the flowers in the sink and taking the vases.”
Next stretch is more that two hours. The country I’m driving through, as I head east and north in Minnesota, looks right to me. The shapes of the trees, some of them bare already, others clad in orange and gold. I love the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, and appreciate their presence, but I am seeing now very clearly why it never felt like home to me. This is not the Northeast, but not only is it geographically closer to where I come from, but there’s something in its essence that feels deeply familiar. Crossing the mountains and the plains, watching the land transform into farmland, I can feel myself starting to rest into it. There is no other way I could have appreciated how the land smooths itself out, how natural the transition is, how beautiful that open flatness is. And I love the sight of huge silver silos and wind turbines among the corn and freight trains.
The final hour feels endless. I am flagging. My eyes are heavy. I call a friend and say, “Talk to me. Keep me awake.” She does. I can’t remember now what we talked about but it worked and, by the time the traffic thickened around me, I was able to trust myself to get off the phone. It was the first time on the whole journey that I talked while I drove, except, of course, to myself.
Now that I have arrived, a different part of the journey is beginning. In some ways, I suspect that the drive will not be the most challenging part of this transition. While doing it, all that was required of me was to keep gas in the car, feed myself at regular intervals, send occasional “I’m fine” texts to my friends, and drive safely, so it gave me space to take an inward journey as well as an outward one. I didn’t listen to the news for five days, didn’t even listen to any of the books I had stored in my phone. Mostly, music accompanied me. The E Street Channel on Sirius alternated with Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond, Deva Premal, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, Raul Malo—all albums that I had put onto my phone some years back and had forgotten about until right before I left Seattle. Some of them were transfers from vinyl, and they skipped in the same places they had when I was twenty-five, echoing in a strange way Leonard Cohen’s, “I ache in the places where I used to play.”
I intend to keep blogging about feeling into this new life. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reception than I’ve received from my family, and I’m looking forward to doing after-school pick-ups on a regular basis. And, of course, for all our sakes, I have to establish a life for myself here apart from them. Right now, one day into it, I am glad I’m here and, at the same time, I feel disoriented and a little sad. I miss my friends and am so glad and grateful they are staying in touch, checking in to see how I’m doing. Mostly, I’m bone tired and should stop writing and go to bed. Once again, thank you for keeping me company.