by Carrie Jones

TexasPhoto by carriemjones.

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Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, I asked Zach (a fellow Westwind editor) to stop the car. As we drove off of the pavement and onto the dirt alongside the freeway, the tires sent clouds of dust up into the crisp, blue air. I jumped out, slammed the door shut, and ran a few feet away into a small ditch. I settled on a spot next to a piece of tumbleweed and the bloody remains of some animal’s lunch. Then I threw up everywhere. The wind sent my vomit flying back to the car, where it splattered on the tires and narrowly missed hitting my friend as she ran to hold my hair back from my face.

So what I remember of Nebraska is throwing up next to some roadkill and tumbleweed.But before I left on this road trip, I had hoped that after the trip, I would be able to say that I experienced Nebraska as Willa Cather had experienced it, that I felt the distillation of America along the quiet roads. I truly believed I’d be able to identify what it was about the sleepy towns that inspired one of our nation’s most influential writers. In an effort to experience this Nebraska, this America, I stared intently out the window at the lines of the freeway as they blended together and flew past me. But doing this makes you sick—very sick—and then you throw up all over middle America.

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I also attribute my vomiting to what Nebraskans refer to as “Runzas.” Inside of the restaurants (of the same name), the cooks lovingly stuff ground beef and American cheese and whatever else you want inside of one-inch thick fried dough, and then you’re supposed to… eat it, I guess. Watching my friends devour several of these in one sitting certainly did not alleviate my increasing car sickness.

So when I got back in the car after vomiting, with my hands shaking and my heart pounding and with a few truckers honking their horns at me (I know, I’m so sexy when I dry heave), I decided that Willa Cather’s America does not exist anymore. I think maybe that is a given for most people, but I had liked to think that some parts of America would never change. It’s possible that Willa Cather’s America may never have existed outside of her imagination.

So my Nebraska, the one that fascinates me, is full of the open spaces that came and went along the freeway. It is also composed of people like the servers at Runza who spoke to us about our lives for 30 minutes before allowing us to sit down and eat our fried dough. Nebraska is dive bars and milling around from one spot to the next in the middle of the night, directionless. It is a connection to a dusty dirt road. And more than anything else, it is filled with unpleasant bodily functions that could occur anywhere else in the world. It is therefore everywhere and nowhere at once. Then again, I guess maybe that is what Willa Cather was getting at after all.

RoutePhoto by Caveman 92223.

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The reasons my friends and I decided to drive to the Midwest were threefold. First, we wanted to do something extremely stupid. Since we only had six days to make this trip, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to throw off our performance in school and our sleeping schedules. Second, I was presenting my thesis at a conference in Wisconsin that week. I consider this reason to be subordinate to reason number one. Third, we’re graduating and in the grips of our quarter-life crises. We figured we’d get all of our restlessness out in one go, get sick of each other, and then be glad to move on after we throw our caps in the air.

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But the premise for the entire trip was, after all, reason number two. It was the reason I told all of my professors anyway. So I think it would be relevant, then, to discuss what happens when you throw a bunch of English majors together in a small town in Wisconsin and tell them to talk about obscure works of literature and art. It was what some might call a nerdfest. Others of us might refer to it as a sanctuary from the questioning glances of the left-brained.

I attended the conference for a mere four hours. Sure, it was the truncated version of the four-day deal, but I had other versions of America to see. During those four hours, I maintained a view of the conference as somewhere between nerdfest and sanctuary. After presenting my thesis, a fellow English major asked me if I was into graphic novels. I prefer daguerreotypes. He liked Victorian literature. He was also interested in gothic fairy tales. We ended up having a conversation about the merits of learning Old English and the importance of Anglo-Saxon poetry to modern literary conceptions of femininity. Later, a professor came up to me and asked if I were interested in Horace Bristol’s work (I am now). My third hour into the conference, I had a few moments to myself. I sat thinking about the nerdy conversations I had had, and began to reflect on the nature of academic communities. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I had entered an alternate universe insulated from all notions of reality.

Every few days in the real word, I run into an article about how the humanities are dead. I hate these articles. I hate them almost as much as I hate reading articles about how newspapers are dead. Or how radio is dead. Or how everything I love is dead and no one cares about it anymore except for me and the articles’ authors. To fight back against these prophecies, the Poetry Foundation recently published an article by poet Matthew Zapruder about the need for a new version of literary criticism. He basically argues that we need literary criticism to explain the meaning of literature to people who think it is pretty, but who cannot seem to grasp the intricacies of its social, historical, ethical, or aesthetic undercurrents.

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corner officePhoto by Noel Kerns.

But my question, especially after attending this conference in a remote area in a region with very little WiFi connection, is whether people actually care about those things anymore. Sure, they should. I obviously believe that or I wouldn’t be writing this, I wouldn’t have been to Wisconsin in the first place, and I certainly never would have written a 70-page thesis for the English department. But people don’t. At the conference, a few science-oriented people asked me questions about my project and then nodded and walked in the other direction. They had finished asking me their pity questions, finished attempting to validate my meaningless existence as an English major.

After I presented my thesis, I felt an overwhelming hopelessness. I felt my work had been vain, futile. The only people who cared were other people who were awkward and wore glasses because their voracious reading had permanently damaged their eyesight.

I would like to say something incredibly valiant about scholarly communities, but I don’t think there is anything left to say unless Americans begin to value literary expression the way they once did. Even at the conference, I felt a reticence about speaking of the future of literary analysis. I am certainly worried about the direction that print media has taken and, more than that, the direction its criticism has taken. People see it as superfluous to more important concerns about scientific advancement. Of course, I have my own arguments against this view, but us literary types are in the minority on this one.

So I am left wondering what will happen to all of the awkward geniuses when they cannot flock to universities to impart their specialized knowledge on willing and unwilling listeners. I worry about how we will ever understand our literature in the future (and literature is, after all, an important way that we negotiate human capability). Yet there is not much any of us can do about it. So I feel a little bit like I experienced something very quaint in Wisconsin, and I only hope that we leave room for nerdfests in our culture even as we encounter budget cuts, recessions, and the death of print media as we know it.

ChicagoPhoto by carriemjones.

After Wisconsin, I drove the car to Chicago to spend the night with some acquaintances. We met Pamela in a bar, where she stars in her own burlesque show. Within five minutes of meeting her, she’d taken her shirt off and tried to teach all the girls how to dance while wearing nipple tassels. All of the men in the bar watched. She was completely oblivious.

We visited on a particularly strange weekend, where the temperature reached 75 degrees. The following week, it dropped back down to 40, robbing Chicago of the bliss that my friends and I were lucky enough to experience. We spent that night and the following day doing touristy Chicago things: ordering three deep dish pizzas, visiting the Art Institute, walking to the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds (where they serve gelato!), eating hot dogs at Portillo’s, and buying Cubs memorabilia. It was early April, and the sun shone over the city, sending bright beams of light through the narrow spaces between hundreds of skyscrapers.

In a way, I feel that my fewer than 24 hours in Chicago was a little too good to be true. I feel that I got a biased representation of the city, like the first time you visit your boyfriend’s apartment, and he has just cleaned it – that apartment will not ever look that way again; the next time you show up, his socks will be stuffed beneath the kitchen stove and there will be dirty dishes all over his nightstand. But in my mind, Chicago remains flawless. It is the cleanest boyfriend’s apartment in the world. It is a city where women take their shirts off, laugh openly and freely with strangers, drink $2 gin and tonics, all while inhaling two-pound pieces of spinach-filled pizza. To me, Chicago remains warm, wind-free, full of children playing hop scotch on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Chicago is open-minded. Chicago loves art. Chicago moves last call until four in the morning, so you can spend even more time talking with the topless burlesque dancer and all of her friends.

So Chicago will forever remain in my mind as a Mecca meant only for me. It’s really too bad because I probably can’t ever go back. It can’t be as wonderful as everything I’ve just said anyway. I feel that tourists tend to glorify places that they don’t really understand, but I kind of prefer to remain blissfully ignorant on this one.

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Building, AlonePhoto by McMorr.
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Driving across the nation opened my eyes to American literature in ways I still don’t fully understand. It certainly wasn’t something I was conscious of, especially that night in Chicago—I was thinking more about pizza that night. But somewhere in Texas, I realized that Los Angeles is an incredibly strange community that doesn’t seem to understand the simple beauty of the rest of the country. Perhaps that is why some of the best American writers have come from towns in middle America instead of in overdeveloped places like Los Angeles. And by middle America, I really mean everything west of the California/Nevada border. After driving 2,000 miles in one week, I realized that places as populated as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or New York are rare throughout the majority of the country. Most cities in the Midwest, especially along the old Route 66, were deserted after 6 pm, filled with vast spaces of nothing. They were blank canvases waiting to be dreamed into something fantastical, surreal, and breathtaking in the pages of books.

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In Texas, we drove through a town that had seen better days. It boasted the state’s best BBQ ribs. We stopped to get gas here and searched the city for this elusive BBQ joint. But the rib shack had closed and, from the looks of it, had been closed a very long time. After driving around for several minutes, we discovered that the town had its own Main Street, but all of the shops had been boarded up. The only two places that remained were a pawn shop and an auto repair shop, both of which had closed for the night before the night had even begun.

But it is in places like this that there is room to imagine other lives, other stories of people you have never met and whose lives had once been contained in the boarded up windows of the town bar. It is in empty places, once full of life, that writers are able to create their own histories. So it is in these places that I discovered what America really should be to the outside viewer and, indeed, to the American reader. We should read America as a vast open space. Even though Frederick Turner asserted long ago that the American Frontier had all but disappeared, the Frontier feels very much alive in the open spaces of Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma; Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. In an overpopulated world, the openness of America seems an anomaly, a testament to the possibilities of a New World that is still very much young and immature. America has not even begun to create a concrete identity for itself in these unclaimed spaces. It will be up to this generation’s writers to continue to imagine what America can be in spaces where nothing has ever existed before.

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