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Summer 2016

Dispatch from Flyover Country

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Meghan O'Gieblyn

The august before last, my husband and I moved to Muskegon, a town on the scenic and economically depressed west coast of Michigan. I grew up in the state, but most of my friends have left it, or else are too beleaguered by children to answer their phones. We live in a trailer in the woods, one paneled with oak-grained laminate and beneath which a family of raccoons have made their home. There is a small screened-in porch and a large deck that extends over the side of a sand dune. We work there in the mornings beneath the ceiling of broadleaves, teaching our online classes and completing whatever freelance projects we’ve managed to scrape together that week. Occasionally, I’ll try to amuse him by pitching my latest idea for a screenplay. “An out-of-work stuntman leaves Hollywood and becomes an Uber driver,” I’ll say. “It’s about second chances in the sharing economy.” We write the kinds of things that return few material rewards; there is no harm in fantasizing. After dinner, we take the trail that runs from the back of the trailer through an aisle of high pines, down the side of the dune to Lake Michigan.

Evenings have been strange this year: hazy, surreal. Ordinarily, Michigan sunsets are like a preview of the apocalypse, a celestial fury of reds and tangerines. But since we moved here, each day expires in white gauze. The evening air grows thick with fog, and as the sun descends toward the water, it grows perfectly round and blood-colored, lingering on the horizon like an evil planet. If a paddle-boarder happens to cross the lake, the vista looks exactly like one of those old oil paintings of Hanoi. For a long time, we assumed the haze was smog wafting in from Chicago, or perhaps Milwaukee. But one night, as we walked along the beach, we bumped into a friend of my mother’s who told us it was from the California wildfires. She’d heard all about it on the news: smoke from the hills of the Sierra Nevada had apparently been carried on an eastern jet stream thousands of miles across the country, all the way to our beach.

“That seems impossible,” I said.

“It does seem impossible,” she agreed, and the three of us stood there on the shore, staring at the horizon as though if we looked hard enough, we might glimpse whatever was burning on the far side of the country.

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

When I was young, my family moved across the borders of these interior states—from Illinois to Michigan to Wisconsin. My father sold industrial lubricant, an occupation that took us to the kinds of cities that had been built for manufacturing and by the end of the century lay mostly abandoned, covered, like Pompeii, in layers of ash. We lived on the outskirts of these cities, in midcentury bedroom communities, or else beyond them, in subdivisions built atop decimated cornfields. On winter evenings, when the last flush of daylight stretched across the prairie, the only sight for miles was the green and white lights of airport runways blinking in the distance like lodestars. We were never far from a freeway, and at night the whistle of trains passing through was as much a part of the soundscape as the wind or the rain. It is like this anywhere you go in the Midwest. It is the sound of transit, of things passing through. People who grew up here tend to tune it out, but if you stop and actually listen, it can be disarming. On some nights, it’s easy to imagine that it is the sound of a more profound shifting, as though the entire landscape of this region—the north woods, the tallgrass prairies, the sand dunes, and the glacial moraines—is itself fluid and impermanent.

It’s difficult to live here without developing an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still. I spent most of my twenties in south Chicago, in an apartment across from a hellscape of coal-burning plants that ran on grandfather clauses and churned out smoke blacker than the night sky. To live there during the digital revolution was like existing in an anachronism. When I opened my windows in summer, soot blew in with the breeze; I swept piles of it off my floor, which left my hands blackened like a scullery maid’s. I often thought that Dickens’s descriptions of industrial England might have aptly described twenty-first century Chicago. “It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.” Far from the blat of the city, there was another world, one depicted on television and in the pages of magazines—a nirvana of sprawling green parks and the distant silence of wind turbines. Billboards glowed above the streets like portals into another world, one where everything was reduced to clean and essential lines. You Are Beautiful, said one of them, its product unmentioned or unclear. Another featured a blue sky marked with cumulus clouds and the words: Imagine Peace.

I still believed during those years that I would end up in New York, or perhaps in California. I never had any plans for how to get there. I truly believed I would “end up” there, swept by that force of nature that funneled each harvest to the exterior states and carried young people off along with it. Instead, I found work as a cocktail waitress at a bar downtown, across from the state prison. The regulars were graying men who sat impassively at the bar each night, reading the Tribune in silence. The nature of my job, according to my boss, was to be an envoy of feminine cheer in that dark place, and so I occasionally wandered over to offer some chipper comment on the headlines—“Looks like the stimulus package is going to pass”—a task that was invariably met with a cascade of fatalism.

“You think any of that money’s going to make it to Chicago?”

“They should make Wall Street pay for it,” someone quipped.

“Nah, that would be too much like right.”

Any news of emerging technology was roundly dismissed as unlikely. If I mentioned self-driving cars, or 3-D printers, one of the men would hold up his cell phone and say, “They can’t even figure out how to get us service south of Van Buren.”

For a long time, I mistook this for cynicism. In reality, it is something more like stoicism, a resistance to excitement that is native to this region. The longer I live here, the more I detect it in myself. It is less disposition than habit, one that comes from tuning out the fashions and revelations of the coastal cities, which have nothing to do with you, just as you learned as a child to ignore those local boosters who proclaimed, year after year, that your wasted rustbelt town was on the cusp of revival. Some years ago, the Detroit Museum of Modern Art installed on its western exterior a neon sign that read EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. For several months, this message brightened the surrounding blight and everyone spoke of it as a symbol of hope. Then the installation was changed to read: NOTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. They couldn’t help themselves, I guess. To live here is to develop a wariness toward all forms of unqualified optimism; it is to know that progress comes in fits and starts, that whatever promise the future holds, its fruits may very well pass on by, on their way to somewhere else.

My husband and I live just up the hill from the grounds of a Bible camp where I spent the summers of my childhood, a place called Maranatha. People in town assume the name is Native American, but it is in fact an Aramaic word that means “Come, Lord,” and which appears in the closing sentences of the New Testament. The apostolic fathers once spoke the word as a prayer, and it was repeated by people of faith throughout the centuries, a mantra to fill God’s millennia-long silence. When the camp was built in the early years of the last century, a more ominous English formulation—“The Lord is Coming”—was carved into the cedar walls of the Tabernacle. Everyone is still waiting.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the grounds are overrun with evangelical families who come from all over the Midwest to spend their summer vacations on the beach. They stay for weeks at a time in the main lodge, and some stay for the whole summer in cottages built on stilts atop what is the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world. My parents own one of these cottages; so do my grandparents. Each year, a representative from the DNR comes out to warn them that the dunes are eroding and the houses will one day slide into the lake—prophecies that go unheeded. Everyone plants more dune grass and prays for a few more years. I once pointed out to my mother that there is, in fact, a Biblical parable about the foolish man who builds his house on sand, but she chided me for my pedantic literalism. “That parable,” she said, “is about having a foundational faith.”

We moved here because we love this part of Michigan and because I have family here. Also, because it’s cheap to live here and we’re poor. We’ve lost track of the true reason. Or rather, the foremost reasons and the incidental ones are easy to confuse. Before, we were in Madison, Wisconsin, where we were teaching college writing and juggling other part-time jobs. As more of this work migrated online, location became negotiable. We have the kind of career people like to call “flexible,” meaning we buy our own health insurance, work in our underwear, and are taxed like a small business. Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that we’ve outsmarted the system, that we’ve harnessed the plucky spirit of those DIY blogs that applaud young couples for turning a toolshed or a teardrop camper into a studio apartment, as though economic instability were the great crucible of American creativity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

This is among the many reasons why young people leave these states. When you live in close proximity to your parents and aging relatives, it’s impossible to forget that you too will grow old and die. It’s the same reason, I suspect, that people are made uncomfortable by the specter of open landscapes, why the cornfields and empty highways of the heartland inspire so much angst. There was a time when people spoke of such vistas as metaphors for opportunity—“expand your horizons”—a convention, I suppose, that goes back to the days of the frontier. Today, opportunity is the province of cities, and the view here signals not possibility but visible constraints. To look out at the expanse of earth, scraped clean of novelty and distraction, is to remember in a very real sense what lies at the end of your own horizon.

Many of our friends who grew up here now live in Brooklyn, where they are at work on “book-length narratives.” Another contingent has moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune there. Every year or so, these west-coasters travel back to Michigan and call us up for dinner or drinks, occasions they use to educate us on the inner workings of the tech industry. They refer to the companies they work for in the first person plural, a habit I have yet to acculturate to. Occasionally they lapse into the utopian, speaking of robotics ordinances and brain-computer interfaces and the mystical, labyrinthine channels of capital, conveying it all with the fervency of pioneers on a civilizing mission. Being lectured quickly becomes dull, and so my husband and I, to amuse ourselves, will sometimes play the rube. “So what, exactly, is a venture capitalist?” we’ll say. Or: “Gosh, it sounds like science fiction.” I suppose we could tell them the truth—that nothing they’re proclaiming is news; that the boom and bustle of the coastal cities, like the smoke from those California wildfires, liberally wafts over the rest of the country. But that seems a bit rude. We are, after all, Midwesterners.

Here, work is work and money is money, and nobody speaks of these things as though they were spiritual movements or expressions of one’s identity. In college, I waitressed at a chain restaurant, the kind of place that played Smashmouth on satellite and cycled through twenty gallons of ranch dressing a week. One day, it was announced that all employees, from management to dish crew, would hereafter be referred to as “partners.” It was a diktat from corporate. Everyone found this so absurd that all of us, including the assistant managers, refused to say the word without a cartoonish, cowboy twang (“Howdy, pard’ner”), robbing it of its intended purpose, which was, of course, to erase the appearance of hierarchy. This has always struck me as indicative of a local political disposition, one that cannot be hoodwinked into euphemism. When you live at the center of the American machine, it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.

Winters here are dark and brutal. On weekends, my husband and I will drive into town, where there are five or six restaurants that have different names but identical menus. Each serves fried perch and whitefish sandwiches, plus a salad section that boasts an EPCOT-like tour du monde: Chinese salad, Taco salad, Thai chicken salad, Southwest salad. In Michigan, they still—thankfully—believe in iceberg lettuce, or, as one menu has it, “crisp, cold iceberg lettuce.” At the more high-end Muskegon restaurants, you can order something called a Wedge Salad, which is a quarter-head of iceberg covered in tomatoes, bacon bits, and what appears to be—but is not, actually—a profane amount of blue cheese and French dressings. “Oh shit,” my husband said the first time I ordered one in his presence. “They forgot your dressing.” Of course, anyone familiar with iceberg heads knows that they are baroquely layered and dense; you truly do need all that dressing. People in Michigan understand these things.

But even here, in Muskegon, there are headwinds of change. At the farmers’ market, there is now one stand that sells organic whole-bean coffee and makes pour-overs—the only place in town—while you wait. The owner, Dave, wears white Oakley’s and speaks as though he learned about the artisanal revolution at a corporate convention. “The best places are those that have five things on the menu,” he tells us. “Don’t make it complicated, man. Just make it good.” Across the street from the market is a farm-to-table restaurant where you can order sous-vide octopus and duck tortellini. A sister restaurant recently opened next door, Whistlepunk Pizza, a sparse stone-oven joint whose ingredients list, scrawled on brown paper, includes maque choux and swiss chard sourced from local farms. A “Whistlepunk,” reads the restaurant’s website, “is an affectionate term given to the newest member of a logging camp.”

Muskegon is, in fact, an old logging hub, a mill town once known as the “Lumber Queen of the World.” It’s tempting to see in such gestures evidence of the hinterland becoming conscious, an entire region rising up to lay claim to its roots. It would be easier to believe this if the coveted look in Brooklyn Magazine, about ten years ago, were not called “the lumberjack.”

There are places in the Midwest that are considered oases—cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there. The model in this mode is Madison, Wisconsin, the so-called Berkeley of the Midwest. The comparison stems from the 1960s, when students stormed the campus to protest the Vietnam war. The campus mall is still guarded by foreboding Brutalist structures that were built during that era as an intimidation tactic. I taught in one of these buildings when I was in graduate school. The other TAs complained about them, claiming they got headaches from the lack of sunlight and the maze of asymmetrical halls. I found them beautiful, despite their politics. During my first day of class, I would walk my students outside to show them the exterior. I noted how the walls canted away from the street, evoking a fortress. I pointed out the narrow windows, impossible to smash with rocks. “Buildings,” I told them, “can be arguments. Everything you see is an argument.” The students were first-semester freshmen, bright and bashful farm kids who had come to this great metropolis—this Athens of the prairie—with the wholesome desire to learn.

Those buildings, like all the old buildings in town, were constantly under threat of demolition. Many of the heavy masonry structures had already been torn down to make way for condo high rises, built to house the young employees of Epic—a healthcare software company that bills itself as the “Google of the Midwest.” The corporate headquarters, located just outside town, was a legendary place that boasted all the hallmarks of Menlo Park excess: a gourmet cafeteria with chefs poached from five-star restaurants, an entire wing decorated to resemble Hogwarts. During the years I lived in Madison, the city was flush with new money. A rash of artisanal shops and restaurants broke out across town, each of them channeling the spirit of the prairie and its hardworking, industrial ethos. The old warehouses were refurbished into posh restaurants whose names evoked the surrounding countryside (Graze, Harvest). They were the kinds of places where ryes were served on bars made of reclaimed barn wood, and veal was cooked by chefs whose forearms were tattooed with Holsteins. Most of the factories in town had been turned into breweries, or the kind of coffee shops that resembled an eighteenth-century workshop—all the baristas in butcher aprons and engaged in what appeared to be chemistry experiments with espresso.

Meanwhile, the actual industry, unhidden in the middle of the downtown, looked as though it had never been used. There were gleaming aluminum silos and emissionless brick chimneys. In the prairie stockyards near my apartment, blue railroad cars were lined up like children’s toys. Beyond the fences, giant coils of yellow industrial hose glimmered in the early morning light, as beautiful as Monet’s haystacks. I doubt that any visitor would see in such artifacts the signs of progress, but when you live for any period in the Midwest, you become sensitive to the subtle process by which industry gives way to commerce, and utility to aesthetics.

Each spring arrived with the effulgent bloom of the farmer’s market. The sidewalks around the capitol became flush with white flowers, heirloom eggs, and little pots of honey, and all the city came out in linen and distressed denim. There were food carts parked on the sidewalk, and a string quartet playing “Don’t Stop Believing,” and my husband and I, newly in love, smoking on the steps of the capitol. We kept our distance from the crowds, preferring to watch from afar. He pointed out that the Amish men selling cherry pies were indistinguishable from the students busking in straw hats and suspenders. It was strange, all these paeans to the pastoral. In the coastal cities, throwbacks of this sort are regarded as a romantic reaction against the sterile exigencies of urban life. But Madison was smack in the middle of the heartland. You could, in theory, drive five miles out of town and find yourself in the great oblivion of corn.

In the early days of our relationship, we were always driving out to those parts, spurred by some vague desire to see the limits of the land—or perhaps to distinguish the simulacrum from the real. We would download albums from our teen years—Night on the Sun, Either/Or—and drive east on the expressway until the sprawl of subdivisions gave way to open land. If there was a storm in the forecast, we’d head out to the farmland of Black Earth, flying through the cropfields with all the windows down, the backseat fluttering with unread newspapers as lightning forked across the horizon.

Madison was utopia for a certain kind of Midwesterner: the Baptist boy who grew up reading Wittgenstein, the farm lass who secretly dreamed about the girl next door. It should have been such a place for me as well. Instead, I came to find the live bluegrass outside the co-op insufferable. I developed a physical allergy to NPR. Sitting in a bakery one morning, I heard the opening theme of Morning Edition drift in from the kitchen and started scratching my arms as though contracting a rash. My husband tried to get me to articulate what it was that bothered me, but I could never come up with the right adjective. Self-satisfied? Self-congratulatory? I could never get past aesthetics. On the way home from teaching my night class, I would unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone. The drive was long, and I would slip into something like a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.

Over time, I came to dread the parties and potlucks. Most of the people we knew had spent time on the coasts, or had come from there, or were frequently traveling from one to the other, and the conversation was always about what was happening elsewhere: what people were listening to in Williams-burg, or what everyone was wearing at Coachella. A sizeable portion of the evening was devoted to the plots of premium TV dramas. Occasionally there were long arguments about actual ideas, but they always crumbled into semantics. What do you mean by duty? someone would say. Or: It all depends on your definition of morality. At the end of these nights, I would get into the car with the first throb of a migraine, saying that we didn’t have any business discussing anything until we could, all of us, articulate a coherent ideology. It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair-trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed us of our sins. All of us had, like the man in the parable, built our houses on sand.

A couple weeks ago, there was a mass baptism in Lake Michigan. There is one at the end of each summer, though I haven’t attended one in years. It was a warm night, and so my husband and I walked down to watch, along with my mother and my sister and her two-year-old daughter. The haze was thick that evening, and it wasn’t until we were nearly upon the crowd that we could see it in its entirety: hundreds of people standing along the shore, barefoot like refugees in the sand. Out in the water, a pastor stood waist-deep with a line of congregants waiting their turn in the shallows. Farther down, there was another pastor standing in the lake with another line of congregants, and even farther down, near the rocks of the channel, a third stood with yet another line of people. The water was so gray and still, the evening air so windless, that you could hear the pastors’ voices as they recited the sacramental formula: “Buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in the fullness of life.” Whenever someone emerged from the water, everyone on the beach cheered and clapped as the congregant waded back through the mist like a ghost, his clothes suddenly thin and weighed down with water.

My mother saw someone she knew in the crowd and walked over to say hello. A small drone flew over the water, hovering over each of the pastors, and then darted along the shoreline. My sister pointed it out. “It must be filming,” we decided. The beach was clean from a recent storm, empty except for some stray pieces of driftwood, bleached white and hewn smooth as whale bones. The seagulls were circling in frantic patterns, as though trying to warn us. Usually they glide over the beach in elegant ara-besques, but there was no wind on this night, and they flapped like bats, trying to stay afloat.

The whole scene seemed to me like a Bruegel painting, a sweeping portrait of community life already distilled by time. I imagined scholars examining it many years in the future, trying to decipher its rituals and iconography. There was something beautiful in how the pastor laid his hands over each congregant’s face, covering her hand with his own, something beautiful in the bewildered look on the congregant’s face when she emerged from the water. Although I no longer espouse this faith, it’s hard to deny the mark it has left on me. It is a conviction that lies beneath the doctrine and theology, a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming; that he has always been coming, which is the same as saying that he will never come; that each of us must find a way to live with this absence and our own, earthly limitations.

The crowd erupted again in cheers. I was watching my niece run through the surf, watching my sister pretend to chase her. Each time the crowd cheered, she threw her hands above her head, as though it were for her. The drone made its way toward us, descended and hovered there, just above the water.

“That’s unsettling,” I said. The machine was idling above the water, appearing to stare us down. It was close enough that I could see the lens of its camera, a red light going on and off, as though winking at us.

“It knows we’re not believers,” my husband whispered.

“Let’s go,” I said. We made our way into the crowd, hoping to disappear within it. Everyone was dressed in brightly colored shirts and smelled of damp cotton. We passed my mother, who was laughing. The voices of the pastors carried irregularly across the water, and once we were deep in the crowd, their incantations seemed to overlap, as though it were one voice, rippling in a series of echoes. “Buried with Christ… Raised to walk in the fullness…” Things were ending and beginning again, just as everything is always ending and always beginning, and standing there amidst the sea of people, I was reminded that it might not go on like this forever. We made our way to the shore, where the crowd thinned out and the sand was firm with water, and beyond the fog there appeared, on the horizon, the faintest trace of a sunset.

Meghan O'Gieblyn's writing has recently appeared in The Guardian, Oxford American, The Point, Guernica, Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the recipient of a 2016 Pushcart Prize.

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