If you look on Google Maps at DeKalb and Ogle Counties in northern Illinois, you’ll see rectangles and boxes: farms and farmlands checker the region. I like to go out and drive in the country, past the barn buildings and the cows and horses and alongside the endless, famously rich fields stuffed with crops. Over the years, I’ve covered many of the six hundred and thirty-two square miles of DeKalb County. Usually music’s my ally; I’ll hit shuffle on my 4,000-plus song Americana playlist, or explore Spotify’s “Discover Weekly,” the songs and the stories they tell gaining or losing meaning and shading, depending on the season, my mood, the light. Leaving DeKalb, I can point my car in any direction and within fifteen or twenty minutes feel isolated, on long white gravel roads the end points of which feel mythic, barn structures in dark verticals here and there, yellow lines, their telephone-wire cousins, and boundless fencing the only things hemming me in. The sky, bright blue or somberly gray, is enormous. I’m out for a couple of hours.
We often find ourselves in boxes of our own creation, built from neuroses, anxieties, shitty choices. The walls close in at three a.m., lift in the morning. Now especially, hemmed in as we are by the pandemic, shelter-at-home orders, and masks above which peer frightened or skeptical eyes, the boxes we live in threaten to overwhelm. We walk inside them all day. Driving across rural Illinois, I can for a while exchange those boxes for farmland, and for roads that open outward. When I glance down at my car’s direction on the dash, I’ll rarely see NE or SW—usually only the primary colors of N, S, E, or W. Bends in the road, lolling curves, are rare out here: right angles rule in these squares of land. Such tranquil flatness took me years to get used to, and to ultimately appreciate. I grew up in the suburbs, ten miles from the Maryland/Washington D.C. line. We moved to northern Illinois from Appalachia, in southeast Ohio, where hills and hollers and winding, sharp turns in the road felt like threatening, thrilling weather: they were everywhere. Here, that kind of wild green plumpness is replaced by an austere planeness, which encourages a different kind of thinking as I drive.
I’m still a tourist. I drive through, and then beyond, certain that an eventual arrangement of right and left turns at bone-quiet intersections of rural roads and dust will get me back home. If I marvel at a gargantuan, sci-fi-sized grain silo, or grimly admire a leaning, abandoned farm building, it’s with sentimentality, not a sobering recognition of shared labor or loss. The animals and crops of corn and soybeans and wheat aren’t mine to raise and care for across years of hard work and worry. Yet a certain and growing calm settles over me as I drive the long, straight roads, a philosophical purity of brain in these ugly and rancorous times. Last week, as I drove alongside a vast corn field, its colors ending at a sky that grew ominously dark, George Harrison’s serene demo version of “All Things Must Pass” came on. Sometimes, a song will score a moment in just the right way.
When I pull over to the side of a gravel road to take a picture or to fool with Spotify, roll down my window and cut the engine, the immense quiet is a balm, the vastness of field and sky a kind of slow, deep breath. No stop signs for miles. Acres of fields. I pay attention out here, and these moments feel good right now: a journey that takes me out of myself and the chaotic world, if only for a little while. Tall grasses in the wind, small dark birds dipping in and out and then launching to the horizon with strange little cries, cicadas buzzing, slow-moving cows and grazing horses, the giant, giant sky: it’s all utterly uninterested in me, which is heartbreaking and grimly amusing, also beautiful and restorative. A Naturalistic salve. How am I, out here? Insignificant, a breathing animal next to others who might turn their faces toward me and then away, who could care less for me, my voice indistinct, lost on the same winds that moved a thousand years ago.