How to Drive Across the Country by Vivian Wagner

for Meryl

You might use a paper map, yellow-highlighting your route, noting it’s a reverse Oregon Trail. That’s a good sign. It means you’re going home. Crossing ranchlands, listen to Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and pretend a forlorn black steer along the road is a kudu. In Idaho, look for Hemingway’s grave, but after wending ever higher on backroads through lodgepole pines, realize it’s getting late and stop by the Salmon River, or what you think is the Salmon River, since you only have a paper map, and your phone isn’t getting service. Put your feet in the cool, rushing water. Think, maybe, of your mother, lovely and strong, like my own mother, also lost. She’s there, you know, in the splashing light. Spend an afternoon at Yellowstone and boardwalk through geysers. That night, pull over outside Gillette and watch the stars and satellites circle, thinking about how nothing is fixed, not the earth, not yourself. Drive through the darknight hills, into South Dakota. Hike the next morning up the ‘76 Trail in Spearfish Canyon. That’s a good place to fall in love, if it’s relevant. If it’s not, fall in love anyway, maybe with the smell of piñon and granite and sky. At a cornbound gas station in western Iowa check your fuel lines for a leak because your gas gauge seems to be going down too quickly. Maybe your father taught you how to do this. Maybe you have to read the manual. Maybe both. Get bad Chinese food in Iowa City, cross the Mississippi River, and watch lightning strike distant cell towers in the long inky stretch that is Illinois and Indiana. Arrive so late it’s early at a campground in Yellow Springs and sleep for a couple of restless hours. Back on the interstate in the morning, pass through almost-home farmfields, listening to The Replacements. The horizon will beckon, the miles will hurtle by, and the sun will be at once radiant and blinding. Or something like that. You know this road as well as I do. Better, even. You’ll figure it out.


Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press).


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