Crossing a Riven Country, Part Two

Photo: Alex Grodkiewicz


This is the second installment in a two-part pandemic travelogue by frequent Orion contributor Joe Wilkins. You can read the first installment here.  


THEY MET HER ONLY ONCE, years ago, on another cross-country trip, a summer swing from Iowa, where we were living then, back west. Walter had just turned three, Edie was only one, and Mary Ahern Maxwell, my grandmother, their great grandmother, this survivor of the Spanish flu, this emissary from another century, was ninety-four.

She was mostly blind by then, thin and doddering, though her thick Irish hair, cloud white, was as ever a storm about her face. We pulled chairs up to the old wood table, and she set out bread and butter, a half gallon of milk, a quart jar of strong iced tea. After, we sat in the front room, where Walter and Edie rooted around in the box of ancient toys my grandmother hauled out of the closet and bounced on the cracked leather couch. Whenever the kids came near, my grandmother gathered them in her arms, held them close. On the sly she slipped Walter candies, though the candies—a rainbow of saltwater taffies—later proved stale. Walter didn’t care. For days he kept them in his pockets, got them out to study and arrange, as if bright rocks pulled from a river.

My grandmother died just six months after our visit. Walter and Edie still claim they remember that day at her house, way out on the plains of eastern Montana—milk in tall glasses, a cardboard box of rusty toy cars and tattered comic books, candies wrapped in wax paper. But whether they remember the day itself or only the story of the day doesn’t matter. Across time and distance they held one another; they laughed together.

These last months I think of our elders cut down by COVID-19. At the vigil in the park, they said aloud his name and age—Tamir Rice, 12 years old—and my daughter turned to me, as if I could explain.

I know only that we’ve lost too many grandmothers, too many children.




With the border closed, we charted a course from the North Country down through New York and Pennsylvania and into Ohio. From there, we’d cross Indiana and leave the Great Lakes behind as we made our way into middle Illinois. Then Iowa, then South Dakota, then, finally, the West—Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and home to Oregon.

We had two vehicles, one pulling a U-Haul trailer, which meant both Liz and I had to drive, which meant we’d push ourselves as far as we could each day, but we’d need decent sleep. For fear of spreading anything we might pick up along the way, we couldn’t stay with family and friends, as we’d initially planned over the winter, so for hotel stops, we decided I’d check in, then go wipe down the room and open the windows before we hauled our stuff in. We’d breakfast and lunch on whatever was in the cooler. As much as possible, we’d stay out of rest areas and gas stations and take our necessary pit stops along empty interstate exits. We had our hand sanitizer and our masks, our sunglasses and water bottles and mixed CDs. Though not without risk, like the trip itself, like so many things these days, we thought we’d let ourselves order takeout for dinner each night, and, if we could keep socially distanced, jump into whatever hotel pools were open, just to cool off and move our bodies after a long day sitting down.

We’d been boxing up books and toys and keepsakes for weeks. We biked around town to deliver parting gifts of Oregon wine to friends and colleagues. Our North Country neighbors left goody bags for the road on our steps, then retreated to the sidewalk to say goodbye. The kids had me take Polaroids of them and their neighborhood friends, one for everyone, so they could all remember. “It’s hard,” Edie said, as she studied one of the shots, “not to hug a friend for a picture.”

We packed the trailer, and near sunset we took a last walk along the river trail, a storm in the distance, silent lightning forking down. As much as we could be, we were ready for twelve days on the road and three thousand miles across the country.




We left in a light rain, the sky gray and shadowed and close.

We waved goodbye to our rambling, white house, to the park and little downtown, to the Grasse River, and not long after—I’m not sure exactly where, maybe north of Syracuse, our first mixed CD still spinning—we entered, suddenly and completely, that other world: the fast, loud, American universe of the interstate, of movement and hurry and the next stop, the next thing. After a year in the quiet of the North Country, after four months of sheltering at home, it was a shock. But perhaps even more shocking was how quickly—we weren’t even out of New York State—I found myself adjusting to it again, the rushed rhythms, diesel stink, and breathlessness.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Along the verge, I named sumac, maple, spruce. Across these months at home, I have grieved the delights of travel and sport, the sustenance and texture of community, yet this time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully, that the pace of our wider culture, of capitalism, often obliterates what is near and intricate and dear.

I knew this. I grew up way out on the plains of Montana long before cell phones and Wi-Fi, grew up miles from neighbors, the land itself close at hand. But barreling down I-90 just east of the Pennsylvania state line, I had to remind myself.

I think we will have to keep reminding ourselves.




That first night we stayed at a golf resort out of Painesville, Ohio. I am in fact actively anti-golf, but the price was right—cut rates on all rooms through the pandemic!—and the stop was just off the interstate east of Cleveland, which we didn’t want to hit at five p.m. Squirrel Hill, which is what I’ll call said resort, is past its prime—the air conditioning just barely dribbling, all the hallways perfumed with smoke—but still trying, with its high ceilings and polished wood, to offer a little slice of luxury in northeast Ohio. While Liz stretched and meditated, I took Walter and Edie to the outdoor pool. A few other kids splashed in the shallow end, and a scatter of adults stared at their phones from the sunny side of the deck, so we skirted the shadowed edge and lined up at the lip of the empty deep end—and plunged in.

The water held us, cooled us as we splashed and swam, the waves glancing with Ohio light. One after the other I tossed the kids up out of the water, and they crashed back in. Soon, another child, a boy, maybe Edie’s age, began, in the way children do, to sidle closer to us, to, simply by proximity, attempt to join our play. Of course, we can’t play. Edie, ever observant, was already out of the pool. I got Walter’s attention and told him we had to move away. He didn’t think it fair. I told him it’s not about fair; it’s about keeping everyone safe. We huddled in our towels, watched the other kids slowly take over the deep end.

One of the essential facts of my life is that I grew up poor, but am no longer poor. I am so deeply glad my children do not have to face the indignities of poverty, but at times, I struggle with having left one world for another, with my and my children’s privilege, which is why we choose to live in a mixed-income neighborhood, which is why Walter and Edie go to public school, which is why we try in as many ways as we can to be active parts of our wider, fuller community—but we couldn’t, then, join this sudden, makeshift Squirrel Hill community. We couldn’t jump in the pool.


This time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully.


The other kids jostled and shouted and, since I’d retreated, tried to get one of their own parents to come play, to toss them into the air too. Finally, a mom peeled herself out of her lounge chair. Tall and almost frighteningly thin, she wore a bright red bikini. Among her many tattoos, I noted a pearl-handled Winchester inked across the left side of her hip, as if in holster.

She cannonballed into the deep end, all the kids jumping in after her, and I wished Walter and Edie could jump in too, wished—for all the ways we are already away from one another—that we didn’t have to be away from one another here, at the pool, in this soft, slanting light.




A few early road notes:

  • The Midwest begins as Ohio gives way to Indiana—hills flatten, trees thin, and fields of corn unroll. In the distance silos rise.
  • Just out of Holmesville, Indiana, beneath the noon sun, a man walks the railroad tracks with something slung over his shoulders—a shovel? fishing pole? bindle stick? He flashes by in a moment, but Walter and I talk about him for hours. Where’s he going? Where’s he been? Maybe he’s stopped now in the shade of Reynolds Creek?
  • Chicago at rush hour is a real face-melter—and we’re not even driving through the city proper, just skirting the southern edge. Edie walkie-talkies us: “Hope you’re okay, Dad. We’re okay, but Mom did have to honk at a couple of assholes.”
  • Ensconced, after a long, hot day, in a nearly vacant Comfort Inn in nowhere, Illinois, Liz and I cross the heat-shimmered blacktop to pick up dinner at a sandwich shop. Inside, even for the roaring of fans, it’s hot as blazes. Only half the workers wear masks. Liz, standing back, gives our names to the woman at the till for our takeout order, and the woman—her face pitted, little flyaway hairs plastered to her temples—says she can’t hear. Says come closer. Or take off that mask.




We crossed the Mississippi into Iowa on the third day, and it felt, as it always does, like a ritual of passage, like we ought to pull over and offer thanks and oblations. To the slow, wide, turbid roll of the river, of course, dividing the nation east and west, and, too, because Liz and I spent six years in Iowa, started our family there.

So, as we lifted up from the great river—in every direction green fields, the taut threads of section-line roads, the wide Iowa sky—we started telling stories. We told them again about the respective days—one morning bright and warm, one night icy and cold—they were born, about the backpacks we used to plop them in to go hiking in the prairie park, about gathering buckeyes in the front yard.

We drove the last fifteen or so miles down gravels roads, dust piling up behind us, and pulled up to our friend’s empty farmhouse late in the afternoon. They were traveling as well, to see for the first time their new grandbaby, born just as things shut down, and had offered to let us stay at their place for a couple days. We were more than happy to get off the road and out of hotels, to cook a few real meals for ourselves. And it felt, in so many ways, like a return, a homecoming. First, we were back to sheltering in place, to being together, the four of us. And, too, here again was Iowa: butterflies in the crab apple, fireflies in the lawn grass at night, swallows and killdeer crying above me as I jogged down the road, the dust of a pickup visible from miles away.




The Fourth of July found us in Chamberlain, South Dakota, a little town perched on the bluffs tumbling down to the Missouri.

We had thrilled to the grass going tough and dun, the first hints of draws and alkali and sage—it meant the West!—but the hotel was filled with folks hauling fishing boats and Jet Skis, and no one, not even the staff, wore masks. The looks we got, as we hauled in our things, masks on all our faces, were pointed, sneering. In the cramped hallway we stepped aside, and a big, round-shouldered white guy with a goatee and blue ball cap stepped that much closer to us.

Liz and I found ourselves shaken. The North Country wasn’t the city, but it was the same state from where we all heard every morning and afternoon news on the body count, stories of overcrowded hospitals, of doctors and nurses without proper PPE scrambling to take care of desperately sick patients. Even though the North Country tends red in elections, everyone kept their distance and wore masks in the grocery store. Everyone took taking care seriously. And it is a terrible blindness, a misreading on a colossal scale, to make distancing and masks out to be anything other than a commitment to community safety. This blindness is exacerbated by lack of leadership at so many levels, but it’s more than that as well—it exposes a deeper division, a fuller othering. As someone who has often, by dint of birth and then the privileges afforded by education, passed back and forth between rural and urban spaces, between working-class and cosmopolitan coastal culture, this division hurts all the more. I do not want to be away from my people, any of them, but to be safe I have to be.

We holed up in our room for a time. On the television, the news played snippets of Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech from the night before. Edie frowned at the screen. “He’s trying to make us not like each other,” she said. “We don’t have any reason not to like each other.”

And so we thought we’d try again. Can we do anything but try again?

We waited until the hallway was mostly clear, then hustled out the back door of the hotel. We parked on Main Street, and along with so many others, each group now, thank goodness, keeping to themselves, we walked across the Missouri bridge, the trusses rising above us, the black water moving far below, and on the far side pulled up our own patch of highway to watch fireworks bloom and shatter.





More road notes:

  • The highest, brightest clouds always build over the Black Hills.
  • The sky beginning to bruise with far-off rain, Walter declares to me that he’s an atheist. Then he thinks a bit, and asks if you can be an atheist if you believe in magic. I tell him believing in magic means you’re making room for mystery, which is more of an agnostic position. “Okay,” he says. “That’s what I am.”
  • Liz and I almost forget, but then remember our anniversary and splurge on adjoining rooms—one for us and one for the kids—at the low-slung Best Western in Gillette, Wyoming, where we celebrate with Indian takeout.
  • When you drive into Montana, you drive up and up and up. Even on the eastern side, antelope and sage flats and oxbow creeks, you can feel it, the land tilting inexorably toward the Rockies, toward the Big Horns and Beartooths, toward the Crazies, mountains beyond mountains.
  • We make a gas stop in Laurel and risk going inside—and it’s as clean as could be, arrows on the floor directing foot traffic, all employees in masks. We haven’t seen anything like this in Montana yet, haven’t seen it, really, since we left New York, and we ask the guy at the till about it. He rings up our drinks and says his boss, the lady who owns the place, requires it. Says he appreciates it. Makes him feel safe. We thank him. We ask him to thank her. And we get back on the road.




In Livingston, we escaped the sad hotel—another busted air conditioner, the clerk clearly strung out—and drove down to the Yellowstone River, pouring cold from between the mountain folds, and in a slow eddy near the bridge waded up to our waists and shivered and dared one another and finally dunked ourselves in the snowmelt waters.

The next night we pulled up to my cousin’s place on Flathead Lake. The house was even nicer than we expected, perched on a high cliff above the waters, polished log beams and floor-to-ceiling windows facing west, and I worried—as I always do in such spaces—that I might break something, do something wrong. So we hustled outside. Chipmunks scurried along the rocks, a doe with three gangly fawns eyed us from behind a veil of tall grass. We shucked our clothes and pulled on our suits, banged down the long stairs that led through a crack in the cliff to the water’s edge. There, again, we plunged in. “When I see a stream,” writes Richard Hugo, “I like to say: exactly.”

Stream, river, wide lake—I say exactly to them all.




One last round of road notes:

  • In this light like no other, we drive south down the Mission Valley, the stone shoulders of mountains gray and snow-laced.
  • There’s no gas or much of anything but wind in Dixon.
  • Most of northern Idaho is a snarl of mountain, though broken now and then by threads of rivers, the sudden blue cloth of lakes.




Our final stop, in Kennewick, Washington, offers a hint of how things might have been. Here, the governor has issued a mask mandate, along with clear guidelines for different types of businesses, and in the hotel lobby we find plexiglass dividers, walkway arrows, a poster detailing distancing requirements and cleaning and disinfecting measures. Even breakfast the next morning is handled with care—a buffet converted for a made-to-order cafe, all meals to be eaten in room—and when the kids want more pancakes, we dig deep to tip the servers.



Our last day on the road we thought to picnic along the water. Walter and I checked the gazetteer and spied a point of land jutting into the Columbia, a little Forest Service road with a loop at the end. It looked lonely and perfect, and we’d be able to turn the trailer around. We walkie-talkied Liz and Edie the exit number.

We pulled off the interstate and crossed the railroad tracks and drove over a short isthmus, swampy backwaters on either side, and turned onto the point—and half a mile in, a padlocked Forest Service gate blocked the road.

I parked in the shade and got out, the heat a sudden hand on me, the stink of blackberries and dust. Liz cranked the truck’s wheel, pulled this way, backed up that way. Tried again. Once again. It was impossible. She couldn’t get turned around.

We were maybe an hour and change from home.

Liz swore—Edie, like always, noting every curse word for later—and straightened the truck out. Started backing up.

“It’s over half a mile,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

And as I backpedaled down the road, in front of the trailer, just make sure, Liz backed the trailer down the road, curving over the point and across the thin isthmus. At the railroad tracks, I looked both ways as far as I could see and quickly waved her across. I stood in the ditch weeds and watched as she turned the trailer up the interstate off-ramp, the nose of the pickup pointed finally the right direction.

I leaned in the open window, told Liz how damned impressive that was.

“Yeah,” Edie said, nodding. “That was pretty damn impressive.”

And it made sense, somehow, that we nearly got stuck on a backwater road so close to home.

We’ve all been stuck at home, we’re all trying to re-understand home, make some sense of our strangely distant neighborhoods, the many distances between us in places we call home. What we face now is not novel. We have known pandemic. The injustice has been here all along, and it is good and right that we turn our attention toward it. What is unprecedented, though, is the utter abdication of coherent leadership at the highest levels, and this lack of leadership has meant so many have fallen back on tired, easy answers, have put their faith in perverted myths of freedom, in an unimaginative capitalism that is itself diseased.

Later that day we pulled up to our old blue house in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And now, weeks on, I am thankful we are not sick, that we are home and tired and safe. But the virus spreads; the divisions we found across the country are here as well. A river cuts down through the rocks and is the same and ever changing. We are all travelers, all at the mercy of a given day’s lovely, frightening variations, though we travel on, and in so doing might learn something of nearness and distance, of history and scope, of who we are and who we might be. O


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Joe Wilkins is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Diepraised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist and short-listed for the First Novel Award and the Pacific Northwest Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and four collections of poetry, including Thieve When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award. Wilkins grew up north of the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana and lives now with his family in western Oregon, where he directs the creative writing program at Linfield University.