At age seven I got my first map. A laminated map of Michigan. Mom highlighted the route from Farmington, where we lived, to the Upper Peninsula, where we vacationed. Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?” I stared out the window at Interstate 75 and I asked where we were. I knew cities and exit numbers. I traced the bolded line that ran through the middle of the state, mentally marking off cities as we moved north: West Branch, Grayling, Gaylord, Indian River. When I spotted the Mackinac Bridge’s white towers through the trees north of Indian River, I no longer needed the map. I knew my way by landmarks: the Mackinac Bridge, the limestone carved out junction where we split onto Highway 2, Clyde’s Drive-In, the lighthouse-shaped souvenir shop in St. Ignace, Cut River Inn, Garyln Zoo, and finally Naubinway, the northernmost point of Lake Michigan where we turned toward Hiawatha Trail and our cabin on Riverview Drive.
At sixteen, I learned the road. I drove every chance I could. I fell in love with the expressway—I fell in love with going fast, with following green signs with white writing toward Michigan landmarks I knew.
“You can’t get lost on an expressway—you just follow the signs toward places near the places you want to go,” I remember telling a friend, probably while leaning back on a desk in high school homeroom.
But I got lost. A lot. Half the times I drove to Ann Arbor, I missed my exit and ended up in seedy sections of Detroit. I refilled my gas tank at stations with bars over the windows and signs that warned about security and stealing. I slumped low in my seat trying to find the entrance ramp back onto the expressway in neighborhoods littered with adult video stores and vacant buildings. I learned to keep my windows up and my doors locked—I learned how to insulate myself: how to stay calm and look for the way back home.
I began to stray from home at an early age. As a kid, my parents put me on a leash when we went shopping. We called it a “hand-holder”—a Velcro armband that linked my wrist to my mother’s with a spiraled elastic cord. If I wasn’t attached, I wandered. I slipped into spiral clothing racks or burrowed beneath hanging scarves. I ran my fingers through beaded necklaces or crouched beneath the benches in the dressing room.
As I got older, the hand-holder became Mom’s threat. She kept it in the outside pocket of her purse. When I started to walk away she’d pull the elastic cord from her purse and dangle it in front of me: Do we need to use the hand-holder? I hated being bound to her—hated the Velcro rubbing against my skin and the snap of the elastic when I strayed too far. When my mom pulled out the hand-holder and asked me if we needed to use it, I shook my head and shadowed her until she put it away again. I stayed close enough to keep my freedom.
I still wander. During a recent trip to Chicago, I slipped out of a conference to meander around the city by myself, weaving alongside Lake Michigan, cutting in and out of museums. My shoes clacked against the sidewalk and the February wind whisked my face. I sat on a bench beside Michigan Avenue, drinking coffee and watching tourists in scarves flutter by.
I called my brother from The Field Museum. “I’ve broken out.”
“The conference I was at—I needed a break.”
“Where are you now?”
“Looking at dinosaurs.”
He wasn’t surprised.
My senior year of college, I drove across the Mississippi with my boyfriend Jared to visit his family in Iowa. It felt like wandering. He picked me up after class. I stood on the sidewalk with still-wet pinned up hair, wearing a trench coat and holding a lily for his mother. My flats smacked against the pavement when I ran across the road to meet him.
It was the first time I remember crossing the Mississippi by car. When I was younger, I’d been to Wyoming with my family, but I had no recollection of blue arches bridging slow-moving water.
I pressed my face to the window and felt myself moving west.
The land unfolded as we drove—the highway rose and fell between long straight rows of brown corn. Everything about Iowa was straight, organized in rows and east-west highways that ran in straight lines over straight rivers. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in a subdivision that spiraled into sections with names like Glover Circle and Congress Court. I grew up with my grass sectioned off into commons, lined by the backs of houses. Rows of corn were new to me.
When I moved to Iowa, Jared drove me, tailing a trailer full of my family and furniture. I fished through his cup holder and found a pair of his sunglasses. I slipped them on and they slid down my nose. I looked at late August rows of corn through half-darkened eyes.
We unboxed my room with my parents and brother, Keith. Jared helped Keith haul the pieces of my bed and desk. I sat on the carpet arranging books on the shelf by color and helping my mother decide where to hang my magnetic board and Monet poster.
My parents set up beige director’s chairs in my empty living room and we ate McDonalds on wooden tables I’d found in my Nana’s basement and painted white. Jared’s brother Ryan came to meet him, so he took his food to go. Meanwhile, my family sat in a circle, bent over too-short tables, eating salads in plastic containers with plastic forks. The brown bag of leftovers and plastic squeeze containers of extra dressing became the first contents of my refrigerator in my first house.
In the “My Documents” section of my computer there are two folders—one titled “House 1” and one titled “Iowa Pics” which I posted on the internet to a gallery labeled “Ames, Iowa, and the house on Beedle Drive.”
A photograph of my mother and brother sitting in my living room: My mom drinks from her Nalgene bottle, her slippers resting on a silver cooler. Keith chews on his straw, his bare feet arched sideways on the carpet, his Beatles book sitting on a plant stand.
A photograph of me, unloading my dishwasher for the first time: I’m wearing lime green running shorts and a bright blue New Balance T-shirt, legs still tanned from a summer spent running with my brother. A stained glass sign which reads “Café”—a gift my friend Emily brought back from a semester spent studying in Mexico—sits un-hung on my counter. An open cupboard beside the sink reveals three shelves—empty, except for my coffee grinder.
A photograph of the front of the house—a side view of our front porch: It was taken a couple weeks later, after my housemate had arrived in Iowa. A yellow broom is propped against the doorstep beside a wooden table Annie and I bought for ten dollars at a garage sale. We had to collapse my back seat to get it loaded in my car. Potted flowers sit on the tabletop—my housemate’s contribution. Around the same time the photo was taken, I planted daffodils in front of our house. I spent an afternoon digging fist-sized holes in my front yard, plopping bulbs, and patting the soil smooth.
I wanted to get my hands in Iowa—literally—metaphorically.
Two days after I moved to Ames, Jared drove me to the Iowa State Fair. I have snapshots saved on my cell phone of record-breaking bulls, bearded goats, three-pound pigeons in wired cages and Jared bent beside a mass of lettuce twice the size of his head. We walked through 4-H photography exhibits. We ate hard boiled eggs on sticks. We saw a sculpture of gymnast Shawn Johnson carved in butter behind a Plexiglas boundary. That night, Jared stayed with me in Ames—we bought pizza from a local restaurant famous for their hand-rolled crust and took the bus downtown to drink locally-brewed beer out of big glasses.
When I first moved to Iowa, whenever Jared and I walked through a field, I would turn to him, chin to my shoulder, eyebrow raised, and ask, “Is this the prairie?”
He would shake his head, “No Rachael, this is just grass.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be prairie in Iowa?” I toed the field in front of me, digging up tufts of grass and dandelions, pieces of an altered landscape—in a state where only two percent of the original terrain remains.
I grew up watching the storms come in on Lake Michigan—dark clouds hanging above the water that rolled toward where I sat on the beach. One of my friends from the east coast told me that sometimes, when the wind blows the sea of stalks, the cornfields remind him of waves. Something about the endless straight lines appeals to a girl who grew up meandering, who wanted to stray from her mother in the mall to amble through the racks of clothing.
You can lose yourself here.
Whenever I try to write about Jared, he seems flat. He feels like a place-holder: A person that filled a spot on a map. We kept each other company while we waited for the rest of our lives to begin.
It wasn’t until after Jared and I broke up that I saw my first prairie—the landscape rooted beneath the lines. I began to seek out prairies and to become involved with their restoration—and their burning.
When the prairie burns it smells like popcorn. Smoke seeps up from the soil. In Iowa, I learned how to clear the way for the fire, how to rake back the grasses to create a burn line. I watched fire creep across the grass, leaving soot-filled soil behind. I used the heel of my boot to stomp out lingering flames and returned to my car smelling like sweat and smoke.
Prairie grasses react to stress and change. Their root structure extends eight to fifteen feet into the soil, so after the fire finishes the grasses grow back stronger. When I helped build burn lines for controlled prairie fires, my arms ached from raking and my mouth grew dry from smoke and sun. I watched how black the dirt became by the end of the burn. I saw tiny sprouts creep through ashes.
Once I asked Jared what I should do if I got lost in a cornfield.
“Just keep heading in one direction.”
When I decided to drive to Michigan to spend the three months in the Upper Peninsula, I drove north through Iowa and Wisconsin instead of up Interstate-75 through Grayling and Gaylord. I left Iowa at eight thirty in the morning and didn’t reach Riverview Drive until after midnight.
It’s weird to drive over thirteen hours without understanding the specifics of the route. I drove into downtown Madison, when I should have detoured around the city. I wove up two-lane highways dashed by small towns and wondered where Wisconsin hid its main roads. I called a friend when I passed her hometown, Sun Prairie.
“I have no idea if I’m where I’m supposed to be. The road keeps disappearing into small towns and coming back out in a different spot.”
She laughed. “They tend to do that—just keep driving north. If you hit Canada you’ve gone too far.”
Just keep driving north: my trip’s mantra.
I was excited to a drive a new direction into the Upper Peninsula—to watch Route 2 lace itself between Lake Michigan and thick pine forests. But by the time I reached Menominee the sky was getting dark—navy blue, broken up by green silhouettes of clouds. By Escanaba, the road and woods were completely black. I drove along Route 2 with only blinking yellow yield lights to mark towns with names I began to recognize—Manistique, Gulliver, Gould City. A road sign reading, “Enjoy Prom—Don’t Drink and Drive” stood several feet in front of the Junction 117—my turn.
I didn’t want to climb into the crawlspace to turn on the water that night, so I warmed bottled water in the microwave to splash on my face before collapsing into bed with my clothes still on. The next morning I tried to retrace my route. I opened my atlas to page 114: Wisconsin. I wanted to highlight the path that brought me up north, marking exits I’d taken and places in the road that I liked. But I couldn’t figure out the way I’d come. Wisconsin roads changed colors when they wandered through cities—they went from yellow with orange stripes labeled with a circular “151” to blue and nameless. I closed the atlas and gave up the idea of marking my path.
“You are here.”
The wooden maps at the trail heads of state parks indicate your location with arrows or red dots. Mall maps do the same thing.
My first spring in Iowa, I was running on the Iowa State cross country course, a field just east of my house, when I looked up at the Ames water tower. Cursive letter announced, “You’re here!” I swerved, surprised by the bluntness of the big blue proclamation.
I had to run horizontally across the field before I could see the whole phrase, “We’re glad you’re here!” I wondered why I hadn’t noticed the words before—but was more struck by the idea of being “here,” of pointing to a spot on a map or in a field and declaring your location with an exclamation point.
I rarely use exclamation points. I use a lot of ellipses and dashes—but not exclamation points. Most of my punctuation indicates an unfinished thought rather than a proclamation. One of my friends has an ampersand (&) tattooed between her breasts. She says you should never end a sentence with “and.” Maybe that’s just where we are right now—the future is unclear. I don’t know where I’ll go next. I can map pieces of the past but I struggle to understand it. I can’t highlight the route that I will take next or even accurately trace the roads I’ve taken.
The morning after Jared and I broke up, I couldn’t find my purse or anything I needed to get ready. I drove to school with no make-up and my hair in a ponytail, body crumpled against my steering wheel. I struggled to salvage the pieces of my routine. I didn’t tell anyone outside my family about our break-up for several days. When my friends finally asked me what happened and who initiated, it I couldn’t answer.
“I don’t know.”
The summer after I moved to Iowa, I drove up north alone. Maybe when wild people retreat they run to wild places. Cut flowers wilt but deciduous forests come back, forging through the seasons. Woodlands cover around eighty percent of the Upper Peninsula and there are only around twenty people per square mile with no major specialty stores or shopping malls. “You are here.” Here, I marked the first mile of my run by the dead coyote decomposing in the middle of the trail. Here, I woke to the sound of sandhill cranes hollering. Here, I watched the weather in a river that ran toward Lake Michigan. Raindrops splattered the water’s surface. Sun turned the river-bottom-sepia brown. But when I told my coworkers at the running store that I work at in Detroit that I was spending the summer in the Upper Peninsula, I got two reactions: “By yourself?” and “Why?”
My first year in graduate school, I often felt like I was pretending to be a grown-up—imagining that I knew what I was doing in my teaching job, my classes, or my relationship—calling my mother to tell her that I paid my bills or did my taxes, as though I was a child playing store with a plastic cash register—wandering at the brink of adulthood. I knew when I returned to Iowa in the fall I would drive across I-80 by myself. I would park my car in the driveway and unload my summer duffle bags into the room I’d moved into the summer before. Maybe after I unfolded my clothing into drawers, I would sit cross legged on my comforter and sort through the pile of papers I had accumulated over the past year. Maybe after I finished I would lie back on my bed and think “I’m here.” But honestly, the roads seemed to blur together and I wasn’t sure what would happen next.
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Rachael Shay Button hails from Metro-Detroit but lives in the North Cascades of Washington. Her work has recently appeared in (or is forthcoming from) Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, Pithead Chapel, The Collagist, Creative Nonfiction, Diagram, and Redivider, among other journals. She’s currently at work on a collection of essays titled, “When I Get Home.” Rachael can be found online at http://rachaelshaybutton.wordpress.com.