(A later version of this piece was published on Military Spouse’s web site. Click here to read.)
I remember the first time
I drove through Indiana
Watching fences in the distance
Fade away …
I remember the first time I drove
Thinking to myself how big
This land really is
Personally, I don’t remember the first time I drove through Indiana. As a child, driving through Indiana (as well as neighboring Midwestern states) was as familiar as driving up my own street. Still, The Samples’ song ran through my mind on repeat as my family and I made our Odyssey from DC to El Paso. And with each town we passed, I grew more and more enchanted with our great land.
In the rolling, forested hills of Maryland, I thought about early settlers forging new territory, and even the kids in the back seat noticed how many different shades of green there were. In West Virginia, old homes dotted the hillsides, which soon flattened. In Ohio, I became a little giddy. The home state of my college and many friends and extended family, Ohio stirred up memories of my youth and young adulthood. Exit signs were familiar, and farmlands introduced us to the rest of the sprawling, hospitable Midwest. Indiana and Illinois did not disappoint, as miles of farms stretched to my right and to my left, with the fading fence lines immortalized in The Samples’ song in the distance.
It struck me here how starkly different the Midwest is from the land where our journey began. During a pitstop in western Illinois, my kids sat on the tailgate of my husband’s truck, legs swinging over the side as they happily sipped KoolAid and nibbled on road trip treats. Here, I pointed out how the land had changed, and I tried to help them appreciate the vastness and diversity of our country. At two and five, they politely listened, but they were understandably more interested in their Oreos. It was then that my husband noted that I was taking after my dad’s inclination to impart wisdom about things like the importance of corn and catalysts for land formation… all while gulping a Monster and eating a tuna sandwich outside a Phillips 66.
“This is valuable information,” I said with flat confidence, also reminiscent of my dad.
Still, I hope that someday my kids recall, at least in feeling, a first sense of belonging to something big, diverse, and open to them.
We linked up with Route 66 and passed Missouri’s Ozark mountains on our way to Oklahoma. I’ve driven through Oklahoma before, but this time I became more aware of its beautiful, wide, green ranch lands. Horses grazed lazily, and cattle took a page from Ferdinand and enjoyed a nap in the shade.
“I wonder why everyone doesn’t want to live here,” I remarked aloud. As far as I was concerned, the farmers and ranchers living in the distant homes were real estate geniuses.
Crossing the border to Texas, the land became decidedly drier and, well, bigger. The horizon jumped from far away to flat off the map, and the sky became a dreamy expanse of clear blue ether and puffy white clouds.
And it was in Texas, perhaps the most apropos place, that my heart swelled with pride. “Dammit,” I thought, “we are so lucky!”
Here we’d driven nearly 3,000 miles, we still hadn’t even been through a quarter of the states, and we’d covered a mere fraction of the US’s 3.8 million square miles. And what’s better is that my family and I can drive across this enormous country freely and safely, because this land is ours. The fact that we’re doing all of this because of a job just makes this gift all the better.
Being a part of the military, we don’t “have” to move to other places and embark on long journeys; we get to. We get to roll out a map for our children, point out where we were, where we are, and where we’re going, and sometimes, we even get to use a globe. To think, just a couple weeks ago, I was twisted with the stress of PCSing, but on a drive that daunted me like none other, I was reminded that not only was I gifted with this nation, this land, at my birth, but I also have the privilege to be a part of its military family, where an occupational perk is exploring its invaluable treasures.
The end of our trip brought us to El Paso, Texas, where a drive out of the neighborhood catches glimpses of New Mexico to the West and Mexico to the South. Collapsing on an air mattress that would be my bed for a week, I reflected on our trip. More than half of the route had been familiar to me, but I realized that the journey had been different.
This time, I saw the land as if it were for the first time, with a sense of awe and sparks of curiosity. The landscape changed as often as the states did, and sometimes more frequently. Each place presented a different form of beauty, from the lush green forests of Maryland, to the dry, mountainous desert of western Texas. It’s easy to get lost in your own mind as you watch the land pass by your window. You wonder who first saw this land, what made them stop here, who lives in faraway homes, who built the aging barns, how long they’ve been there, who tends the animals wandering slowly, steadily, as if in a dream. And you reflect that not too far that way there are mountains, and not too far this way there’s ocean. Dense forests. Rapid rivers. And these farms. And you realize the magic of the land. And you see how free it really is.