Chicago, Illinois. Train coming into Union Station

Drenched Driftless: First Week at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Chicago, Illinois. Train coming into Union Station
Train Coming into Union Station. Jack Delano, 1943.

I was born in the Midwest but I am not from there.

I don’t remember much about Illinois, recollections hazy like cold smoke in a walk in freezer. So perhaps it is appropriate that in my little American odyssey, that I am greeted by variations of obscured air.

 The first stretch of the drive was the hardest. I graduated from Agnes Scott College on May 11th. My family and I drove back to Baltimore the next day, on May 12th. The next three days I spent in a daze of packing and repacking, relearning the contours of my childhood room only to leave once again. Despite living so far from my parent’s home, I never did a roadtrip by myself. The car was new and old- a 2009 Mazda coaxed into a new life. We fixed it up but my parents I were a little nervous it’s age would show on two long trips in a row, and I was nervous my youth couldn’t be counted on to make the journey alone.

Still, it was time to go to a new life only three days after the end of my old one. I apologized to my poor cat, for she was becoming the most seasoned traveler of our five felines by force (and the fact that if she stayed home the others would bully her relentlessly). Then I set off from Maryland with her meowing in the passenger’s seat.

The first six hours was from Baltimore to my aunt’s house in Cleveland. The skies were clear through the initial parts Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Mountains reminding me of my last summer as an intern at the Smoky Mountains. For awhile I drove around Pittsburgh, the route trying to hide the city behind its bridges and forests. The stretch between Pittsburgh and Cleveland however morphed into a plain of forever. The sun baked into the black interior of the car and it was just humid enough to really feel it, but not enough that the air conditioner made a considerable difference.

It occured to me that my journey west was also the journey of the United States. I wonder how many of the highways and roads I drove on were trade routes between indigenous communities, then forced marches and wagon trails. I wondered what the land looks like underneath the asphalt and tar. How much of American identity is centered on travel and distance, how much of that will change as we hopefully invest in a country with more trains and less highways. I wondered if the endless river of cars winding their way through Ohio would lessen into barges of electric busses and clean trucks, maybe even bikes if one doesn’t need to go far.

The next six hours from Cleveland to Milwaukee were easier for the most part. Catalina calmed down and slept most of the way, accepting her fate as a #free spirit. Illinois greeted me with a thick fog. I don’t know if it was Chicago pollution, or the wildfire smoke from Canada meandering their way south, or just the way the air was. Flitting white specks flew by as the road as gargantuan structures sculpted themselves out the mist. Like giants in the sea, a line of electric towers appeared as I drove closer to the city. All made a direct line to the city, surrounded by brownstones houses, the graves and hospice of what was once the manufacturing hub of America, and the railroads that ruled the midwest. This is the sacrifice zone of Chicago, the kind of places highways and electric towers are built through.

Then I got stuck in Chicago rush hour traffic and any coherent thoughts I had were drowned out by the pure animal fear of being trapped, surrounded by thousands of other trapped just as much as me. We could all walk out, I thought after an hour in traffic, we really could all just step out of the cars and leave. But of course that’s not how this works, and I kept driving to Milwaukee.

The next day I learned from a friendly Wisconsinite how to eat potato pancakes with applesauce, and drove the remaining three hours on tiny curvy roads with names like “country road J” and “hollow ave”. The Driftless region is a pocket of the midwest untouched by the glaciers that created the rest of the plains and the Great Lakes. It is hilly, with beautifully colored bluffs and an original environment of oak savannah, prairie grass, forests, and the marshy kisses of the great Mississippi. I’ve never seen the river before and now I am able to walk to the water and watch its splendor.  It’s like seeing the ocean in the desert, my brain cannot comprehend just how big this river is, what it looked like through it’s long and ancient life.

It’s been raining often here, the train whistles and thunder sometimes matching into a howl that shakes the house I’m staying in with my fellow intern. The mounds themselves are in Iowa, green and flowering for the rain in a current period of drought. There were once thousands upon thousands of mounds across the region, but now these are some of the last ones left. Like animals and plants, graveyards can be endangered. It is beautiful- but it also functions as a scar and open wound. How many of the places I’ve driven through are desecrated land? Where does past and present and future meld in the earth?

As a Hispanic person, I think about this often. There is no world necessarily to come back to. My culture, food, people, is a result of colonization. There is no set way to distangle the good from the bad in what it means to be latino. There is no idealized past to go back to. Even the land reflects this. Many of the old coffee plantations in Puerto Rico are now new and naturalized ecosystems, following the reforesting of a post agriculture economy.

As a Library Technician at Effigy Mounds, I will need to think about such things. “Normal” and “natural” are extremely subjective in terms of land use and history. Shifting Baseline Syndrome describes the process of how we establish what is normal or stable based on the world we grow up in. History is a constant battle against this syndrome. It takes imagination and reestablishing of the reality in which you live in constantly, knowing that the truth is impossible to ever really know. That is why first person evidence and accounts are so vital. They are so fragile, but set a baseline closer to what is true. The national park service is the process of changing these baselines, Effigy specifically reaches out to tribal partners constantly. My role as a library technician is to assist this mission by making sure the information we have is relevant and accurate. If it isn’t either, it can be used as context for where misconceptions and misunderstandings came from. These outdated books also expose the normalized violence in text and academia against marginalized people, horrific but important not to claim ignorance of as we continue in reparations.

I’m excited for more time to respect the mounds for what they are, and what they used to be.

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