Barnstorming: A Haibun Sequence

Stephen Benz

1. Terre Haute

Indiana: a week of artificial illumination, the sky constantly overcast, persistently gray. Not the interesting dark gray of stormy skies, the kind of gray that lends itself to brooding art (think Friedrich, think Turner). Just the uniform, pallid gray of Indiana in winter. A week spent mostly indoors, shuttling among fluorescent rooms, hardly a breath of fresh air, one overly gregarious event after another. Wine and cheese, platters of chilled shrimp, tiramisu in Dixie cups. Perfunctory questions about authorial intention and poetic license, enthusiastic anecdotes about family trips to Branson, Orlando, Vegas. So went our week in Terre Haute: no chance of natural light, no escape from polite conversation, no way to avoid the constant expressions of concern about the performance of the local basketball team. “I’ll tell you what,” someone said. “You’ve got that right. Hit the proverbial nail right on the head.” Three different people at three different events quipped, “Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.” They all had big grins, booming voices. In the hotel’s breakfast nook, the same grin, same voice emanated from a television screen: “Look for more of the same tomorrow, folks. Overcast skies, highs in the upper thirties.”

That seasick feeling,

hotel corridor at night.

Too much chardonnay.

 

2. Carbondale

Three days in Carbondale exhausted all of our more philosophical attitudes. In the pancake house, we stared at bowls of oatmeal and failed to get the powder to dissolve in cups of tepid coffee. It was obvious we were teetering toward ennui and must soon get out of town. Nevertheless, there was one more interview and a museum to visit before we were allowed a clean getaway. Non sequiturs abounded: the waitress’s running commentary on the shortage of help in the kitchen; the committee’s off-base queries about samizdat poetry in Eastern Europe; the museum displays on gopher holes and the long, underappreciated history of sackcloth attire. A man on the corner of Cherry and Ash ate from a paper bag and singled us out to say: “This is the best damn donut I ever ate, bar none.”

 

This storefront window:

Silk orchids, pastel-colored,

a dozing tabby.

 

3. Davenport

In Davenport, the hopeless interview took place in a glass and steel box. Bagels and coffee were delivered, bagels in a box, coffee in a box. There was some grousing about the fact that once again the delivery did not include French vanilla creamer. “Our first question,” the chairperson said, “has to do with your methodology, because it’s not all that clear—right?—how you’ve reached these conclusions.” Hours passed before we were released and could go for an assuasive walk in a nearby park—uplifted somewhat to see trees that had budded in defiance of the cold wind, the slush on the walkways. We shivered in our inadequate jackets; we rued the answers we had given to the committee’s cleverly phrased questions—designed, we realized, to catch us out, expose an untenable position. We already knew we would have to count Davenport among our losses, but somehow seeing those buds—little furry green nubbins on bare branches—made everything better. “Long run, things will turn out for the best,” we decided as we gingerly negotiated the ice-choked puddles, the wind pushing hard against us. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, et cetera, et cetera.”

 

Late winter, cold wind,

the park pond still thick with slush.

Children feeding geese.

 

4. Lincoln

In Lincoln, it was decided that we should see the football stadium and the statehouse then go out for steak. Our hosts—friendly to the point of discomfort—chatted from the front seat as they drove us around town. We circled the stadium. We circled the statehouse. I noticed the trees (ash?), the clouds (high cirrus?), and the flags—so many flags—adorning houses. At the steakhouse, enormous slabs of meat were set before us. Biscuits. Corn on the cob. Our hosts poured on the steak sauce and asked scores of questions that seemed irrelevant, off topic. The place was loud with talk about football even though football season was months off. Everybody wore red. The walls were decorated with sports memorabilia. I asked one of our hosts about Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s hometown. She had never been but had heard it was nice. Well, not nice exactly but interesting. The drive to get there, she said, was dull, dull, dull.

Morning without warmth,

a mug of tasteless coffee.

This endless journey.

 

5. Beaumont

What was it the committee chair wanted us to see out his office window? Something just below, three stories down near the building’s entrance. Was it a rose garden? A peculiar piece of modern sculpture? A bike rack? What we noticed—couldn’t help but notice—was the refinery just across the way, the array of storage tanks. “You get used to them,” he told us. “Like telephone poles. You don’t see them after a while.” Our presentation was poorly attended, and those in the room projected a practiced apathy. There were no questions. Conflict with a sporting event of some sort, the committee chair explained. Or was it the start of hunting season? Whatever, we shrugged it off, having become inured to sparse and weary audiences. Then it was lunch at a sandwich shop, the chair wolfing down enormous bites of roast beef and telling us all about his research. He seemed surprised we weren’t familiar with a certain study to which he had contributed. There was no finishing the hefty, bland sandwiches. The smell of petroleum was everywhere, and everything—bread, water, meat—tasted of chemicals.

Beyond city sprawl

transformers, tank farms, train tracks.

Then: wetlands in mist.

 

6. Durango

A cloudless day in Durango; fresh, cool, autumnal air; warm sunlight. Nonetheless, the riveting news was of a hurricane thousands of miles away. Disastrous flooding. People and pets on rooftops. Boats navigating inundated streets. An ineffectual government response, the military mobilized. Everywhere—in the hotel lobby, the student center on campus, the sports bar—screens replayed footage of storm surge, fallen trees, downed wires, collapsed structures, flipped mobile homes, confused and dazed victims. But when we walked outside, strolled the grounds, watched the Frisbee-tossers and dogwalkers, we found ourselves in a carefree world, an Indian summer day, making it easy to pretend that all the inclemency was elsewhere, that we ourselves could remain blissfully unaware of our own impending storms.

Winding mountain roads,

the map at odds with our route.

Which way is true west?

 

7. Fresno

Fresno was a mistake from the get-go, but who was to blame? A discussion of ultimate responsibility proved overly intricate and finally bogged down on conflicting versions of some nuance that may or may not have originated with Nietzsche. Besides, it was hard to breathe: swirling dust, a persistent agricultural haze burning the throat, diesel exhaust. Three sad palms, discolored from the bad air, governed the motel parking lot. No one from the state university came to meet us (a combination of miscommunication and overbooking at the campus day-care facility, according to the terse explanation we later received). And so we undertook the long walk up the main boulevard straight toward the epicenter of the California nightmare—six lanes of traffic, drive-thru fast food, auto trader, smoke shop, nail salon, bowling alley, cineplex, orthodontics, pet hospital, memory care, car wash, military supplies, parking garage, extended-stay motel, finally an impassable cloverleaf exchange—the nightmare that has unnerved many a revenant pilgrim from Henry James to Henry Miller. Outsiders, too: Brecht, Huxley, Adorno, Baudrillard. None made it so far as Fresno, but they knew the gist of it, having envisioned the grotesque American stylings of the wrath to come. Somewhere up ahead, we would find ourselves at the end of the road, contemplating the “many detours” that one meets, according to Roethke, on the long journey out of the self.

 

Now the deciding point.

At the crossroads, haze confounds

all sense of bearing.

 

8. Chico

 

In Chico, we were put up in a room across from the dorms, a party in progress. Howls. Loud music. Hooting. “Oh my god that is so random,” someone said. Hyena laughter. We reviewed our notes for the presentation and decided to cut the more controversial points, leaving only an innocuous argument intact. Hardly worth going through the motions to deliver it, but we had tired of the sophistries we continually met with in Q & A. Later, at the reception, we were introduced as “the guest speakers” to three retired members of the department, one of whom peered at us and said, “Ah yes, fine talk. I was sorry to have missed it.” He directed our attention to a tray of cookies and named them for us: “Oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate chip, and I don’t know what these blonde jobs are—snickerdoodles, perhaps?” He stroked his gray goatee and pondered the enigma. It felt like we had arrived at some sort of an ending, nothing more to say, nowhere else to go beyond Chico except another Chico and another Chico after that, an endless string of Chicos, one after another, until the road petered out altogether.

Overhanging trees

Owls issue their shrill warnings

The road plunges on

Along with two books of travel essays, Guatemalan Journey (University of  Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely  Planet), STEPHEN BENZ has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and other journals. Three of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003,  2015, 2019). Topographies, a collection of essays, was published by  Etruscan Press in 2019. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday  magazine of the Miami Herald, Benz now teaches professional writing at  the University of New Mexico. For more info, see www.stephenconnelybenz.com

Header art: "Tiptoe Dance" by Edward Michael Supranowicz.