American Oz

This story is paired with Chapter 4 of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


 

Wide-open spaces completely freak me out.

I think it’s because of the tornados.

Being from the East Coast, I am familiar with hurricanes. Hurricanes, you can see coming for days, and if you don’t evacuate when they tell you to evacuate, then getting stranded is pretty much your own dumb fault. But tornados just seem to happen. If I learned anything from The Wizard of Oz, it’s that tornados are wild, unpredictable weather, harbingers of change that manifest only to change the monotony of black and white life into stunning Technicolor adventure, changing some people for the better while dropping the proverbial house on others.

Also, watching Twister just prior to making a life-altering journey through Tornado Alley during tornado season is not perhaps the best idea ever.

*   *   *

I am hunched nervously over my steering wheel driving the seemingly interminable stretch of highway between Chicago and Omaha, scanning the sky for signs of tornadic activity. I feel like a modern day pioneer, my car packed so full I can’t see out of the rear window, making my way through a hostile land in search of greener pastures and unknown opportunity. My mind races over the emergency tornado plans I developed, thanks to Google, before departing my comfortable, familiar, and above all—safe—home in southeastern Pennsylvania for the wilds of the Great Plains.

According to the Great and Powerful Internet, when faced with a tornado while driving, the safe thing to do is to seek shelter in a culvert, under an overpass, or barring those, in a ditch along the side of the road keeping as low to the ground as possible. These instructions do not offer much comfort. In fact, to my hysterical thinking, they sound suspiciously like the old PSA’s from the 1950’s that gave instruction on how to survive a blast from an atomic bomb. Duck and cover. In all reality, should I encounter a tornado, how effective will taking shelter in a roadside ditch actually be? Nevertheless, I diligently scan the road for likely places to hide with my cats should it become necessary. Already distressed by the gross indignity of being trapped in a pet carrier, my cats Dante and Tara have not been shy of making their displeasure with me widely known. Their incessant yowling to be let out does nothing to soothe my nerves, but nor does it distract me from keeping vigil over the Midwestern sky. However irrational, I am determined to be on the look out for even the barest hint of a tornado.

It is 3 June 2004, and the sky is a clear cloudless blue. So far so good.

*   *   *

It all began with a ring. Or rather, it began with the absence of a ring. Specifically, it was the absence of an engagement ring, and by extension, the absence of a fiancée responsible for said ring that prompted me to re-examine my life. I had long been contemplating a change in scenery; Lansdowne, Pennsylvania was beginning to feel a bit crowded. Although it was a healthy 30-minute drive from my house to where my parents live, I was feeling like it was 30 minutes too close. In fact, I was getting the feeling that anywhere within a 300-mile radius—from Boston, Massachusetts through Norfolk, Virginia—would be too close.

I spent my entire life up until then skimming up and down the East Coast, sticking primarily to New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and I was ready for more. The town where I grew up is by no means a Mecca of urban suavity. Malvern, Pennsylvania is a smallish town of about 3,000 people, with houses spaced comfortably on half-acre lots surrounded by lots of parks, trees, and gently rolling hills. It is a suburb seventeen miles west of Philadelphia (as the crow flies); just one of a myriad of little hamlets that lie clustered on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area. It is close enough to the city that the faint, rosy glow of city light pollution is ever visible in the eastern portion of the night sky.

I had only read about places where the land is flat and open. Grand places where earth and sky touch on a distant horizon with barely a hint of tree or hill to mar the wide expanse of the vista. Such a landscape was incomprehensible to me. It was the land of corn and wheat, Dorothy Gale, and endless pastures of cows; an American Oz that to my mind may as well have been a vast blank space on the map, occupying the space between the East Coast and California (which I had also never seen), where instead of monsters, here be tornados.

In spite of its fairly cosmopolitan appearance and attitudes, over half of my high school graduating class went to Penn State University, where they roomed together before coming back to the same pocket suburbs of Philadelphia to live and work. They still had the same friends and the same parties that they did in high school, and although the well-to-do environment encouraged things like regular trips to Europe, skiing in Vail, and cruises to the Caribbean, the sameness of it all was making me itch to see more of the country. The abrupt ending of my relationship gave me the impetus I needed to break away from my current life of entitled comfort and take the plunge into something new.

So I ran across the country to Omaha, Nebraska and into the unknown.

*   *   *

The roads out of Philadelphia were quiet and dim at 5:30 am, with the sun just hovering over the edge of the tree line. It was just my two cats, packed unhappily into their carrier, and me. No one was witness to my silent departure; my parents were noticeably absent, largely because I had explained my desire for an early morning departure. Seeing them in my rear view mirror as I drove off would have made things harder. Change is not something that comes easy to me, and had my parents been there, standing in my driveway, with my mother tearfully waving and making me promise to drive safely and call often and my father standing stoically next to her, I doubt my resolve to leave would have lasted. Instead, I would have crumbled in the face of my mother’s tears (for who can actually withstand a tearful parent?) and I would have put off departing for one more day, that may or may not have led into another and another until the roots of family and familiarity once again took hold and kept me in my place. No, it was better that my departure went unnoticed and unremarked upon.

The days leading up to this unexceptional departure were ironically very much akin to the dreaded tornado; from the time I was officially hired by The Rose Theatre—my whole impetus for moving in the first place—to that quiet morning when I backed out of my driveway for the last time, only sixteen days had passed. Sixteen days in which I found Omaha on a map, sold the majority of my possessions, packed the rest of my belongings, found a place to live, gave over power of attorney to my parents regarding my house, and mapped a route west. Those sixteen days were a veritable whirlwind of activity in which I was never still, for fear that any form of immobility would cause a loss of momentum, resulting in a loss of determination. My Technicolor adventure was before me; only time would tell if I would land over the rainbow or under a house. Sometimes with change, it is better to close your eyes and jump into the winds.

*   *   *

Pennsylvania is a deceptively large state. Driving the speed limit (which I admit I rarely do), it takes about six and a half hours to cross. I can remember making the trip countless times as a child, making the trek from Malvern to the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains where my maternal grandparents resided in Meadow Lands, Pennsylvania, an area of coal mines, steel mills, and factories southwest of Pittsburgh and about 30 minutes away from Wheeling, West Virginia.

The route to Nebraska from Eastern Pennsylvania is a simple drive, really: just a matter of hopping onto I-76—the Pennsylvania Turnpike—in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and following it west all the way into Ohio. From there I planned to pick up I-80, which would take me the rest of the way to Omaha. It seems amazing that over a distance of nearly 1,200 miles I would only need to take two major highways.

King of Prussia, like so many Revolutionary War-era towns, took its name from a tavern called the King of Prussia Inn, which in turn, was named after Fredrick II, the then King of Prussia. Welsh Quakers originally constructed the inn in 1719 as a cottage, home to William and Janet Rees. Later, in 1769, the Rees Cottage was converted into the inn, where it maintained a brisk business, given its proximity to Philadelphia—a scenic one-day journey by horseback. Most significantly, the inn and tavern played host to General George Washington over Thanksgiving of 1777, just weeks before Washington and his troops settled into winter in nearby Valley Forge.

Just over two centuries later, King of Prussia is still a significant traveling point, being the crossroads for several major highways. It’s a growing Philadelphia suburb just shy of 20,000 residents, where the most significant landmark is the King of Prussia Mall. The mall itself is considered to be the largest shopping mall in America in terms of sheer acreage, surpassing even Minnesota’s Mall of America. However, once on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the suburban sprawl of shopping mall, parking lots, and corporate offices soon give way to the vast farmlands of Central Pennsylvania.

I have often said, particularly to those unfamiliar with Pennsylvania, that within the state there is Philadelphia on the eastern edge and Pittsburgh that guards the west and in between there is little more than farmland, cows, and mountains. The turnpike cuts its own swath through the hilly middle country, sometimes passing pastures of placid bovines chewing their cud and thinking bovine thoughts. Other times it seems to slash through granite, with sheer walls of rock towering over the ribbon of concrete advising travelers to Beware of falling rock. But mountain or pasture, there is little of this road that runs truly straight.

Much of the way is also densely forested. As a child, I can remember my mother, entertaining my younger sister and I during the long trip to visit the grandparents, leading us in boisterous renditions of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” I was young enough to believe that everyone’s grandparents lived just beyond such geographical landmarks. After all, we had to travel through many woods, and Pittsburgh is the home the Three Rivers Stadium, so crossing a river was inevitable. Furthermore, the trip across Pennsylvania is made even more memorable by the multitude of tunnels that are bored directly through the mountains. The four (out of the original seven) that are still in use traverse the Blue Mountain, Kittatinny Mountain, Tuscarora Mountain, and Allegheny Mountain, and those became as familiar to me as the roads closer to home. It was fun to say the names as fast as possible, creating a tongue twister of bizarre sounds and syllables sounding so close to nonsense. We would include the names of two of the rivers, thus creating kittatinnyalleghenytuscaroramonongahelasusquehanna.

I stayed on I-76 as it cut north past Pittsburgh until it intersected with I-80 just east of Akron, Ohio. From there it was a short distance to the Red Roof Inn where we were to spend the night.

The cats were vastly relieved for the respite from the hated pet carrier.

*   *   *

I left Akron just as the sun was beginning its ascent into the sky, the excitement of the road egging me on. I had reached the Midwest! The Mid-Atlantic region was but a memory in my rear view mirrors, and here was something new: Corn! Wheat! Amber waves of grain! And, of course, tornados. I was less excited about that last part, but the thrill of adventure was upon me.

The goal for the day was to make it to the outskirts of Chicago—about seven hours away. I had some additional motivation for this leg as well. An old and dear friend of mine, indeed the oldest one I have, our friendship extending back to the seventh grade when it was forged in the crucible that was middle school, was then residing in Chicago with her husband. It had been years since last we met, and I was eager to visit with them and catch up on life. The anticipation of seeing such an old friend caused the highway to blur past. Toledo and South Bend seemed to pass in a flash, although realistically I know they are several hours apart. Furthermore, for the second day in a row, the weather was perfect. The dinginess of the highway juxtaposed against a clear blue June sky made the drive exponentially more enjoyable.

To my inexperienced eye, the road between Akron and Chicago looked much the same as highway intervals on the East Coast. There is little difference there to indicate a shift in regions. While there may be more space between urban areas and the road straighter, Ohio and Indiana were familiar enough to parts of western Pennsylvania that I felt little to no anxiety. This close to the Appalachians, I-80 is still a bit hilly—at least though Gary, Indiana. There was a comfortable grey patina of carbon exhaust and fatigue—a kind of commuter’s ennui—that coated the service stations and strip malls that peppered both sides of the interstate. It was not an unfamiliar sight; the stretch of highway between Malvern, Pennsylvania and New London, Connecticut that I traveled at least eight times a year while in college looks the same: same trees, same hills, same dilapidated and derelict gas stations and rest areas. Once past Chicago, however, I knew my enjoyment of the fine spring days would be tarnished with the looming prospect of tornadic activity, so I was determined to squeeze as much security from what I had mentally designated as the “safe” region of the Midwest as I could.

I was a little disappointed that sometimes the primary differences between gas stations were whether the shot glasses and other road paraphernalia read Ohio or Indiana or Illinois.

*   *   *

The congestion surrounding Gary, Indiana seemed to meld seamlessly with the hustle of Chicago, the two feeding into each other and reminding me of the East Coast megalopolis—Boston through Baltimore—that I had just left. I found my hotel (yet another Red Roof Inn) and released my cats to the safety of hiding under a bed while I cleaned up a bit from the road.

The way to meet my friend Jocelyn was relatively straight forward, but I still got lost just the same. After driving around in circles for fifteen minutes, I finally caved and called her for more explicit directions. I am notoriously bad at finding my way to unfamiliar locations, so to compensate, I usually give myself anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour of “getting lost” time. Sometimes this results in me being exceptionally early, but not usually. I was exceptionally lucky that all I had to do to reach Omaha was stay on I-80 westbound, something that even I would find difficult to screw up.

I learned that driving in Chicago is much like driving in any large city, in that it is something that should be avoided at every opportunity.

Chicago, to me, doesn’t feel like the Midwest. Its urban footprint is similar to that of New York or Philadelphia or Washington D.C., and it carries within it an air of cosmopolitan urbaneness, that causal suavity that makes a definitive statement of sophistication to the occidental visitor. The city knows that it is the jewel of the Midwest, offering an oasis of erudition between the slick urbanity of New York and the glamorous hedonism of Los Angeles.

Although this was my first time in an unfamiliar city, the towering skyline and urban canyons were still a source of recognizable security. Suburbanite that I am, I had spent enough time working and wandering in cities to feel completely at ease. Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States, behind New York and Los Angeles—Philadelphia comes in fifth after Houston—and as irritating as I find city driving to be, I felt no fear, no trepidation, navigating though the bustling streets. There was the same casual anonymity, the same friendly indifference that is present in most metropolitan areas back east. What some may see as a hostile, vaguely threatening environment was one in which I found to be full of security and recognition to the point of being borderline unmemorable. It was easy to forget the distance that separated Chicago from the East Coast urban centers, so that this city began to meld into all the others I’ve been to, with only the immense and placid waters of Lake Michigan to set it apart.

As such a beacon of style and refinement, I was unsurprised to pay $25 to park my car in a garage once I tracked down Jocelyn, and I arrived at her home to a chorus of gleefully barking dogs and the welcome reminiscing of an old friend.

*   *   *

I experienced my first true culture shock on the third day once Chicago was nothing but a microscopic speck in my rear view mirrors. For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the kind of wide-open spaces I previously only associated with being at sea. Driving through these prosperous fields filled with strange metal structures like abstract art (see center irrigation pivot), I felt like I had been transported to an alien world, following my own personal Yellow Brick Road in the form of I-80. Gone were the grey roadside service stations. Gone were the rest stops permeated with the fug of weary travelers. Gone were the seas of parking lots and strip malls and overcrowded, impatient, jostling activity. This was the Heartland, the Bread Basket of America, the beginning of the Great Plains. I had a moment of panic when I imagined the pioneers carving out great swaths in the tall grasses with their covered wagons and teams of oxen. How could they even see where they were going? My unobstructed view showed me fields and farmland nearly to the horizon and beyond, without trees or hills or bends in the road to compromise the flat expanse of land. I began to realize exactly how much trouble I would be in in the event of a tornado. Dorothy’s version of Kansas (even though I was still in Illinois) suddenly became a reality, brought into absolute clarity when faced with the endless fields of wheat or corn or oats or whatever the hell was growing in seeming abundance on either side of the warm grey highway. How was I to know that when presented with such openness that I would become mildly agoraphobic?

Passing into Iowa was more of the same: Long stretches of highway where, for whatever reason, I seemed to be the only car speeding along. Rationally I know this not to be the case. In all likelihood I shared my section of road with innumerable drivers, all of whom were probably cursing my East Coast driving skills. “Assertive” is what it’s called back East, while here the term “extreme aggression” has been tossed in my direction more than once over the years. However, of those other drivers, I remember not a one. I was so completely undone by the shock of finding myself literally surrounded by farmland that the landscape of my memory has changed, making me the only one on the road as I attempted to assimilate and reconcile what I was seeing with what I had only read about before in textbooks or what I had seen in the movies. What was I doing, moving so far out of my comfort zone that I was turning myself in to a stranger in a strange land? As a little girl in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Dorothy’s Kansas may as well have been Oz, and both were equally exotic to me.

*   *   *

The sign read Pella 5 miles, and it immediately rang some bells and conjured up a distant memory of sitting in Mrs. Baird’s third grade class studying the geography of the United States. Prior to this, Pella was only a word; a random mess of letters that I occasionally saw printed on labels and stuck on windows. Only a word, like London or Tibet or Moscow, places I have never been and something that completely defies meaning until you see it or touch it or are actually there. Or, as in the case of Pella, Iowa, it was only a word plastered on windows, a place I read about in the third grade as somewhere in Iowa that made windows. It was as real to me as Neverland or Oz, but here I was, driving through unfamiliar territory, when the reality of Pella—the familiarity of its name—struck me like a physical blow, and it suddenly coalesced into a real place filled with real people. And it occurred to me that there were people living and working in Pella to whom New York or Valley Forge or Boston were equally exotic and about as real as Oz. I passed Pella in a glorious fog of epiphany.

By now the cats had given up their incessant howling from the recess of their carrier. Without their cacophony, I began to sink in a strange medley of hyper-vigilance and utter boredom.

*   *   *

On a long and lonesome highway
East of Omaha

Seger had it right. He may not have been referring specifically to the expanse of I-80 through Iowa, but from what I could tell I-80 was almost unbearable in its seemingly interminable isolation through the fields.

It’s very difficult keeping vigil on a tornado watch while driving through Iowa.

What was exotic and strange about the wide sweep of farms had lost its luster, and I found myself actually struggling to watch the road. The long, flat, straight road surrounded by the wide, flat breadth of farmland from here to the horizon and beyond. Like Pella, the phrase Great Plains also suddenly had meaning, but I was still bored out of my mind. For a while, I kept myself entertained by calling my mother on my cell phone. I had been checking in with her nightly as I reached each stopping point, but the monotony of the road was getting to me, and no matter how hard I tried, conversing intelligently with my cats just wasn’t happening. However, after my third call to her to simply complain about how bored I was, she began to get a bit impatient with me, and although her tolerance is next to saintly, there is still only so far I can push her with yet more inane chatter about nothing in particular.

Regardless of yet another perfect June day, I began to find morbid entertainment watching the faultless skies for the tiniest hint of a tornado. For the umpteenth time I compared the destructive force of a tornado—everything I know about them I learned from Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton—with the one force of nature with which I am intimately familiar: hurricanes. I began to do sort of a comparison between the two; having waited out two significant hurricanes—Gloria in 1985 and Bob in 1991—I felt reasonably comfortable with at least the idea of a hurricane: After all, as destructive as they may be (Katrina, Isaac, and Sandy being the most recent and noteworthy) the fact remains that coastal inhabitants get advance warning, sometimes measured by days, that a hurricane is approaching, so staying against evacuation orders is beyond foolhardy.

Tornadoes, on the other hand, seem to just appear out of nowhere, and before you know it, the farmhouse has landed on some random woman in a place where flying monkeys and dancing scarecrows are mundane. I began to feel as though I were being stalked by the tornados, that one was lurking (although where one could lurk in the middle of a cornfield is beyond me), just waiting until my little plastic car drove past, and since I couldn’t use my rear window as packed full as my car was, I would be an unsuspecting victim of random tornadic activity. The image of my car being chased down the highway by malicious weather was as persistent in my mind as it was completely irrational. I expressed this concern to a state trooper I encountered while stopped to refuel in Dexter, Iowa.

I had dutifully taken the indicated exit when it approached on I-80, and I had expected to see a gas station, perhaps all by its lonesome, just off the exit ramp. Instead, I found another sign that pointed the way down a narrow paved road. This road gave way to another sign and another road, this one gravel, where the only vehicle besides mine was an over-sized tractor (see corn harvester) that turned onto an adjacent field. After a few more twists and turns, I found the block and half that comprised the town of Dexter and the advertised gas station.

“Where you from?” the trooper asked over his cup of coffee.

“Pennsylvania,” I replied, “And I’m scared to death a tornado is going to land on me. It is tornado season, isn’t it?”

“It is, but you got nothing to worry about. Well, unless you hear something that sounds like a freight train. You hear that sound, that’s how you know a tornado is about to land on you.” The trooper’s well-intentioned advice did little to soothe my anxiety. Great, I thought, Wall clouds, funnels, and now freight trains. I miss hurricanes.

*   *   *

I managed to make it to my new apartment in West Omaha without tornadic incident just one week shy of my 27th birthday. Unlike Chicago, Omaha gave the impression of being the suburb of a larger imaginary city. Gone were the cramped and narrow cobbled streets that wend their way through canyons and gorges of skyscrapers. Omaha has instead a series of one-way, four-lane roads as its major East-West arterials through the downtown area that aren’t even bypasses or throughways of some numbered highway. Again, I was shocked by the seemingly total isolation of Omaha; it’s a city, only in the broadest definition, surrounded completely by fields and plains.

Here there was no security of being anonymous. The open friendliness and gentle inquisitive nature of these Omahans roused my East Coast suspicion like nothing else, and I found myself more on edge than I did when lost in Chicago. I was Alice. I was Dorothy. All that was missing was a cadre of little people singing against a Technicolor backdrop, and yet Omaha was no Emerald City.

Dante and Tara were relieved to be let out and spent much of the afternoon sniffing and exploring their new home. They relaxed as only cats can, leaving me to marvel at the ease in which they were able to adapt to new surroundings. Aside from them, I didn’t know a soul, and I wondered if I was really ready to take on a new town.

Two years, I thought to myself. I’ll stay here for two, maybe three years. And then I’ll move on, like Dorothy. And if I’m lucky, there won’t be tornados on the way to the Emerald City.


 

NBR3-RogersJ.K. Rogers teaches theatre and English at several local colleges, and is a Journeyman member of I.A.T.S.E. Local 42. Her essays have appeared in The Briar Cliff Review and ConnotationPress.