Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Christopher Johnson

They drove toward Starved Rock State Park, in central Illinois, in a 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air, which Solly’s father had inherited from his recently deceased mother. On either side of the car, mile upon mile of corn and soybeans sprouted from the black-soil fields that whispered to the horizon. The fields appeared to approach infinity as they melded with the distant and promising horizon. The corn and the soybeans–life’s blood for the farmers–took root in the vagabond soil, teeming with billions of microbes.

They saw no clue that they were approaching the park, for it was guarded by the numbing monotony of the agricultural landscape. Solly was fourteen years old, and he was traveling with his family: mother, Adriana; father, Hank; twelve-year-old sister, Patsy Ann. A tidy little nuclear family, rooted in the vast, flat spaces of the Midwest.

            The father drove cautiously south through Ottawa, a picture-book town that splintered over the Illinois River a few miles east of Starved Rock. They crossed the river, and the father turned right, onto Route 71, which wagged back and forth along the river. To their right, the water blazed like doubloons of silver.

They arrived at the park entrance, and the road curved downward into the earth, and the land transitioned from prairie to forest and ravine. Immediately a kind of thrill coursed through Solly. It was the first family vacation that he could remember except for their short trips to Cleveland, Ohio, to spend Christmas with relatives.

He was a freshman in high school. He was a quiet, determined, earnest young man–a good student. He looked at his mother, sitting directly in front of him in the front seat of the car. High-strung, emotionally unpredictable, thin as a rumor. She had strange green eyes with dashes of yellow in them, and she wore dresses that she ironed within an inch of their life.

His father worked for an office supply company. Being a detailed person, he was in charge of orders and inventory. In the evenings, he would settle into his favorite easy chair and read the Chicago Tribune and watch the television and then close his weary eyes. One time Patsy Ann crept up and tickled his feet while he was sleeping, and he woke up and yelled at her, and saliva trickled from the side of his mouth.

Patsy Ann kept her thin blonde hair very short so that it didn’t get in her way when she was outside roaming around on her bicycle. In Solly’s opinion, Patsy Ann was spoiled. By the time she came along, well, Mom and Dad just kind of gave up giving her the guidance she so desperately needed.

The trip to Starved Rock was unusual for the Buckminsters. The Buckminster family never went on vacation. Never. All of Solly’s friends would go to Disneyland or the Wisconsin Dells or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but the Buckminsters never went anywhere. “Can’t go,” Dad would say. “We’re in the middle of inventory.” They were always in the middle of inventory. Solly tried to reason with him. “Dad, if we go somewhere, it’ll bring us all together, and we’ll be a better family, and it will broaden our perspective.”

“We’re already close enough,” the father harrumphed and hid his face back behind the Tribune.

“But, Dad, if we traveled, we’d learn all kinds of stuff that will help us later in life. Like if we went to Washington, D.C., we’d learn all about the Founders and what great men they were.”

“You already know enough about the Founders from the textbooks,” the father said. “Believe me, that’s all you need to know about the Founders.” He disappeared once more behind the Tribune.

“But Daddy,” Patsy Ann would jump in. She got down on her knees in front of the father’s throne and clasped her hands together as if she were praying. “D-a-a-a-d,” she said, making her eyes doe-like and leaning against him and gently nudging the paper aside so that he had to look at her. “We never go anywhere. And I feel like my growth has been stunted. I’m not getting as much as I could out of life because we never go anywhere.”

She stared up at him with her doe eyes, and Dad—well, he had no choice but to laugh. “OK, OK,” he said. “If I agree to take you somewhere, will you please please leave me alone so I can read my paper?”

“Oh my God!” Patsy Ann exploded. “You are the best Daddy in the whole vast entire world!”

That’s how the Buckminsters ended up going to Starved Rock, which is well-known among Illinoisans. It’s like their Yosemite Valley, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park all rolled up in one. It’s called Starved Rock because a group of Native Americans starved during the early times when the proud state of Illinois was being settled. More about that later.

As the car descended into the mysterious ravines of Starved Rock, Patsy Ann kept wiggling back and forth in the back seat. Finally Solly said, “Can’t you sit still?”

She turned toward Solly and gave him the evil eye. “I’m trying my very very best, but I’m tired of riding in the car.” She paused. “Say,” she said, training her evil eye on her brother. “I got a question for you. How come you ain’t ever had a girlfriend?”

“Listen,” Solly said. “Why don’t you mind your own damned business. Who says I’ve never had a girlfriend?”

Mom turned around and threw daggers at Solly with her eyes. “Solly,” she said, “please do not use profanity.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Solly said. “Sorry.” He turned back to Patsy Ann. “Listen, little sister,” he said. “you don’t know anything about it because you’re but a pest who happens to be twelve years old. But romance is a very very complicated thing, which you will find out in your own good time as you get older.”

Patsy Ann said, “So in other words, no girl has ever liked you. Not a single one.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Solly said. “Anyway, how do you know I’ve never had a girlfriend?”

“Cuz Jerry told me,” she said. Jerry was Solly’s best friend. This uncomfortable inquisition into Solly’s private life came to a premature conclusion when they arrived at Starved Rock Lodge. They were staying at a nearby cabin, but the father had to check in and retrieve the key to their cabin. As the family piled out of the car, Patsy Ann winked at Solly. “More later,” she said.
            He glared back at her. He knew in the logical and rational part of his mind that she was kidding him, but he was irritated by this little sister of his. She’d scratched something open. She knew his vulnerable spot. He felt like he was trapped in a cave with his tongue cut out. He could see, but he couldn’t break out. He couldn’t break out of himself. He was trapped inside himself—trapped inside his quietness.

Dad returned to the car with the key, and they drove to their cabin, which was one of a group of cabins situated near the lodge. To Solly, it was like a fancier version of the kind of cabin that Abe Lincoln himself supposedly grew up in. Dad unlocked the door, and they spilled into their new home away from home. “It’s so small,” Mom said. “Oh, dear, I hope I can get to sleep.” She sighed. “At least we have a bathroom.”

Yes, they did—a bathroom with an ancient porcelain sink and a corroded toothbrush holder and a tiny walk-in shower. The single room in which they would be sleeping had one small window that almost let some light in. The walls were painted muddy brown, and the table by the double bed was forest green. It supported a lamp with a base in the shape of a tree trunk. Solly liked it—he liked the room. He liked it a lot. It took his mind off his irritation with Patsy Ann. There was something primitive and ol’ Abe-like about the cabin and the room. It reminded him of the days of yore when everyone was a pioneer.

After lunch, they trundled on a gravel path that led to Starved Rock, and Patsy Ann kept running off the trail and into nearby groves of trees. “Get back on the trail!” Dad barked. Mom and Dad continued walking ahead, looking straight in front of them, not looking to either side, ignoring the beautiful groves of trees that clustered along the path and regarded them and invited them into a different world of beauty.

            They started climbing the dirt trail that wriggled its way to the top of Starved Rock. Patsy Ann kept running ahead of them, and Dad snapped, “Slow down! Stay with us!” She was like the wild waters of a storm-driven sea. Solly hung back behind the three of them and wished desperately that he could be by himself.

            They reached the top of Starved Rock, which was flat. They could creep right to the edge of the bluff and stare straight down at the Illinois River, which glistened like diamonds. Up and down the river, the jagged brown sandstone bluffs curved in and out along the banks of the river.

             “Don’t go so near the edge!” Dad barked at Patsy Ann. Mom shook her head in silent agreement. Solly felt a pang of disappointment. They had to be the least adventurous people in the whole entire world.

Patsy Ann was looking down at the river, which reflected the sun on the little waves of the river and sparkled back, as if the river were nothing more than a billion jewels all laid out together. She turned around and leaned her head to the side and squinted her eyes in the sunlight and said, “Do you all want me to tell you what I learned about Starved Rock and the tragedy that happened here?”

They nodded their heads and said that would be a nice idea. She said, “Miss Worthington told me all about it cuz I told her I was going to come here with my family. It was a real big tragedy with the Indians and all because this was their land. Way back right after this war called the French and Indian War, which was called that because the French up in Canada were allies with the Indians against the Americans, and the war got over, but in Illinois there was this big rivalry between the Illinois tribe and the Ottawa tribe. So, one day, the chief of all the Ottawa Indians, whose name was Chief Pontiac, was killed. So, his followers got real angry, and they accused the Illinois Indians of killing Pontiac, who by the way they named the Pontiac car after him.

“So, the Ottawa Indians were real mad and everything, and they attacked the Illinois Indian villages, and the Illinois Indians had to retreat, so they backed up all the way to this huge big rock that we’re standing on. So, this was a great place to do a defense, but there was one huge problem—there wasn’t any food or water. So, the Illinois Indians all ended up starving, and that’s why they call it Starved Rock, which in a way isn’t quite right because it wasn’t the rock that starved but the poor tragic Indians who starved. Now some say that this was all a legend, but I prefer to think that it’s all true because it’s a good story and all.”

Patsy Ann smiled broadly with a toothy grin and was right proud of herself for remembering all the details of the story, and in fact, the mother and the father and Solly were all quiet for a moment, and they heard the wind blow past them, and it created a kind of atmosphere like the ghosts of the Indians were still there, and they were all thinking about the Indians and how horrible it must have been to starve to death.

They started walking along the bluff, going along the Illinois River, but still way up above the river, and the water continued to sparkle because the sun was growing more and more intense and bouncing off the water and making it shine. Soon they came to another bluff. It was called “Lover’s Leap,” and the sign there told them all about another very tragic story, which was that way back a long time ago—they didn’t say exactly when this happened—two Native Americans from different tribes fell in love, a brave from one tribe and a young maiden from another tribe, and their love was doomed just like Romeo and Juliet, and because their love was doomed they had no choice but to embrace each other and leap together into the river way way below, and of course they died a tragic death just like Romeo and Juliet did.

Patsy Ann read the sign that explained all about Lover’s Leap and looked at the bluff and then looked at Solly and leaned her head to the side and squinted real curious-like. “So, Solly, some day in the far far future when you have a lover, do you think you will love her so much that you would leap off this cliff to your tragic death if your love was denied?” She stared down at the water and then squinted back at him. “If you and your lover leaped off this cliff, I would mourn over you for a long time. It would be a real tragedy.”

“Oh, honestly, Patsy Ann,” Mom said. “Where do you get such notions? And such language!”

Patsy Ann said, “What? What did I say? I just said what the sign said. What am I supposed to say? I mean, they call it Lover’s Leap because they were lovers. They don’t call it Boyfriends’ and Girlfriends’ Leap.”

 Solly saw out of the corner of his eye that Dad was chuckling to himself.

But to Solly, enough was enough from this mouthy little sister of his who was invading his most private thoughts and feelings. He felt himself getting really riled up, even though she was his little sister and all. He said, “You know, Patsy Ann, why don’t you shut up once in while. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you talk too damn much?”

Now Mom turned her attention to Solly. “Watch your language, Solly!”

But by now he was so angry he couldn’t speak. Patsy Ann, even though she was only twelve years old, was invading him—making fun of him—making fun of his emotions. He felt like his emotions were like babies—defenseless babies. He clenched his fist and felt like he wanted to smack her even though she was his little sister. She had pierced something. What was it? Some fear. Some shame. The shyness that he hated. Something that he hated in himself. He felt shame, like a snake devouring his heart. God, she was irritating! So damn irritating!

His mother knew he was angry. It seemed like such a little thing, it seemed stupid, but he was angry anyway. They descended the bluff where Lover’s Leap was and found the trail that wound alongside the Illinois River. Mom hung back with Solly. “Don’t be angry with her,” Mom said. “She didn’t mean anything. It’s just Patsy Ann being Patsy Ann. Please don’t be angry.”

“But I am angry,” he said.

“Why?” she said. But he couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t tell his own mother how embarrassed and ashamed he felt. “She was making fun of me,” he said.

“No, she wasn’t. It’s just the way she is.”

He glared at his mother. “Yes, she was making fun of me. She was.

That evening, they ate dinner at Starved Rock Lodge. Solly had a steak and a baked potato. He ate slowly, massacring each bite. He avoided looking at Patsy Ann. He didn’t say one word at dinner. The rest of them talked about the day and how many wonderful sights they had seen, and he didn’t say one word. Not one word. He could see out of the corner of his eye that Patsy Ann kept looking at him, but he didn’t look back at her. He refused. He wanted to get away from all of them. He felt trapped—trapped by family, by personality. A shroud of confusion smothered him. If he spoke, he would shout, so he kept silent. So angry. So angry. Pure emotion that made him clench his fists. He’d look into a mirror but had no idea what was behind his eyes. Patsy Ann—she’d scratched something open inside him.

They all went to bed in their little Starved Rock cottage. It was horrible. He was still angry at Patsy Ann, and the cot was so narrow and uncomfortable. This was a horrible vacation. He hated being there with all of them. He tossed and turned on that narrow cot. Dad snored loudly enough to wake the dead. Mom was out like a light. So was Patsy Ann. It was just Solly, awake, alone in the family. He tried sleeping on his right side and then his left. He made a decision. Then he finally fell asleep.

When he awoke the next morning, he pulled his father aside before they walked over to Starved Rock Lodge to have breakfast. He pulled his father aside, apart from his mother and Patsy Ann. He had made his decision. “Dad,” he said. “I want to go off by myself today. I want to explore the park by myself.”

The father looked Solly in the eye and said, “Fine.” Solly thought his father would resist. He thought his father would say no. But he didn’t. The father said, “Fine,” like it was no big deal. At some point, the father told the mother. Solly didn’t even say good-bye to them. At breakfast, he didn’t say a word. They finished breakfast, and he just went off.

He became an explorer. He explored the yawning canyons that lay south of the Illinois River and east of Starved Rock. He had a brochure about the park, and he read that 14,000 or 15,000 years ago, water freed itself from the melting Wisconsin glaciers, which had iced over much of northern and central Illinois. The released waters flowed down the Illinois Valley in an event that geologists labeled the “Kankakee Torrent.”

Those turbulent waters attacked the soft sandstone and, like sculptors from nature, carved the canyons of Starved Rock. The most famous canyons were the Ottawa, the Kaskaskia, and the Illinois. He walked into Kaskaskia Canyon, and he stared up at the ledges of sandstone thronged with moss and lichen and at the trees teetering over the edges of the canyons. He reached the heart of the canyon, which formed a giant horseshoe, and at the far end, a waterfall dripped its glistening waters into a shallow green pool. He imagined that gold or diamonds had been buried somewhere at the foot of those falls.

The pool at the base of the waterfall was murky and placid. He bent down to look more closely. He hoped to see a fish or two, but there were none. From where he was kneeling, he looked up once more at the sandstone canyon. Those layers of sandstone—dark brown, beige, sprouting with small plants—had revealed themselves through centuries, millennia. They soothed him. He didn’t know why, but they did.

            He returned to the trail that followed along the Illinois River. The day was October perfect—the sun nestling warm against his skin, the leaves beginning their transformation into incandescent oranges and reds, the air so crisp and dry that it felt as if it would crack.

The trail slithered along the river. Tree limbs had been washed up onto the banks, and he imagined building a raft and floating downriver, merging with the Mississippi, then floating to New Orleans—all the while smoking a corncob pipe and catching catfish, just like Huck Finn. He thirsted for that adventure, to break out of the mold of ordinary, predictable life. Yet he also felt uncertain of himself. He felt like things were more difficult for him than for others, for his friends. He craved freedom. To be free in spirit.

He stopped at a point where the trail opened out to the river. A string of barges plowed the middle of the river, bearing stores of coal or grain that were bound for New Orleans. The other shore was distant, and he could see hawks flying over the waters, hunting for fish, diving.

He looked upriver and saw the bluffs jutting into the river, and they were reflected in the water like giant monoliths. The river spoke to him of the possibilities of his life. There was his well-regulated life, and there was a life that was open-ended, unpredictable. Already his heart felt freer. He loved how the bluffs plummeted down to the banks of the Illinois River. So dramatic. So romantic. He felt as if he were on the verge of something. The river flowed, blue and charismatic.

            The day before, at the top of Starved Rock, he had noticed two islands downriver from the bluff. Had someone like Huck Finn landed on one of those two islands? Had anyone ever camped there? Had the islands sheltered runaway slaves during the 1850s? It was entirely possible. He had a thrilling sense of possibility and of open-endedness.

            He sat on a log that had been felled by lightning and noticed that it was slowly returning to the forest floor. Time was eating it. He felt at home there. Gray mushrooms clung to the side of the log, reminding him of people’s ears, of the ears of sprites, of the ears of woodland creatures. He bounced up and down on the log; it was springy.

            He noticed a spider web, glistening as the sun shone from on high and fell in wondrous streaks to the floor of the forest. To his eyes, those shards of light fell from heaven and lit the beauty of the forest for him. He had lost the tight shackles of his life. He gazed at the river once more. The bluffs along the river held legends and mysteries in them. Everything was connected. All of nature was disparate yet somehow unified. 

He daydreamed that he was on the river flowing toward some mysterious destination–that he would be part of some legend. Something stirred inside him, something that had always been hidden inside him, something that the river and the ravines and the bluffs and the canyons had revealed to him, some mystery about the world and about himself that he felt was within his grasp, like the brass ring on a merry-go-round, some mystery that revealed itself only in the breathtaking wonders of the natural world, some hope incarnate found in the intricacy of a spider web and a decaying log.

            The trail kept winding southward. It wound like a snake. Where was he going? He did not know. He loved being lost in the woods. Yet he felt confident that he would find his way back to civilization. The sun sank toward the horizon, and shadows crept across the trail. The trail was crisscrossed by roots like eels. The roots were black and slippery, and they writhed across the trail. He stooped down to look at them. The roots crawled through the soil and gathered the nutrients that fed the trees.

Each tree was incredibly different. He felt the bark of a tree, and it was rough to the touch. The bark scraped against his skin. He felt a birch tree, and its white bark was amazingly smooth, like the skin of a human being. He looked up, and the forest canopy loomed above. Being in the forest alone was comforting. He was sheltered from the elements, from the storm. He stood beneath a white pine, and it soared above him, stately, proud, naked to the elements, with its branches sprouting dark green needles, and he felt that he was alive and that this pine tree was a fellow living being.

The woods had soothed him. They were like a balm for his soul. He felt open—more open than he had ever felt before. The woods had opened him. And he knew then that he had been unfair to Patsy Ann, to his little sister. He knew that whatever he was feeling—this kind of desperation—that beneath it and after it he would find someone.

He returned to the cabin, and there they all were.

 As a family, they prepared for dinner. They washed their hands. They walked together to the lodge to eat dinner. After dinner, they returned to their cabin and played games that Mom and Dad had thought to bring. Scrabble. Parcheesi. They played the card game War, which Dad won.

They went to bed in their little cabin. Soon they were all asleep except Solly. He felt so aware of his body as he lay beneath the rough blanket. He had his underpants on and his T-shirt. The blanket was scratchy and warm against his skin. His senses were as acute as the edge of a knife. He heard an owl hoot in the mystery of night that sprawled outside their cabin. He listened to the people in that mystical room with him: Mom, Dad, Patsy Ann.

Each breathed in a different way in the night. Dad snored. He sounded like a sputtering engine—UNK! UNK! UNK! Then letting his breath out—WHOOSH! WHOOSH! Like air streaming from a punctured tire. Mom breathed regularly. Patsy Ann—you could tell from her breathing that she was a child. Her breathing was shallow, quicker than Mom’s and Dad’s.

Breathing filled the room, suffused the room. Outside the cabin, the frogs and the birds and the beavers and the raccoons were also breathing, breathing, with the mystical and mysterious elixir of life. Mom, Dad, Patsy Anne—they were part of Solly. He was part of them. Finally he fell asleep to the sounds of life.

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