On Looking Up

The clouds are the landscape in central Illinois. (© Emily Siner)
The drive to Champaign: great big skies and road construction. (© Emily Siner)

One evening my first semester of college, a friend and I drove back up to the suburbs of Chicago for another friend’s father’s funeral.

We were leaving from the University of Illinois, a place that people frequently refer to as “in the middle of cornfields.” It’s kind of meant as a joke, half-endearing and half-exasperated — but the expression is mostly true, except that some of the fields are planted with soybeans instead.

Either way, it’s true that as soon you leave the small, semi-urban hub of Champaign-Urbana, you’re surrounded by huge swaths of flatland. The drive north to Chicago is basically one straight, horizontal line. It’s one of the things kids lamented about when they decided to go to the University of Illinois. The drive is just so boring.

My friend and I left after class on a Friday in October, so we were driving when the sun began to set. It dipped slowly on our left until, at a certain angle, something unusual happened. Suddenly, the light flooding the road was a vivid pink. It stained the concrete interstate and the flat yellow fields. The clouds looked like they were spun with gold. I stared out of the car, couldn’t get enough of it. It was healing.

People were looking at the landscape of central Illinois all wrong, I realized. It was like an optical illusion, one of those pictures with a double image where you can’t see other point of view until someone points it out to you. We call it a “landscape,” but it’s not the land here that’s so remarkable. It’s the sky.

In a place where the land is almost completely flat, and the horizon is dotted with only trees and silos, the sky can seem so vast that it’s almost overwhelming. You can’t turn away from it. You’re forced to fathom the heavens, whatever that means to you.

That becomes even more apparent at night. Once, at the very beginning of my sophomore year, a group of coworkers and I drove off campus into the dark expanse of cornfields.

A quick note about cornfields, or whatever is growing on them: They’re divided into plots of equal length and width, with tiny two-lane highways in between — a perfect grid. If you were to fly overhead, the ground would look like a checkerboard. So we probably drove five checker squares south of campus and then pulled off on the side of the road. “Look up,” someone said.

I had seen stars before, but I had never seen this many stars before. I had never seen the Milky Way. To be honest, in all of my suburbia life, I didn’t even know it was possible to see the Milky Way.

I contemplated the great expanse of creation, and the tragedies of light pollution, and how some of those stars I was seeing probably didn’t exist anymore but the light was still being transmitted to us. I thought about the stillness of the world as it rotates and how few people ever get to look up and see this amount of beauty. It was deep.

I’ll admit: These days, I often forget that this sparkling mass of stars exists. I know, intellectually, that it’s above me even now in Nashville, hidden behind the ambient light and the clouds and the hills. But my stargazing options are more limited and, in my experience, much less profound.

This is not to say I was totally pro-flatlands. I wasn’t. After graduating, I couldn’t wait to live in a place that was more conventionally beautiful. I wondered if it would make me happier. Would traveling from a place of residence to a place of employment feel more meaningful if the scenery around me was breathtaking?

That summer, I lived in Los Angeles, and even though the traffic was terrible and I didn’t have friends, I would drive down Highway One with an ocean on one side and steep, stark hills on the other and feel awed. It gave me a sense of joy — temporary, perhaps, but joy nonetheless.

Then I moved to D.C., where I didn’t see as much nature, but the neighborhoods I walked through everyday were filled with colorful rowhouses, a kind of domestic beauty. And then there’s Nashville, where I still get caught off guard by unexpected views of the hills to the south, in rolling shades of green.

The land in Champaign is not flashy like the other place I’ve lived, far from it. There’s nothing exotic or extravagant about it.

But this weekend, I went back to visit. I took the five-hour drive from Nashville after work and made it to central Illinois before sunset. And at that moment, just before the sun started cresting the horizon — there it was. That healing light. Those golden clouds. And oh, that sky.

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