I’d been driving for seventeen hours, much of it on two-lane highways through Indiana and then southern Illinois. Red-green corn sidled closer to the road until it stooped over both shoulders. That early in the morning, a mist was tiding in the east.
I figured I had to be close. A couple of times I turned off the state road to drive past family plots where the houses were white, right-angled ideals. On many of these plots were incongruous strips of grass—homespun cemeteries. I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a place like this. Your livelihood would surround you, waving hello every time the wind picked up. You wouldn’t be able to see your neighbors, but you’d for sure know who they were. You’d go to one of the Protestant churches seeded in the corn, take off your Sunday best to shoot hoops over the garage, and drink an after-dinner beer on your porch swing, certain of your regular Americanness. And one day you’d get buried feet from where you lived, worked, and died.
Doubt about the trip unfurled inside me as the odometer crawled on. I couldn’t have told you why I was doing this.
Back on IL-1 I looked to my right and saw an upside-down SUV in the corn. It must’ve flipped clear over the stalks nearest the road, which stood tall and undamaged. The SUV’s rear right wheel—the whole wheel—was gone, but the axle still spun. Stumbling alongside the wreck was a dazed kid in a Psychopathic Records fitted cap. The fingertips he touched to the side paneling seemed to keep him from pitching over.
When midwestern bugs hit your windshield, they chink like marbles. When I’m feeling indecisive in a car, I mash the accelerator.
When the hip-hop label Psychopathic Records released its seventeen-minute trailer for the 11th Annual Gathering of the Juggalos, a four-day music festival, five people I knew sent me links to it. I suppose that for them it was a snarker’s Holy Grail: everyone involved in the video had such a boggling lack of self-awareness that the whole thing bordered on parody. “The Gathering has fresh and exciting shit to do all around the fucking fizzuck,” the trailer went. “One hundred rap and rock groups! Helicopter rides! Carnival rides! Seminars! . . . And if you like midgets, we got midgets for you.” Mind you, I had no idea who or what any of this was.
The trailer featured bedraggled and unkempt white folks. “Fresh-ass” was used as a compound modifier denoting quality. Willis from Diff’rent Strokes would be there, and Vanilla Ice was going to sign autographs. There would be wrestling all night, four nights in a row. I understood that some could find joy in making fun of these people and their “infamous one-of-a-kind” admixture of third-rate fun fair and perdition. But I was also impressed by the stated point of the thing: “The real flavor, what separates the Gathering from every other festival on the planet, is the magic in the air. The feeling of 10,000 best friends around you. The camaraderie. The family. And the love felt everywhere throughout the grounds. You’ll meet people, make future best friends, you’ll probably get laid. And you’ll realize that the family coming together is what all of this is really about.”