In the summer of ’89, it barely rained. More than fifty days passed without a drop. The corn dried up. The crops didn’t yield. Acres of farmland turned brown in the sun. Neighbors and livestock died in the heat; wildfires tore across the plains. But we were too young to worry, to know what the word drought could mean to a small Midwestern town like ours, or the miles of farmland that surrounded it.
We spent our days in the fields and woods, the sun high and bright through the leaves. We traveled in packs; we wandered alone. We were great in number; we were two at a time. We scuffed up our jeans, scraped up our knees, tore holes in shirts that got snagged on branches. We climbed the trees and yelled into the wind, and no one heard but us. We ran for miles, the dry summer grasses nicking our shins, trying to find the place where land met sky. We hiked through the goldenrod, up to our waists, our eyes swelling and legs itching, and laid down to watch the clouds move east. And then we walked back the way we came, outlines of our bodies on the ground behind us, bright-yellow dust on our skin.
We were people of the prairie. We were people of the trees. We were the maple and birch, the oak and elm. We were corn and wheat and soy, we were the black earth that grew it. We were bluestem and switchgrass, we were rivers and lakes. And out past the horizon of hardwood and pine, we were mountains.
We were girls. We were boys. We were neither and both.
We were small. We were nothing. We were taller than the trees.
In southwestern Wisconsin, where I grew up, there exists a geological phenomenon. It’s called the Driftless Area, a narrow stretch of land that, somewhat miraculously, was bypassed by the last continental glacier. What results is a strange, rare terrain that extends some twenty thousand square miles, composed primarily of that small corner of the state and edging over the borders of Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Its name refers to drift—rocks and gravel, silt and clay and sand—the sediment left in the wake of retreating glaciers. It’s the stuff that exists beneath the surface of most terrain. But here in the Driftless Area, such elemental makeup is scarce, when it exists at all.
The Upper Midwest owes much of its landscape to the movement of the glaciers: Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes, carved from the earth by walls of ice and filled with water; the long rolling prairies of south-central Wisconsin and northern Illinois. But the Driftless Area, also known as the Paleozoic Plateau, is marked instead by a landscape wholly unlike the rest of the region: that of rolling hills and steep, forested hillsides that stretch down to valleys, sharp limestone cliffs and bedrock outcroppings with lakes and quarries below them, paths cut by winding rivers and cold-water streams. If you look to the horizon, you’ll see the most striking part of the region: small mountains, or mounds, and among them monadnocks—strange, solitary peaks that seem to rise up, out of nowhere, from the middle of a plain.
These are the tops of ancient mountains, whole ranges long buried beneath the surface of the earth. After generations of erosion, when layers of softer rock have been washed away in the formation of the surrounding valleys, the harder rock is all that remains, emerging from the earth as isolated mountains.
The mountains shouldn’t be here. They’re incongruous, out of place. They’re an anomaly, an abnormality, a glitch in the system. They’re also beautiful. The landscape of Wisconsin is both forest and farm, lands both flat and rolling. It is endless prairie and deep, untouched woods. It is a place of lakes both great and small, of rivers, creeks, and streams. It is a place whose lands are neither one thing nor the other, a whole containing multitudes. But the mountains, they’re not quite right. Amid the rest of the landscape, it would seem clear to someone first encountering them that they just don’t belong.
This is the landscape that made me.
In the summer of ’98, we drank pilfered beer in unfinished basements. We stayed up late and cut our fingers with scissors, pressing them together until our pulses beat in time. We snuck out to the softball field just before sunrise, the sky a blaze of black and blue. We ran the bases, our legs wobbly, the sand and rock beneath the mud, our bare feet slapping against the cold slick of it. We passed a bottle between us, taking long pulls like old pros, like we watched so many people do before us. We rolled our bodies like barrels down the hill to center field, where cleat marks were carved in cold earth, where the ghosts of mosquitoes still buzzed. We breathed hard, our backs on the ground, our knees and elbows slick with sand; our bodies close but not touching. Silent as the sky before a storm.
We were girls but not yet women. We were something in between. We were fifteen; we were on fire. Our skin was hot all the time, buzzing and open and raw, like it could be peeled off entirely—a whole girl-shaped shell, like the thin shedding vellum of a sunburn. To quiet the constant itch of it, we did everything we could to feel something else, to feel anything or nothing at all. We drank, we fought, we went without sleep. We lay on our backs on bedroom floors and turned the music up loud, longing to be the subjects of love songs. We talked on the phone late into the night, the long pink coil of cords wrapped around fingers and wrists. Breasts smashed into sports bras, dirt beneath black-painted nails, we were starting to think about the power our bodies might hold. We did not yet know of the power they lacked, or that which could be taken. We tried on skirts, and our shirts got tighter. We shaved our legs and hair-sprayed our bangs and painted our eyes. We rode with boys in pickup trucks out into the country, the summer wind in our hair. We started kissing those boys, and sometimes let them go further. We might have dreamed of kissing girls, though none of us had the words for it yet.
We ached for everything, and for anything other than this: the slow, quiet life of our small hometown, its stillness and silence, the feeling we were stuck. We knew that somewhere, beyond this place, the whole huge world was waiting.
Melissa Faliveno is a writer, editor, teacher, and author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland, published by TOPPLE Books in August 2020. The former senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Bitch, Ms. magazine, Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, and Midwestern Gothic, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays 2016. She has taught nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Catapult, and starting this fall will be the 2020–2021 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Originally from small-town Wisconsin, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpt from Tomboyland. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Faliveno. To be published in August by TOPPLE Books. The original “Driftless” essay appeared in a different form in Midwestern Gothic © 2015.