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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Water Color Skies

Right around the end of May, you’ll find me preparing my car, preparing it for an annual road trip to Illinois, where I spend a considerable amount of time with my kids in Illinois. Of course, when I say Illinois, most folks immediately assume Chicago, but where we live during summer is a vastly different setting than that of the urban landscape one finds further north. The clouds take over the sky, eclipsing the shades of light blue one would typically find, and instead casting visuals above, creating a picturesque visual of rural life.

A photo of the corn, beautiful clouds, and rural farm life across from my house in Illinois.

Across from the house I live in, one finds blocks of corn stalks, where the saying, “Knee high by the 4th of July” can be heard, though perhaps not quite so accurate today with the prevalence of genetically modified seeds. Barn-colored buildings are strewn about, situated next to a silo, casting large shadows on other fields, such as soybeans if not corn. Unlike the asphalt streets I drive daily in San Diego, the gravel roads throughout the town lead me by the two churches in town, merely a block from each other, and the major highway runs almost parallel with the train tracks and right through town. There is no stop light in town, and you can count the number of stop signs on one hand.

The town’s perimeter measures just over 2 miles and it’s expected to wave at anybody who crosses your path. There is a bar, but no grocery store and it takes about 12 minutes to get to one. As the sun sets behind the house, with hues of pink and orange coloring the skies and clouds stretched horizontally, as if somebody raked the clouds as often as one does their lawn during summer rainfall, I am reminded of the cultural differences between here and the life in San Diego I forget about for 10 weeks at a time.

Driving from San Diego to Central Illinois provides interesting sociological observation and analysis, too. Within each state, of course, there are significant differences, physically, culturally, and socially. When driving through the winding roads between San Diego and Arizona, on the 8 East, you can expect to feel embraced by the rocky walls surrounding each side of the freeway. The feeling of heat and sand are present, heavy in the air, feeling the sun beat down on the toes in sandals, and clear differences once crossing the state line, where there is at least a 30-cent difference in gas prices. Traveling a little north, the shift from desert views changes drastically, feeling trees tower over you, reminded of the differences in distance from the equator but also the impact of climate change, can create a state that can transport you from climate to climate in moments. Here, you can find the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, and Montezuma’s Castle and Well, 4 U.S. national sites. All reminders of the beauty this life can offer take you away for moments from the sociopolitical realities of oppression through supposed “law and order.”

Montezuma Well, part of Montezuma Castle National Monument

Then, crossing the state line into New Mexico, you find yourself truly in the Land of Enchantment. Every time I travel through this state, I am in awe of the beauty that is intact and supported by history. In the early morning during a summer day in 2021, I was driving, my children sound asleep in the backseat. The sun was barely visible, peeking its head just over the beige rocks on my left. Soaking in the crisp morning air, windows slightly cracked, I learned my daughter had awoken when she said, “Mom, it looks like a volcano erupted here!” I looked around on the side of the road, curious about what she was referencing; I could only see what looked like streams of burnt land. A sign just in front read, “El Malpais National Monument.” The restless and spontaneous person I am, I quickly took the exit, following the brown signs with white words directing me where to go. This is where I learned about the history of El Malpais, or “The Badlands.” Due to the volcanic lava flows, it was dangerous, spanning 40 miles. If it was not for my daughter’s keen observation, we would not have learned about this. This prompted us to walk the land that had been home to many people, and where flowing lava streams riddled the land up to 700,00 years ago.

El Malpais - Grants, New Mexico

Of course, as a sociologist and critical educator, what catches my attention is not only the awe-inspiring natural beauty but the fascinating social aspects that one observes along the way. When entering Oklahoma, a state historically known for dehumanizing LGBTQ+ students through policy, I found myself in Yukon. Stopping in at a Starbucks, I saw the walls adorned with supportive flags and décor supporting LGBTQ+ individuals. When searching it, you can find that there is an emergence of LGTBQ+ support and resources present, surprising, but pleasant, and a reminder that the humanization of people can be found in the middle of the country, but even more of a reality check that often folks disregard: the individuals and people on the ground, the collective, do not represent the institutions and state and local governments – and this is more of a reason we cannot say things that make sweeping statements likening the individuals in spaces like the south to their institutions. Rather, reflecting on the ways that institutions and systems oppress these individuals more often than not is the practice we must be aware of, and something so wildly clear when visiting this tucked-away gem in Oklahoma.

Yet, when passing through St. Louis and entering Illinois, several stark reminders are present within the scope of these larger systemic workings. First, when driving through Ferguson, which is within St. Louis county, the reality that where you are driving, pumping gas, or speaking to folks at the nearest grocery store are spaces where community members demonstrated, and protested will be evident. This is where demonstrations took place with white police officer, Darren Wilson was not indicted after murdering the unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown. This reminder highlights the ways in which white supremacy is so deep in the veins of this country, and how we should not pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, not too far, historically one can see the traces of Monsanto, headquarter in St. Louis, present causing sewage and environmental degradation, impacting students and highlighting the prevalence of environmental racism, something noted in the 90s by Jonathan Kozol. What was striking for me in 2023 was the further reality that bodies assigned female at birth are being policed and dehumanized, something that as Californians, we know and are aware of its impact, but perhaps do not have the to face the daily interactions of it. Driving past the Gateway Arch, Illinois is just within view. With tires rotating, moving the car forward on the bridge, you can look up and see a large billboard. The billboard is firmly planted in Illinois, visible though from just over the state line. On it, it reads, “If you can see this, you can access safe abortion care with Hey Jane.” Acting a solid and firm social and political statement, the divide between Illinois and Missouri is more than merely a state line, but a matter of humanization.

And then that brings us back to Illinois, an incredibly diverse state, where the central parts of the state are so incredibly rural, with minimal stoplights contrasting the large urban setting of Chicago. Spending entire summers has pushed me to look at the complexities of this life, where often beliefs are problematic, upholding values that continue to perpetuate oppression, but they themselves face tremendous disparities. The corn fields down the street read, “Beck’s”, another seed company that has dominated the agricultural landscape. Farmers do well here overall but are still at the whim of another large seed company. And yet, the beautiful skies in tandem with the industrial life that is clear throughout Central Illinois bring me back to the reality of life and nature together, highlighting contrasting issues and concerns.

Industrial life and railroads are situated against the background of beautiful skies in Effingham, Illinois

One of my favorite photos I have taken is the one above. There is industrial machinery and equipment set right next to a railroad. As the train comes through, fairly frequently, it blares its horn, alerting folks of its momentum. The red light flashes and the wishbone crossing gate comes down, holding cars back from venturing into town, and yet, the sun will surely still set behind it.

This photo presents a beautiful collection of watercolor paints spread across the skies, creating a visual setting that belongs in a children’s book, if only for its whimsical tone. Somehow, the industrialized life adds personality to the already vibrant sky, further contributing to everyday working-class experiences and necessities rooted in industrialization, yet also noting the ways in which these colors have been polluted, muddled with the graying of pollution that will surely amount someday to considerable levels, begging the question for corporations some day when they are gasping for air, “Was this profit worth it?”

Each morning as the sun rises and each evening when it sets in this town, the colors and clouds purifying the sky, I am reminded how much bigger the world is than we humans, yet, we make it up, polluting it with dehumanization, and somehow, with this industrialization contrasted with the beauty, we have contributed to the degradation of our spaces, dividing our people as easily as our states and fabricated borders. Meanwhile, the fight is worth it, with its billboards reminding people of safe health and reproductive care, the historical archives of lived experiences and feet that have crossed the lands, and the pockets of people who remind us of hidden gems and beauty tucked away. In a country that has continued to perpetuate disparities through racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, classism, and so much more, allowing for the systems to not only maintain, but strengthen, there are moments and glimmers of hope that can remind us of the beauty, both in nature and by humans, that exist.

Black and white photo of a train in Central Illinois

**All photos in this piece are photographs that I have taken myself.

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