Travels 3: The Rock Island Line is a Mighty Fine Line

I was heading down the road, trying to loosen my load…

We were on our way to Rock Island.

When you’re busy doing hard traveling, like me, you can get caught up in the “hypnosis of the highway”.  I know I do.  You watch the road ahead.  All safety alerts are on, but your mind can begin to wander.

We had just crossed the Illinois state line.  I was staring at the thread of pavement in front of me; I-74…and I started to think about stuff.

My wife was sitting shotgun quietly calculating our gas mileage.

How we doing? I said.

We’re getting about nine mpg, she replied.

I laughed.  No really, what are we getting?

About nine, she said again.

Nine what? I asked.

Nine mpg, she said.

What do you mean by nine? I said.

We’re getting about nine miles a gallon, she said once again.

I’m asking about mpg, I said, this time with a manly voice.  How many miles per gallon are we getting?  No joking, ok?

Nine, she said, yet again.

I dropped the subject.  Clearly she didn’t understand what I was asking.  I turned my attention to the road.  My mind began to drift about.  I tried to figure out if you’re really supposed to pronounce the “s’s” in Des Moines.  Either way, it sounded funny.

I looked about me as I clipped along at 62 mph (in a 70 zone) and noticed something very unusual.  Most of you know (or should) that I’m a retired earth science teacher.  I’ve been trained to look deep and hard at the landscape.  With my expert eye, I was startled to notice the nearly complete lack of hills or mountains out here on the edges of the Great Prairie.  Basically, I was looking at flat land.  Really flat land.  Most of it was also being farmed.  Crops I knew well like corn covered endless acres.  There were also little brown plants, all dried up from late summer.  These too were crops, I surmised with an expertise that surprised even me.  I just wonder what they were.  No little small white things on them so that ruled out cotton.  I guess it’s all pretty much corn country out here.  Yes! Out here!  Where men had sunburns and the women hung clothes on lines in their backyards.  These were real people here, unlike some places I’ve been.

Then my visual scan changed to focus on the windshield.  I didn’t realize that the bugs that smashed against the glass were made of so many interesting colors.  I counted about a dozen yellow smears, about six greenish ones and several dull white ones…well, sort of off-white if you wanted an exact description.  One was actually bluish.

I began to take notice of the many signs for colleges and universities that were located in nearly all the little towns.  Lord, there were plenty of them.  So this is where all the farm kids got educated.  I saw a sign for Jubilee College.  I mean I never heard of Jubilee College.  I never knew anyone who actually went to Jubilee College.

I turned the radio on hoping to hear some Mozart or perhaps some John Coltrane.  Instead, I was blasted by the most insipid music I ever heard.  Station after station played songs with lyrics like: “I want to, I want to, I want to, but I can’t”.  As I spun the digital dial, the rest of the stations played songs, most of which had lyrics with the words Lord, hand, mission, love, pray, walking, joy and sin.  This is a God-fearing country out here.

Then a strange thing happened.  I caught a glimpse of a milepost sign that read: 137 Miles.  But, 137 miles to what?  From what?  I began to feel better when I realized that I had seen a sign like that before.  Basically, from just about anywhere you are, it’s 137 miles to someplace.  Maybe a few exits down the road and I would find out.

So, here we are sitting in our cozy little R-Pod.  I just heard a train whistle, then the bells indicating a hook-up or track change.

That train whistles.  That lonesome sound.  It calls ramblin’ guys like me.  Time to move on…time to hop the dusty boxcar.  Time to put some miles between you and that floozy back at the bar.  Her name is Wanda, and she’s got more miles in her eyes than a Rand McNally.  It’s the call of the road…. wait a minute…I’m already on the road.  I’m already traveling.  I’m already a pavement-pounding gentleman of the highway.    I don’t have any place to go in a boxcar.  That’s good because I get hay fever really bad and need a hankie when I’m around dust.

Gordon Lightfoot sang about being “Alberta Bound”.  I’d like to sing that too, but we’re not going to Alberta…we’re going to Orting, WA.

As I wind up this post, I think about the day I just had.  I saw through the front windshield the places I was going to…but what about where I’ve been?  I looked out of the rearview mirror to see my recent experiences fade.

All I saw were the bugs smashed against the front of the R-Pod.

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The Sociology of Corn

I was staring at the obvious and it suddenly hit me like a bolt of blue lightning.

People drive past acres of cornfields everyday and most miss it.  I did for a long time, until I saw what was happening in the cornfield.  It was awesome!

On this particular day, I stood at the roadside and studied the rows of corn.  The symmetry was artistic in its way, but the repetitive linear rows were the work of the seeding machine and a farmer.  But something else was going on.  I noticed, really becoming aware for the first time, how even the tops of the corn stalks were.  The field stretched out into the hazy distance.  My view was clear.  The height of the stalks were amazing in their uniformity.

How like humans they are, I pondered.

Inside each and every corn seed that arrives in a burlap bag from a distributor is the DNA of the corn plant.  Deep in the cells of countless seeds is a signal, built in by nature, to tell the plant to stop growing.  And here is the most incredible thing of all: the plants obey!  As a rule it is not a rational choice with vegetation to do what is best or what is expected.  Their soul and brain are sealed in the nucleus.  They cannot exhibit conscious behavior (as far as we know).

We humans, at the top of the Animal Kingdom, can make choices.

Inside our own cells is a similar bit of genetic code that tells a human to stop growing.  The real beauty, here, is that the ‘stop’ signal does allow for variations.  Not all humans are the same height.  But, given the number of individuals involved, (the population of the entire globe over millennia) the height is remarkably within certain perameters.  Some people are small and some are not (google Yao Ming).  These are the outliers…the individuals that do not fall in the bell curve of human height.  But, again, given the countless numbers, its all pretty close.

Back in the cornfield, we see these outliers.  Every so many rows there will be a stalk that has defied the DNA and shot up another 8 inches…or stopped growing 6 inches too soon.

But its still corn.  And the outlier people are still people.

Tonight, the corn chewers look with love at that fat cob, dripping with butter, pepper and salt (hey, watch your Sodium intake).  These eaters are not aware if the ear they’re holding is an outlier or not.  It tastes just as sweet.

But when humans confront human outliers, they marginalize them.  She’s too tall.  He’s too short.

We should study the corn and learn a lesson.  The people who are off the charts in some way, can be more exceptional in ways we have not even considered .

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