Travels 5: Oh, Pioneers!

The great American Poet and Literary Goddess of the Prairie, Willa Cather, once said:  “I was raised by a tooth-less bearded hag…I was schooled with a black strap across my back…but it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas.”  Hold on, I don’t think that was Willa Cather.  No, after rechecking my sources, I find that Cather wanna-be named Mick Jagger was the author of that famous American line.

Here it is, Willa Cather actually said: “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.”

I’m beginning to understand her meaning.

We’re getting deep into the very edge of the center of the Great American Prairie.  With each day that passes, as I watch this world go by from the driver’s window of our Ford Escape, I sense that I am delving deeper and deeper into the shallow soil that covers these vast ranchlands.  Yes, I am becoming part of the very geography itself.  My left arm is getting brown.  My gray hair is dry and wind-tossed into a teasingly innocent thatch of salt.  Just enough of my well-tanned neck is seductively visible beneath my tussled hair and my Wrangler shirt collar.  Yes, I gain insight every second I exist in this amazing place.

Right now, that amazing place is central Iowa.  We speed along Highway 20.  I am becoming one with the land.  With my increasingly keen eyesight, I see something in the road, ahead.  There goes one, across the pavement, from brush into brush.  I know immediately it’s a “side-winder” snake.  Like the ones you seen in the cowboy movies.  There’s another.  Can it be?  Can it be that we are driving Highway 20 at the exact time of the Great Side-Winder Migration?  It can’t be.  This occurs only once every quarter of a century.  God has granted me this sight.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the Great Migration of these rare snakes.  There’s more in the road in front of us.  I slow.  I don’t to kill any of these innocent creations of God as they make their way to the Breeding Grounds north of Iowa.  No one is behind me.  I slow to a stop, pulling over on the gravel shoulder, pebbles clicking against my R-Pod.  I reach behind me to take hold of my new Nikon D3200.  I need a shot of this!

It’s then that I realize that the strong breeze is actually blowing strips of dried packaging from a Chinese Take-Out back in Waterloo.

I get out and pretend to check my tires, just in case someone is watching.  Checking my tires is something I REALLY intended to do right now.  I even snapped a few pictures of the tires to drive home the point…just in case someone is watching.

I want to see the endlessness of these infinite lands.  At a rest stop (boy, there aren’t many of these around).  There is a hill.  I climb to the top and read a sign about the Grasslands that are now almost gone.  I wanted to see the Empty Quarter.  The lack of human landmarks that Willa Cather spoke about.  I wanted to get depressed looking at this forbidding landscape.

And, there it was!  Gently rolling hills that disappeared into the haze of distance.  What’s that?  It’s a cell phone tower.  Over there?  It’s a mega-farm with silos as tall as the Empire Building.

I got back into the car and headed to North Sioux Falls in South Dakota.  I was hoping not to get it confused with Sioux Falls, Iowa or South Sioux City in Nebraska.

We parked in a KOA RV site.

The guy that rode a golf cart and led us to our site lost no time in noticing the bikes atop our car.  Hey, he said, you can bike about three miles on the bike path by the entrance and see a herd of Buffalo.  I thanked him, and looked at the bikes.  Just then I felt a familiar stabbing pain in my lower back.  There’ll be plenty of Buffalo to look at in the days ahead.  I headed to the picnic table.

I stretched my legs and then turned through the pages of the Sioux City Journal.  I saw a help wanted ad for the position of Corn Receiving Specialist.  I wondered if that was entry level or management.

While Mariam began dinner (hey, I drove) I decided to walk over to the office to buy a pint of ice cream.  As I strolled down the lane, I passed a guy with a hand-held iPad type of thing.  I told him that I loved having my iPad Mini along to help in Google searches.  I asked what he had.  A Kindle Fire, he said.  A reader, I thought.  Yup, he said, this the only way my wife allows me to gamble.

On the way back, I had to walk around a few times because I couldn’t find our R-Pod among the gigundo RV trailers that surrounded me.

But, I found our little trailer.

I am getting to be so good at being in this amazing country.

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Travels 4: Blue Highways

Someone I’ve been searching for appeared before my eyes today and it wasn’t very far from Herbert Hoover’s grave.

We had just crossed the Mississippi River.  The Mother of North America Rivers.  Say what you want about the Hudson, Rio Grande or the Missouri; Big Muddy is what rivers are all about.   Yes, the mighty Mississippi…Old Man River…the Aorta of America…the Main Drain…separator of a continent…where the Eastern Dandy leaves his top hat behind and dons a Stetson and hip-straps a Colt.  St. Louis, Vicksburg and the Big Easy, New Orleans all feed at the shores of this legendary waterway.  Yes, we crossed it today.  It took about forty-five seconds…but it was toll-free.  Not bad considering you’ve entered another world.

We pulled up at the first Welcome Center Rest Stop.  I stretched my legs even though we had not gone that far.  It doesn’t take many miles for my legs to get crampy and stiff.  This was the Salt Kettle Rest Stop.  It seems salt was discovered in the area in the early 19th century.  The rusted salting kettle was on display near the parking lot.  I read the historical marker about a nearby town, where Herbert Hoover was born.

Eighteen wheelers were parked along the mid section of the pavement.  It was cool and cloudless; perfect conditions for a sunburn of my left arm as we headed west.  We started down the ramp to access the Interstate…that’s when I saw him.

He stood there near the end of the driveway.  There was a small bundle at his feet.  He looked me in the eye as we drove past him.  I returned his gaze.

This was a drifter…a modern day Oakie…a Hobo…a Loner on his way to a million somewheres.  He didn’t have his thumb in the air, he didn’t need to.  Any driver who took the time to see him, really see him, would know that he was waiting for a ride…any ride.

I can’t say the guy was homeless, at least not in the sense of how we’ve come to think of homelessness.  No, I think he had a place…or did once.  Perhaps he was going back.  Maybe he was leaving.  Did he just leave a job in the wheat fields?  Was he looking for the job in the wheat fields?

There was not time for me to stop and speak with him.  I couldn’t get a photo so you’ll have to use your imagination.  There was no time for anything except a moment of eye-to-eye contact.  I’d like to say that he smiled ever so slightly from his unshaven face, but I can’t say that.  His expression was one of…of no expression.  Just a direct, unapologetic momentary stare.  His head turned slightly as we passed him.  I hope he could see that we had no room for another person.

I’ve been waiting, watching and hoping for over a thousand miles, to see a man of the heartland…a Woody Guthrie, a Tom Joad, a specter from a Dorothea Lange photograph standing by the Blue Highway, a mute shade of a largely forgotten subculture of America.

I hope he could see that I wasn’t judging him.   In those few moments, I saw a lifetime…not mine, but his.  I had everything, a wife, a place to sleep, a car and a plan.  Part of me can’t help but think that he lacked some of what I claimed as mine.

It shamed me to think this way.  I knew nothing about this guy.  No, I wasn’t judging him, I didn’t know a thing about him.

But, in some odd way, in some strange inexplicable way, I liked him.

PrairieGrass