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 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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