Thursday, February 19, 2004


Grey sky. It was mid-October, 2002. The line of clouds looked almost like a bank of hills. Indeed there was enough Nebraska hill to require downshifting at least once on route from Sioux City, Iowa, to West Point, Nebraska, along Highway 35, Highway 9, then Highway 275 the last mile into town. I'd seen fields of corn and soybeans, of alfalfa and pasture, and feedlots full of cattle along the way.

Entering West Point from the north, I had a sense the community is prosperous: there was a warehouse foods store right off, and a big Ford dealership. On the wide street, a crow with one white feather in its right wing lifted itself off the roadway in front of me, lifted its feet only high enough to keep from dragging its toes. One white feather in the otherwise black bird seemed to be a metaphor for my Vagabond expedition to find what makes us who we are, those of us who inhabit the middle west.

Main Street in West Point's business district is cobble-stone, old-fashioned and well-kept. I saw only a couple empty storefronts downtown, suggesting West Point does better than some other towns you see where the buildings on Main Street are more vacant than occupied.

I paused briefly in a park near the Cuming County fairgrounds. An old man had also stopped there, to walk his little dog. The fellow circled the graveled area. The little dog led, followed, went astray, got straight. The walk, I suppose, was as much for the old man as for the dog.

Some of the leaves on the big old cottonwood at the edge of the park had already turned yellow; some were still green. There was a little wind in all of them. The trunk of the tree had grabbed the earth like a claw; the tree had a good hold on things.

There was water standing in a crease of gravel in the parking lot, grey water reflecting a grey sky. Wind rippled the surface of the water. Wind can't leave water alone.

The most extraordinary thing about the moment was how ordinary it was. This was my first moment in any of the twelve middle western communities I intend to dig into, yet there was nothing special about the day. There was nothing special about the sky - it was what it was. Still, that one white feather of crow I'd seen as I came into town suggested I'll have to poke and keep poking to find what I am looking for; and it suggested, too, perhaps I shall be rewarded.

My first contact with folks in West Point had come with a message on my answering machine a month earlier from Staci Jensen, director of the West Point Chamber of Commerce, who offered support for my project. Later I would find that Staci is always this helpful; she projects a West Point community that is open and inviting. Unfortunately, during this brief visit, Staci was out of town but she and Diane White at the Senior Center had arranged for me to deliver a short talk about my project for the seniors who eat at the center and for any other residents of West Point who could attend. I met Louis and Mabel Heineman there; they are both active in the Cuming County Historical Society. Mary Jo Mack of the John Stahl Library stopped to introduce herself and hear my talk. Bob Flittie of KTIC-AM/KWPN-FM invited me to the radio station to record an interview for his program on "The Arts in Northeast Nebraska." I got the names and phone numbers of several other people I met, intending to interview them on a subsequent visit.

When dishes were done and the seniors had scattered to the four winds, I went to the radio station. Bob thought we'd do a 15-minute interview. When we finally looked at the clock, we saw I'd talked for 25 minutes. I do lose track of time when it comes to talking about the middle west.

Interview done, Bob walked me from the studio to the front door of the station. I wished him good luck trying to get my rambling remarks to fit into his program's format. He wished me luck on my middle western adventure. Then I was out the door. I was driving south out of West Point on Highway 275, headed to a book-signing in Omaha. Yet I was also started down the Vagabond trail. The journey had begun.


FEBRUARY 18, 1998

How much different would it be were I to step out the back door of some remote cabin into a canoe, enter the small stream quietly, head off to check my traps. The smell of smoke would cling to my clothes, the stink would hang about me as about one who lives close to the land. I would have a rifle, ready for bear or deer, something for the larder. I would have my fish nets. How much different would it be, a morning like that compared to this? The path we choose chooses us.

You do what you have to and some days that's enough. Some days whatever you do is not enough.



by Tom Montag

The wind behind goes before.
Alone at dawn. As at dusk

Only the taste of dust. First light
The color of an old man's teeth.

These are the roads that own us.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?