Thursday, March 25, 2004


Oh, another lovely Vagabond journey. I completed ten interviews with residents of Alexandria, including the mayor. I made two presentations, one for the Community Education program on "The Idea of the Local," one for a fellowship group at the United Methodist Church about my Vagabond project; both were extremely well-received. After the second presentation one of the women told me: "When you paused to collect your thoughts, I was holding my breath just waiting to hear what you'd say next." It was a sad moment as I said good-bye to my dear hosts in Alexandria, Paul and Carolyn Peterson, who have sold their house and are moving to New Jersey to be closer to a son and daughter. Paul is not getting around as well as he used to. Over the next few days I will report on some of my experiences in Alexandria.


MARCH 17, 2004

How many times have I driven past without stopping in Sauk Centre, the Gopher Prairie of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street? Perhaps a dozen times.

If he says he's writing a book about the middle west, a fellow ought to stop, at least to go to the bathroom in Sinclair Lewis's hometown. The Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center is also home of the Sauk Centre Chamber of Commerce - some little irony there, some little irony in the fact that those Lewis bitterly attacked have embraced him and hold him as one of their own. I have to say the display put up in the Interpretive Center is not the least bit defensive.

Across a back street from the Interpretive Center stands the Gopher Prairie Motel. If there is commercial gain to be got from Main Street's harshest critic, let's get a little of it, the owners must have said.

I've already read Mark Schorer's biography of Sinclair Lewis. The Intepretive Center had another by Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. I bought it, $35/hardcover, ouch. There was also a paperback called Sinclair Lewis: The Journey by Roberta J. Olson, who has served as president of the Sinclair Lewis Foundation's board of directors and who describes herself as a Lewis "fanatic."

Lewis was a loner and an outsider growing up in Sauk Centre. He didn't fit. He wasn't comfortable. It was easy to pick on him and make fun of him.

The pain he took away with him when he left Sauk Centre came back as a vicious assessment of small-town America in his first great novel, Main Street. Everything he'd written previous to that was pretty much doodling.

I felt like something of a loner and outsider when I was growing up, too; I didn't fit, I wasn't comfortable. I was less easy to pick on than Lewis was, perhaps, because I might kick you hard enough to break your shin bone. Yet I didn't come back at my home-town with a vicious attack. Why not?

Ah, wouldn't the exploration of that question be a little essay in itself?


MARCH 16, 1998

Where you are molds your expectations. Middlewesterners as a rule expect that if they put seed in the ground in spring and tend it during the summer, they will have a crop to bring in come fall. We don't expect to rush the process and we recognize there are a host of factors - drought and hail, for instance - which could destroy the crop. This pattern of work and reward shapes our outlook on life. There are no free lunches. There is no shortening the process.

MARCH 17, 1998
Do we welcome strangers? No, as a rule, we do not. Generally we want this land held for us - whoever we may be - rather than handed over to them. When Mary and I first moved to Fairwater, we were "Them." The house we bought was "the Hankerson house" and remained so for many years. People would say "Oh, you live in the Hankerson house" as if nothing had changed. We have our short-hands, our habits, and now - twenty two years on this land - I am guilty too. "Who are those strangers," I might say, "and what are they doing here?"

The air as I step outside this morning is like a soft, warm cloth. Still, there is a mild frost on the windshield. A light haze above. A mourning dove perched on the peak of the roof of the reddest house in Fairwater. There is nothing so disappointed as the green flower stalks poking through snow on the east side of the house.

Old wood, we know, has been loved by the sun, loved and left. We see it in the barn at the grove where lives the hawk - the sadness of the wood. The field of rye, so green last month, is white with frost this morning.

The state of the nation: When you are mixed up in a can of worms it is not enough to say they don't taste so bad.

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