Sunday, June 20, 2004


I arrived home last night, late. It's at least a twelve-hour drive from Smith Center, Kansas, to Fairwater, Wisconsin. I didn't drive straight through, however. I started at daybreak, and sat for half an hour or more at the geographic center of the lower forty-eight states a mile or so from Lebanon, Kansas. I stopped in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and had a lovely breakfast in a bar/restaurant on Main Street that doesn't usually serve breakfast. I went over to the Willa Cather center and saw a seventeen-minute video about her, and took the seven-building Cather tour of Red Cloud. Did I mention that I spent an excessive amount of money on books about Cather and her work? And then I headed for home.

Well, I stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet in Hastings, Nebraska. I got out of there about 12:30 p.m. Oh, and I stopped to rest my eyes closed in a wayside along Interstate 80 west of Lincoln: closed my eyes about 1:30 p.m., opened them about 2:00 p.m., refreshed enough to make the rest of the drive. It was almost midnight when I pulled in the driveway here.

I had a lovely visit to Smith Center.

Every day from 8:00-9:00 a.m. I sat with the "As the Bladder Fills Club" while the fellas told stories and varnished the truth and ribbed each other. One of the fellas said they'd pay me to come back once a month and bring them the kind of rain they got while I was there. They've been in a prolonged drought. You'll see reports of their antics right here sometime in the next month.

I sat down and did formal interviews with a number of people in town, as I usually do. I rode for four hours on a combine at the Brent and Dan Jacobs farm operation, harvesting wheat. I toured Peterson Industries Excel plant on the north side of Smith Center, and LTM Manufacturing about four miles south of town. I spent a couple hours on Thursday evening riding patrol with Police Chief Randy Nelson: boredom on patrol is a sign of success.

Once we conclude the current set of postings on "Driving the Western Edge of the Middle," I'll start putting up excerpts from my journals of this Smith Center visit.

I'm still a true middle westerner, I find: it is good to go on Vagabond visit; it is even better to come home.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meridians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the seventh part of my report of the trip. Here we conclude Day One of the drive, and start the report for Day Two.

"Smile - Your Mom Chose Life" the sign says in the abandoned farmyard. Behind the sign, two houses are falling down, the barn is falling in, some few sheds decompose. A hulk of car rusts in a ravine. Gnarled trees leaning steeply towards the ground. "Smile - Your Mom Chose Life" the sign says.

Comoseyamallahma? Two llahmas at a little farmstead nestled in a coulee.

Gregory, South Dakota - pop. 1342.

I am on US 18, which runs east through Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin. I grew up only miles south of Emmetsburg. I live only an hour northeast of Madison. I feel so far from anywhere - the lonesomeness of the long-distance traveler.

A house at the east edge of Gregory suggests that someone in this country definitely has money. Just so we remember what has been lost, not far down the road there is another farmstead fallen to disuse.

Burke - pop. 676. The community has a courthouse, a senior center with Tae Kwan Doh right next door, a civic center. Klufa's Grocery. True Value Hardware. First Fidelity Bank. The shop called "Scruples" is closed; that's okay, I don't need any more than I have already, thanks.

I'm tired. I should stop and eat and sleep but I'd like to put on at least a few miles more.

Mom is picking up Son in the parking lot behind one of the businesses on Main Street in Burke. Son has bright tri-colored hair - yellow and red and green hair, a rainbow surprise here at the far edge of the middle.

At the end of a lane east of Burke, there is an old single-lay horse-drawn plow set atop a fence-post on the point of the plow share. From the first angle I see it, it looks like a spider; my eyes play tricks: spider, plow; spider plow.

Though I am still in South Dakota, there are more Nebraska license plates on cars coming at me than South Dakota plates.

Herrick is off to one side of US 18; a grain elevator with most of its tin sheets peeling off is on the other side of the highway. I don't even slow down for a look; I already know this sadness.

A tidy farmstead that could be set down in Iowa - all steel bins and well-kept cattle operation and fresh-painted house. If this isn't a picture of our little middle western farmstead, what is?

St. Charles - not much left at all, two or three houses, a brushy windbreak around empty ground that may once have been vibrant community. A lot of history grown over already.

A McCormick-Deering threshing machine along a fence-line. Again it calls out: we were here.

Bonesteel - pop. 297. Divine Concrete Products.

It's 6:00 p.m. I'm approaching the Nebraska state line. We've got a lot of blue sky showing again.

Between Bonesteel and Fairfax, another cozy farmstead. Far off, however, you can still see where the west begins.

Eight miles north of Butte, Nebraska, the landscape is not unlike Wisconsin's.

Sign: "Nebraska: The Good Life. Home of Arbor Day."

Sign: "Now Entering Boyd County."

I cross Ponca Creek. Ponca Creek is dry. A stream bed forty or fifty feet wide is mostly dried mud, with only a pool or two of standing water.

I think I have said about all I can say today.


SEPTEMBER 14, 2003
I stayed at the Boyd Motel in Butte, Nebraska, last night; it had $27 rooms, just the kind that my wife likes to find. I talked on the phone with Mary last night. I'd called and left the motel's number on the answering machine. When Mary called me back she was told, first, that no one named Tom Montag worked at the motel; and, second, that the phone at the main desk didn't work, they couldn't transfer her call to my room. If she'd call back, they would answer on the cordless phone and bring that down to my room if I still had a light on. Which is what Mary did, which is what they did, so I got to talk to my wife from this remote outpost. Did I mention the room was only $27?

Butte, I think, is the county seat of Boyd County. It has a population of 452. It doesn't have any place to eat after dark except one of the bars. The world keeps moving and Butte appears to stand still; and if you stand still, well, you fall behind. If there are rich folks in Butte, they were hiding from me. These people probably work pretty hard for their money.

In actuality, Butte probably isn't any less well set to confront the future than Fairwater, it just seems more remote.

To be continued....


JUNE 15, 1998

So we have returned from our trip to Quebec. You cannot see home the same once you've left it, then come back. What you've seen changes what you can see.

We are more alike than we are different. If pushed to do so, I could name only a few differences in the people from here compared to those of northern Indiana and Ohio; Pennsylvania and New York; Niagara Falls, Ontario and Quebec, Quebec. Those of Quebec speak French, or French and English; their clock runs slower - by that I mean that even in heavy traffic they are never in a hurry, they are always courteous, they make way for a car to break into line rather than jealously protecting their place. They are generally a smaller people than we are - the French genetic influence, perhaps. But contrary to what we had heard, they were very pleasant and humorous and helpful.

I must say it is disconcerting to order food from a girl at a fruit and vegetable stand in the country who looks all the world to be entirely Irish and find she speaks French only and not a word of English - there should be a brogue with that red hair and those freckles, those teasing blue eyes. There goes a stereotype, eh?

The pace of Quebec definitely was slower than the pace here, and we definitely think of ourselves as more bucolic than, say, New York City.

In Quebec and Ontario - Ottawa to Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie - we saw rock, exposed Canadian shield - great city-sized chunks of it. The land was green even on much of the rock and gravel. Here and there we saw farms - especially on the Isle of Orleans in the St. Lawrence - but nothing with soil as rich as ours, nothing so relentlessly green as Wisconsin is right now.

Woke to the familiar sound of my own bird songs this morning - the reassuring sound of Fairwater at daybreak.

Our peonies are mostly spent.

It is 6:50 a.m. as I leave for work - long shadows in the village.

It is very definitely summer now - corn a foot tall or more, blossoms on the peas, the field of winter rye fully headed out, the ditches full with grass.

There are all sorts of peonies and violets abloom at Five Corners. It is good to be home.


JUNE 16, 1998
A clear, cool morning. Dew on the grass. The conversation of birds. Peaceful village. I hate to leave for work when the world is this placid and lovely.

Out in the country, there is a bit of haze in the distance - the humidity is high.

The fields south of Five Corners that had been untilled are still untilled. Some things are certain.

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