Sunday, June 06, 2004

SEPTEMBER 13, 2003

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 Meredians. 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 my report of the trip.

9:00 a.m. I'm set to leave Rugby, North Dakota, headed for Maysville, Missouri. I've been here a week, camping. I've got the tent and all my gear packed up now. It rained during the night and the tent is wet. It not as wet as it got on Wednesday night when I had to take a motel room but wet enough that I'll have to lay it out soon to let it dry so it doesn't mildew.

I'm heading to Maysville for a week there. I will be driving south along the farthest western edge of the middle west. I will take Highway 3 south through North Dakota, Highway 47 south through South Dakota, Highways 11 and 281 through Nebraska towards Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County.

Leaving Rugby, I am leaving the geographic center of the North American continent. Passing through Smith County, Kansas, I'll touch the geographic center of the lower 48 states. Then I'll turn east on Highway 36 in Kansas, and head for Maysville.

I'll stop tonight where I feel comfortable. I don't know yet where that will be.

I didn't get to tell my friends Jim and Therese Rocheleau good-bye this morning. Neither of them had come over to the motel and campgrounds by the time I had packed up. I wanted to tell them how much I appreciate their hospitality. I will write to them when I get home.


The line I am driving is at the far edge of the middle west, the near edge of the west. The line is where something ends, something else begins. I know there is gradation, not dramatic demarcation here, yet I wonder whether I'll see any evidence that this is where the middle west ends.

South of Harvey, North Dakota, along Highway 3, there is a great openness like the west is open. Yet there is a middle western flatness, too. This isn't the west, obviously, but it's where the west begins.

At the turn for Fessenden, North Dakota, I can see a ridge looming ahead of me, not as impressive as the Turtle Mountains behind me, but a welt on the plains. A red-tail hawk has landed on a power-line, it is steel-eyed, looking west. There are wheatfields and hayfields here, corn and sunflowers, and where the land rises, range-land. I'm at the far eastern edge of this formation, this ridge. I have a long view to the east, of land and water and sky. I see a gnarled landscape to the west. When I've topped the rise I've been climbing, I have a long view to the south, too, a straight, long road ahead of me to the next ridge three miles distant. In the low ground before that next rise, standing water and a wave of rushes. Knobs of hills. Stands of trees. Baled grass. A dead skunk. "America, America," I think, looking out across this landscape. Here, a field of soybeans. There some grain bins. Light on everything.

Now, a small lake with a farmstead at one edge, a junkyard at the other.

I pass Hurdsfield, North Dakota. Dark water in the lake at the south end of town, like an omen. The highway turns west briefly, past a sign that says "Watch for water on road." There is only a dead skunk where water on road would be. And a dead turtle with a blood smear on the concrete near it.

Pot-hole. Pot-hole. Pot-hole. I didn't know there was this much water in North Dakota.

I look off to my right and see a coyote crossing hay stubble. It runs like a wild thing, side-wise, looking back over its shoulder. It runs, but you can see it's not in a hurry.

A cormorant stands atop a rock, watching the dark waters of a pot-hole. The wind is making white caps. The cormorant is steady as stone holding its place.

Ah, a weathered building - was that a schoolhouse once? It is unpainted and coming apart at every neil/nail. Its desolation is shouted Its desolation is shouted as loud as the wind through its boards.

At the top of the next rise, a sign that knows no irony: "School bus stop ahead."

A pot-hole lined with dead trees. Then all of a sudden it is range-land in all directions. I'm just entering Kidder County from the north.

There's a lone pick-up moving across an empty pasture. Okay, there is an occasional patch where wheat has been harvested. A dead jackrabbit on the road, long-limbed, bloated. There is a great large collection of large round bales. There is the occasional house left to ruination.

Here's a field of sunflowers. Except for that, you might think this was the west.

The stubble of wheatfield. Clumps of mud left on the road by tractors. Power poles standing in the water of a pot-hole that comes right to the edge of the road.

Here, a pot-hole that is nearly dried up serves as reminder that the west is defined by the moisture it receives, or rather by the moisture it doesn't receive.

Another empty house, hollow-eyed and gaunt as the wind.

To be continued....


"The Shed"
from MIDDLE GROUND (1982)

At night I hear its boards creaking in a steady
Unfit to house tools now, the shed has opened
to field mice & moonlight. The air within it moves.
An owl leaves the rafters.
                                          By day the shed
                                              sags &
leans toward the trees behind it. Sometimes
     a play of light
through the roof marks the age of this aging
     wood: cracked
& bent, tired as the farmer was, who built it,
     when he died;
the wood grows dark as soil.
                                          The old lumber's
                                              knotty ache
reverberates as, bowed, the shed falls so slowly
     - year
by year - back to the land. The green floor, here,
the patience of the earth, waiting to take
     the wood.

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