Wednesday, June 23, 2004

SEPTEMBER 14, 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 tenth part of my report of the trip; it recounts part of the second and final day of the drive.

Historical marker: The Easter Blizzard of 1872 - it began as rain, turned to snow, blew from April 13 through April 17, accumulated twenty-foot drifts. Twenty people died in the storm, thousands of cattle died.

Historical marker: The Pebble Creek Fight - a confrontation on January 19, 1874 with the Indians over property they allegedly stole. The whites were led by Buckskin Charley White. One white and three Indians died in the half-hour battle; several Indians were wounded.

I cross the North Loup River and enter Burwell. I get gasoline at the Sinclair station and have breakfast at the attached Mustang Cafe.

Baseball caps outnumber cowboy hats about 3 to 1 in the cafe, if that means anything.

"You here hunting?" a white-haired fellow asks me once I've taken a table.

"No, I'm just passing through."

"Where you from?"


"You're a long ways from home."

"What are they hunting?"

"Quail, I guess."

Another table. Another conversation: "I see more of you now that you live in North Dakota than I did when you lived here."

Still another conversation: "You ought to go out to the horse sale and buy yourself about six horses. Spend some of that moldy money of yours."

"What would I do with six horses? Where would I keep 'em? Out at your place?"

"No, no - I've already got too many horses. You'd rent them out - $5.00 a ride."

Another table: "How are you? How's your brother?"

"Oh, he's feeling better since the operation."

"I read that article in the paper. Detached retina?"

"Yeah. Affected his vision."

"That's the worst thing that can happen to a photographer."

"Oh, his kids want him to retire."

The white-headed fellow says to the waitress: "How are your tomatoes coming?"

"Oh, there not coming at all. Yours?"

"Mine are just getting ripe."

"I planted those little plum tomatoes."

At a far table: "If you want to buy a truckload, give me a call."

At a near table: "You going over there? I'm going. I'll see you there."

Burwell - what I see of it - seems to be doing well, except maybe for the waitress's patch of plum tomatoes which just aren't getting ripe.

As I head south out of town, I pass the grounds for "Nebraska's Big Rodeo." Yet out in the country it's plain to see that we're back in farm country.

Sign: "Entering Valley County."

Sign: "Deer Crossing."

Sign: "Soft Shoulder."

This landscape is not quite right for Wisconsin. The valley is too broad. It is not quite right for Iowa. The hills are too high, too close together.

A dead mink or weasel on the road, something with a tube of a body.

Elyria - pop. 60. Enough said.

Historical marker: Fort Hartstuff 1874-1881. Established September 5, 1874. Named for General George L. Hartstuff. "Center of social life in the valley." The fort's major military engagement? "The Battle of the Blowout" against hostile Sioux. One soldier died.

Historical marker: St. Mary's Catholic Church: built in 1900 by Polish immigrants near Elyria. The parish served from twenty to eighty families before it was closed in 1983. Sermons were delivered and prayers were said in Polish until 1953.

Oh, what a long line of motorcycles I encounter as I pull back onto the highway after reading the historical markers. An airplane above the road makes a lazy turn.

Historical marker: Evelyn Sharp. Nebraska's best known aviatrix. Soloed at age 16, received her commercial license at age 18. Three hundred fifty men learned to fly under her instruction at Spearfish, South Dakota, her first teaching assignment. She was one of the nation's first female airmail pilots. During World War II, she was part of the Women's Auxilliary Ferrying Squadron - she flew everything from training aircraft to bombers. She was killed at age 24 on April 3, 1944, near Middleton, Pennsylvania, in the crash of a P-38 pursuit plane. She is buried in Ord, Nebraska.

Today is September 14, date of the Evelyn Sharp Days Air Show at the airport in Ord. A plane lands there; two planes take off. The roar of engines must shake Evelyn Sharp's bones.

Ord looks to be a thriving community - tidy houses, green lawns, churches, banks, businesses. The first Macdonald's I've seen in a very long while.

A Chevy comes toward me, driven by an old woman who can't see over the steering wheel. The Cargill Elevator has its own locomotive for moving railroad cars.

Off to my right, the landscape has grown rough again. There is broad water to my left, then board fields of corn. East meets west in the middle, the middle west.

I cross Dowell Creek. At the top of the next rise, a grain elevator comes into view.

Four pick-ups come towards me pulling horse trailers. Hey, cowboy, where's the rodeo? It wasn't in Burwell, at least not today.

The elevator stands in North Loup, "Home of Popcorn Days." North Loup is surviving. I wouldn't say it's thriving.

Sign: "Entering Greeley County." All the dead cottonwoods.

Scotia, off to my left, offers Extreme Bull Riding, whatever that is.

Along the road, a dead game bird big enough that I don't recognize what it might be.

A hawk rides the wind. Train tracks run along side the road here, the rails shining like promise.

To be continued....



I'm not very political, but I think W has truly lost his mind. People are still getting beheaded in Iraq and what is W talking about? He's in Ohio pushing "pre-marital counseling" for parents on welfare. Either he has lost his mind, or he is so full of foresight that I can't keep up with him. Which do you think it is?


JUNE 23, 1998

Summer. A trip west, to move a daughter to Missoula, Montana - 1223 miles from the Twin Cities. I made some observations along the way.

There is a surfeit of snowy peaks only 950 miles west of the Twin Cities.

Big Sky is true - the horizon is farther off. How is that possible? How can the earth appear to fall away in the distance even as it seems to rise up?

There are a lot of ways to look at the land: the farmer says "If you can't farm it, what good is it?" But you look at the ugly scruffiness of the Canadian shield in Quebec - a gnarled land - why not exploit it? What good is it anyway? It is not wilderness, it is where God dumped the leftovers when he was done with everything else. Once it has been spoiled, how could you tell? Mary tells me the landscape around Sudbury, Ontario, is much recovered from where it had been thirty years ago when she saw it first. It still looks pretty wasted to me. Suggests there is a difference between wilderness and wasteland.

There is a difference, seeing a land without history vs. seeing a land shaped by the hands and backs of its settlers. A land without history is somehow less attractive to me. I am, I believe, a "people-based" observer of landscape, rather than "wildlife-based" or "landform-based." So am I at root an historian rather than a geologist?

At home we can watch a thunderstorm roll in across a great sweep of land. Out here, I am watching a storm swirl around the mountains, almost as if it is caught and cannot break itself free.

Do we have a need to see pattern or repetition on the landscape? Is this the reason for our grid pattern laid all across the midwest? Has the land been tamed once it has been so marked?

Clouds just clear the top of the buttes - as if the clouds brushing against peaks have worn them flat.

The wildlife or wilderness experience is only one form of relationship with the land. There are many others. Some, for instance:

- The cropping relationship of the farmer, husbanding for continued, long-term use.

- The extractive relationship of the miner, taking what is to be had and moving on.

- The sheer observational relationship of the passing tourist who makes no investment whatsoever and then having seen what there is to see moves on to another landscape.

- The preservationist relationship, insisting on keeping the land as it is.

What other relationships do we have with the land?

The mountains are catching the clouds, like a child dragging his blanket.

How you look at the land depends upon how you look at the Genesis charge to have dominion over the animals of the earth. In contrast, we can take an ecological view; as with reincarnation in Eastern religion, we are part of it, not apart from it. Perhaps that is a fundamental question to ask oneself: am I part of it or am I apart from it - how you answer determines whether you think you can have dominion over animals, whether you can colonize other peoples, whether you can rape the land for personal gain.

I think about my daughter's cat, which has made the trip with me in this truck. It is a "house cat," staying inside in the Twin Cities, staying in the truck across 1200 miles of the Great American Desert, staying in an apartment in Missoula. From this position, the cat has no relationship at all with the land around it, no engagement. The farmer, the hunter, the explorer, they are engaged with the land. Is the tourist? Is the urban dweller?

What kind of relationship to nature does the urban dweller have - separated from the dirt by a layer of concrete, separated from the sky by the buildings around it. In no sense can the heat rising from the black asphalt be compared to heat from the desert floor; wind swirling around skyscrapers is not wind coming off the mountains.

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