Thursday, June 24, 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 eleventh part of my report of the trip; it recounts part of the second and final day of the drive.

Historical marker: Chalk Mine. Happy Jack's Peak served as a look-out to guard against surprise attacks by the Indians. In 1877, mining of chalk in these bluffs commenced. Then the mine stood idle for a number of years and was re-opened in the 1930s by an Omaha paint company. The chalk was used in paint, white-wash, cement, polishes, and chicken flame. In 1967 the mine area became a wayside park. The parking lot where I'm making these notes is near the top of Happy Jack's Peak. If I'd wait half an hour, I could get a guide tour of the mine. I don't think so. I have miles to go....

Sign: "Entering Howard County."

An old house. It is so closed in by trees that dreams can't live here any more.

Sign: "Howard County Bank - we measure our customers by the size of their dreams."

Elba Cemetery - 1894. I don't stop to visit its dead.

Instead, when I reach Highway 92, I turn right instead of left. Who's leading this expedition? I go twelve miles out of the way to the west, twelve miles coming back. Twice I get to see the abandoned farmstead sinking into the land. Twice I pass through Farwell, home of St. Anthony's, the oldest Polish-Catholic Church in Nebraska. Twice I get to wonder what Polish peasant immigrants thought when they saw such wide open spaces. I saw Turkey Creek and a dried up slough when I was headed west, then again when I was headed east. Windmills pumping water for herds of cattle. Entering Sherman County. I recognized my mistake at Ashton - pop. 237. Ashton has a "Polish Heritage Center."

I don't know what cues alerted me to my mistake. I'm fortunate. Knowing me, things could have kept getting stranger and stranger until the sign said "Entering Wyoming." Now think about it, Tom: if you are heading south and you turn right, which direction will you be going? Well, of course, Tom says, it's obvious if you look at it that way. Ah, says Ben, you don't have to go to Chicago to get lost.

Ashton is straight north of Smith Center, Kansas, near the 99th Meridian. Now I'm headed east and south again, the direction I mean to be going.

Sign: "Welcome to St. Paul - Batting 1.000. Historic Baseball Capital of Nebraska." The population of St. Paul is 2009. There's a Super 8 Motel here. It's a prosperous community.

I cross the Middle Loup River.

It is a hundred and thirty-four miles to Omaha from here.

Corn and range-land prosper equally.

Now I'm headed south on Highway 281. I could have picked up Highway 281 about thirty six miles east of Rugby, North Dakota, if I'd wished, and could have followed it down to this point. I wanted to be farther west, however, as close to the 100th Meridian as possible, as close to the western edge of the middle west as a fellow can reasonably get.

Water in the ditch alongside the highway - standing about with nothing better to do.

I pass St. Libory without stopping to see if St. Libory has a library. (That's a "joke." Perhaps I'm tired?)

It is almost as if the land has exhaled here. This landscape is a little calmer than some of what I've come through, the trees are thicker, the pace seems more middle western. Okay, on what do I base that judgment? I can't say, so I take it back. I'm not even sure I could ever satisfactorily define "middle western pace."

Sign: "Entering Hall County."

A flat-rack stacked with large round bales crosses the four lanes of highway at Prairie Road. Just to the south of Prairie Road, a very large cattle feedlot. Parts of Indiana look very much like this, parts of south-central Illinois.

Now all the roads are named, with signs. We are just north of Grand Island, Nebraska.

The "Poor Farm Cemetery" has no gravestones in evidence.

Grand Island is a Grand Burg. I stop at the DQ for ice cream.

The four-lane highway south out of Grand Island is called the Tom Osborne Freeway. One supposes it was named for the Tom Osborne who coached Nebraska Cornhusker football for a quarter century? He was born in Hastings, just south of here.

Even out in Nebraska, urban sprawl destroys cornfield after cornfield. This could be Indianapolis, the western edges of Chicago. No - perhaps I exaggerate slightly.

I cross the Platte River twice. It is not so impressive as I have imagined.

Sign: "Doniphan - Determined to preserve the good life."

Hastings - pop. 24,000. It has Nebraska's Softball Hall of Fame.

Sign: "Hastings Welcomes You." But not so much that they'll keep the Information Center open on the weekend.

Now I'm heading south to Red Cloud, to see what of Willa Cather's legacy shows itself. Then I will take US 36 over to Missouri. A fairly square drive down the spine of things, a square turn to the east then. It is somehow fitting to include Willa Cather in this run.

Historical marker: At the intersection of Saddlehorn Road and US 281, or Baltimore Avenue, as they call it locally, a stone marks the Oregon Trail and commemorates the Pony Express.

I cross the Little Blue River. A dead deer on the bridge.

A lot of woods here, flat valley, river bottoms, all this greenness. Twenty-eight miles to Red Cloud.

The corn that has been irrigated looks good. Th corn that has not been irrigated won't even make passable silage.

Sign: "Welcome to Webster County - Catherland and Western Museum."

Blue Hill - pop. 867.

There's half a bag of tomatoes scattered on the road, a wasteful place to put them, no?

An old farmhouse. Though its eyes are closed, the house is still being lived in.

Now I'm on the Willa Cather Roadway.

The obligatory abandoned farmhouse, this one almost collapsed in a heap on the ground.

The raccoons and skunks here in Catherland are not any wiser than those of Wisconsin - representatives lie dead and scattered along the highway.

Sign: "Lakeview Cattle Co."

Sign: "Welcome to Red Cloud."



The steady eye, of course,

this rip in darkness,
a slash

of morning light the color
of snow

in April - The silence of

measured in the regular

of her breathing. She sleeps.
Each breath

sucks the husk of night;

then, a glow to the room -
The day

becomes more than I can own
or hold.

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