Friday, June 25, 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 twelveth and final part of my report of the trip; it recounts the end of the second day of the drive.

I am in Red Cloud, Nebraska, girlhood home of Willa Cather and the setting for several of her novels. I think Red Cloud struggles. Even some of the houses still being lived in look as if they are coming apart at every seam. Nothing comes easy here, even after a hundred twenty five years. There is a downtown with businesses, a cobblestone street. There is a high school. The high school parking lot has a cinder surface instead of asphalt, wooden ties instead of concrete for the curbs.

Historical marker: Red Cloud is named for the Ogallala Sioux chief. The community was established in 1871. The main line of the Burlington and Missouri Railway reached Red Cloud in 1879. "Red Cloud was the childhood home of Willa Cather," the sign says, "and it is known throughout the world as the setting of her six Nebraska novels and numerous short stories. The pioneers she knew in town and on the nearby farms lived on in her writings."

I am quiet in the presence of that notion, even as I cross the Republican River.

I have been traveling too fast and I'm dazed and confused. I haven't stopped for long enough in Red Cloud even to find the Willa Cather center a sign had promised earlier. I'll come back, no doubt, some other day. One does not write for long of the middle west without discussing Cather. Her work is among that which represents us in the gallery of humankind.

Historical marker: Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Willa Cather came to Webster County, Nebraska, at age nine in 1883, from Virginia. "This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention to us. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake."

The prairie is six hundred ten acres of native grassland owned by the Nature Conservancy. There is horse shit on the driveway past the marker. I can see north from here forever. Well, not forever perhaps, but into the heart's heart.

This is a moment of quiet meditation. I wish I could leave a little mark of my own, to say that we were here. We are here, we're going to disappear so quickly, like a puff of milkweed pod blown by the wind. And, to be sure, the wind is blowing.

There is another marker here for the Friends of Libraries USA Literary Landmarks Register. A passage from The Song of the Lark:

"It was flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang - and one's heart sang there too."

Stand here in the September sun and let your heart sing too, I beg you.

It is 3:00 p.m. You barely exit the driveway at the Willa Cather Prairie and you enter Kansas. A turkey vulture is a slow pinwheel in the sky, a marker above Cather's prairie.

I push on south towards the geographic center of the lower forty-eight states; it's located in Smith County, Kansas. I'll stop again at the cairn that marks the center.

I see wheat stubble in Kansas darker than anything I'd seen farther north; it is almost as dark as the soil here. I can only assume it is the stubble of an early crop and it has weathered.

My - what a beautiful view of a ridge in the distance; it must be the ridge that Highway 36 runs along.

The cairn for the geographic center of the lower 48 states. This place in the middle of the middle. This marker at the far edge of the middle west, the near edge of the west, the place where north and south and east and west kiss.

There was a car from Missouri stopped at the little park here when I arrived. A car from Texas pulls in as I am leaving.

The same wind blows here as blows in Rugby, North Dakota.

I am hearing the same song from the trees.

I have seen everything laid along this far edge of the middle west, along this line from Canada to Kansas, along this divide between crops and range-land, farm and ranch, farm boy and cowboy.

Life along the line is tough living; merely showing up is not enough; you've got to work, and work hard, to succeed. There are no gimme's.

The wind blows. And blows. And I turn away from the far edge of things. I'm feeling my usual sadness.


JUNE 25, 1998 - PART ONE

Whitefish, Montana. We board Amtrack for the Twin Cities at 9:30 a.m. local time - two hours late. The locals are not surprised the train is late.

We have left behind a daughter who is starting graduate school in Missoula. We are only miles from Glacier National Park. We have left behind the daughter who has long wanted to be a mountain rescue ranger - there are mountains hereabouts, but I wonder how many jobs to support a volunteer rescue ranger.

The train is two hours late. Doesn't matter to me. It is light out now and we can see river and mountain and the clouds banging their bellies.

Some observations about Montana:

o There are mountain girls and there are cow girls - they look different, they walk different, they talk different. One wears hiking boots, the other cowboy boots. The mountain girls are a little thicker muscled, especially in the legs. The cowgirls wiggle more when they walk.

o There are, apparently, a lot more smokers in Montana - at least we see a lot more of them than we do on average in Wisconsin.

o There are more drifters and homeless people in Missoula than I expected - and some of them look pretty weathered and grizzled. You think maybe they got as far as the Rockies then couldn't make it over the mountains. A natural barrier for the drifters to blow up against, the way Key West is as far as one can blow in the tropical direction.

o Cottonwood trees in Missoula were sending out enough fluff to make a quilt for a very large bed. It drifted into piles a foot deep along some buildings.

o I didn't say this - my wife and daughter did - all the women in Montana are pretty good looking. We did not see near so many obese folks as we would in Wisconsin or Minnesota. Reminds me of the Kentucky boy told me: "Ain't no fat people in the mountains."

o They have way more than their fair share of mountains around here and should send a few to central Wisconsin.

o The houses on the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Missoula are trim and well cared for. Some awfully pretty scenery lies within the reservation's boundary.


The train came through Marias Pass and - BOOM - just like that we are out of the mountains and onto the high plains. The snow covered Rockies rise up like dark storm clouds behind us. There are ranches with horses, fields with tractors working their way across them. The land has a sensuous roll to it and is very much greener than I imagine it will be in August. Missoula has had an unusual amount of moisture this year and I suppose the same is true here on the highest of the plains.

Not fifteen minutes later it is possible to see only the very peaks of the mountains in the distance. They are mottled, very much like a Chinese water color. US Highway 2 runs alongside the tracks. It is 12:30 p.m. local time. We are #13 in line waiting for lunch in the diner car.

Then - all of a sudden - the mountains show themselves again - a great long range of them stretching to the south as far as I can see. Bam Bam Bam the clouds bang into them.

You can still see the Rockies from Cut Bank. They stretch on and on. Don't they go all the way to the tip of South America?

During lunch we watch the Rockies disappear behind us. Then a few cones of mountains to the north, a few more at great distance to the south.

We sat at lunch with a wonderful elderly couple from Highland Park, Illinois. They were returning from a trip to Vancouver, B.C., where they visited a daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren. She had a stroke last year and moves slowly as the aisles of the train are not wide enough for her walker. He has retired "six or seven times" and is still doing some teaching and administration at Trinity Seminary off Highway 41/294 at Highway 22 north of Chicago. He has a master's in theology. His parents were Ohio farm stock. He graduated from Ashland College. She was born in New York. They must be in their 80s. They were wonderful companions for our meal and I would look forward to another meal with them any time.

Here on the high plains, this must be tough country in which to make a living. Farmsteads visible along the tracks are not well cared for - by Wisconsin standards at least. There are places that look like the stereotype of trailer trash, outbuildings unpainted and falling apart, old cars rusting. Nothing looks permanent - rather it looks like it has been temporary for fifty years. An overwhelming untidiness, at least for a German. What was it the woman from Moose Jaw told me years ago - her friends had traveled in the USA as far as Indiana (to a James Dean Festival!) and could not believe how tidy Americans kept their farmsteads. Well, this Montana country looks a lot like that part of Canada.

The train rolls on - top speed is 79 miles per hour so likely we will never make up the two hours the train is behind schedule. The land just rolls away into the big sky.

To Be continued....

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