Sunday, July 25, 2004

3:00 p.m. I'm still fifty-some miles east of Council Bluffs. The western sky has clouded. The wind finds its way even so. The day has not cooled.

I stop at a wayside and take a forty-minute nap. I hate to lose the driving time but - worse - I hate the notion of falling asleep and running off the road. So I do what I promised Mary I would do - I rest my eyes closed.

Now the clouds to the west seem to be stirring up a blow. I'm headed for whatever is coming at me.
Such a long drive as this gives you quite the cross-section of America. I am in the middle of the middle of it.

Now we cross the wide Missouri into Nebraska, "The Good Life." 4:10 p.m. "Lincoln, Left Lanes," the signs say.

I am headed towards an embankment of thunderheads. We are starting to lose the sun. It is only 4:21 p.m.

The sky to the northwest is a very dark velour.

Ha! There's the Platte River - "a mile wide and an inch deep," they've said. Out here a river can be nearly as wide as it wishes to be. This is Nebraska; what's going to stop it?

This eastern Nebraska corn stands a foot tall. The landscape between Omaha and Lincoln is as green as Iowa, as Wisconsin.

Now it looks as if the storm ahead has split - some to the north, some to the south. Dead ahead, blue sky is visible, a bank of clouds farther on. Lincoln, 22 miles.

Except that there are not near enough trees, this could be Wisconsin, yes.

Hang-down heavy blue to the north. Openness ahead. Wind. I am driving the seam of the storm, riding that spine. Lincoln next seven exists.

I can see Nebraska plates, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. We cross Salt Creek together at 80 m.p.h. And we're not the fastest drivers out here, by any means.

Lincoln sprawls like a tired whore, long-limbed and loose, spread across everything she can reach.
5:00 p.m. I am driving into sunshine. The storms have slid by me and are behind me now. There is only the green swarm of landscape, that and a few puffs of cloud.

I-80 shines like a liquid ribbon - traffic going west, coming east, the gleam of sun on glass and steel. There are a lot of semis running this stretch of highway. It is Sunday afternoon. Truck-drivers always like to get a little jump on the week ahead, so it's not surprising to see so many of them today.

5:12 p.m. Nothing to the west now but a faint haze, moisture hanging. Ahead of me the clouds are entirely gone.

Big irrigation rigs stand out here near the Beaver Crossing exit. Farmers, out working their fields on this now bright Sunday afternoon, raise some little dust. The only storm clouds are in my rear view mirror. Out here Nebraska is as flat as the lanes of a bowling alley. A storm can roll across it like a strike-bound ball, knock down everything in sight. Out in the open like this, the farm boys stand a fair chance of catching their girls.

I pass an ambulance from Kearney, Nebraska, which is headed towards home. The fellow in the passenger seat appears to be sleeping. A woman drives it, determined.

5:40 p.m. I have not seen the country between the York and Grand Island exits before, here along I-80. It is new territory, though the landscape is familiar - what I'm seeing, what I will see, looks a lot like what I've seen for the past forty-six miles. Nebraska has a lot of that. I am within two hours of Smith Center now, I believe, or nearly so. I am going through Red Cloud, Nebraska, on my way; perhaps I'll stop and have supper in Willa Cather's home town.

Damn, these fields of corn stretch a long way west. And fields of soybeans. This is news to the Iowa farm boy.

I have really got a lump in my throat for this part of America, for the farmers who planted these fields of corn and beans, for the women who love the farmers, for their parents and their children. The fields roll on and on. The land gets worked, gets worked again. The generations turn. We lose one, we gain another one. We gain and lose and things work out pretty much as they're supposed to. The land rolls on and on.

Some of the communities out here get exits off the interstate; some of them don't. Who plays God's hand?

How many dead raccoon have I seen today? More than thirty-five, less than fifty? How many dead deer? Twenty-five?

6:08 p.m. The shine of the moving highway in this light. Ah!
To be continued....
JULY 21, 1998

A thunderstorm rolled through last night low-down and dirty - it knocked out power about 11:30 p.m. and power is still out! What a wonderful welcome for the four "Up with People" kids staying with us for the week. One from New Hampshire; one from Moorhead, Minnesota, to whom thunderstorms should be nothing new; one from Denmark; and one from Switzerland. They have been together in the program since January; they have just had a three-week break and are back at it with one city under their belt - La Crosse - and Fond du Lac the second city on this leg of the tour. English is the universal language and is very well spoken by the red-headed Danish young lady and by the Swiss lad. It hardly seems fair that all the world must speak English to communicate - but we Americans didn't make this happen by ourselves. I'm sure the British empire went some ways towards making the world English-speaking. At least we have a lively language and - pretty much - a sufficient vocabulary - partly because we so easily steal and transmute what we don't have but need. Potlatch is one such example; to capture the concept we had to capture the word. Is canyon another?
The girl from New Hampshire asked how many people live in Fairwater. "All of them," I said. "We put the dead ones in the cemetery."

Quite a storm came through. Some large branches down at our end of the street, with a lot of leaves and other debris. You almost think the morning can repair itself - a mourning dove calls - then I see a very large tree down across the other end of Washington Street in Fairwater. The Power Company is there, cutting it up. It is the reason our power went out, having fallen across our power lines. In a yard in downtown Fairwater, another tree is uprooted.

The air clings unpleasantly. Two blackbirds harass a crow. The rye straw, I see, has been baled.

North of Fairwater, all the way to Ripon, it appears the trees did not feel the fury of our storm. The corn looks undamaged as well.

As I turn onto Watson Street in Ripon, a pretty girl smiles at me. A bright start to this day.


JULY 22, 1998
It wants to be a dark and cloudy day, wants to talk like thunder - but not very badly; in the east there is still a little blue sky.

There are enough branches at curbside along Washington Street this morning to make the village look like a war zone. There is a brown scar along the asphalt where a large tree trunk has been dragged away - taken to Hoodie's woods to decay, I presume, or someone will cut it up there.

Just outside of town I have to stop, to allow a deer to cross in front of me. It has come out of a field of soy beans, it enters the field where the canning factory sprays its waste water.

I can see now that it looks dark to the northwest and all of a sudden the east has closed itself up. The sky is gone; clouds remain, the sun a bright splotch behind them.

Either you are on auto-pilot on a day like this, grinding your way through, or you are committed to paying attention. "Sort of paying attention" is like "a little bit pregnant."

A woman walks her dog along Highway E north of Union Street. She has worked up a sweat. Sweat soaks through her T-shirt. She strides determinedly - up and down, up and down. Her dog at the end of its leash does not pay her bouncing much attention but follows its nose.

A police officer is at a home along Watson Street in Ripon, talking with a man and woman out front. They stand circled around a large lawn ornament that has been thrown over and broken.

The universe abhors a vacuum and the ruffian's mind abhors someone else's beauty. You can almost bet there was testosterone involved, or alcohol, or both.


To the following folks for their recent generous contributions to the Vagabond Expedition:

90. Anonymous #5, Minnesota.
91. Susan Czarnionka, Maine.

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