Monday, July 26, 2004

Now I'm headed south towards Hastings, Nebraska, on the Tom Osborne Highway again. I was here last September, when I drove the western edge of the middle west. You Cornhusker fans know who Tom Osborne is, I don't have to tell you. For the rest of you, think long-time Nebraska football coach.

Where the highway crosses the Platte River here, the bridge spans sand. The river is dry. There is no water flowing right now.

Some of the corn out here is bigger than anything I've seen elsewhere today. The Iowa farm-boy hates to say that. But he knows that the corn is curled with some distress in this heat, in fields that aren't irrigated, even at Rainforth Road.

New houses out here in the country sit exposed to the Nebraska sun. No trees to protect them. Oh, there are trees, just not enough of them.

A coal train comes through Hastings, Nebraska, passes on tracks beneath us. I can see the end of the train, but I cannot see the beginning. That is typical of life, I guess.

A woman in Hastings is walking a small dog on a leash. I have see rats bigger than that dog. The woman has badly colored skin, as if an artificial tan went south on her.

6:32 p.m. Thirty-nine miles to Red Cloud. A bank of high clouds to the south, now ahead of me.

A Cadillac with Kansas plates is poking along ahead of me. Who owns the Cadillac owns the road, so some think.

I pass that Cadillac just before we cross the Little Blue River. There isn't another car for a mile in either direction. In fact, traffic is pretty sparse all along Highway 281 headed for Red Cloud.

Power-line - a big one, towers instead of poles. Red Cloud, twenty-eight miles. A smear of clouds to the south and west, blue sky overhead. Cattle take a deep wade in a mud-hole, with water half-way up their bellies. Irrigation rigs - some of them spraying, some of them not.

Gullies with trees. Or do they call them ravines? Or washes?

Entering Webster County.

Blue Hill - pop. 867. An immense sadness descends. "Welcome to Blue Hill," the sign says. I see a splash of kids in the municipal swimming pool, a life guard on duty, a couple of big girls with red blouses dangling their feet in the water. They are getting sun-burned, all of them, every single bone-white Nebraskan of them.

Across this landscape a lot of farmsteads are gone. That's not the wind you hear; it's the loneliness of the empty farmyards.

Cattle graze on some low ground. A river used to run there, broad and deep. It had to be plenty mean to cut a path. Now this is not river bottom but pasture. Like a gravel pit growing up to brome grass.

The closer I get to Red Cloud, the tougher the country looks. Were it not so green, this could be the west.

Is that winter wheat, turned for harvest already? That's what it looks like to me.

"Do Not Drive On Shoulder" the sign says, ignorant of the fact, apparently, that a farmer drives anywhere he damn well pleases.

Red Cloud. I find the Willa Cather Center along Main Street. It is open Monday-Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours go out at 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. I'll try to get back here on Saturday for the 9:30 a.m. tour.

I stop at Subway just a few doors south of the Cather center. It is so peculiar, a Subway in such a big downtown building. Fast food with history, I guess. I get myself a sandwich, a chocolate malt (yup, they've got ice cream), and a cold drink. There are five fellows in the place just shooting the bull. Talking about cars and girls, what else?

"She's got a motor just like the other one," one of the fellows says, without context to let you understand whether it's girl or car he's referring to. Except we know he wouldn't talk to the other fellows with such obvious affection for a girl.

You wonder if these guys know who Willa Cather was, or if it matters. Does it matter? We're writers, so we think it should, but does it? It's cars and girls that fuel the tromp tromp of the generations, not my notion of literature.

Then I am headed south again, peeling for Smith Center. As I cross the Republican River, I see there's not much water in it at all. I will take that as a good omen for the fall elections. Regime change begins at home.

In Kansas, I see that some of the winter wheat has been harvested.

Now there are clouds coming in, clouds going away. Some places, it looks like rain; some places, not. Maybe they'll get a sniff of it here, just north of the geographic center of the lower 48 states.

Bee hives have been set out like offerings in a field just at the edge of a stand of trees.

The hand of God is working the western sky with long fingers of light. This is a keen moment of sadness, when sunlight comes down through the clouds like grace. It doesn't signify the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from here at the exact center. That's the paradox of our middleness - it puts us at the edge.

Sign: Lebanon, 1 mile. Smith Center, 16 miles.

It is 8:00 p.m. as I drive through Lebanon on Highway 281. Lift up my soul, O Lord. Let my sadness be lifted.

As Smith Center comes into view, light like the grace of God is shining on it, those long fingers of light down through the teasing clouds.

Just at the edge of Smith Center, a combine harvesting wheat throws out a storm of dust like darkness. It has been a long day. I am a weary wayfaring stranger.

To be continued....
JULY 23, 1998

Dew on the grass this morning, and long shadows. A cool day with bright blue sky. What will this loveliness cost us?

In the field where the canning factory sprays its waste water, the grass was cut into windrows yesterday. It will dry further in today's sun.

It cannot be long before the sweet corn is harvested. From where I am, it looks so ready.

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