Saturday, July 10, 2004

SATURDAY'S POEMS
-------------------------
SPEAKING MIDWESTERN

by Harriet Brown

Now that I've lived twelve
winters here, and another
coming, I've grown fluent

in the language of coldness,
I've learned to keep cool,
skate on ice so thin

it's invisible, so thin
the slightest flare of heat
and you fall through forever.

Here words are like rock salt,
scattered one pellet at a time
to thaw the surface.

There are other languages
for fire – the one I learned
growing up, the language

of history and oppression,
the deep exotic gutturals
of loving and of loss,

where words simmer
and steam and boil over
like soup left on the stove.

Still, even on the endless
prairie, every now and then
there is a warm spot, a brief

bright rush of grief or lust
out of the frigid land,
an arterial gush of longing

that never freezes, no matter
how long winter lasts.
And this needs no translation.

*

WHERE WE WENT
by Harriet Brown

You to your mountains,
your ruins and old stories.
All the loves of your life.
The bony underpinnings.

I to what's mine – unspeakable
blue evening, nearly full moon.
Such contrast between darkness
and light, such faraway shining.

The same moon shines
over you, just a different
face, her long hair
spread over your pillow.

Maybe you dream of me –
the sharp taste of my tears,
scent of my hair. The shadow
of your hands across my skin.

Where I am the land is smooth
with age and weather. No one
would guess these mere hills
were ever sharp with longing,

were mountains once.


"Speaking Midwestern" originally appeared in Wisconsin Academy Review. Harriet Brown is the author of The Promised Land (Parallel Press, 2004) and several nonfiction books. Her poems appear in Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, and other magazines. She lives in Madison, where she's the editor of Wisconsin Trails magazine.

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A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

INDEX OF THE THIRTEEN MOST RECENT SATURDAY'S POEMS
o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 3, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004


Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I'M GONE VAGABONDING AGAIN,
TO L'ANSE, MI, AND REDFIELD, SD,
FROM JUNE 29-JULY 12/13TH
BACK TO BLOGGING JULY 13 OR 14

YES, PETER, IT *IS* "OPEN MIKE"
THIS WEEK, THE TOPIC IS BLOGGING
AND ITS PLACE IN YOUR LIFE & WORK


Dick Jones, from DICK JONES' PATTERAN PAGES, left the following reflection about writing and blogging and playing bass in a comment over at Cassandra Pages. I will be away for two weeks. The last time I was gone, earlier this month, Peter at slow reads asked: "Does that mean it's open mike week here?" Well, yes, I guess it could mean that. And since we've recently lost Tonio's blog, and Common Beauty, and Book of Life, and Fred at Fragments from Floyd says he's gonna slow down a little bit, and I find myself leaving comments here and here about why I blog, why don't all of you have an open discussion here about your blogging, how it fits the rest of your work, whether it energizes or drains you, etc. Should you wish to oblige, I will be pleased to come home to a messy collection of wisdom on the topic. Here is Dick Jones' comment:

I feel more comfortable with my writing now than at any earlier time in my life. If I was driven excessively from the start by the desire to set the world alight with my deathless prose & my incandescent verse, that imperative ran out of momentum when I realised that all was vanity & I was only reaching a constituency of one & even he was losing interest in my prodigious output. So I stopped & played bass guitar in a series of bands instead.

This was a salutary experience. Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don't notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm & just enjoyed the simple process of playing an instrument. And that small epiphany had its kickback into writing: for the first time I started to write poems for the sake of the statement made & the craft of putting it together, unconcerned with rapturous reception from the world at large.

That enjoyment has been supplemented, but by no means supplanted, by some modest publishing success over the past 18 years. But it's principally been the pursuit of a personal notion of excellence that has driven the writing on.

And I guess I may well have wobbled off towards old age content enough with a small bunch of homebrew, free range poems tucked into a notebook, read by family & friends, had it not been for the dicvovery of the weblog. The joy of blogging for me - & I'm certain for many others too - is in its synthesis of ars gratia artis on the part of the writer & instant interaction with the reader. There is no sense of tailoring output for a largely invisible public: if the stuff has instrinsic merit then it will find its constituency &, one by one, maybe, they will come knocking on the door via the comments box. And for my purposes at this fairly advanced point in my life that works about as well as anything needs to.

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POETRY JUMPS OFF THE SHELF

Some time ago, Shoshauna Shy at Woodrow Hall Editions/BookThatPoet.com put out an unusal call. She was looking for "lively and upbeat poems" to launch the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program. Any topic was welcome, Shoshauna said, as long as it referred in some way to bicycles, walking, public transportation, car-pooling or appreciation of the natural environment. The poems selected will be produced for Community Car, Madison, Wisconsin’s member-based car-sharing program, and Budget Bicycle’s Red Bikes Rental Program; the poems will appear inside hand-sized books in glove compartments, attached to handlebars as laminated bookmarks, on membership invoices or in Community Car newsletters.

Shoshauna selected two of my poems for this adventure, "Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain" and "Simply Morning" from Between Zen & Midwestern.

The project is coming to fruition. In today's mail, I got samples. What a nifty idea it is. My poems are printed on white stock that has been laminated on both sides; a punch-hole in the upper corner allows a key chain to be put through the sheet. These poems will be "attached to the handlebars of 4-to-8 Red Bikes. These bikes start out as trade-ins, get painted red, then given to people to use during the warm weather months for a nominal deposit. If returned intact by Halloween, the riders get their deposits back."

We can only imagine all of the places your poems go and who happens to read them, Shoshauna suggests.

I admire the inventiveness of this project, and am pleased to be included. Indeed, it takes poetry off the shelf and out of the classroom, and puts it face-to-face where people are.


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NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH 99-YEAR-OLD PEARL MT. CASTLE
LEWISBURG, OHIO - JULY 10, 2003 - PART THREE


This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

"I had a boy that was a nuisance in the classroom," Pearl remembered. "He wanted to show off and he didn't care whether he learned or not. The new year, my class came in. Of course, I had to get acquainted with everyone, and everyone was the same as far as I was concerned. I didn't know who they were. The teacher who had him before said 'Oh, did you get him? Oh, Pearl, I feel sorry for you.' I finally found out who this boy was. He was going to show off, make fun in the classroom, play horse. One day he came to school with steel taps on the heels of his shoes. The school building was old. It had wooden floors. It sounded like a horse walking across the room - clump, clump, clump, you know. One day I thought 'I can't take all this.' So as the children were coming in from playing, I was at the door receiving my class, and he was tagging along behind about six or eight feet. CLOMP clomp CLOMP clomp. I stepped in front of him while the rest of the class went on in and took their places. And I said 'Bob, I know that you have to have these heel taps to save your shoes. Boys wear out their shoes, I know that. But couldn't you be a bit more quiet as you walk?" He said "I suppose." So he walked on his tip-toes back to his seat. And the next day the taps were off.

Pearl didn't challenge him, she asked him for help. "Charmed him" is how she puts it. "Psychology," she said.

In the Depression, Pearl said, "we always had good food. We raised our own cows. We butchered our own hogs. We had a big vegetable garden. We canned. We had fruit preserves. I still love to cook. I cook three meals a day and eat right."

Eating right might be another part of Pearl's secret to long life. "It has to be - living here where I have good food, a good atmosphere, quiet, peace, and we have a spring here. When we first got the farm, we had a hydraulic ram that pumped the water up to the house, so we had running water in a trough in the basement - like a refrigerator. Everything stayed cool. In the family we had cows and chickens, so our income was from the milk and eggs and the butter we made. We ate well, but we were poor and didn't know it. With my mother's good management. It was all the years, I'm talking about, the early ones too, not just the Depression."

"Even now," she said, "I'm eating almost all out of the garden - the peas and so on. My nephew who lives here in the mobile home - it was his wife who just called me - he dug the garden. I had polio and can't walk - that's my big problem. See how I have to walk, that is a burden."

"With my polio," she continued, "my mother got me to the doctor right away and he diagnosed it almost at once, but in those days there wasn't much they could do. They massaged it. When I was a little girl and would lie down to take my nap, my mother would massage that ankle and that leg most affected by the polio."

During World War I, Pearl said, "my mother, being away from her family, corresponded all the time with her brothers and their families. Her youngest brother went to North Dakota and took up a claim in 1900. She corresponded with him regularly, and with the brother and his family and her mother back in Roanoke. I believe in keeping in touch with family. Right now I could go back to the Civil War era and tell you about my grandfather who wore the Confederate uniform. That's been a love of mine, to keep up with the family. That's history."

"In the First World War, there were some Olson boys from North Dakota, where the younger brother of my mother had settled. They were stationed at Wright Field in Dayton. They were on their way to Europe. My uncle wrote my mother and said 'Those boys are there and can't go home, can't get back to North Dakota. Maybe you could call them and let them know you are interested in them.' And he gave my mother the address of these Olson boys. Mother looked at me and she said, 'Pearl, that's a job for you.' I was only 14. She said, 'You can be the one to write.' So I wrote a letter right away, to the address my uncle had sent. Before the letter ever got to them, they were moved out of Wright Field and were in New York to be shipped off. They couldn't answer me until they got to England. So a little 14-year-old girl was corresponding with those North Dakota boys in Europe."

The correspondence continued for a couple of years while the boys were in Europe.

To be continued....

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THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Stevy Pete was a tellin' about when he lived in town about twenty years ago," Ivan wrote. "Pete lived in the northwest part of town. He was being bothered by skunks. Steve said one morning about three o'clock he was on his front porch wearing only his jockey shorts and boots shooting at a skunk. His neighbor yelled, 'I've got pictures.'"

"Jenifer Hamilton, the New York Lady, loaded her pick-up, Trusty Rusty, and headed for her new mission field, Sterling, Colorado," Ivan said. "Hamilton left Western Plains Village around nine o'clock last Wednesday morning. There was a trail of brown flecks in the wake of Trusty Rusty. It could have been rust or it could have been something about the same color as rust."

"Judy Hall held her first T-Ball practice one evening last week," said Ivan. "She put the helmet on one little girl. As she was putting it on, Judy said to the little girl, 'Now you know what this is for, don't you?' The little girl said, 'Yes, it's to keep the hair out of your eyes.'"

Ivan said: "I said to Brenda the waitress, 'You know, you are a kind of a pain in the rear.' She said, 'I know, but I'm good at it.'"

"Like the late Ted Relihan used to say," Ivan wrote, "'we have made a lot of improvements in Smith Center and I've been against nearly every one of them.'"

"I did learn something at Paul's Cafe last Friday morning," Ivan said. "When I got there Glen Allen was the only one there. Glen said he had stayed up all night waiting for dew on the grass. He said there wasn't any even after the wind went down. Now the reason Allen was waiting for the dew was because he wanted his alfalfa to get some moisture on it before he started baling it. He said you had to have dew. Gene Conaway came in and said you need to have a little moisture to bale. Said it kept the protein in the leaves. Then Kendall Nichols observed that there are not many old farmers who fool with alfalfa anymore. And, he continued, most of the alfalfa is baled at night. I get a better education right up there at Paul's Cafe than I would if I enrolled at K-State."

"I think I got Lonna's name spelled right," Ivan said after mentioning her. "I just sounded it out and used whatcha call your fonicks."

There were three preachers at The As the Bladder Fills Club one morning. "With three ministers gathered in one place, the place took on a kind of a sanctimonious glow," Ivan said. "Conversations were cleaned up and no one eye-balled the waitresses. Oh, that reminds me, waitress Julie Schmidt coached little girls T-Ball Thursday night. Julie takes her orders directly from team manager Judy Hall. They call themselves manager and coach but I don't think they had a bunt signal between them."

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from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
JUNE 29, 1998


Going back to work this morning is about more than going back to work. It is about stepping back into my customary rituals, my usual habits, about going back to dance my eternal dance. In a sense, it is reassuring - getting back to what I know. In another sense, it is confining, I suppose like stepping back into the darkness of prison.

At the very least, I shall be able to start again my morning meditation on the drive to work. I wonder how long it will take me to get comfortable with this once more. My writing has been very hit and miss the past month.

Oh, loud birds, birds singing in my yard. I start the pick-up. The ritual has begun. With song, with mourning dove on the driveway, with sun coming over the tree tops, long shadows.

Dew glistens on individual blades of grass.

Just north of town I see a large part of a tree is down. I had not noticed that on Saturday.

The winter rye has turned color and should be ready for harvest in two or three weeks perhaps.

A little water still stands in some of the fields. With the moisture and the heat and the humidity, you can almost hear the corn growing.

All the fields of peas along Highway E have been harvested.

Now I see soybeans up in all the untilled fields just south of Five Corners. Morning glories are in glorious bloom in the flower beds at Five Corners.

A bicyclist between Five Corners and Union Street wears a bright tie-dyed shirt - gold like the sun, red like blood.

It is good to be home again.


Monday, June 28, 2004

TOMORROW I LEAVE FOR TWO WEEKS
    OF VAGABONDAGE
IN L'ANSE, MI, AND REDFIELD, SD


Tomorrow I will hightail for L'Anse, up at the bottom of Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay, in the Land of Accent-on-the-First-Syllable-and-Let-the-Rest-Fall-Where-They-May - KEE-wenaw Bay, BEARaga County. There is to be celebration of the area's history over the 4th of July holiday. One of my Vagabond tasks is to partake of the celebrations that help define my "focus communities." You can be sure I will report on L'Anse's when I return.

I'll be camping out while I'm there, but I'll trust that any trees in the campsite will not - I repeat, WILL NOT - throw the butt end of a 250-pound branch down on me, as happened at my camp-out last September in Rugby, North Dakota. There I was, looking up at the raw, torn end of the branch inches from my forehead and thinking "What a stupid way to die." I didn't die, but I got some cuts and scrapes. It was my own fault. I'd been sitting at the table in front of my tent writing in my journal; I was just in the middle of writing a sentence poking a little fun at the cottonwood trees, the way they talk, talk, talk in just a little breeze; and one of the cottonwoods retaliated. A fellow from one of the big motorhomes set up in the area saw what happened, and he came over to help me. It was all the two of us could do to move the branch off my camp-site. You might say that only a fool would camp near cottonwoods when the wind is blowing, but the wind wasn't blowing; this happened in the stillness of sunset; there was no warning, no sound of a branch breaking, only the whoosh of it coming at me.

Be careful what you say around cottonwoods!

After a week in the green and blue of the Upper Peninsula's woods and water, I will bee-line across the upper middle west, from L'Anse to Redfield, and spend a week in the wind of South Dakota. South Dakota has wind, and these most amazing sunsets, distinctive enough in my imagination that when I see such a one elsewhere, you might hear my call it "a South Dakota sunset." As Shirley Sanger of Zell, South Dakota, put it for me when I spoke with her last year, "I like the openness that you can see out here, the sunsets. I like to go out to the Black Hills and visit, but after a couple days I want to come back." That kind of sunset. Perhaps the gulp of emotion I feel seeing them has something to do with the fact that my Gramma Allen's family homesteaded in South Dakota for a while (before they gave up and returned to the lush greenness of Iowa).

After two weeks away, you can be sure I'll be ready to return to the lushness of this big cinnamon-colored house in Fairwater. I hope Mary will be ready to have me back. The last time I was in Redfield, towards the end of another two-week trip, I called her on Thursday night, to hear she didn't think she missed me all that much. Well, Thursday at noon I had wired flowers for delivery to her at work on Friday, and I thought "What a waste of $42." I consoled myself thinking that she was just very busy and didn't really have time to think about how much she missed me. Well, she was very busy. I didn't tell her about the flowers on the phone, and they sorta knocked her socks off the next day, or would have if her friends hadn't kept asking "What's Tom trying to get away with?"

As you'll see tomorrow, while I'm gone you'll have a little assignment to work on. It'll be "open mike," as Peter from slow reads likes to put it.


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NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH 99-YEAR-OLD PEARL MT.
    CASTLE
LEWISBURG, OHIO - JULY 10, 2003 - PART TWO


This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

At age 18, Pearl survived the loss of her mother, whom she loved so dearly. Why and how?

"Well, my father had tenacity," she said. "He had hardly any education. My mother was the business mind of the family and was a great organizer, wide awake to things going on in the community and taking care of her family. She would have been a hero if you are including good mothers."

"I taught school for five years in Lewisburg," Pearl said, "for nine years in Eaton, for twenty-six years in Dayton. For forty years, fifth or sixth grade, ten-year-olds, not babies and not smart alecks. You could challenge them to stand on their heads and they'd try it. And I was one who challenged them."

"Now I have grandmothers and grandfathers visit me," she said. "They are in their fifties and sixties, some of my students. Four little grandmothers were here just a few weeks ago. I taught them back in 1941."

"I've had a great life, a great, colorful life," she said, "but it's been a hard one. Blood, sweat, and tears many times, I'll tell you."

Pearl's young siblings grew up and moved away. Pearl and her father still lived on the farm and Pearl continued to teach.

"My father lived to be 84," Pearl said. "He died in 1954."

"Dad, of course, never had a tractor," she said. "He farmed with horses. This farm is a hilly farm. It's not a very highly-producing farm. It's seventy-six acres, it's hilly. We had cows and sheep. Sheep are the best lawn-mowers there are, you know."

"The kind of person my father was, he couldn't be put down - he went ahead," Pearl remembered. "I have that same tenacity. You can't push me down. I'll push through all the trials and tribulations that go along with losing all your family and trying to make ends meet here in the home, and so forth. In those days, our salaries were low. You didn't prosper too much. Enough to dress decently and have your transportation. You loved your work. I loved my work. I still love life."

Her love of life, Pearl admitted, has to be part of the reason for her long life. "My body was not a strong body in a way," she said. "Yet I could do things that were worthwhile in the world. One of them was taking care of my dad's family. And looking after myself. People might think I was a little bit selfish, but I wasn't. I was looking after the family as well as myself. I couldn't just die, I was still alive - I had to look after Pearl a little bit, you know?"

"Time went on with that life," she said. "I'd gone to college just one year. I taught two years, then I went back to school for another year and graduated from the Teachers College at Miami University, the two year program. Afterwards, to get my degree, I finished another two years with night school and summer school. I got my degree in 1940. I'd started back in 1922. It was difficult holding down the farm and taking care of dad and the children, and at the same time getting my own self promoted."

"I was teaching in Eaton during the 1930s," Pearl said, speaking of the Depression. "I had forty-five children in my class at one time. Forty and forty-five. Teachers now can't believe that. In those days, in hard times, families sent their children to school to learn, not to play horse; and I was there to teach them, and not play horse. We had fun. We laughed, and I laughed with them. And there was no more fun for me than to temper and control some little feisty boy who wanted to show off, you know. I could charm them. I had a little way of charming them. I still am charming kids. I mean that. It sounds like I'm bragging but I'm not. You give me a little ten-year-old and the first thing you know, I'm talking his life and my life, and he's wanting to know more about me and I'm wanting to know more about him. Two years ago, I was invited to go to a re-union of a Sunday School that was in a church a block from my school building. This little fellow was there listening to our conversation. I took my class pictures and was showing them to the people who were in their sixties and seventies, who'd been my pupils. And this little fellow stood at my shoulder while I was sitting there talking and people were looking at the pictures I'd taken of class work, and he just stood there and listened and listened and listened. His grandfather had gone to my school but hadn't been a pupil of mine. This little fellow, ten-years-old, he and I got together, talking. I said 'What are you doing?' and so on. He was a collector of coins. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins and showed them to me. And he handed me a gold dollar. I still have it here on my desk. He loved this old teacher. And I loved him. So, I tell you, I can really charm them."

To be continued....

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from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
JUNE 27, 1998


Just back from Montana last night, I am driving into work for a half a day on a Saturday, to give myself a jump start on the coming week.

I see the canning factory is spraying waste water in its field. If I couldn't see it, I could smell it - there is a strong stench of silage.

Farther along Highway E, a field of hay has just been taken.

Driving home yesterday just west of here we saw that fields of peas had been harvested. They have also taken a field of them here, near the power pole where the snowy owl used to perch, that place.

The corn has grown amazingly in our absence. It is thigh high, waist high in places. A storm came through last night and there are wet spots in some of the fields this morning.

It looks like soy beans have come up in one of the "untilled" fields I've been pointing out all along just south of Five Corners. The beans are poking right up through the corn stalks. No till farming, obviously.

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I'M NOT VERY POLITICAL, BUT...

White House spokesman Dan Bartlett was quoted over the weekend about Farenheit 9/11, saying "This is a film that doesn't require us to actually view it to know it's filled with factual inaccuracies." I'm not very political, but... that sounds like the way the White House responds to intelligence information, too. "We know what we want," they must say to each other. "Why would we need to know anything else?"


Sunday, June 27, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH 99-YEAR-OLD PEARL MT.
    CASTLE
LEWISBURG, OHIO - JULY 10, 2003 - PART ONE


This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

Pearl Mt. Castle lives in the country southeast of Lewisburg, Ohio, north of Eaton. She was 99 years old when I interviewed her, still living on her own in the house she grew up in, with a nephew nearby to check on her as necessary.

Her parents were born and reared near Roanoke, Virginia. As a young couple with three children, they migrated to Ohio in 1897, to Montgomery County just over the road in front of Pearl's place.

"I was born November 13, 1903," Pearl said, "so I was the fifth child in the family, of nine children altogether. I was born east of West Alexandria, Ohio. Six months after I was born, my parents moved to a farm about fifteen miles from where I live now. When I was about six, they moved again, about a mile and a half, to another farm, and from there they moved to this place. So I've only lived in four houses all this time."

And, I might add just to make it clear, she's lived in just one house since she was ten years old.

Pearl had polio in 1907 or 1908 and "was not able to walk," and couldn't start school on time.

"I tried, but was too weak, so mother took me out for a year," Pearl said. "Then I became a little stronger but had to be transported to school. Back in the horse and buggy days, that was a problem."

"I went to a little school in Prymont, Ohio," Pearl said. "It is about eight miles from here, a two-room school building with four classes in each room, the first eight grades. As I went to first grade I loved every day, every day, every day - I just loved it. When I was in second grade, my teacher let me help the slow learners in the first grade and that's when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. It was second grade, I started teaching."

"When we moved here in 1913," she added, "I went to the little one-room school for a couple years."

"My mother was in favor of me becoming a teacher," Pearl said. "She and I were very close. When she died at the end of my school years, my life was gone. Because we were so close."

"I was to graduate from high school in 1922," Pearl said, "the only one in the family to decide to go to high school. My mother was so proud of that. Wanting to be a teacher - she tried to promote that. In a family of nine, it's a question whether you have the resources for that. It was a question."

"I had a very happy education," Pearl said. "I had a very happy life, with a big family - working in the garden, canning fruits and vegetables, regular old farm living."

"My mother was so happy about me graduating," she said. "In those days mothers sewed for their children. She had all our clothes made for graduation, which would be two or three different dresses."

"She passed away April 12th, when I was to graduate in May," Pearl said. "So I lost my mother. My world came to an end."

"At that time," she continued, "my older brothers and sisters were all married. I was 18. My younger sisters were still here - three younger sisters and a little brother. So what was Pearl to do? Being a little country girl, I didn't have the understanding we have today that you could do this, you could do that if you wanted to. I just thought the world was coming to an end."

"In our neighborhood," she said, "there was another family with a daughter the same age as I was. We were friends. Our fathers worked together, trading farm work, helping each other. This other fellow was a little more aware of things going on in the world. My father was a great man, but uneducated. Well-loved by everybody who knew him. Hitch his horse in a moment to go help a neighbor, in horse and buggy days. The two fathers got together and said 'What about these two little girls, here in the country. They're through school now. What's before them?' We knew the woman who was Dean of Women at Miami University that summer - we knew her because she was from West Alexandria. So the two men and the two little girls drove down to Oxford. We found out what we were supposed to do to matriculate."

"This was in August," Pearl said. "My mother was gone. We matriculated. Started to school in September. This little girl and I were room-mates in college. We spent the year down there together."

"When the year was up - one year at the teachers' college," she said, "I took the examination for teachers and I started teaching school. I was only 19. At Lewisburg. The superintendent knew me, knew my background. He was a great help to me. I'd had only one year of study for teaching elementary school."

"I came home," Pearl said, "I lived here, packed five lunches a day, taught school, oversaw the housework. Before, I had always milked cows. My younger brother and sisters had to do the milking now. I took over the household at 19 and also started teaching school at 19. I took over care of my younger sisters and younger brother, and of course of my father who was heartsick over the loss of that beautiful mother of mine."

"It was not easy living," she said matter-of-factly. "Having had polio, I didn't have the strength of body some girls might have had. But I had tenacity."

She laughed. "I was going to go on. And I did. I did."

To be continued....

----------------

JOURNAL ENTRY:
RIDING THE TRAIN
BACK FROM MONTANA
JUNE 25, 1998 - PART TWO


At Havre, it starts to look as if we are coming into badlands, with a rough roll to the land. The Indians used to drive buffalo off the cliffs about town.

East out of Havre, a whole range of peaks to the south. We are on the high plains here, but those are not high plains there. A little farther east, the peaks appear to be much nearer. There are very dark, thick, grey clouds in the sky above them. And then, suddenly, the range ends abruptly and is replaced with what looks like a flat-topped plateau overlooking a wide plain below. Still the Great American Desert is greener than you'd reasonably expect. There are even trees in places, long groves of them.

In the Bear Paw Mountains east of Havre is where Chief Joseph surrendered. It was Chief Joseph who said: "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." Would that he had been speaking not only for the Nez Perce but also for the rest of humankind.

Further east, a couple small peaks, like a hiccup on the landscape, and then another ridge starts up.

Rain in the distance. Now it is difficult to know what we are seeing to the south - everything fades into the grey curtain.

This travel by train is the life for me - I am sitting back with my feet up, watching America unroll like a spool of film.

East of Malta, the landscape has really been roughed up. Though there is some farming, much of the land is used for grazing. Rolling land, flat-topped buttes as we head east towards the Fort Peck Dam and, farther on, the Missouri Breaks. Grey sky and a darkness like dusk, only it is still 5:15 p.m. Mountain Time as we head into Glasgow, Montana. We are nearing the eastern edge of the Mountain Time Zone, but that does not explain the dimness of the sky above. Thick grey paint has been spilled over the dome of sky. I cannot imagine, simply cannot imagine crossing this land in a wagon, not one drawn by oxen, not one drawn by horses. This iron charger eats up the miles, but even so we are still in Montana after eight hours of traveling east. You could damn near drive across Europe in eight hours, couldn't you? And we're still in Montana.

Between Glasgow and Wolf Point, six antennas are set upon a distant ridge to the south. We suppose they are radio antennas beaming away their signal into the low grey sky.

In Wolf Point, a boy standing on a gravel street throws stones at the train entering the station. Well, in Wolf Point, saying "the train entering the station" is perhaps exaggeration. High cheek bones, broad noses, bronze skin of one couple departing from the train here suggests an Indian heritage. Constant reminders here about from whom the west was won.

Even farther east, in the grey evening air, a green house, an unnaturally green house I must say, on the green plain. Beyond that, to the south, the ridge that we've been running along for quite a while continues. Which river was it we could see from the train?

An old threshing machine holds down its part of the world, bound to it by rust.

During supper we saw the Missouri and the Missouri Breaks. We saw it raining "on both sides of the train this time," as a fellow passenger said. We ate with a couple from Platteville, Wisconsin. He teaches engineering at the university there. She has had bad luck with her food on the train in the past - lasagna overdone, steak too dry. Warns me that my steak will be too well done. I tell her I usually have good luck with food; and my steak was excellent. It's karma - if you want good food, expect it; then eat what you get. Those who complain about bad food get bad food, that's how it works. They will be getting off at Columbus, Wisconsin.

There is blue sky out the window now. We went back to Central Time in Williston, North Dakota, as we finished supper.

The staff of the train is amazing - they have done their tasks thousands and thousands of times yet they make everything seem fresh this time, as if the first time. They also do an excellent job of teaching us the ins and outs very quickly. Our attendant, Henry, a young black man, "owns" this car and wants to make sure we are satisfied; and yet he doesn't hound us.

Night descends. It won't be long and we'll be asking Henry to make up the beds in this small cubicle.

The fields are flatter for longer stretches now. The farm houses are larger. Everything looks more prosperous.

A white school house and a church, once white - they are both windowless and decaying. I'd say we are on an Indian reservation where another promise has been broken, but there are large fields of wheat and alfalfa. There are roads and powerlines. There is water. I didn't know land this good was ever set aside for reservation. (When I look at a map later, I'll see that it is not reservation land.)

The roads crossing the train tracks seem to be all gravel roads in North Dakota, few and far between. The farm houses too are few and far between. We are somewhere between Williston and Stanley, North Dakota, I believe. The sky darkens. A mile to the south, a semi moves east on US Highway 2. The ditch alongside the train is full of water for a quarter mile. A grain elevator, a lot of anhydrous ammonia tanks, a farm implement dealer with a lot full of rusting machinery, 15-20 houses. Didn't catch the name of the settlement. Intercom says we are approaching Stanley and will stop there soon, so that must have been Ross, North Dakota, we passed. In the distance, a blue A.O. Smith silo. Can that be a church with a red neon light in the steeple? One if by land, two if by sea? Isn't this the part of North Dakota where there are ICBMs poised in silos, ready to right the world?

Minot, North Dakota - we step outside for a breath of fresh air before we sleep. It is after 11:00 p.m. The air is still warm, but refreshingly clear. We have our beds made up.

Thought before sleep: The system knows itself. Understand the system and use its knowledge of itself to your advantage.

*

JUNE 26, 1998
Rise at 6:30 a.m. We are west of St. Cloud, Minnesota, still, but we have slept across a great swatch of North Dakota. Any form of travel has to be A-OK if it lets you travel at 79 m.p.h and sleep the great long miles across North Dakota. Don't get me wrong - I love North Dakota, but there's just so damn much of it. We have breakfast, sitting with a retired bricklayer and his wife from north of Chicago. She is unhappy with the rough sleeping, he pretty much knows how it is.


Saturday, June 26, 2004

SATURDAY'S POEMS
-------------------------
THAW, 2003, STANTON TOWNSHIP

by Robert Schuler

hawks suddenly
bursting out of shadowy mist
banking floating
wings spread
broad
flashing bright white
through the black
oak-thicketed draws
water bubbling spiralling
silver out of sand and mud


*


THE AMERICAN MILLENIUM
by Robert Schuler

my old man said he could buy
whatever he wanted
I'm just looking around
to see what's left


Robert Schuler appears in two major anthologies of midwestern writing, Imagining Home and Inheriting the Land, both published by the University of Minnesota Press. His eleventh collection of poems, In Search of "Green Dolphin Street," has just been published by Marsh River Editions and is available from the author, schulerr@uwstout.edu or E4549 479th Avenue, Menomonie, WI 54751, for $9.00 including postage.

----------------

A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

INDEX OF THE THIRTEEN MOST RECENT SATURDAY'S POEMS
o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 3, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Tom Montag, "February 1, 2001" - February 14, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004


Friday, June 25, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
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.

----------------

JOURNAL ENTRY:
RIDING THE TRAIN
BACK FROM MONTANA
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.

More.

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....


Thursday, June 24, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
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."

----------------

from
THIS GATHERING SEASON
in MIDDLE GROUND (1982)


The steady eye, of course,
survives

this rip in darkness,
a slash

of morning light the color
of snow

in April - The silence of
daybreak

measured in the regular
pattern

of her breathing. She sleeps.
Each breath

sucks the husk of night;
returns,

then, a glow to the room -
The day

becomes more than I can own
or hold.




Wednesday, June 23, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
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?"

"Wisconsin."

"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'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?

---------------

JOURNAL ENTRY:
LOOKING AT "PLACE"
ON A TRIP OUT WEST
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.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
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 ninth part of my report of the trip; it recounts part of the second and final day of the drive.

More working windmills watering herds of cattle. Here the cattle are kept off the road by "cattle guards" - devices at the fence-line that lay in a hollow of the driveway, fashioned of round steel tubes cattle won't step on. These are better than a gate. Cattle will push through a gate, you have to stop and open and close a gate. You can drive your pick-up over the cattle guard, yet the cattle won't cross it. The cattle guard, perhaps, is a somewhat western notion; I'm not sure my German-Iowa ancestors would approve of such a solution, however obvious. It is somehow not righteous.

At a stand of trees, an empty corral and a chute for loading cattle. All of a sudden, sand hills ahead of me! Trees start to fall away behind me, openness rolls ahead, now I'll see the world according to the wind's definition of it.

Beyond Holt Creek, trees, the Buss farmstead. I climb the first of the sand hills. A mailbox along the road for the Smiths: half a mile to the east, their tin roof shines.

Range-land and cups of open sand. A few cottonwoods along the water's low course.

When I top another hill, I find a wealth of trees standing to the south. Another congregation of meadowlarks along the Sunday morning road. In spite of the trees, this looks like ranch country.

I meet a woman driving a van that looks as if it should belong to a plumber. How can you make harsh judgments out here? Life itself is a hard judgment. Behind her, a woman in a pick-up pulls a stock trailer. This is Sunday morning.

A dead coon in the middle of the road. Horse at a bale of green hay.

I crossed Dry Creek a ways back, I cross it again; this time there is water in the creek bed.

Wolcott Ranch four miles to the west. The road beneath me changes from a gritty surface to a smooth one. The South Fork of the Elkhorn River goes under the road in a culvert.

The purple flowers along the road - alfalfa plants in bloom.

The South Fork of the Elkhorn River goes under the road again, a culvert again. Then again for a third time. It is trying to find its way. We are trying to find our way.

Open sand along a fence line.

Sign: "Swan Lake -->." Around a curve, the blue explosion of it. Two farmsteads have a view of its loveliness. White buildings shine in the morning light.

A collection of blackbirds, too many for pie.

A power substation. A stand of trees, a real grove, with evergreens. Yet if they didn't have the cottonwood, what would they have? The cottonwood finds water, pins the land in place, talks all night.

A windbreak of evergreens runs for a mile along the right side of the road. They are back from the road. Are they here to act as snow fence? Where this line of trees ends, a fellow stands guard, in camouflage, with a gun. He is looking off to the southwest. The gun looks like a shot-gun. (Yeah, sure, Tom, you can tell that from three hundred and fifty yards away! Can you tell what make it is, too? And what gauge?)

Sign: "Entering Garfield County."

A grove of trees. A ranch house. Junk cars. A farm implement dealer. A "Bible Church." Mike Sitz Angus Ranch.

A white pick-up passes me at a stately pace. It is moving faster than I am, yet it doesn't seem to be in a hurry. This moment shall never pass this way again.

More open sand, on a hillside at the corner of a fence where cattle have tampled away the grass.

Is there anything I won't try to understand, won't try to explain?

These sandhills aren't middle western. They are over the line, no matter where the Hundredth Meridian falls.

Hardly enough left to that abandoned farm house for me to mention. Imagine building that house in this stand of trees in these hills and expecting to farm. Who settled these hills? How desperate were they? Did they know enough of ranching?

My gas gauge is sinking towards Empty. I need Burwell to come sliding into view fairly soon. It's a long walk to anywhere from here.

Sign: "Nebraska Highway 11," just in case we've forgotten where we are out here. There aren't many choices - what else would it be?

Suddenly: soybeans, a field of corn, alfalfa.

A desolate house and barns, a defeated trailer house set in amongst some trees: maybe it's lived in, maybe it's not.

Burwell Feeders. It's a big cattle operation at a curve in the road. The feedlot looks to be a mile deep.

Big Legion Hill - I suppose it's high enough that you can see hope from there.

Down in the valley, a thickness of trees. Jensen Feeds. Burwell comes into sight just as my gas gauge indicates I have one gallon left. I've come down out of the sand hills to greenness.

----------------

THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Here is a strange one," Ivan writes. "Last Monday I was talking to a guy and he said 'As near as I can tell' etc. Later on the same day I was talking to another guy and he said 'As far as I can tell.' And they both mean the same thing. So if it is near or far, it's just a guess."

"Claude Gripp sat down and made the flat out statement, 'I'm gonna vote for a Democrat.'" Ivan says. "When I heard that my heart stopped momentarily. Then it started racing and pounding until I could feel the pounding in my ears. I adjusted my hearing and said 'what did you say?' He repeated, 'I'm gonna vote for a Democrat.' He said 'I'm votin' for Janis Lee.' That makes two of us. We could use a few more."

"Mike Hughes says he thinks he is losing weight," Ivan says, "then he looks behind him and there it is."

"Dennis Ratliff offers this bit of advice," Ivan says. "Dennis says 'don't volunteer to help a doctor or a lawyer move - they got too many heavy books.' Dennis helped his daughter and her veterinarian husband move to Andale, Kansas."

"Oh," says Ivan, "about those pillars that flank the front door or the Smith County State Bank building - would you say they were Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian? I'm leaning toward Ionic myself."

"When it comes to work, let me tell you, Ken Poyser is a good un. Ken not only knows how to work but he can see things that need to be done. That is a pretty rare combination in this day and age. I don't know if I would draft him number one on my golf team, but he sure would be my first round choice on my work team."

"George Herdt, who moved up here from Trego County, says he is getting kind of confused," according to Ivan. "He says he hears the weather forecast and northwest Kansas is supposed to get rain - and we never do. Then he says he hears the weather forecast for northcentral Kansas and northcentral Kansas is supposed to get rain - and we never do. George is kinda wondering just where Smith County is located."

----------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURAL
JUNE 18, 1998


Only one peony bloom left along the garage - the rest are broken and brown. The peony season is over for us.

It is a cool, blue morning, but will be hot again as yesterday was. Perhaps some haze of humidity in the air.

Tomorrow morning we will be on our way to Missoula, Montana, across a landscape far different this one - no trees - into a landscape even more different - mountains. The beauty of home is that you get to go away. The beauty of going away is that you get to come home.

The winter rye looks like it is thinking about turning color - it is no longer green exactly.

Two power poles along Highway E have been split and broken. The cross bars are dangling. A power company truck is there, with a man investigating. What happened? Lightning? It doesn't look like a lightning strike but I can't imaging what else could tear the cross bars loose. Wind? A storm rolled through last night, but didn't seem that windy. There are puddles of rain still at the south edge of Ripon and in town there are branches down. Still garbage cans sit in place and haven't been blown around.


Monday, June 21, 2004

WELL, STOP ON OVER
TO SAY GOOD-BYE
AT THE BOOK OF LIFE


Blogs on my blog-roll have been "dropping like flies," as we say out here. Dammit. Now Denny at Book of Life is calling it quits. He says:

A man may want to do much, but he has only so much time, only so much mental and physical energy. So it is and so it shall be, world without end. Some things get done. Others don't. If my book means so much to me, why had I done other things? How did it happen that posting blogs each day commanded a higher priority?

... Beginning with the first day of summer, I'm simply going to rechannel all my blog-writing energy into book-writing energy.


It was a tough decision for him, but he made it. His posts will be missed. And I'll miss the gentle comments he left at my blog and at other sites I read.

His blog-site will be removed by the end of the month, so if you want to say good-bye, do it soon.

So long, buddy.

----------------

A REAL PIECE OF POLITICAL NEWS
FROM THE CENTER OF THE HEARTLAND


I met a fellow Friday morning at coffee with the As the Bladder Fills Club in Smith Center, Kansas, who suggested that W's base is not as solid as perhaps W would like. Smith Center is a solidly Republican community. The fellow I met said "So, you're a writer. You the fellow who has been feeding Bush all that misinformation?" When Ivan reminded us that he and his wife were the only Democrats in town, the fellow confided that "some of us are thinking about changing our affiliation...." So it's not just me who sick and tired of what this administration has done to the country; it appears there are some Republicans in Smith Center, Kansas, who are sick and tired of it too.

----------------

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
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 eighth part of my report of the trip, recounting part of the second and final day of the drive.

It is 8:00 a.m.

Today I shall continue south towards the geographic center of the lower 48 states in Smith County, Kansas. I shall pass through Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's home when she was a youth. I'll start out on Highway 11 which runs among the eastern sandhills.

A mural on a building along Highway 11 in Butte says: "Every Voice Counts." It says: "Save the Rural Schools." Sometimes the "great fly-over" that is the middle west also becomes the "great expendable." It is easy to dismiss that which you don't know the history of. On the other hand, it is more difficult to tell a fellow whose grandfather you knew that his son can't go to school where he did. I stand by my notion that the township is the ideal size for a governmental unit. Anyone trying to govern from farther away, from the state capitol or Washington, D.C., is too ignorant of local conditions to make good decisions. At the same time, admittedly, we at the local level are sometimes so wrapped up in each others' lives we cannot see the obvious. Yet I think it is always better for us to do for ourselves than to have Big Brother do for us. I AM NOT BEING REPUBLICAN, I AM BEING RADICAL. Would Thoreau say the same thing?

Okay - Tirade Mode: OFF.

I turn south where Highway 11 turns south, just west of Butte. There are fields on both sides of the road where corn has been taken - chopped for silage, I presume. A field of alfalfa. A hen pheasant along the road. Sun comes at me from the left. Cattle beller in a feed lot.

At a farmstead farther on, a great flock of blackbirds.

I love the way the land lays itself out: you can see tomorrow from here. When I top a rise, I see water standing at the bottom of the valley before me, blue as the sky above me. A sign on the bridge says: "Niobrara River." A sign at the other end of the bridge says: "Entering Holt County." I'm climbing away from the Niobrara and my ears pop.

I see working windmills pumping water for cattle. These windmills are common here. They are old-fashioned, the old technology. They work.

In a grove of scrubby trees, a house left unpainted for three generations; it holds its nails together with more desire than wood fiber. The wood is thicker than odor, but not much thicker; it is an after-image, the ghost of what we've lost; it is the physical manifestation of our sadness.

I cross another bridge, Bush Creek far below; I have to downshift to third gear to rise away from it. Near the top of the crest, a dozen wild turkeys in a field to my left.

A woman walks her Black Lab along the highway. Sunday morning happiness for the old dog.

A sudden congregation of meadowlarks in this Sunday morning sky - two hundred of them. I've not seen meadowlarks gather in such numbers before.

To my left, an irrigation rig. Then another in a field of corn that is waiting to be harvested. A third rig visible farther on.

A big old square farm house. A machine shed. A killdeer above the road, flashing on and off.

First it is cornfield across a couple miles, then irrigated soybeans. We're in farm country still. I am dawdling in it. A black pick-up passes me, disappears into the distance, around a curve.

A steel building has been smashed by high wind, apparently - blown against a grove of trees. It has nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be, so this is where it stays. Sometimes we stay for the same reason.

An electrical substation. Some irrigation rigs. A big stand of grain bins; they are scowling at the wind, each of them. This is the Scoular Grasslands Elevator Co., according to the sign. A mile down the road, more grain bins also scowling, no sign.

A sudden greenness in the ditches, a sudden rainbow at the irrigation rig.

This could be Iowa - there are enough grain bins. Though I suppose there are too few farmsteads.

Three Harvestore silos. Feedlots full of cattle. A yard full of farm equipment. Corn and soybeans and prosperity.

A pair of ducks above the road. The fellow in the oncoming pick-up waves a broad hand. A field of hay cut in swaths waits to be taken up for winter.

A rich farmer's big house. Big grain bins like a woman's breasts, like stacks of money. You'll find them just north of Atkinson, Nebraska.

Jewels on green velvet where lawns are being watered in Atkinson. The community holds on - two gas stations doing business, a third one CLOSED and FOR SALE.

I cross the Elkhorn River. Two deer cross the road ahead of me.

There are more trees here along Highway 11 than you'd think Nebraska would have. More trees stand off to the west, too, away from the road.

Where the road curves, three old evergreens. A piece of open ground that used to be a farmstead, I think. The trees are the only memory of it.

To be continued....

----------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
JUNE 17, 1998


A little rain last night, a bright and beautiful Wisconsin morning today. Yesterday was warm - mid 80s - and today should be too. Dew on the grass. The pond is calm, with algae floating. A new house going up down the hill from us, where the flood of 1989 had washed out a 30 foot hole in the soil. I'm not particularly pleased to have a house go in there, but what will be will be. If I complained about everything I dislike, I wouldn't have time for the things I like.

There's a very weedy field of corn just north of town. When I was growing up in Iowa, we judged a man's character by how clean he kept his fields. It's a moral thing. Gasoline did not cost so much then.

I have not seen the hawk in a good long while, though I have been watching for him.

Some of the fields of corn are so thick now that you cannot see the soil between the rows. The soy beans are coming along well. The peas are pretty much done blossoming and are making pods.

Corn is finally sprouting in the field that had the large pool of water standing in it much of the spring. Little spikes of corn plants, only, but they are up and green across the entire field.

In Ripon, at the corner of the house where the dog has been chained outside at times during the winter and spring, a circular carpet of grass much greener than the rest of the lawn.

On days like this I sometimes think I am a monster-beast restrained by Germanic convention. It would be a good day to go wild. I go to work instead.


Sunday, June 20, 2004

HOME FROM SMITH CENTER, KANSAS
BACK FROM A WONDERFUL VISIT


I arrived home last night, late. It's at least a twelve-hour drive from Smith Center, Kansas, to Fairwater, Wisconsin. I didn't drive straight through, however. I started at daybreak, and sat for half an hour or more at the geographic center of the lower forty-eight states a mile or so from Lebanon, Kansas. I stopped in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and had a lovely breakfast in a bar/restaurant on Main Street that doesn't usually serve breakfast. I went over to the Willa Cather center and saw a seventeen-minute video about her, and took the seven-building Cather tour of Red Cloud. Did I mention that I spent an excessive amount of money on books about Cather and her work? And then I headed for home.

Well, I stopped for lunch at a Chinese buffet in Hastings, Nebraska. I got out of there about 12:30 p.m. Oh, and I stopped to rest my eyes closed in a wayside along Interstate 80 west of Lincoln: closed my eyes about 1:30 p.m., opened them about 2:00 p.m., refreshed enough to make the rest of the drive. It was almost midnight when I pulled in the driveway here.

I had a lovely visit to Smith Center.

Every day from 8:00-9:00 a.m. I sat with the "As the Bladder Fills Club" while the fellas told stories and varnished the truth and ribbed each other. One of the fellas said they'd pay me to come back once a month and bring them the kind of rain they got while I was there. They've been in a prolonged drought. You'll see reports of their antics right here sometime in the next month.

I sat down and did formal interviews with a number of people in town, as I usually do. I rode for four hours on a combine at the Brent and Dan Jacobs farm operation, harvesting wheat. I toured Peterson Industries Excel plant on the north side of Smith Center, and LTM Manufacturing about four miles south of town. I spent a couple hours on Thursday evening riding patrol with Police Chief Randy Nelson: boredom on patrol is a sign of success.

Once we conclude the current set of postings on "Driving the Western Edge of the Middle," I'll start putting up excerpts from my journals of this Smith Center visit.

I'm still a true middle westerner, I find: it is good to go on Vagabond visit; it is even better to come home.


----------------

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
DRIVING THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE MIDDLE
    WEST
SEPTEMBER 13, 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 seventh part of my report of the trip. Here we conclude Day One of the drive, and start the report for Day Two.

"Smile - Your Mom Chose Life" the sign says in the abandoned farmyard. Behind the sign, two houses are falling down, the barn is falling in, some few sheds decompose. A hulk of car rusts in a ravine. Gnarled trees leaning steeply towards the ground. "Smile - Your Mom Chose Life" the sign says.

Comoseyamallahma? Two llahmas at a little farmstead nestled in a coulee.

Gregory, South Dakota - pop. 1342.

I am on US 18, which runs east through Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin. I grew up only miles south of Emmetsburg. I live only an hour northeast of Madison. I feel so far from anywhere - the lonesomeness of the long-distance traveler.

A house at the east edge of Gregory suggests that someone in this country definitely has money. Just so we remember what has been lost, not far down the road there is another farmstead fallen to disuse.

Burke - pop. 676. The community has a courthouse, a senior center with Tae Kwan Doh right next door, a civic center. Klufa's Grocery. True Value Hardware. First Fidelity Bank. The shop called "Scruples" is closed; that's okay, I don't need any more than I have already, thanks.

I'm tired. I should stop and eat and sleep but I'd like to put on at least a few miles more.

Mom is picking up Son in the parking lot behind one of the businesses on Main Street in Burke. Son has bright tri-colored hair - yellow and red and green hair, a rainbow surprise here at the far edge of the middle.

At the end of a lane east of Burke, there is an old single-lay horse-drawn plow set atop a fence-post on the point of the plow share. From the first angle I see it, it looks like a spider; my eyes play tricks: spider, plow; spider plow.

Though I am still in South Dakota, there are more Nebraska license plates on cars coming at me than South Dakota plates.

Herrick is off to one side of US 18; a grain elevator with most of its tin sheets peeling off is on the other side of the highway. I don't even slow down for a look; I already know this sadness.

A tidy farmstead that could be set down in Iowa - all steel bins and well-kept cattle operation and fresh-painted house. If this isn't a picture of our little middle western farmstead, what is?

St. Charles - not much left at all, two or three houses, a brushy windbreak around empty ground that may once have been vibrant community. A lot of history grown over already.

A McCormick-Deering threshing machine along a fence-line. Again it calls out: we were here.

Bonesteel - pop. 297. Divine Concrete Products.

It's 6:00 p.m. I'm approaching the Nebraska state line. We've got a lot of blue sky showing again.

Between Bonesteel and Fairfax, another cozy farmstead. Far off, however, you can still see where the west begins.

Eight miles north of Butte, Nebraska, the landscape is not unlike Wisconsin's.

Sign: "Nebraska: The Good Life. Home of Arbor Day."

Sign: "Now Entering Boyd County."

I cross Ponca Creek. Ponca Creek is dry. A stream bed forty or fifty feet wide is mostly dried mud, with only a pool or two of standing water.

I think I have said about all I can say today.

***

SEPTEMBER 14, 2003
I stayed at the Boyd Motel in Butte, Nebraska, last night; it had $27 rooms, just the kind that my wife likes to find. I talked on the phone with Mary last night. I'd called and left the motel's number on the answering machine. When Mary called me back she was told, first, that no one named Tom Montag worked at the motel; and, second, that the phone at the main desk didn't work, they couldn't transfer her call to my room. If she'd call back, they would answer on the cordless phone and bring that down to my room if I still had a light on. Which is what Mary did, which is what they did, so I got to talk to my wife from this remote outpost. Did I mention the room was only $27?

Butte, I think, is the county seat of Boyd County. It has a population of 452. It doesn't have any place to eat after dark except one of the bars. The world keeps moving and Butte appears to stand still; and if you stand still, well, you fall behind. If there are rich folks in Butte, they were hiding from me. These people probably work pretty hard for their money.

In actuality, Butte probably isn't any less well set to confront the future than Fairwater, it just seems more remote.

To be continued....

----------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
JUNE 15, 1998


So we have returned from our trip to Quebec. You cannot see home the same once you've left it, then come back. What you've seen changes what you can see.

We are more alike than we are different. If pushed to do so, I could name only a few differences in the people from here compared to those of northern Indiana and Ohio; Pennsylvania and New York; Niagara Falls, Ontario and Quebec, Quebec. Those of Quebec speak French, or French and English; their clock runs slower - by that I mean that even in heavy traffic they are never in a hurry, they are always courteous, they make way for a car to break into line rather than jealously protecting their place. They are generally a smaller people than we are - the French genetic influence, perhaps. But contrary to what we had heard, they were very pleasant and humorous and helpful.

I must say it is disconcerting to order food from a girl at a fruit and vegetable stand in the country who looks all the world to be entirely Irish and find she speaks French only and not a word of English - there should be a brogue with that red hair and those freckles, those teasing blue eyes. There goes a stereotype, eh?

The pace of Quebec definitely was slower than the pace here, and we definitely think of ourselves as more bucolic than, say, New York City.

In Quebec and Ontario - Ottawa to Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie - we saw rock, exposed Canadian shield - great city-sized chunks of it. The land was green even on much of the rock and gravel. Here and there we saw farms - especially on the Isle of Orleans in the St. Lawrence - but nothing with soil as rich as ours, nothing so relentlessly green as Wisconsin is right now.

Woke to the familiar sound of my own bird songs this morning - the reassuring sound of Fairwater at daybreak.

Our peonies are mostly spent.

It is 6:50 a.m. as I leave for work - long shadows in the village.

It is very definitely summer now - corn a foot tall or more, blossoms on the peas, the field of winter rye fully headed out, the ditches full with grass.

There are all sorts of peonies and violets abloom at Five Corners. It is good to be home.

*

JUNE 16, 1998
A clear, cool morning. Dew on the grass. The conversation of birds. Peaceful village. I hate to leave for work when the world is this placid and lovely.

Out in the country, there is a bit of haze in the distance - the humidity is high.

The fields south of Five Corners that had been untilled are still untilled. Some things are certain.


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