With the setting sun in our rearview mirror, we thought that we would take the roads less travelled as we headed east from Colorado to a Renaissance-themed wedding in Ashville, North Carolina. Route 64 worked for us. Route 64 is two-lane; occasionally, the highway is four-lane. Regardless, traffic is not an issue. Most of the 80 MPH, bumper-to-bumper, truck traffic is on the Interstates.
The good news is that there is no traffic on the back roads. The bad news is that there is no traffic because everyone has left the small towns. Vacant buildings tell the story. Lovely heritage buildings (built when no one questioned the “business case” of extraneous decoration) may be open on the first floor, but the glass in the windows of the second story has been replaced with plywood. Tall, gleaming, water towers are the only signs of progress. Only the mice are tap-dancing.
Just prior to our road trip, I re-read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Published in 1991, the book (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) has held up well. I know that I’m guilty of going from favorite book to favorite book, but really… this book set on a thousand-acre farm in Zebulon County Iowa, is my all-time favorite… this month. I need to re-read King Lear, a companion book of sorts. Jane Smiley and I are one in terms of landscape. Looking east I envision the land as an ocean. I can imagine an early sailor’s fear of falling off the edge.
Between Rocky Ford and the Flint Hills of Kansas, the terrain is flat and beauty salon groomed. Farm implements as large as a house rake the soil into beautiful Zen-like patterns – straight along the grain – curved at the corners. I seek some sign of life at the edge of the world. I think I can see the curve of the Earth. A white cathedral looms on the horizon. But no. Grain silos are the cathedrals of the Plains. (The notion of grain silos as metaphors for cathedrals deserves further thought.)
October is the perfect time to travel. On Route 64, the harvest has come and gone. To the right, a freshly plowed field of dark loam. To the left, winter wheat already sprouting. The transition of the seasons is in my face.
Iowa is seriously into wind farms. Quoting a rest stop sign: Based on studies of wind pattern, the Great Plains States from Texas to the Dakotas have the potential to supply up to 16 times the normal electricity consumption in the United States. Towering, 400-foot turbines are everywhere. It is difficult to sense the scale. As a reality check, Siemens (who makes the blades out of epoxy, fiberglass, balsa wood and paint) has gifted a 148-foot blade to one of Iowa’s rest stops. One blade weighs 23,098 pounds.
You have to be open to quirky to love Kansas.
Two of my favorite places in Kansas were visiting the geographic center of the United States in Lebanon, and the point of highest elevation at Mount Sunflower.
The highlight of the geographic center of the U.S. was the small chapel. One-person-wide pews ran along the sides of the chapel, and to the front a pulpit. On the pulpit a Bible was open to Proverbs, Chapter Six. My goodness! I had to ask myself, was this particular chapter chosen by the people of Lebanon or was it selected by a recent visitor?
Consider these verses starting with Proverbs 6:21: With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its entrails; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths; for many a victim has she laid low.
You should read Proverbs, Chapter six for yourself. Apparently, whoever turned the Bible’s pages to this particular chapter has not moved on. Women are harlots – there are no two ways about it.
Reading these verses called to mind several representations of The New Eve that I saw last October when I was walking The Camino de Santiago Compostela. I saw my first New Eve sculpture in Los Arcos. She was saintly and modest – modeled after a traditional representation of Mary. On her head she wore a crown. The serpent with an apple in its mouth lay crushed beneath her right foot. I saw a second sculpture in the Leon Cathedral. The message was similar… the difference was that instead of crushing a snake, Leon’s New Eve crushes a dragon.
For me, after our drive up the East Coast, the big sky lonesomeness of Iowa and Kansas was particularly appealing. Although I grew up in rural New York, and it is impossible to complain about the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Chesapeake Bay, the Jersey Shore, and Long Island (all of which we visited) I found the density of the vegetation, towns, people, and traffic too urban for my Western soul.
Seeing the turning leaves, the lush landscape and water water everywhere was indeed memorable, but East of the Mississippi, I felt my shoulders draw in. I felt myself concaving in a protective posture.
After reading this blog, you may wonder if I saw anything real… anything noteworthy. Yes, I did, but trolling through hundreds of photos and pages of notes, I was flummoxed. Just how could I do justice to a three-week road trip, the sights and sounds, the friends and family? I could not. This is the best I can do. I can reflect on who I am. I am a Westerner who delights in the East but for me, it is the wide open spaces that hold me close.
One of the many REAL places we visited was Willa Cather‘s home in Red Wing, Nebraska. I’ll close with a Willa Cather quote that is close to my heart. From My Antonia:
I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world which could not be very far away. The light and air about me told me that the world ended here; only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows in the grass.