From Manhattan, I head north. Just outside the small town of Wheaton, Idrive across pastures, following tractor ruts to an open field filled withpink, purple, yellow, and white wildflowers. There is a steady breeze,cooling me down and causing the flowers to ripple like a sea of paint. Itwirl like Julie Andrews, imaging the world a perfect place and myself thesole occupant.
Then three large bombers fly over the horizon, in a row and low to theground. The last one breaks formation, drops to within a few hundred feetof the ground, and aims directly at me. Me and my white van apparently makea nice practice target in the green fields of Kansas.
I continue through Wheaton, where the only people in view are two young boys(riding their bikes) and two old men (cutting their lawns.) The former willbecome the latter all too soon. (If you’re Hindu, the latter will go on tobecome the former.)
North to Lillis, a ‘town’ consisting of perhaps five houses and twogovernment buildings. On to Frankfort, then Marysville (“Black SquirrelCity!”), Herkimer, Bremen, and Hanover. This area had obviously beensettled by Germans.
Every 10-15 miles I pass an abandoned farm, and I almost always stop. Thereis always a gray wooden house in some sort of decay. Big old trees areplanted close around the houses as shade and windbreaks. Sometimes thereis indoor plumbing, and sometimes there is a pump outside the back door andan outhouse a little further out. Some of the houses have bare floors, somehave linoleum, and about half have orange shag wall-to-wall. One notablehouse has a foot of cow manure throughout the interior. Several cowsoccupied the guest bedroom There is almost always old wallpaper peeling>from the walls. I find magazines dating back to the 1970’s, a children’sstory book from 1928, and a full set of Popular Mechanics 1960-1966. Onehouse has a huge stack of Carter-Mondale campaign literature.
The front and back porches were the first things to go, probably becausethey were the most exposed to the elements. The porch roof is often hangingdown at an angle, and the floor is dangerously rotted. There is almostalways a root cellar, and sometimes a storm cellar, a fortified stone bunkerbelow ground and apart from the house. These people knew to fear theweather.
Twice I’ve fallen through the floor into the cellar. This is alwaysdisconcerting.
Occasionally, I find a schoolhouse. Some are well-preserved, withblackboards, chairs, and coat hooks. Others have been re-tasked. One isfilled with tires, five feet deep. Truck tires, tractor tires, and even afew bicycle tires. Another contains an old iron hospital bed.
At an intersection, I wait while 97 coal cars roll by. I’ve been avoidinginterstates since entering Kansas, and I hope to go as far as Michiganwithout getting onto a highway. On the local roads I can cruise at acomfortable pace, stop when I see something interesting, and detour at will.Getting onto the interstate is like being loaded into the barrel of arifle… you’re shot forward in your direction, focused and with no time forthe distracting countryside.
I eat at a café without a name but with a sign advertising the unfortunatecombination “FOOD & GAS”. The waitress sighs and rolls her eyes when Imention that my hamburger, ordered medium rare, is very well done. But shegets me another one, and it’s better. The only other folks in the café arethree men having hypothetical conversations such as “How much would a baleof hay be worth if someone cut it and baled it and hauled it away?” & “Whatdo you think made ol’ Ned’s pickup truck blow up?”
I cross the state line into Nebraska. In the small town of Blue Springs, Ifind an abandoned hydro-electric generating station. I guess that it wasdecommissioned after the town was added to the grid. From the windows ofthe turbine house, I can see a handful of kids across the river swimming andsplashing and laughing under the overhanging trees. I wanted to join them,become young again, laugh easily. At around 5pm, they all pull on shirtsand shoes and head home for dinner, while I continue shooting.
Holmesville, Rockford, Filley, Adams, Bennet, then Lincoln. I spend thenight in Lincoln, the state capital. The city is anchored by the Nebraskalegislature, with its giant domed phallus rising high above the city. Longstreet-lined ‘malls’ lead towards this tower from the four compass points.
Lincoln looks like a larger version of all of the other towns I’ve passedthrough. Trees shade wooden houses and green lawns. Grain elevators sitalongside the railroad tracks. Folks wash their cars in their driveways.Kids bike down the sidewalk. But unlike everywhere else I’ve been in Kansasand Nebraska, some of the folks washing their cars are Hispanic. Some ofthe kids riding their bikes are black.
Today I’ve turned west again, through Raymond, Agnew, Touhy, Brainard,Rising City, and Surprise. I’m camped in Waco at the Double Nickel RV park.The pool is full of local kids who come here after their chores to cool downand socialize. As I type this they’re diving and swimming and splashing,and their laughter rolls across the lawn like water.