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MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

road into hills BW
In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. The previous blog entries covered Texas and the Central Plains. This final installment brings the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

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Mile 1294, Wounded Knee, S.D.

Most of the action by the U.S. against the Indians in the past century was reprehensible at best. The list of atrocities is nothing to be proud of, from Sand Creek to Washita River. But one of these massacres bothers me more than the others.

It is the photographs that make the difference.

On Dec. 29, 1890, a Lakota elder named Big Foot and more than 200 of his band were gunned down by soldiers at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The Indians had obeyed Federal orders to come to the reservation and had obeyed orders to give up their rifles. Big Foot was deathly sick and coughing up blood.

But the soldiers didn’t believe the Sioux had given up all their guns. One remained, and as it was being turned in, a gun somewhere went off and the army went crazy, gunning down not only the Indians, but up to 30 of their own men. The Indians, wearing “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them, fought back as well as they could with knives, hatchets and a few pistols. But most of those killed were women and children.

Of the battle, one is reminded of My Lai in Vietnam. Writer Herbert Welsh, who saw the battle site soon after, wrote, “From the fact that so many women and children were killed, and that their bodies were found far from the scene of action, and as though they were shot down while flying, it would look as though blind rage had been at work.”

It isn’t the stupidity or the injustice that gets to me — there are many examples, not only in the so-called “Indian Wars,” but pretty much in all of history. Humans have not been good to other humans anywhere on the globe.

No, what gets to me are the photographs.

big foot corpse

Taken three days after the massacre, they show the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot, with his hands knotted up arthritically and his body bent up out of the snow in frozen rigor. He is isolated against the blank, white background of the snow, and all the more symbolic for that isolation. A few soldiers stand off in the background talking and a horse puts his nose to the ground for some grass sticking through the snow.

Another shows a line of soldiers standing behind a mass grave. James Mooney, who wrote the first definitive account of the Ghost Dance phenomenon and the Sioux uprising of 1890, wrote:

“A long trench was dug and into it were thrown all the bodies, piled one upon the other like so much cordwood, until the pit was full, when the earth was heaped over them and the funeral was complete. Many of the bodies were stripped by the whites, who went out in order to get the ‘ghost shirts,’ and the frozen bodies were thrown into the trench stiff and naked.

“They were only dead Indians,” he added, with an accusatory dose of irony.

There is another set of photographs that come to mind — the emaciated, contorted bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Dachau and Buchenwald.

For many, the Indian Wars are just cowboys and Indians stuff from a long ago history. But for me, they sing of a continuity of outrage. The “Final Solution” of one century mirrors that of its predecessor.

So, I have wanted to visit the site at Wounded Knee and when I got there, was surprised to find it barely marked at all. Perhaps both sides feel shame over it. The whites for the evil they don’t like to recognize in themselves, the Indians for the humiliation.Pine Ridge Reservation square

The Pine Ridge Reservation in southern South Dakota is more beautiful than it has been described, with grassy hills and cedar trees dotting the plains. While it is true that poverty is endemic, it is not the fault of the landscape, which is better than some of the grasslands I passed through in Nebraska on my way north.

But the actual massacre site is little more than a spot in the road. There is a hand-lettered wooden sign that describes the event, but there are no official markers, no commemoration, no visitors center, no rangers ripe with interpretation.

wounded knee gulley

The dusty ground at Wounded Knee is a gully with the bridge on one side of the road, and a hill with the Indian graves on the other. During the battle, troops had placed cannons on the hill and lobbed exploding shells down the slope at the Indians.

There are also a few ramadas. In the summer, there are booths selling Indian crafts. In October, most were empty, although there were two young Lakota girls with a clothesline strung with dreamcatchers.

I stopped and asked them if this was the massacre site and they said yes.

“Where did it happen here?” I asked.

“All around.”

The older was about 12, the younger, 8. We talked about being Indian, about the effect of history and about the price of dreamcatchers.

“We need to sell them. Our sister is in the hospital and needs our help,” said the elder, in an ages old play for sympathy. I wondered who had taught her to scam me. If I had any doubts over whether it was a scam or not, they dissipated  when I said: “I’m sorry to hear that. What does she have?”

The girl looked caught out and gave me a distressed look, as if she hadn’t anticipated the conversation getting this far.

“Why is she in the hospital?,” I repeated.

A wait of two beats: “She’s sick.” It was almost a question.

I felt more sorry for her being caught in a lie than I did for her probably imaginary sister, so I bought one.

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Mile 1379, Badlands National Park, S.D.

Near Kadoka, S.D., the rolling grass of the plains is cut through by erosion, sculpted into spiky, spooky mazes of canyons and hills. They were called by the early French trappers, “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bads lands to cross.” And they certainly would be, if it were not for the smooth roads of the National Park Service.Kadoka sign

The Badlands National Park is a long, gangly loop of lands lodged in the corners of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In places, the park is less than a mile wide, although if you walked from one extreme to the other along its length, you would hike a semicircle of something like 60 miles.

Most of it is flatland. As you drive along S.D. 44 from Scenic to Interior, the badlands themselves are a whitish line of crenelated hills on the northern horizon.

Only when you get close to them, near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at its eastern end, can you really appreciate the blasted, washed out, weathered exhaustion of them.

blizzard headlights

Mile 1707, Bismarck, N.D.

A freak October blizzard blew across the Dakotas. One day, I was in Pierre, S.D., and it was 80 degrees; by the time I pulled into Bismarck, N.D., the next day, a front had barreled through and the thermometer had dropped into the 30s. With winds at a steady 50 mph, the wind-chill was more than a TV weatherman’s conceit: It could mean frostbite.

During the overnight, a line of powerful thunderstorms had run from Texas to Manitoba along a cold front that moved east with the speed of a freight train. Tornado warnings were issued for the whole length of the front.

One day the Prairie population was talking about their tomatoes lasting so late into the season, the next day, they are scraping windshields with parkas pulled tight around their cheeks.bismarck night snow downtown

Just before the blizzard moved in, I wandered through the streets of Bismarck, looking up at the sky that was turning ever more slatey and frigid.

To get in out of the cold, I wandered into several downtown stores, including one antiques shop. The woman behind the counter also does home interiors: One side of the shop is given over to fabrics, the rest to consignment antiques.

The proprietor was a bubbly woman of about 50, who praised the plainness of the  Prairie people.

“Even the politicians are ordinary people,” she said. “The governor is a regular customer and his wife says she’d come here more often except that she has to clean the house.”

But there are cosmopolitan Bismarckians and those who are less so.

“I ask my customers if they’ve ever been out of North Dakota,” she said. “If they have, I know they’ll go for the weird things, some of the more tasteful and unusual treatments.” She fingers one of the fabrics that is tightly gathered with pleats.

“If they’ve never been outside North Dakota, well, I bring out the J.C. Penney catalog. They’re really conservative.”

I told her that I take it to be an inborn modesty they seem to have in the Plains Midwest, a desire not to appear more fashionable than they are.

“But it’s not quite modesty, either,” she says, “almost a kind of lowered expectation.”

Like Pierre, S.D., whose tourism brochure proudly claims it is the “tenth best small town in America.”

Or the High Plains Museum in McCook, Neb., whose billboard promises only that it is “interesting and free.”snow tractor bismark

As I begin driving again, the skies have begun flaking and the crystals blow around the pavement like sand blown across the beach in a storm.

What are predicted are snow showers and snow squalls, but by the time I’m 100 miles out of Bismarck, it is a full-scale blizzard.

Luckily, the roads are still warm enough that nothing is sticking to them, although the farm fields are speckled with white, catching in the furrows making a scumble of white and black.

It is a tailwind, so as I drive, I hardly notice it, except to see the grasses bent sideways and vibrating on the shoulders. And the snow dances on the pavement in front of me like some sort of fairy mist, swirling and shifting. I can see the flakes bobbing around in front of the windshield.

But when I stop at a rest area and step out of the car, I can see that the snow is rushing past me horizontally. I can barely put my foot down where I intend as I walk through the gale.

Visibility is reduced at one point to less than a tenth of a mile; the world is whited out and the windbreak trees at the other side of the cornfield are faint ghosts.

Contending with weather like this, I decide, must make you modest. You are not likely to believe the hype of the American media siren when you know a pair of jumper cables can save your life.

By the next morning, the wind has died down, although the snow flurries continued. When I set out again, the landscape is white and astonishing.

snowdrift on highway

Mile 1869, Canadian border, N.D.

It seems as if there is nobody left on earth. The hills are empty of buildings and if it were not for the tractor paths through the fields, you might actually believe that the acres and acres of sunflowers grew there naturally.

In the summertime, the expanse of yellow is astonishing. I have driven through North Dakota when the sunflower crop is as brilliant as trumpet music.

In October, though, the color is gone and all the heavy seedheads, browned and dried, bend over like so many showerheads — and all facing east.

Sunflowers in two seasons

These giant flowers should not be confused with the roadside sunflowers that cover the Great Plains. Those, with their ten or a dozen three-inch flowers per stalk, swaying in the breeze, are delicate and lacy compared with the commercial variety that grows in the fields.

Each of those grows a single giant flower on a woody shoulder-high stalk with a central disk crammed with the sunflower seeds we nibble on at ball games. But it isn’t as snacks these fields are filled, but for their oil, used in food processing.

You can see them in the summer, armies of them, over the rolling hills, cut through only by the two-lane blacktop and, every few miles, a farmhouse surrounded with its outbuildings, fences and a couple of pickup trucks parked in the gravel driveway.

I first came through North Dakota on a train, some 20 years ago, and I was fascinated by the lonesomeness of the land. Neighbors are miles apart; the only way you know you are on an inhabited planet in the winter is to see the smoke from a distant chimney coming over the snowy rise.

It is this country that Gertrude Stein meant when she said that, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

And it seems to me, as I finish my odyssey up the 100th Meridian, that it is this Heartland that seems the most American to me. It is this country of Thomas Hart Benton paintings and Hamlin Garland books that seems to hold the nugget of Americanism.

New England may have been the intellectual center of the growing nation and the twin coasts may have driven the commercial development. But it is this central axis, furry with grass, that has been and remains the heart of our country.

It is the Plains that spread out in front of the wagonloads of pioneers and gave them the epic sense of continental expansion.

It is the Plains that separated the Atlantic and Pacific, as guts fill the space inside our skin.

It is the Plains that gave the country its defining metaphors, whether cowboy, Indian, sodbuster, religious migrant, long stretching miles of highway or landscape that must be tamed. We learned self-reliance and cooperation, we learned how to adapt when we must and how to maintain tradition when we could.hundredth meridian sign ND

It is the Plains and the Indian Wars that provided us — second only to slavery in the South — with the guilt that gives emotional complexity to our national naiveté and, when we don’t deny the sin, our depth as a people.

In the cities of East and West, we can pretend that society is paramount and that human beings have charge of the world. It is in cities that theories are propounded.

But in the Plains and prairies, we are forced nakedly into the realization that we live on a planet, with the racing sky above and the blackbirds dotting the snow beneath.

It gives us perspective.

road ribbon

In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. Previously, I covered the part of the trip in Texas. This second part covers the Central Plains. Next will come the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

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Mile 631, Cheyenne, Okla.

One cannot forget the Native American presence in the Great Plains. The sense of the Plains, with the Cheyenne and Lakota riding horses across it, looking for buffalo, still is felt in every little corner not yet given over to corn and sorghum.

And one sad reminder of the history of Indians is the Washita River, near Cheyenne, where George Custer and his troops slaughtered a band of friendly Cheyenne Indians who were camped in the snow along the banks of the creek in late November, 1868.

The band, under the leadership of Black Kettle, attempted to remind the army over and over that it intended to remain peaceful.

“We want peace,” he said. “I would move all my people down this way. I could then keep them all quietly near camp.”Washita woodcut

But Custer and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, decided to “make battle.”

In the cold of Nov. 27, Custer divided his troops up into four parties, just as  he would do eight years later at the Little Bighorn. But there was no Native army lying in wait at Washita. Just a village filled with families.

When Black Kettle realized what was going on, he fired his rifle in the air to alert the rest of his band that they should flee for their lives. Black Kettle had seen this sort of thing before: He had lived through the massacre at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864 and knew what was coming.

But it was too late, the army had already descended on the encampment. Black Kettle was one of the first to be killed, with a bullet ripping through his belly. His wife was killed at the same time.

After the action, Custer reported that he had won a great battle and had killed 130 warriors. A later counts run from as few as 11 warriors and 19 women and children to around 100, mostly women and children.washita battlefield

The site of the battle is in a coulee a mile west of town. Most of the countryside around it is farmland and grazing land, but down in the wedge, along the stream is a dark line of trees where the Cheyenne camped. It is a lonely place among the lonesomeness of the Plains.

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Mile 705, Woodward, Okla.

County historical museums exist in almost every small town in the Plains. And there is a peculiar sameness to them.

They all seem to have the identical items on view, but gathered from their different locations. After wandering through a few of them, you come to know what an old-time dentist chair looks like, or the old telephone switchboard, or the pigeonholes from the old post office.

There are white-enamel ladles, wagon wheels, butter churns and moldboard plows. There are “Old Flo” blue china sets, cornucopia-topped Victrolas and immense oaken bankers’ desks.

But it is the sameness that is important. For, north of Texas, the Great Plains is surprisingly homogenous culturally.

Whether it is Oklahoma or North Dakota, the same rugged immigrants plowed the land. German here and Irish there, but otherwise, the same.woodward museum

Like the land itself, the variation is slight.

One of the best tended and displayed of these museums is the Plains Indian and Pioneers Museum in Woodward, Okla. It tells the familiar history: a land occupied by Native Americans; incursions by whites; a growing cattle industry on the open range and cows replace buffalo; the raising of fences and the building of farms.

In this portion of Oklahoma, the white invasion began in earnest in on Sept. 16, 1893, when northwest Oklahoma was opened to permanent white settlement in the third great land run in the state. Some 100,000 homeseekers carved the prairie into 160-acre homesteads in a single day. Almost overnight, towns popped up — first as tent cities — as land offices registered homestead claims.

Woodward itself sprouted 500 buildings in its first three months of existence. The railroad came through.kansas sod house

Outside the towns, however, buildings were hard to come by. Many settlers made their homes in dug out hills. Others built up “soddies,” or sod homes made of dirt bricks spaded from the turf. In those dusty, buggy, leaky homes, they set up their lives, cooking, sleeping and freezing their way through winters with nothing to burn in their stoves but buffalo chips or cowpies, and sharing that warmth with mice.

Yet, they made the best of it, usually whitewashing the mud walls, tamping down the dirt floors, bringing in their sideboards and pianos.

If they succeeded in busting through the soil knotted with grass roots, planting and harvesting their potatoes, wheat or corn, they may eventually have built a lumber house.

But much of the farm life of the Plains was disrupted in the 1930s by drought and the blowing dust. They had to adapt, and those who didn’t move away, did.

The “dusters” sometimes blackened the daytime sky for a week at a time, stuffing sand under the doorjambs and blowing the precious topsoil to Virginia and New York.

Now, the crops are mostly forage corn and milo, mixed with wheat. Cattle still take up a lot of the land, but there is a change in the wind — literally and none too pleasantly.

“There is a pig boom going on in Oklahoma,” explains Louise B. James, director of the museum. Huge hog farms are being built across the Plains, to make pork intended to pick up the slack in beef sales.hog snout

“They make pork chops and Spam, yes,” says James, “but I’m boycotting them. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good, though.”

Runoff from the farms is seriously polluting streams and groundwater.

“It’s real touchy stuff. A lot of people really hate the pigs. This is cattle country, but many people look to the hogs as salvation.”

Meanwhile a law is slowly working through the state legislature that would control the size of the hog farms.

dodge city

Mile 747, Dodge City, Kan.

I took up life as a pedestrian in Dodge City.

This wasn’t a state I would have chosen for myself; it was brought to me when my rental car coughed, wheezed and then decided to take a nap in the turn lane of Wyatt Earp Boulevard, which is both Main Street and Motel Row in this Kansas cattle town.

The problem, I was told, was not really bad and could be quickly fixed, if they could find the part they needed. Unfortunately, the nearest part turned out to exist in Oklahoma City.

“We can have it here tomorrow,” they said.

Which was going to leave me on foot. First they drove me back to my motel so I  could arrange for the room. The man who drove me was 83.

“I came to Dodge City in 1921 in a covered wagon,” he tells me.

“We came from Colorado. My father worked for the government.”

I asked him what had changed over the years.

“It’s all changed,” he answered. “There used to be a livery stable on this corner and over there,” he motioned to a vacant lot, “that used to be City Hall.”

The railroad tracks run through town, paralleling Wyatt Earp Boulevard.boot hill

“That used to be Front Street,” he says. Now Front Street is a tourist trap behind a chain link fence where you pay $5 to see “Boot Hill” and a streetfront of Hollywood-set buildings where you can get a sarsaparilla at the “Long Branch” saloon or pay to have the printer work up a wanted poster with your name on it.

“Is that the way Dodge City used to be,” I ask.

“Hell, no,” he says. “That’s just for tourists.”

He has lived in Dodge for most of his life.

“Do you like it here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know nothing else, I guess.”

For the rest of the day, I walk. It wasn’t a first choice, but Dodge  City is light on public transportation. There are no buses and when I call the taxi company, I get a recorded message that asks me to leave my name and number and they’ll “get back to me.”

So, I head off in the direction of downtown, following the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line (or more accurately, in this age of railroad megamergers, the BNSF rail line). On the other side of the tracks are green fields and old houses.

Grasshoppers jump under my feet like popcorn.dodge city grain elevator

The gigantic grain elevator roars with cooling fans and a train pulls by me, squealing and humming.

After so many days of driving, it is a revelation to be on my legs once more. When the wind shifts, I can smell the feedlots on the edge of town.

Wyatt Earp is lined with Taco Bells and Burger Kings. It looks like every generic “Miracle Mile” in the West.

The Dodge City most people think of from Gunsmoke reruns is a flat town surrounded by the Hollywood version of the West, full of woods, deserts and mountains.

There are no mountains anywhere near Dodge City, but surprisingly, the downtown is built on one of the few hills in the area. Walking through it means climbing steep streets paved with bricks.

The Chamber of Commerce plays up the “Old West” angle and everywhere you see come-ons that tout the “gunslingers” and saloon girls.

The prize, though, must go the the Gunfighter’s Wax Museum, which is even cheesier than it sounds. Taking up the second floor of the Kansas Schoolteachers Hall of Fame, it’s dark corridors are filled with cartoonish murals lit with blacklight. There’s Jesse James and Davy Crockett, although I never heard of Crockett called a gunfighter before.

But then, John F. Kennedy wasn’t a gunfighter, either and he’s here, along with LBJ and Dracula.dodge city bull statue

A gigantic bronze longhorn steer acts as official greeter for the town: It is the first thing you see when you reach downtown.

It commemorates the hundreds of thousands of “beeves” that were herded to Dodge City in its prime, to be shipped on the railroad back to markets in the East.

As I walked back to my motel after dinner, I saw a cloud of about 2,000 or more blackbirds trail across the sky like a river, slowly filling the sky channel from one horizon to the other, then the first birdstream was joined by a second, running right beside it, with its own several thousand birds.

It was a monumental Western sight, a Milky Way of black stars spread out over the twilight. When the first herds rode through, a third followed and after they left, a fourth: a sky with something like 10,000 blackbirds, twisting and skittering like sparks from a fire.

oakley kansas sign

Mile 880, Oakley, Kan.

Vi Fick couldn’t stop collecting shark’s teeth. She collected so many in the fossil beds near Monument Rocks in western Kansas that she didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

So she wound up giving them to the tiny community of Oakley, Kan., providing, she said, that they erect a building for the collection, which included not only the 11,000 teeth, but dinosaur bones, mammoth teeth and the hysterical paintings she created with them. The museum opened in 1972.fick museum exterior

For Vi Fick had something of the crazy folk artist about her. She painted oil paintings in the learn-to-paint-from-the-TV-painter school, but she added a touch of her own with bits of seashells, bones and shark’s teeth.

The Fick Fossil and History Museum is one of the must-see stops in northwest Kansas. Not only will you find her bones and her pictures, but a decent local history museum, with its usual collection of old Victrolas, antique dentistry tools and antediluvian flour canisters.

The fossil collection is genuinely impressive and scientifically identified. Some of the fossils are from Fick, others from the collection of paleontologist George F. Sternberg, including a 15-foot Portheus molossus, a kind of huge prehistoric fish.

But you have seen fossils before, I’m sure. What you probably haven’t seen is a painting of the American flag with sharks’ teeth for all the stars and the stripes covered in more teeth, pointed one way for the red and the reverse way for the white.

Nor have you likely seen an entire wall lined with 2-foot tall oval picture frames — 30 of them — each filled with neat, symmetrical arrangements of sharks’ teeth.vi fick art

There are also the great seals of the U.S. and Kansas, outlined in the teeth.

There is a photograph of Vi Fick in the museum. You can tell from her modest dress, set with a cameo pin at the collar, and from her well-scrubbed face that she was a hard-working, pioneer-stock God-fearing woman.

But you can likewise tell from the pile of tight white-haired curls, gathered in a football-shaped pompadour over her head and rivaling it for size, that she wasn’t completely in control of herself.

If you have any doubts, just look at her eyes, wider than any normal person feels comfortable holding them and staring out at you with the intensity of thumbtacks.

It may be true that the obsessive dedication Vi Fick felt toward her sharks’ teeth and her wacky paintings is the very dedication needed to make a successful life on the farm in the Great Plains, where everything in the natural world conspires against you.

oberlin kansas 2

Mile 942, Oberlin, Kan.

The wind blows across the plains the way it blows across the ocean, ceaselessly, raising great waves in the grasses and grains that cover the great sea-swell of the hills.

It is not possible, once you have been here, to imagine the plains without the blow. Spiny tumbleweeds barrel across the road in front of you and if you look in your rear-view mirror, you may very well see one caught in the grille of the  car behind you.

Near Oberlin, Kan., I saw the biggest tumbleweed I have ever seen, and the darkest. Usually, they are a kind of straw-yellow and a foot or two in diameter. The one that blew straight northward with me on U.S. 83 was about four feet in diameter, rotating on its edge like a wheel. It sped along in a 40-mile-per-hour gale, turning top over keel for a hundred yards down the highway.tumbleweed 1

When I passed it, it was still following me till I lost sight of it in the back window as I drove up over a rise. For all I know, it made it to Nebraska just behind me.

The wind rattles the windows at night and if it gets under your house, can seem to be in immediate danger of lifting it in the air like a kite.

The worst winds, in terms of consistent blow, are found in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and western Kansas and Nebraska, where the average hourly wind velocity climbs to 12 and 14 miles per hour.

As I drive through, the wind runs a constant 40 mph, gusting to 50. When I step out of my car, the wind rips my shirt clean out of my trousers.

When I ask in North Platte about the winds, an old town resident thinks carefully and tells me, “On Aug. 13, 1947, we had a calm day. I remember it well.”

bailey yard 2

Mile 1039, North Platte, Neb.

Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., is the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Every day, 10,000 railroad cars in 120 trains run through on the 260 miles of track telescoped into a yard 8 miles long.

It runs through the city and out for miles to the west, where an observation tower is built for trainwatchers.

But, when I drive through North Platte in October, the yard is also something of a problem.

This fall has brought one of the best harvests ever to the Great Plains and there is concern that there are not enough railroad cars to transport all the grain, corn, sorghum, milo and beets.

“North Platte is reportedly one of five railroad ‘bottlenecks’ in the Union Pacific system that are causing disruption to business and industry across the country,” I read in the North Platte Telegraph.

The problem is the merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. Bookkeeping and bureaucratic snafus have tied up some 10,000 railroad cars in limbo and there are not enough locomotives to redistribute the needed cars.

Senator Bob Kerry (D., Neb.) expressed his concern about “delays in grain car deliveries, pick ups and system gridlock,” an article reads.

“These shortages and backlogs are especially troubling since the harvest season has barely begun,” the senator said.north platte grain elevator

Nebraska beef producers were running out of molasses, which they mix into their cattle feed.

Concern has been expressed for the health of Nebraska cattle. UP delivers entire train cars of molasses that beef producers use to make feed more appealing to their cattle.

Trucks have been hired to move the molasses, but a business spokesman said that trucking “can’t continue to handle loads of this magnitude.”

“We have a plan in place to fix (the problem),” said UP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Davidson.

The company said it had purchased 288 new higher-horsepower locomotives this year and would buy another 229 next year. To help with the short-term situation, Davidson said, 214 locomotives have been leased during the past few months.sandhills square

North of the town, the Sand Hills spread out like a lunar landscape, if they grew grass on the moon. Ducks fly west along the Platte River so low I can see their eyes.

And when I reach Thedford, at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest, the wind is blowing at 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 and there are people out on the golf course, playing.

Next: The Northern Plains

 


road
I have traveled across the country so many times, I can no longer accurately count. Mostly east to west or west to east: on train, on plane and in automobiles. I’ve been across the top tier of states, the southernmost tier and across the middle. I’ve boon to every one of the continental 48 states and all Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island.

And I’ve gone vertically, too. Drawn a giant Tic-Tac-Toe grid across the landscape. Past blogs have chronicled the trips I’ve made from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada; north along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Nova Scotia; and down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. 

In each of these trips, I’ve learned more about my nation, most of it good, but in a few cases — like the persistence of racism — troubling. 

One trip I haven’t blogged about yet I took in 1997 for the newspaper where I worked — up the Hundredth Meridian from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. That line is the mythic backbone of the nation, a dotted fold-line that divides the country in two. It’s just a line of longitude, and therefore imaginary, but this particular line has traditionally marked the beginning of the West. To the east of it, more than 20 inches of rain falls annually; to the west, less than 20 inches. hundredth meridian map

That means that to the east there were once tall-grass prairies that are now farmland; to the west, the High Plains where cattle now graze.
kine

Of course, the change doesn’t exactly run due north and south; it meanders back and forth over the 100th Meridian, so the drive up its length passes from prairie to plains and back, moving from cotton field to feedlot, from pasture to spinach.

It’s the perfect drive to see the middle of America that is so often forgotten by the majority of us whose attention is too often turned solely to the twin coasts.

If you take a trip up this spine of America, you will see more than a few kine, some goats, some sheep and a couple of ostriches.

To say nothing of some interesting people.

Ah, green grass, blue sky and a yellow line down the center of the road.

Some things have changed since I wrote these stories: Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q is closed; a flashy new visitor center has opened at the Washita Battlefield National Historical Site; and several of the elders I talked to have now passed on. But I thought the trip as a whole was interesting enough to revisit in this blog. 

It will take three entries; the first never gets out of Texas. 

THE TRIP
laredo texas 2

Mile 0, Laredo, Texas

The planet we live on is divided into 360 degrees of longitude, beginning with the one that runs north and south through Greenwich, England.
meridian mapNot many of the meridians carry much significance: The Greenwich Meridian has been the one that keeps the world’s time; the 180th Meridian, for the most part, is the International Date Line, separating Mondays from Tuesdays. And the 100th Meridian has traditionally marked the eastern edge of the American West.
It is purely a geographical accident, but the 100th Meridian is where the rain gives out. To the east, crops grow with little help; to the west, there is either dry farming, irrigation, or, mostly, cattle grazing.

I took a week in October to drive up the six states that form the central axis of the country, keeping as close to the meridian as I could, but occasionally detouring east or west for interesting sights.

The trip begins in Laredo, Texas.

The 100th Meridian enters Texas just to the west of the border town of Laredo.

The city’s downtown looks more like Tijuana than any other American city I’ve seen. There are the narrow, uneven sidewalks; the old storefronts with overhanging eaves, whose windows are filled with carefully lined up watches, wedding dresses or toys. The streets are narrow through the old part of town.

Laredo was first settled in 1755 and the Woolworth’s looks at least that old.

There are a bunch of border crossings in town, and the lines of people move constantly through the archways; maquilladores flourish across the border and the employees move from one country to the other.

North of the old part of town, Laredo looks more like any other Western American city. Along the interstate that pushes north are hordes of strip malls, Wal-Marts, Popeye’s chicken franchises and home-repair discount supermarkets. Every 1.6 miles, there is a McDonald’s.

U.S. 83 heads northwest out of town and soon crosses the 100th Meridian, then paralleling it in its march to North Dakota.

As soon as you leave the city, you begin to see evidence of the uncertainness of the geography, as you move from farms to ranches.

The prairie doesn’t turn instantly to plains: There is a wide, undulating transition zone.

First, surrounding the city are “winter gardens,” where tomatoes and other vegetables are grown for places that can’t. But as soon as we leave the garden area, we hit the chaparral, where there are hundreds of ranches in the scrubland filled with mesquite, juniper and, most of all, purple sage, which turns patches of the chaparral into an inky lavender.

But as soon as you hit the tiny town of Asherton, the ranches give way once again to agriculture.

spinach, crystal city texas

Mile 89, Crystal City, Texas

During World War I, the small community of Crystal City tried an experiment: to grow a winter crop of spinach. In only a year, spinach became the area’s principal crop. There was a “spinach boom.” People talked of “green gold.”

By 1933, the Crystal City Cannery was producing 10,000 cans of spinach a day. In 1945, Del Monte took over as primary processor; it now produces an average of 2 1/2  million cases of spinach a year.

In 1936 the Chamber of Commerce held its first Spinach Festival and crowned its first queen and Texas Governor James Allred proclaimed March 16-21 as “Spinach  Week” and Crystal City as “the world’s largest spinach shipping center.”

popeye statueBut the chamber of commerce wanted a symbol and found one in Popeye the Sailor Man. They arranged with Elzie Segar, the comic strip’s creator, to use Popeye to sell spinach and a “life-size” statue — if you can say that about a cartoon  character — was erected, which now sits on a pedestal in front of City Hall.

“Let us give three rousing whoops for Crystal City,” wrote Segar.

Crystal City has its Spinach Festival every year on the second weekend in November in honor of its “Patron Saint” Popeye. The city of 8,000 grows to 50,000 for the three day event.

Spinach, though, is no longer even the main crop. “We grow onions in the summer and cabbage in the winter,” explains the woman at City Hall.

There are also murals all over the building, including a giant cowboy, Mexican vaquero and a large crocodile. I don’t know what the croc is doing there, but there are some peccaries behind it, and an Indian on a horse with a spear and his head hanging low. Also a Jesus and an American flag, some campesinos and a woman in a graduation gown. It’s quite an iconographical salad.

But not all of history is rosy for the town. During World War II, a Japanese internment camp was built here, which at its peak, held 3,374 people, mostly Japanese American, with a few German and Italian families added, held temporarily as potential immigrants.

US 83 Uvalde Co. Texas

Mile 128, Uvalde, Texas

Uvalde, Texas, is best known as the home of John E. “Cactus Jack”  Nance, vice president of the United States under the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt.

The irascible Nance, who had been a powerful member of the Senate and House, termed the job “the first demotion of my life,”  and said that the vice presidency “ain’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”

During a long career in the House and Senate, Nance had built a great reputation as a parliamentarian, and over the years, he was given scores of “honorary” gavels to replace one he broke in use.garner museum

These gavels, along with his canoe, hunting rifle, official papers, tons of PR photographs and some very nice oil paintings made by his wife, are on view at the Garner Museum on one of the shady back streets of Uvalde.

About 30 miles north of town, a state park has been named for Garner, in the spotted green canyons of the Texas Hill Country. The park, along the Rio Frio, is bumper to bumper with visitors in the summer, but on an October morning, it is nearly deserted, save for one family swimming in the icy clear water of the river, which is lined with bone-white cobbles eroded from the limestone hills.

Farming has given way once again to grazing land, although most of what chews the tough dry grass are sheep and goats. Central Texas is the Angora wool and mohair center of the nation.

“But we don’t eat mutton,” explains the volunteer at the park information desk. “You know, there’s a historical antagonism between the cattlemen and the sheepherders. That hasn’t completely disappeared.”

“Oh, but it’s changing a little,”  says her colleague in the office. “You can buy sheep meat in the H.E.B.”

The H.E.B. is the local chain of supermarkets. It is short for its owner’s name: Howard E. Butt, a major figure in the area, whose name you keep running across for his charitable donations.

If my name were Butt, I’d name my store with my initials, too.

menard texas

Mile 260, Menard, Texas

The land flattens out by the time you reach Menard, Texas. The town was founded in 1858 and was once — this is a litany in the Plains states — prosperous. Now most of the old stores on the town’s main street are empty.

One exception is the old Luckinbach hardware store, which now houses one of the world’s most successful manufactury of hunter’s game calls.WF4 Deluxe Predator Call

Burnham Brothers specializes in predator calls, but they carry all kinds, from turkey to mouse calls. You squeeze them, hammer them, blow into them and rub them together, to make the variety of squawks, wheezes, yelps and chatters that will bring your desired prey into the sights of your 12-gauge.

Outside of Burnham Brothers, the towns main income comes from sheep manure, according to Coby Phillips,  who works behind the counter.

“My father used to work in the hardware store, and now I work in the same building,” he says. “It was his first job and this is mine.”

J. Morton Burnham is “recognized as the father of predator calling,” says the catalog. In 1952, his sons started up the business using their father’s know-how. They sold it in 1991 to its present owner, who supplies predator calls to the world. They have mechanical calls, cassette tapes of animal calls, and most recently, they have added 60 digital animal calls.

The catalog lists a Coyote Howler, which looks something like a child’s toy trumpet, a Buck Grunt Deer Call, a Coon Squaller, a Mini-Squeal and, Phillip’s recommendation, a Mini-Blaster, which has variable pitch and is “the best for calling coyote and bobcat.”

I am taken with a slate and wood turkey call and ante up the purchase price of $13.95.

“This is one of the top three turkey hunting areas in the world,” Phillips says.

Phillips was born in Menard and can’t imagine leaving. “Many young people do leave, but a lot come back when they are older,” he says.

He has a long list of reasons to stay, despite the generally depressed economy.

“The town is small, so everyone knows everyone else. There’s no crime to speak of and a good school system with small classes. My high school graduating class was 22.”

He was a Menard Yellowjacket.

And in the winter, “There’s only a week and a half out of the year that’s freezing.”

ballinger texas cotton

Mile 317, Ballinger, Texas

Near Ballinger, Texas, I start seeing fields of cotton. The fields are completely white with it, looking almost like snow.

Like many of the small towns — this one has a population of 4,170 — there is not much of note.

ballinger crossHowever, there is a giant high-tech steel cross on the rise overlooking town and a bronze statue of a cowboy in front of city hall. Like many such city halls, the building is the most impressive architecture in the county and and built of sandstone.

When I tune in the local radio station, the newscaster tells me there is some controversy in the city over the community center, which is sometimes used on weekends to hold dances.

Several neighbors have complained about the noise.

“Curtis Jennings appeared before the city council and said he felt past city fathers did not build the community center to be turned into a beer hall and dance hall.

“He told city councilmen that the music went on till almost 1 in the morning.

“Councilman Jerry Willingham said he felt 10 p.m. should be set as the time to shut down activity at the community center. Mayor Rudy Hoffman instructed them to set guidelines and make recommendations for the next council meeting.”

Big, white, puffy cumulus clouds are moving across the sky like a marching band.

abilene train

Mile 373, Abilene, Texas

Nothing says Texas like a good, thick steak in a sleazy tin-sheathed dive.

Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q and Steaks in Abilene is just off the interstate and just the ticket. Ribeye is sold by the measure: from three-quarter inch (for sissies) up to 2 solid, meaty inches.

The ceiling is patterned tin sheathing, punctuated by six slow-moving fans. The walls are in need of a good scrubbing and are covered in a variety of neon beer signs. A piece of a Texas flag is framed at one end of the room and the 17 tables in the front room are lined up under plastic tablecloths. The chairs are  a grab bag of ’30s oak office furniture and ’50s kitchen dinette moderne.harlow's

Racks of potato chip bags hang on the counter next to the cash register and the menu is hand-printed on posterboard above the bar.

One old sign says “Beer 5¢” and just under it, “Dancing girls,” but the beer is the normal price and the closest thing to dancing girls are the jeans-and-T-shirt waitresses who hustle from one end of the painted concrete floor to the other.

The owner of this establishment is Timmy Harlow, who looks to be somewhere between 69 and death.  His white hair and gaunt body look like that of an old, worn-out cowboy. His beach-ball gut is largely covered by his red apron, but from behind, he has no shape at all: a thin, tubular body with neither shoulder nor hip nor waist. His jeans hang low on his frame and stay up only the way crew socks stay up on skinny shanks.timmy harlow

In actuality, Harlow is 49 years old and a worn-out former beer distributor. His Lone Star franchise fell through in the oil bust of the early ’80s and Harlow, always a hard-liver, had to drop out. There were divorces, some hard times and an inspiration.

So, he opened this restaurant in the former beer warehouse. The building still looks like a warehouse — or at least the back of it does: a  utilitarian cinderblock box with “Harlow’s” painted its length.

But in front of that, he has built a kind of garden, with trellises made out of unfinished wood and lots of climbing vines. You have to walk through this little paradise before you get to the fried onions and potatoes with sour cream.

There is a back room, also. It is fitted out with aviation memorabilia in honor of nearby Dyess AFB. There is also a shrine to Chuck Yeager, who has been known to eat here.

Yeager, in fact, so enjoyed the homemade honey ice cream that he asked Harlow for the recipe. Harlow said he wouldn’t give it away, but would trade it for one of Yeager’s flight suits. The suit now hangs near the front of the room.

There is also a wall full of dinner plates signed by celebrity customers. Among the 40 plates, I spotted George Strait, Clint Black and Lori Morgan. Many of the names are less luminous — at least, I didn’t recognize them; probably local radio personalities.

The clientele was a mix with on one hand,  well-to-do slummers in their “stone” colored chinos and Oxford-cloth shirts and on the other hand a few broad-bellied men with scraggy goatees and glassy eyes who looked like they just got off the construction site, or more accurately, had stopped on the way for a six-pack or two.

It’s a very Texas mix.

The mesquite broiled ribeye, by the way, was juicy and delicious.

crowell thunderstorm

Mile 492, Crowell, Texas

Crowell is one more dried up little town in the flat plains of northern Texas.

Most of the buildings along the downtown highway are closed up. There is little traffic through the town as I step into the M and M Family Restaurant across from the courthouse and order my breakfast.

“Two scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy and your largest orange juice.”

“I’m sorry, but I just ran out. I mixed up a whole gallon this morning and it’s gone.”

“That’s OK, I’ll have water then.”

I find out from three retired farmers who are lollygagging in the M and M that the whole land is thirsty for water.

“All there is in the wells is briny, so we can’t use that to irrigate,” says Abe, who is about 65 and has gone through two heart surgeries and is on the waiting list for a third. He wears a straw cowboy hat and a white shirt.

“The government has a brine reduction project with a pipeline that runs from Guthrie and tries to impound the briny runoff from wells, to reduce the saltiness of the Wichita River so cattle can drink out of it,” Abe says.crowell elevators

“But don’t give this gentleman the idea that we don’t like it here,”  says Joseph, who is in his late 50s and seems a little more cosmopolitan than Abe. He turns out to have once run the local newspaper.

“What do you like about it?” I ask.

“Everything,” Abe answers.

But the conversation seems to center on the disasters.

“The problem here is it’s always too hot, too cold, to dry and too wet,” cracks  Abe. “The weather is too irregular to make a regular living.”

And the weather is the constant topic of conversation — that and government policy.

The biggest weather they ever had was a tornado in April, 1942. It killed 11 people and tore straight through town.

“That tornado was the biggest thing that ever hit this town,” says Joe.

“I wasn’t here for it,” says Wendell, “But I got here the next day.”

Wendell is 92 and talks slowly. He is also wearing a white shirt, although it is now a couple of sizes too large for him, and a ball cap.

“It took the dome off the courthouse and took off three of the clock faces. One dial was left, but the works was blown out.”

“No, you can’t count on the weather,” Joe says. “We normally get 24 inches of rain a year, but in 1941, we had 40 inches and there were lakes all over.”

But the usual problem is not enough, or at least, not at the right time.

“It’ll rain all around us and Foard County won’t get any,” says Abe.

“Story is, when Noah had his flood, Foard County got a half-inch.”crowell wichita river

In the flat country around town, they tell me, the main product is cattle and wheat. A bit further south there is also cotton, but they don’t grow it anymore in Crowell.

“It’s the boll weevil,” says Joe.

“Deliver us from weevil,” says Abe.

“They got a weevil eradication program and it’s the best thing the government spends money on,” he continues. “Maybe one day, they will eliminate the problem — now I’m not saying they’ll ever completely get rid of it — but maybe they’ll reduce it enough that you can make a living with cotton again.”

He doesn’t sound convinced, more hopeful than anything.

As for government, Wendell says the only real non-agricultural industry in town is a company that makes “gimme” caps, but they are feeling the pinch from Mexico.

“I don’t like talking politics,” he says, “But you can hear that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot spoke of.”

North of town I spot a box tortoise slowly trying to cross the road, with his head tentatively dangling in front of his dome.
quanah parker

The roadside weeds are drying in the October sun. The sunflowers have passed the flower stage and a spattering of black seedheads dot the tan grass. Clouds blow quickly across the sky, leaving racing dapples of sun over the fields.

With the car window down, you can smell the damp straw in the fields, the wet earth and the smell of the cattle as they go by in a truck. Once in a while, the rhythm is broken by the smell of a roadkill skunk.

Just north of Crowell is the Pease River, where Cynthia Ann Parker was stolen back from the Comanche Indians in 1836 after 24 years of living among the Indians. Her Indian son was Quanah Parker, the greatest of the Comanche leaders. His name meant “fragrant.”

And the next town on the route is named after him.

Next: The Central Plains

Pawnee Buttes 6

Space and time.

As you stand in the grassy expanse of the Great Plains, you are forced to confront them, Einstein’s two-faced god, the Janus of existence.

Time and space.

You stand at the stony edge of a low bluff and look out at a sea of grass and the cloud shadows racing over the buttes in Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland, wetting them and drying them with shade and sun.

You feel yourself alone in the circle of the horizon — dead center in the universe of your own perception — and know, in a way you never do in the city, that you are alive on a planet. Pawnee road to horizon

Pawnee National Grassland is about 90 miles northeast of Denver. Within a 30- by 60-mile area just south of the Colorado-Wyoming state line, the Pawnee National Grassland encompasses old short-grass prairie and reclaimed farmland. The area is crossed mainly by unpaved roads, and the birds peel off from the side of the road as you drive by like the wake of a motorboat.

Sunflowers yellow the barbed wire on the shoulders of the roadway. Hordes of sunflowers, bobbing in the wind that is always exhaling. Pawnee sunflowers

It is easiest to get to the National Grassland from Denver. Usually, when we think of Denver, we think of the Rocky Mountains that loom above the city, but that is only if you face west. If you face east, Denver is the gateway to the Great Plains — the vast fifth of the United States that houses less than 3 percent of its people. Pawnee phone pole

A deeper beauty

The mountains are beautiful, but in a conventional way: Everyone can recognize their looks. But the Great Plains have a deeper beauty, and only those who spend time in this space can be gifted with seeing it.

As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America’s characteristic landscape. Even the prairie’s simplest statistics are sublime.” Pawnee fencepost

This region of northeastern Colorado was the subject of James Michener’s 1974 book, Centennial, and the history of the place was fictionalized in his tale.

But the real story is hardly less compelling. The prehistoric seas gave up the sea bottoms to become the middle of the continent. Dinosaurs, and later the great Cenozoic beasts, inhabited the area. Then there were Indians and buffaloes. Pronghorn, the fastest land animals in the western hemisphere

Finally, the buffalo hunter, the railroad, the cattle industry, the dry farmer, the droughts, the financial busts, the Dust Bowl, the emigrations and the land remaining like the butt end of a used cigarette.

You can feel all that history in the grass under your boot sole. windmill and sun vertical

By the mid-1930s, this portion of Weld County dropped to a tenth of its pre-Dust Bowl population.

That’s when the federal government and its Work Projects Administration tried to stabilize the economy, and the government began buying up plots of land. In 1938, responsibility for administering the land fell to the Soil Conservation Service.

In 1960, the Pawnee National Grassland was created. It is divided into two sections, each roughly square, just north of Colorado 14.

‘Rattlesnake Buttes’

The town of Briggsdale sits to the south of the road in the western sector. The towns of Buckingham and Raymer do the same in the eastern sector. They hardly qualify as towns: more like a collection of farm buildings, a few houses and maybe a grange hall.

The western sector contains the only campground, the Crow Valley Recreation Area, which sits in a depression of cottonwoods along Crow Creek. Crow Valley campgroungs

The eastern sector features the Pawnee Buttes, two erosional remnants that Michener calls “Rattlesnake Buttes” in Centennial.

“They were extraordinary, these two sentinels of the plains. Visible for miles in each direction, they guarded a bleak and silent empire,” he wrote. Pawnee Buttes 1

They tower about 350 feet over the plains at an altitude of 5,375 feet.

Getting to them requires a commitment. You have to drive on dirt roads about 15 miles, switching roads several times. It would be easy to get lost without a map. Get a map — available at a ranger station near Briggsdale.

You will pass Keota, a Dust Bowl ghost town, on the way. In its heyday, just after World War I, there were 140 people living there. Now, there are a few holdouts in the few remaining buildings. grasslands oil rig

Oil was found in the area in 1924, but that didn’t save the town. Even now, there are some oil pumps in the grasslands.

Between cattle grazing and mineral rights, the grasslands more than pay for themselves: 25 percent of oil and gas revenues are returned to Weld County for roads and schools. A similar percentage comes from grazing rights.

Wildlife treasured

But mostly the treasure to be found is in the wildlife: 301 species of birds; 400 species of plants. There are deer and pronghorns, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes.

The grasslands are not for the tourist, but for the traveler. There are no attractions in the flatness except the flatness itself. Lark Bunting

But for those who feel the atavistic call of the savanna, the veldt, the steppes, the pampas, this reminder of the tawny places in Africa that humankind came from, the grasslands speak volumes.

Grasslands, which cover 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, are home to almost 1 billion people.

Too often overlooked by tourists, who just want to get through the expanse as quickly as possible, the grassy middle of the country is, instead, what they should be looking for. Pawnee Buttes 5

Here you stand in a field of grasses that billow in the wind, with the same horizon you gaze at sea, and the same sky, and you recognize, more than in other landscapes, that each point in the endlessness is its very center.

It is the source of our national identity. It is the West we think of as our coming of age. It is the cradle of our greatest authors, the heart of our economy: the “amber waves of grain” and the “fruited plain.” Sunflower 2

And a sense of the bigness of the planet.

Time and space.