After seven days, 2,761 miles and ten states, the rambling man has rambed back to his modest little Montgomery home, the one with all the stacks of papers and books. And one thing is for sure, he does not suffer the miles as easily as he once did. (But then, at his age he can say the same about most everything else as well.)
Long ago I realized that there is a bit of the nomad in me and from time to time I just have to get up and go. Perhaps the sound of tires on pavement is some kind of therapy for folks like me.
It’s been this way for years. Which is one reason I’ve driven most cars I’ve owned at least 300,000 miles. (My current one hit 200,000 earlier this week about Mt. Vernon, IL. After some figuring, I found that I have averaged 97 miles a day since it hit 100,000 less than three years ago.)
The purpose of this trip to Mitchell, SD was to attend a meeting of the national Rural Schools Collaborative and learn more about some work they are doing around the country to help rural schools find good teachers. Or more accurately, to grow your own. They are working with a project at the University of West Alabama that holds great promise for schools in the Black Belt. Dean Jan Miller of the college of education at UWA was in Mitchell, along with three staff members and three students. They did some great networking.
Me? I’m just the matchmaker. I got Gary Funk, who runs the Rural Schools Collaborative, down to Livingston last January to set things in motion.
And why did I drive instead of fly? Because as someone who is a people watcher, you can learn a lot more about the fabric of this great country while having a cheeseburger and bag of cheese curls in a gas station in Eminence, MO than you can scurrying from Concourse A to C in the Atlanta airport. Maybe it is what some call “up close and personal.”
But as the miles roll by one gets a great sense of the true magic of this country. This great experiment in something called democracy where we give value to every man, woman and child. You reflect on those who settled the area you are passing through, why did they decide to put down roots here, what were the early years like, what hardships did they endure?
It is both a rolling lesson in history and civics. A time to ponder questions our everyday life hides from us.
You do this by leaving the interstate where endless billboards proclaim how much we have homogenized this land.
Here are some of the things you come across:
A young Amish man in a buggy clip clopping down the shoulder of an Iowa road. Stretches of the Mississippi River delta in Missouri’s boot heel lay as flat as a linoleum floor while fields of rice, cotton and soybeans reach the horizon and beyond. Hundreds of giant round hay bales looking for all the world like very large corks waiting for a huge wine bottle to come along.
A ’57 red and white Chevy parked in front of an Arkansas convenience store. A crowd of locals setting up their lawn chairs in New Sharon, IA to await a parade that will not be long and fancy but will be their very own. The first giant windmill spinning lazily outside Tamu, IA. You pass hundreds of them in Iowa and Minnesota slowly harvesting the breeze.
You realize that I-70 that runs east and west from St. Louis to Kansas City is basically the dividing line between the south and the Midwest. South of there you see woods. North of there you only see trees. There is a difference.
The Surf Ballroom has stood for decades in Clear Lake, IA. It was the last place Buddy Holley performed before dying in a plane crash that night. I have now seen the Surf Ballroom and ticked off one more thing on my bucket list. Just on the outskirts of Mitchell sits the remains of the Starlite drive in. You wonder about the tales it could tell.
You also see a road sign in Mitchell announcing the turn for the city cemetery and golf course. You wonder if you get an unplayable lie when your ball nestles next to a headstone.
Somehow passing a pickup truck towing a boat and trailer seems strangely out of place on a South Dakota interstate. But must be water around there somewhere.
One thing I did not see in the Midwest were ancient mobile homes nursing a litter of junked cars scattered around the front door. For the most part, the countryside was neat and tidy. And if you can not survive without Waffle House, don’t go to Iowa or South Dakota.
However, if you have seen one Wal Mart, McDonalds or Dollar General, you have seen them all.
So I am home. Back to the dad gummed humidity and gnats and kudzu. Back to the land that always calls me back. And you know that for every house you passed on your 2,700 mile trek, someone also calls it home. And you realize that in this time when the politicians and pundits want to neatly wrap each of us into some kind of package and call us conservatives or liberals or red or blue or gays or straights, we are all really people.
This great experiment in something called democracy where we give value to every man, woman and child.