October 12, 2006

Across the Great Plains

There is no more boring a drive in the world than cruising for hundreds of miles on an Interstate freeway in the Midwest. These roads are bad enough in the West where there’s at least topography off in the distance. But a Midwestern Interstate is nothing but a chore.

Illinois Cornfield 1.jpg

Midwestern back roads can be pleasant and even charming in a Norman Rockwell sort of way. I did get off the freeway in Illinois for a few minutes just to get a little variety.

Illinois Grassfield.jpg

But I wanted to get from Chicago to the Rockies in a reasonable amount of time. So for the most part I hurtled down Illinois and across Missouri just slightly faster than safety and the law would allow, yearning to drive through small town Middle America, hang out with ma and pa at the diners, and photograph the Fall colors.

Missouri Interstate.jpg

The only time I got out of the car in Illinois was at a random Starbucks with wi-fi in a small town that I can’t remember the name of. The only time I got out of the car in Missouri was just outside Columbia where I slept at a trucker motel at one of the junky corporate asteroid belts around an off ramp.

I have no doubt Missouri has something to offer. Every state does. There has to be a cool blues bar in St. Louis that would have kept me better entertained than the cookie cutter Denny’s where I had breakfast at sunrise.

Missouri Offramp Sunrise.jpg

The St. Louis arch, at least, would be worth looking at for a minute. But I didn’t have time for any of that. Pavement, trees, cornfields, traffic and suburban/Interstate smarm was all I had time for in Missouri.

By the time I reached Kansas I was getting a little bit twitchy.

Kansas City from Interstate.jpg

Kansas is a l-o-n-g state.

Kansas Interstate.jpg

Even once I reached Colorado I would still be out in the flatlands for one-third of the way to Utah. So I took the Parkway to Emporia and got the hell off and onto the back roads.

Emporia isn’t exciting. But at least it’s actually Kansas.

Emporia Kansas.jpg

An Interstate freeway is nowhere in particular. There’s no there there, as the old saying goes.

The thing about Kansas is that it’s actually a little bit interesting once you can see it. It’s tranquil, somewhat endearing in places, and at least seemingly innocent. Dorothy’s lament that “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” has a certain resonance and heft to it when you’re actually in the safe and secure environment the girl longed for when she found herself all of a sudden in Oz.

Kansas Creek.jpg

Kansas Field and Shed.jpg

Barbed Wire Kansas.jpg

Green Hill Kansas.jpg

But there’s a dark side to Kansas, as well. The state is (just) barely growing in population. But rural Kansas is hemorrhaging people.

You can see it from the road. I found a ghost house so old it’s a ruin.

Kansas Ruins.jpg

And right next to it, perhaps fifty feet to the right, was a ghost house from a more recent era.

Kansas Ghost House.jpg

Down the road from the ghost homes is an old stone bridge on a ghost road that no longer exists. It ends in somebody’s field.

Stone Bridge Kansas.jpg

Some of the people who live in ghost towns to-be feel the ominous dread of looming collapse and depopulation. So they will give you free land. That’s right. It’s free land homesteading all over again. All you have to do is build a house on the land. If you like living in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind harsh weather and a lack of topography, and you’re looking for the cheapest deal in the country, Kansas just might be your place. Go to Kansasfreeland.com and take a look.

I pulled the car off the highway and drove into downtown Peabody when I saw a sign that pointed to a 19th century Main Street. I found it after driving past some lovely Victorian homes, some of which look perfectly homey, others which look like they’re starting the death spiral already. The rot in the house below is further along that it appears in the photo.

Victorian Kansas.jpg

Downtown could have been nice. It did have the Main Street layout, which is infinitely preferable to Taco Bells and Wal-Marts surrounded by parking lagoons.

Peabody Kansas.jpg

But vibrant is not how I would describe it. Even in the middle of October, it was, weirdly, 95 degrees and humid outside. Hot cloying air blew in from the south. Empty old buildings, stripped of their former grandeur, leaned and moaned in the wind.

Boarded Windows Kansas.jpg

The only resident I saw on the streets was an old man well into his seventies. He did a double-take when he saw me pull up alongside him with my sports car and sunglasses. Obviously I was not from around there. But it wasn’t just that. It seemed (and I’m sure I exagerrated this in my mind) that he was shocked to see another living human being in an outdoor museum piece.

Sure enough, Peabody is one of those towns that will give you or anyone else some free land. They desperately need people. Here is the application for a free lot. If you’re 25 and want to have kids you’re most likely a shoo-in.

They say the three most important considerations when purchasing real estate are location, location, and location. The middle of Kansas sucks at all three. There is nothing wrong with the land. It’s quite pretty in many places, and in the eastern half of the state it is perfect for growing crops.

It’s just too far away from everything else.

I didn’t see any part of Kansas that was completely abandoned. It’s not like the Nevada desert where no one lives for swaths of acreage larger than Belgium. There were always some people around pretty much everywhere. It’s just that the density is so painfully low. Distances between places are enormous, and it’s lonely wherever go you.

The roads are so long and lonely I got to thinking some rather strange thoughts. Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the stateless Palestinians have one of them. Let the Kurds from eastern Turkey move into another one if they want. How about letting poor Mexican laborers in on the homesteading action? Let them come and build their own farms in the state if they want to.

None of these things will ever happen, of course, and I’m not actually serious. (Except, perhaps, for the Mexican homesteading. Why the heck not? It’s a lot less crazy than moving Gaza to Middle America. And Mexicans keep coming here anyway.) I just kept thinking: krikey! There’s a lot of good land out in Kansas that is not being used. And there is nothing physically wrong with it. If Kansas can’t give it away for free to other Americans, surely there is someone in the world who would want it.

Geographically speaking, the Midwest ends (or begins) at the Rockies. Culturally, that isn’t the case. Culturally, the West begins (or ends) at the tree line.

The Rocky Mountains cast a rain shadow hundreds of miles into the Great Plains, deep into Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Trees will not grow by themselves. Instead of National Forests, there are National Grasslands. The region is a semi-arid sort-of desert, eerily flat to the horizon like you’re adrift on an ocean of land. Only occasionally will you find the barest suggestion of hills.

This part of the country is not good for farming. You can’t just plant crops. You have to irrigate. Water is scarce and expensive. So it makes more sense to ranch than to farm. The John Deere culture of the rural Midwest gives way to the cowboy culture of cattle.

Ranch Kansas.jpg

Diners give way to saloons. Fall colors in October give way to cacti struggling in the grass.

Cactus Kansas.jpg

There is oil in the transition zone. Not a lot of it, but some, certainly more than you’ll find around the Great Lakes.

Oil Well Kansas.jpg

You know what you can “farm” in the great plains, though, without water? You can “farm” wind. The biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen is in Kansas. Kansas, for a brief stetch of road, looked futuristic.

Wind Farm Kansas.jpg

Wind Farm Kansas 2.jpg

It’s weird and eerily beautiful when the trees vanish and you can see horizon to horizon in every direction without any obstruction. You can watch the sun go down over land. It doesn’t set behind mountains or hills. It sets behind utterly flat ground miles and miles away.

Kansas Sunset 1.jpg

Kansas Sunset 2.jpg

Kansas Sunset 3.jpg

My camera works in the dark, so I kept taking pictures after the light went out in the sky.

It’s easy to snap pictures at dusk.

Oil Well Kansas Night.jpg

My headlights are good enough, too.

Highway Kansas Night.jpg

Other places in the back-of-beyond are lit up at night.

Kansas Hotel Dark.jpg

Farm Kansas Night.jpg

Other parts of Kansas are lit only by starlight. Starlight is still, just barely, enough for my camera. Below is what the Great Plains look like at midnight.

Field Kansas Night.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 12, 2006 4:04 PM

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