Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The middle of the USA

In the last ten days I have sold all of my belongings (besides my clothes), packed my car and driven to from Colorado to Memphis (parents' house), and arrived in Maine to see my family before I leave the country. To get from Boulder to Memphis I drove via highway 36 along northern Kansas, the alternative to I-70. I convinced my boyfriend, Pat, to agree on this route because it passes the geographical center of the 48 contiguous states, and I really wanted to stand on this point and see what it felt like. We had been in eastern Colorado for a while and things leveled out considerably since leaving the front range of the Rockies. We drove by Beecher Island in Yuma County, Colorado. Beecher is a sandbar on the Arikaree River and it's the site of an historic battle during the American Indian war. We drove by the Prairie Dog State Park of Kansas and then got dinner in St. Francis, whose welcome sign proudly read, "The Home of the Indians."

Several abandoned barns and silos littered the pastures or were accompanied by larger, newer, more productive farms. I love the way old barns with red roofs caving in look against the bright green grass. The scenery looks so unchanged and still, it reminds me of this photograph by Dorthea Lange, "Cotton picker." They both have such a desperate and quiet look to them, like they've been working away and devoting their lives to their land without much return.

So after about seven hours of driving, Pat and I finally arrived in Lebanon, Kansas. We drove a mile off the highway and turned left onto a small road to the plaque in the middle of a random field which denotes the geographical center of the continental United States. A giant American flag was silhouetted on one side of the street and a stark white sign said "Welcome to the center of the USA" on the other. The landmark is so funny to me - a cement rectangle and a bronze plaque plopped in the middle of a cow pasture. I'm sure hundreds of people choose to take highway 36 every year to be able to visit the center of the continental USA. But why? It's surrounded by the same treeless rolling landscape that the rest of the Midwest is made of, and because some officials decided to measure where the center of the US is, it has become a destination and something interesting to people like me. There is no real use for it, but it's fun to go and find out for yourself what it's like to be in the middle of American, literally. It's not so much the geographic spot, but the chance to veer off the monotonous highway and constant landscape passing you by at 75 mph. We turned the engine off, walked outside, heard nothing but crickets, and got to see the land of Kansas, completely still and and calm. That by itself was enough of a reason to get off the highway.
I've spent the last week in Maine with family reaping the benefits of Hurricane Bill's enormous surf on my boogie board.
Now I have less than a week left until I leave for Sydney and Melbourne, Australia - the beginning of my next five months traveling. I'll post when I finally get there.

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