“So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America.”
America…Simon and Garfunkel
It’s time for my annual migration to Florida and warmer climes. The late fall and early winter weather in the Colorado mountains has been positively pleasing, allowing extra sunny days to explore remote canyons and chase wild trout. But now the cold is seeping in, so I get ready to hightail it to the subtropics.
I like to take the back roads when pulling my travel trailer (aka mobile fish camp) on the long 2,000+ mile journey, avoiding the big trucks roaring by on the interstates with their big backwash that sets my rig to swerving back and forth on the hitch. Anyway, it’s lots more fun, relaxing, and enlightening to get off the straight-as-an arrow highways and see the real America. Back in the 60’s the Simon and Garfunkel tune “America” was my generation’s anthem….they’ve all gone to look for America. I continue to do so. More and more it seems like a country and place I don’t always understand. When I served as a city councilman in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the 80s I always felt that if citizens got the facts they would eventually make the right common-sense decisions in the country’s and fellow American’s best interests. Now I am not so sure. But each year I come away from my peregrinations around the country feeling hopeful, optimistic. So here we go…
It’s mid-January and a bright, sunny 40 degree late morning at my cabin as I finish loading the last of my gear, take a quick photo, and head down the valley to points east. But by the time I reach Pueblo, Colorado, just 90 miles away, the temperature has fallen into the teens, and I am being pelted by freezing rain, and cars are in the ditches. Sadly, my once shiny SUV and immaculate trailer are encased in a dirty mix of ice and magnesium chloride. By the time I slip slide across the Kansas border and roll into Garden City, my overnight stop, it’s positively frigid. When I awake, the temperature has dipped to minus one degree as testified to by the frozen, rock-hard banana I forgot in my vehicle.
As I sit in the breakfast room, I have to listen to a numbskull politician on TV suggesting that because of this cold snap, climate change must be a hoax.
Garden City, once known as the garden city of the Plains, is anything but now. Even in the cold you can catch a whiff of the so-called CAFOs (contained animal feeding operations) and meatpacking plants, what we used to call feedlots.
In the summer it’s overwhelming. Garden City and the nearby small burg of Holcomb (remember In Cold Blood?) have been taken over by Tyson Foods poultry and meatpacking and related operations. The plant in tiny Holcomb alone has 3,800 workers. Most of the work is done by immigrants, legal and otherwise. Back in the 60s Garden City was a farming community, mostly Anglo. Now the population of some 26,000 is almost 50% Hispanic. A recent expose in Business Week documented the hiring of illegals by Tyson contractors, workers who make $200 a week and are often maimed and then discarded like so much trash. It echoes many of the scenes right out of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle about the harsh treatment of immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. Google and then read the December 29, 2017, article and weep! “America’s Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers.” That in this day and age we in America can allow other human beings to be treated like this is beyond belief. Clearly the government agencies created to protect workers in the wake of Sinclair’s book are being hobbled in trying to do their job. And as for illegal immigrants, as I have said before, put a few of the business people and MBAs who are hiring them in jail and we won’t have to build any walls. I don’t blame poor and persecuted people from other countries from seeking jobs and a better life….my Dad’s family were Mennonites that were run out of Russia. But the present system and state of affairs is not fair to them or to American workers.
I roll out of Garden City after letting the SUV warm up for 15 minutes. The sun is up, but it’s a losing battle against the cold. I pass through or near the small towns of my youth where I played tennis or basketball, or my Dad taught or coached. Dodge City, Greensburg, Pratt, Pretty Prairie, Yoder. Lots of good memories….like one of my buddies using his meal money to buy a Playboy magazine in Pratt after we lost the first round of a high school tennis tourney, then getting caught by the coach as we read it under a cottonwood tree!! In the category of “you never can tell”, my buddy is a preacher now! Sadly, most of these places are dwindling now. Many of the smaller schools are closed and consolidated, the handsome old buildings mostly abandoned. At least I get to enjoy some world-famous attractions like the world’s largest hand-dug well in Greensburg. While it may not be as impressive as the World’s Largest Ball Of Baling Twine in Cawker City, Kansas, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Then just a few miles down the road I nearly swerve off the highway. It’s a field of cotton!! Now I was raised a Kansas farm boy—wheat, alfalfa, maize, then in the 60s some “exotic” soybeans and later even sunflowers. But cotton??
It strikes me as odd that out here in western Kansas where the Ogallala Aquifer is now being depleted at an alarming rate to irrigate crops, that farmers would start planting cotton which has a reputation as a water-hungry crop best suited to the wet South! But on doing a little homework, I learn that the cotton is replacing corn which is an absolute water hog—using three times as much water as a cotton crop. Go figure! Next thing you know sodbusters in Kansas will be singing “In Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home” instead of “Home On The Range!”
I arrive mid-afternoon in Hutchinson the “big” city of my youth, then a sprawling metropolis of 25,000 and just 10 miles from my hometown of Buhler, whose population recently broke 1,000. It’s where we Mennonite boys would drag main on a Saturday night and chase those wild Hutch damsels. Like many towns in the USA, that main street was decimated by outlying big box retailers and shopping malls, even pre-Walmart. But the worm has turned. The Hutch mall is a ghost town, and the downtown has slowly come back. Best evidence: The six-story former Wiley’s department store building (Wiley’s was our local equivalent of Marshall Fields with each floor devoted to different merchandise) has been converted to apartments and is reportedly full up! The next-door historic Fox Theatre, where I saw some of my first picture shows, has been renovated!!
But not much has changed in Buhler, hard on the banks of the Little Ar-Kansas River where I learned to fish. The clearly unconstitutional welcome to Buhler sign still stands, but I am here to see friends and family, visit the local cemetery to pay my regards, so will keep my mouth shut (uncharacteristically).
The cold persists so indoor sports are in order, and I’m lucky Hutchinson Junior College’s basketball team is in town and has a game. Hutch is the host city for the National Junior College basketball tournament each year. It’s a mini version of the NCAA tournament with 32 teams coming to Hutch each year to fight it out over six days for the title. It’s quite a spectacle. When I was a kid in grade school we used to sneak away for a day and watch the games that ran from morning till night. Back then freshman in four-year colleges were not allowed to play varsity basketball, so many of the best players in the nation went to junior colleges to get tougher competition. Those were the golden years when future NBA icons like Spencer Haywood went to little Trinidad, Colorado, Juco and played in Hutch. Several of my college fraternity brothers played at their local jucos in places like Garden City and Great Bend. Those golden years ended in 1973 when the NCAA let freshman play varsity basketball at four-year colleges.
When I walk into the arena, which seats about 5,000 and seems ever so much smaller than it did back in 1960, I am not surprised to see that most of the players are black. But the real shock is just how few are from the towns or even regions in Kansas where their junior colleges are located. Indeed, Hutch has only one Kansas boy on their team, and he is firmly anchored deep on the bench. The team from Seward County Community College in Liberal is all from out-of-state. Most of the Hutch b-ballers hale from far-flung places like New York City or California. The big center on the opposing team is from Tunisia! Hard to imagine the culture shock of coming from the Bronx for college in Hutch, Kansas (now a robust 42,000), but matriculating in little Liberal, Kansas, (population about 20,000) from Africa! Culture shock to the third power. The caliber of play is a bit ragged, but Hutch manages an easy win in the end. The Blue Dragons won the national title last year and appear to have a fighting chance to repeat. It turns out to be a fun evening even though the concession stands still don’t sell beer, although the guy at the stand confides I can go across the street and buy a couple of bottles and sneak them in if necessary. I demur.
Day Four I am gassing up and turning south, praying for some warmer weather. I pay a quick visit to another amazing tourist attraction, one where I actually worked one summer—the largest wheat elevator in the world on the outskirts of Hutch. It’s used to store and distribute wheat harvested in the nation’s breadbasket. What a sight!! Not to be missed.
I angle towards Wichita, home of my beloved Wichita State Wheat Shockers basketball team, then hit the Kansas turnpike and soon cross the border into Oklahoma. Last year I discovered an alternate route through Oklahoma that avoids the interstate and big cities for the most part—it’s called the Cimarron/Indian Nation Turnpike. It’s a toll road so the traffic is light with few big trucks. And the scenery is a revelation. Rolling hills, short-grass prairie, forested ridges, and bucolic rural scenes delight the eye.
And the town names along the way always make me chuckle. Take Frogville, Oklahoma, so named supposedly because of the abundance of frogs that were alleged to be large enough to eat small ducks. Not to be confused with Frog Level, Virginia, named from croaking made by frogs there in the spring. Frogville is just southwest of Antlers. The place names—towns, creeks, landmarks throughout the trip delight and tell stories. In Alabama, I will drive over Burnt Corn Creek, named for the scorched earth policy against the Creek Indians and their fields during the Creek Wars in the early 1800s.
By now it’s late and I am pulling into Sulphur Springs, Texas, where a professional friend from Dallas will meet me tomorrow for lunch. The temperature has cracked the 50 degree mark. I’m thawed out, and now really excited to tour the town square with its world-famous glass bathrooms. Tourist attraction par excellence. Then if I have time, maybe I will hit the Number 2 top attraction listed on the town’s website—the Southwest Diary Museum. Can’t wait!
The drive back into town from my hotel on the interstate is ghastly but so common of many US towns these days. Endless strip commercial development marked by garish signage, interrupted occasionally by big box retail stores like Wal-Mart and their vast parking lots. Then suddenly we are in the picture-perfect downtown with a stately red sandstone courthouse overlooking the town square. And those glass bathrooms don’t disappoint. No wonder hordes of tourists descend on the city each year. Who would miss this!
Actually the downtown is very attractive with some unique shops like the mom and pop popcorn store we stopped at and some excellent restaurants like Joe’s, an establishment featuring German food. There are even some apartments going in above the commercial businesses. It makes me wonder how and when we collectively lost the DNA of these places and decided to build the commercial sprawl virtually everywhere in the nation. But things seem to be changing in many places as people look for more authentic, walkable environs to shop and live in.
Now I have to make some tracks after lollygagging here and in Kansas. My next destination is El Dorado, Arkansas, where I will have lunch tomorrow with an old professional friend who formerly was general counsel at the National Trust For Historic Preservation before he left Washington, D.C., to run his family’s forest product business. I do a short stretch on Interstate 30 then exit at Texarkana onto old US Highway 82. It’s like driving into a time warp as I pass through small cities and towns like Stamps, Waldo, and Magnolia. Then I hit the gawd-awful commercial development leading into El Dorado, one of the most dastardly strips I have ever seen, which leads into another recovering downtown where I meet my friend. Snow still is stack in the corner of some parking lots, courtesy of last week’s arctic blast that pummeled the South. We grab a leisurely bite in a cavernous old used car dealership that has been converted into a first-class restaurant and entertainment venue with a great view of the central business district. My buddy clues me in on the good news here, with historic buildings being renovated, lively shops and restaurants dotting the streets, and even new apartments being constructed. Of course it helps that giant Murphy Oil has kept its world headquarters and jobs downtown, a tribute to corporate good citizenship.
Then it’s time to hustle on. More back roads through Mississippi and Alabama, where the people are unfailingly friendly, despite the grinding poverty I see along the road. People living in shacks and ramshackle trailers that remind me of the dilapidated housing in rural West Virginia and New Mexico. And as I travel further east and south, it also strikes me that people are getting heavier and more rotund—this is what the medical community has dubbed the obesity and diabetes belt. The silver lining is that here and in most states obesity rates are leveling off and even declining for children as parents pay more attention to what they eat and drink.
By mid-afternoon on Day Six I am cruising down the Tamiami Trail east of Naples through the Everglades. Egrets and herons are everywhere, feeding in the marshes.
Then it’s into Everglades City and over the causeway onto Chokoloskee Island near the southern tip of mainland USA where I spend the winter. There’s still lots of damage evident from Hurricane Irma. Vacant lots are silent witness to that powerful storm that wiped out or seriously damaged 80% of the buildings here. Many buildings are still boarded up like the local hardware store and the city government is operating out of trailers, but at least one of the two local gas stations has reopened.
The mangroves are still tattered, but recovering, and the water looks great. I am already planning my first kayak trip and humming that old Gene Autry cowboy song adapted to piscatorial pursuits….”I’m back with the paddle again, out where a fin is a friend.” Snook….and Gators here I come!!
These cross-country trips always open my eyes to how the country is changing and at the same time staying the same. As usual, I have met a lot of good people along the way. It strikes me that if more of us would hit the road and get first-hand experience with all the different flavors of the landscape, cultures, and characters in the USA, we’d find there is much more that unites than divides us. If you decide to go, take along one of my favorite, iconic “on-the-road” books like Steinbeck’s Travel With Charley from the 60’s, Peter Jenkin’s Walk Across America from the 70s, or William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways from the 80s (I served on the board of Scenic America with William Least Heat Moon whose real name is….get this…Bill Trogdon.). My companion on this trip has been a more contemporary travelogue by Philip Caputo, The Longest Road: Overland In Search of America. Caputo is best known for what many think is the classic book on the Vietnam conflict, A Rumor of War, that recounts his experiences as a young soldier there. In The Longest Road, his prescient travel book published in 2013, Caputo explores his growing sense that America is changing and is more divided than ever. It leads him to embark on a year-long journey from the Florida Keys and Everglades City to the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It’s a timely and fascinating read especially given the political tenor of today. Now there’s an adventure that is on my bucket list!