Highway 60: Four Days in the American Interior: Day 4 Nowata, OK – Fort Wayne, IA

You can read the first three installments of my October 2011 road trip here, here, and here.

Complimentary coffee and supermarket sweet rolls, then on to Vinita where I join the Interstate. The best is past, and I can only look with longing at each exit.  Lots of slowdowns for construction as the two year old stimulus proceeds.

Late Autumn in the Ozarks of Missouri, and Arkansas stations coming in on the radio. A field filled with pickups where a cattle auction is in progress.  On the hills, billboards for “Erotic Superstores,” fireworks, gun stores, Indian gaming. And churches, particularly as I approach Springfield, known for its piety and confessional diversity. Sex, loud bangs, weapons, and God.  If there is a message here, I don’t get it.

A rest area is handsomely themed with icons from old Route 66.  I’ll take route 60, largely intact where I drove it.

Oh St Louis! Long ago Gateway to the West, now firmly in Middle America.  A commanding height on the great river, choke point and gathering place.  History. Approaching the center, a bluff with old brick houses on streets still thick with autumn foliage.  Across the river, East St Louis, another history, an unfortunate one of urban decay, where Chevy Chase had his ride stripped in “National Lampoon Vacation.”  Funny.  I guess.

Some of the old factory buildings are being sold as loft condos.  A sooty dark bridge crosses the river.  There must be a lot of old iron down there, a great place for a little urban archaeology, a black and white photo shoot.  I guess I’d be afraid.  And that’s not funny.

The Interstate splits, North to Chicago, south to Memphis.  On my own, with no obligation, I’d take a hard right, right now.  Memphis, Interstate roads signs to conjure with, each trigger for memories and dreams.

Again those imaginary but so real lines on the map.  Illinois and the clean straight sweep of fields and windbreaks.  White houses and grey barns and silos, very different from those of Oklahoma and Missouri.  Near new Zurich, a country cemetery, nineteenth century grave still tended, sheltered in a copse among the ripening corn, a barn and silo rising behind.  And so it has been, around every corner, over every rise, past every bend, the human geography that shows not only a particularity of place but the traces of great waves of settlement and economic change.

Later, with the luxury of the internet (something I did without those three days) I saw that what was to me no more than an interesting road sign with a tiny population number, was a place built by generations, still cherished, histories remembered.  Not histories of great battles and famous men, but an early settler, a successful farmer, a pioneering business, a champion sports team recalled in yellowed clippings and black and white speed graphic.

At dusk, Terre Haute, and I remember a long ago summer visit there with cousins, lazy days of swimming in the Wabash, bicycling the streets under the green arch of trees in full summer leaf, and out into the open country side. Dinner at the back yard picnic table most evenings. Hot dogs, watermelon, and corn so sweet that butter was superfluous.

Construction delays, and well past nightfall when I pass though Indianapolis, the brightly lit glass towers much the same as in any of scores of midsize American cities. At last skirting the outskirts of Fort Wayne, past dark office parks and brightly lit auto dealerships, into the rural suburb where my daughter lives.

That moment of both solid satisfaction and mild regret when the journey is done.  The lights go on and I am home, because, as was once said, home is where they have to let you in, to which I would add, where they are glad to see you. How fortunate I am to have so many.

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