Where East Meets West

If you’ve ever been out west — into the countryside, not the big cities like Denver or Phoenix — you know that people who live there tend to have a different sense of property, and physical space. 

Out west, things tend to get left where they are likely to be used again, rather than carefully returned to a garage or shed, stored, and locked up.  There’s plenty of space and room for everything, it never rains so what’s the big deal, and who’s going to come by and steal the stuff, anyway?  If you go out into the countryside, you’re likely to see things strewn about the property around many of the houses and trailers, whether it’s a car being worked on with parts left on a tarp, or a half-completed structure that looks like it hasn’t been worked on for a while.  Some people might think it looks junky, but others would say it is trusting, and relaxed, and practical, besides.  The owner bought all that wide-open space for a reason, so why not use it?

Maine has a bit of that devil-may-care quality that I usually associate with the west.  As you walk around, you’re likely to see things just left outside, right where they are going to be used again.  Boats, kayaks, canoes, oars, lobster traps, buoys, and boat trailers dot the landscape, and nobody seems to notice or care.  It’s a much more relaxed mindset.  Where city dwellers would have reflexive concern about potential theft, Mainers know from experience that it’s not likely that someone is going to steal a green kayak.  And they are right:  the police report section of the local paper really doesn’t report much in the theft department.

Getting used to this attitude requires Midwestern city dwellers like me to make a bit of a mental downshift, but once you get comfortable with it, it’s actually quite pleasant.

Westward, Ho

Today the footprint of the Webner family gets a bit broader.  For the first time, one of the members of my immediate family crosses over the mighty Mississippi to establish a toehold in the traditional west.

Richard will move to Columbia, Missouri, to begin work at the graduate school of journalism at the University of Missouri.  He’ll be relocating to the land of prairie and prairie dogs, where herds of buffalo thundered across the open plain and huge flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies, where grass grew waist-high and rippled in the wind like the waves of the sea, where the Dakota, Kickapoo, and Shawnee once roamed, trappers plied their trade, settlers built cabins and broke the sod.

The residents of Webner House have lived and worked and gone to school at various locations in the eastern half of the country but have never lived in the western states.  I’ve always had a romantic notion of the American West, where so many of the themes running through American culture — the fearless and hardy pioneer, the rugged cowboy on the lonesome prairie, the self-made individuals looking for opportunity and success in new towns — were first written.  I’m looking forward to visits to Missouri to see whether those deep chords of Americana still are sounded where the West began.

An American Scene

Could any single object be more evocative of the American story than a wind-beaten, weathered wooden wagon, such as may have been used to help take settlers into the great western wilderness?  This version of the classic American icon was found several years ago outside Cody, Wyoming.

An American Scene

An American Scene

An American Scene

An American Scene

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part I)

A few years ago we were talking about where to go for a vacation, and Russell expressed a strong interest in seeing Mount Rushmore and some of the American West. I readily agreed, because I like driving and I like the West. But, where to go?

The old State Capitol in Springfield

I wanted to expose the kids to the America that I remember from my childhood trips — a land of local restaurants, regional fare, and legitimate historical sites and national parks mixed in with bizarre man-made attractions. Many of those restaurants and curiosities have been put out of business by bypassing superhighways or pricing pressure from national chains, but some are still around. So, I visited the excellent RoadsideAmerica and Roadfood.com websites, read a few library books, and planned a driving trip that took us as far west as Cody, Wyoming. I tried to plan days that involved enough driving to make progress, but not so much that we would be in the car for endless hours, listlessly watching the landscape roll by.

On our first day we drove six hours to Springfield, Illinois. Like many Americans, I identify strongly with Lincoln, and the idea of visiting Springfield was irresistible. We left early one morning, got to Springfield around noon, and we weren’t disappointed. Many of the historic Lincoln sites are well-preserved, and the city has a new, and fascinating, Lincoln Museum. We visited the Museum, the beautiful old State Capitol, Lincoln’s striking tomb, and his old neighborhood — athough, unfortunately, we did not get to tour his home.

The next morning we awoke early for one of the longest driving days of the trip. After bidding farewell to the very talkative bed and breakfast proprietor, we crossed the mighty Mississippi at Hannibal and rolled on to Tea, South Dakota. My plan was to get as far west as we could while trying a few odd stops along the way. I’d read about Maid-Rite sandwich shops in one of my sources and was intrigued by the idea of “loose meat ground beef” sandwiches. We stopped in a Maid-Rite in a small Iowa town and had a wonderful meal. The sandwiches (and fries) are great. Maid-Rites have been around since the 1920s, and this particular outlet looked like it had been in the same location, unchanged, since at least the ’50s. The town in which it was located had the same timeless feel.

Fortified, we drove on to the Steever House Bed and Breakfast near Tea, South Dakota. It is a magnificent old home with beautiful rooms that is surrounded by fields. If you stand outside the house, looking at the farmland extending to the horizon in every direction, you feel very small indeed. There are few trees nearby, and you can see weather systems rolling in from miles away.

mini_2155I’d read about the Steak House in Tea, South Dakota and felt we just had to try it. It also was well worth the visit. The Steak House is a no-frills place — the sign out front just says “Steak” — and you eat at simple tables, without having to endure the faux atmosphere found in so many lame chain restaurants. It is, simply, a place for people who want to eat a steak, and it filled the bill admirably. The place was packed, with waitresses weaving among the tables with heaving platters of steak and hash browns and plastic basets of onion rings. The steaks are massive, cooked to order, and so fresh you feel like the cattle were just butchered out back — which they probably were.

Having huge, tasty steaks at the southeast corner of South Dakota made us feel like we were away from the Midwest and on the edge of adventure.