Smack Dab In The Middle

06 america tagLinda Burton posting from Des Moines, Iowa –The Journey Across America is 70% complete. I’m wrapping up my stay in Des Moines, my 35th capital city. This time last year I was in Olympia, Washington. This time next year I’ll be in Washington, DC. Right now, I’m smack dab in the middle of the country, the part we call “the heartland.” I’ve found a lot of heart here on the prairie, where people live with wide-open spaces and rich, productive farmland. The cities aren’t big, but the spirit is. Mother Nature commanded my attention as I drove between these last five 04 Wanda and Cocoacities – with floods and tornadoes and my personal favorite, lightning storms. But the people I’ve met overshadowed the weather inconveniences; and that’s what I’ll remember. Like Wanda, and the 4th of July party she put together for many of us in the hotel, bringing her homemade potato salad, and having husband Max grill the burgers (and bring Cocoa in for us to pet). Like Josh and Patrick in Lincoln who took care of my car, adding a special “rain protector” after the wash so I’d be safer in the storms, cheering on the Journey, and 06 guys car wash lincolnwishing they could tag along. Like Sheryl in Topeka, who stopped her work every morning to chat with me over breakfast, and wouldn’t let me leave without getting our picture together by the car. Like Robyn in Jefferson City, who helped me track down facts on Daniel Morgan Boone; and William, who thanked me for writing about the concert at the capitol where he sang a solo. Like the security guys Robert and Fred in Springfield, who were tippy-toed with excitement that I’d come to see their capitol, and followed me outside, still talking, wishing me a successful Journey. What is better than that?

06 jack boxWho could have a better work environment than me? I have Alex and Jack to keep me company, a regularly changing landscape, and brand new friends every day. Sometimes the sun rises over my computer; sometimes it sets; my rooms have faced both east and west. Sometimes I’ve gazed at a capitol dome as I work; sometimes, just an ordinary parking lot. Once I wound up in a resort, with gardens surrounding the indoor pool and wrought-iron bannisters that reminded of New Orleans. I stay in hotel chains that welcome my cats; still 06 cats snuggledthere is great variation in room size, and amenities. Sometimes there are enough electrical outlets to hook up everything in just the right spot – the Keurig near the sink; the computer and printer on worktables near the window; the 06 alex bedweather radio where it can pick up the signal. The configurations are always different so with each move I analyze my space; it keeps me on my toes, knowing I can adapt. And so can the cats – they’ve learned to sniff things out as soon as we arrive, choose their favorite spots, and relax. Jack’s folding chair travels with us; Alex prefers his red blankie on the bed, or a sunny windowsill.

I hear the stories of people’s lives, and get to share my own. I shared Jim Stembridge’s Fifty State Capitols book with two young men from Ukraine, here for a summer work exchange; in the breakfast room one evening after their workday ended, we talked about government and 06 tallahassee by carlooked at pictures of all the capitols. I explained why Tallahassee is the capital of Florida to a couple who was visiting from Tallahassee; they had never heard the story of the beginnings of their city; they said they’d go back with greater appreciation for their home town. Young people have told me my Journey makes them think about possibilities for their own life; older people have told me the same, and asked for specifics about what I’ve done in the past, and how I planned the Journey out. “You’re 74?” they marvel. “Maybe I can do something like that too.”

The encounters impacted me too. I was touched by the gentleman who felt compelled to explain “I’m not stuck up, I’m just deaf” as his wife chatted with me, and he didn’t. I was 03 posterinspired by the lady who has chosen to live in the hotel because “it’s cheaper than a nursing home and I get to be my own boss.” Our conversation began when I offered to move a chair so she could position her wheelchair at the table; she shooed me away telling me she had to keep doing things for herself; I understood just what she meant. I’ve seen lives in the middle of change; the mother overwhelmed by day-care expense; she’d been a big wage-earner in the past but was laid off; in her new low-paying job she couldn’t make ends meet and was being evicted from her 04 Cody w carhome. The elderly lady whose husband recently died; in the midst of her grief her house burned; the easy retirement years they had planned were not to be. The father about to give his daughter away in marriage; she was moving far from her hometown; “she says it’s too small,” her father sighed, thinking of the empty nest ahead. The young man in his last year of college, an honors student; graduate school, or straight to work? “I want to work with animals,” he said, “that is, animals that help people, like the Wounded Warriors. But I’m not sure how to get into that.” “You’ll figure it out,” I assured him, knowing that he will.

I’ve met people who have faced change, and made their choice. Like traveling. The schoolteacher who had retired just the day before; she and her husband were traveling the country, dressed in playful Tshirts, driving every mile of Route 66 from Chicago to California, spirits high. “We’re doing the Lincoln Highway next,” they said. “We plan to see every inch of the USA.” The couple from Germany; “we started in Washington and end our trip in San Francisco,” they told me. “Five weeks seeing the middle of the United States. Next year we’ll do Canada, and then Mexico.” The young park ranger who just had a baby; “As soon as he’s three,” she said, “we’re traveling with him to every continent, we want him to see the world.”

Or like staying put. The widows who have tickets to the Sunday matinees, getting together regularly in friendship and support, adjusting from their old life to their new. The volunteers at the historical sites who now spend their retirement time meeting new people and talking about the things they love – their town, its history and its current verve; blessed with the gift of gab, and perhaps, a listening ear. Like Jim in Jefferson City, who got the key and let me slip into the legislative chambers, even though they were closed to the public that day. Like Andrea in Topeka, who hand-letters special certificates for visitors on a “quest” to see all the capitols, she did one for me. Like Robert and Fred in Springfield, who greet every visitor with an infectious enthusiasm, starting their visit to the capitol on the right foot. Like Jamison, in Lincoln, who easily switched from telling children’s stories to patiently answering questions for the remaining adults, after the children’s capitol tour ended and they headed off for ice cream. Like Mel, in the Iowa Welcome Center, who loaded me with maps and brochures, and gave personal comments on the Very Best Things to see and do in her wonderful state. What is better than that?

06 cow poolsThen there are the animals I’ve seen along the way. I’ve spotted cattle loping down the hill for a noon-day dip in the pond; a horse taking in the sights as he rode down the highway, head out the window and mane blowing in the wind; a squirrel ignoring passersby and bopping along the sidewalk, picking up the bounty; a bunny tucked in the bushes right by the statues of Lewis and Clark, big ears still, and listening, as my camera clicked; dogs woofing it up in the hotel lobbies, twisting leashes around owner’s legs at the check-in desk. 06 jack iowa catAnd my cats, as I rouse them up at every state line, claiming them as “Illinois Cats,” or “Missouri Cats,” and so on. “You’re 33-state cats now!” I said at the Iowa line, and scratched their heads. (No Hawaii or Alaska for them, remember?) And my food adventures continue to be great; from the surprise of exquisite Thai food at the Blue Orchid in Lincoln, to the absolute perfection of Eggs 06 green gateauFlorentine at the Green Gateau in the same town. I’ve had the fun of eating corndogs in Springfield, where they were invented; the kick of a hearty farm breakfast at the Machine Shed in Des Moines, served by staff wearing red-checked shirts and overalls. During Sunday brunch at the Blue Moose in Topeka, where I commented on the missing grits, the chef vowed to go purchase some and cook them for me immediately, IF I could verify I was from New Orleans, as he was. “I just need Alabama grits,” I answered, and so we laughed. And oh yes, I had barbecue at Bandanas in Jefferson City on Memorial Day – with choices of turkey, pork, or beef, and a zillion different sauces, including the Kansas City special. What is better than that?

What new things have I learned? I didn’t know diddly about pigs before I got to Iowa; now I know there are many breeds, I have a little book that lists 29 of them, including the 06 flint hillsVietnamese pot bellied. I didn’t know there were black squirrels till I got to Kansas. I didn’t know that Kansas City, Missouri is bigger than Kansas City, Kansas, and is home to all those Kansas ball teams. I thought Kansas was flat, till I drove through the Flint Hills. I thought Lincoln was named to honor Abraham Lincoln, till I learned it was really a political ruse that failed. I didn’t know that Frank Lloyd Wright came up with the prairie house design till I got to Illinois, or that Abe Lincoln was one of the first of the “permissive” parents, letting his kids run around his office while he studied cases at his desk. I began to get 06 daylilliesthe hang of why areas were chosen for the location of capital cities – almost always near rivers, or railroads, but definitely in a spot that was central to the population of the time, and was good for predicted future development. And oh yes, with the arrival of summer, I’ve caught the roses blooming in nearly every town, and the yellow daylilies, reminding me so much of a yard that once was mine. What is better than that?

Add another 1,605 miles to the 23,692 already traveled, for a total of 25,297 to this point; the Scion is still the perfect car, as far as I’m concerned. Next up, Saint Paul, Madison, Lansing, Columbus, and Albany; by then the cats and I will be far to the east, getting closer and closer to completing our Journey. Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve loved during the time I’ve spent smack dab in the middle of the USA.

06 Capitol Springfield LindaSpringfield (left) – I loved the “Epcot-style” Lincoln Museum and amazing movies there; the Lincoln focus in town, his home and office open to see, the reverence inside his tomb, his bronze-bust out front, pat his nose, lightheartedly; the preserved 50’s kitsch of corn dogs and drive-ins; Route 66, heading west.

06 Capitol Jeff City Linda carJefferson City (right) – I loved the all-American look; the flag-lined sidewalks and petunias blooming everywhere; the patriotic concerts on Memorial Day; the capitol on a bluff and its expansive grounds; the well-organized history tours; weddings in the park; a community involved, and proud.

06 Capitol Topeka LindaTopeka (left) – I loved the tall grasses flowing in the prairie wind; the brick-paved streets in the historic Potwin Place neighborhood; Old Prairie Town; my hand-lettered certificate from the capitol; sitting in the governor’s chair and touring the governor’s mansion; the warmth of friends.

06 Capitol Lincoln Linda 2Lincoln (right) – I loved the passion for parks, spread wide across the town; the high motivation of city planners with the Live Lincoln campaign, giving everyone the chance to speak out and participate; the urban forest and banners marking neighborhoods; the University atmosphere, Go Big Red.

06 capitol Des Moines LindaDes Moines (left) – I loved the lushness of the sprawling farms and rolling hills; the green, green grass in every suburb and every downtown park, well-tended and fine to see; the thoughtful use of riverfront space; the appeal of downtown living; layers upon layers of things to see and do.

What is better than that?