Guest Columns

Hurtling across the American heartland on a post-election road trip

Contributing Columnist

I had election stories to file last week before I could hit the road again. It was 11:00 a.m. Wednesday morning before I’d met my deadlines, packed the car, picked up a large bag of malt vinegar Kettle chips, in preference to Cheetos or gold fish, and filled my cooler with soft drinks, water bottles and Colorado IPAs. My daughter was opening her new Pilates studio in Chicago’s Wicker Park on Thursday evening and it was also my granddaughter’s birthday. Time to roll east with the last of Lara’s belongings, which had remained lurking in my basement 40 years after her birth. I ratcheted the stereo up on high, a box of CDs in the passenger seat and a SIRIUS XM channel when I wanted to check on election results. Road trip!

First stop: Sterling, Colorado for lunch. The Village Inn parking lot was overflowing — who knew that Wednesday was free pie day at the Inn? (I ordered a slice of cherry.) Logan County went Republican, but the counter conversation was more about the 25-year-old Democrat who ran for County Commissioner and lost to his former high school teacher than it was about the presidential campaign. Even Republicans seemed to hope the young man would run again after a little seasoning. No one evidenced any particular surprise or alarm at four more years of the Obama presidency, and virtually everyone was chuckling about the legalization of marijuana as though Colorado had “stuck it to the man” with Amendment 64. (Our elected officials have run well behind public opinion on this issue for nearly three decades in Colorado.)

From Sterling you can now see an uninterrupted procession of wind turbines along the northern horizon from east to west. State energy policies make a difference: as I crossed into deep red Nebraska and the 400 mile slog to Omaha there was not a single wind farm. As a kid, before the completion of the Interstate system, we would drive U. S. 30 which runs parallel to and a few miles north of I-80. My brother and I would guess the distance to the next grain elevator and the closest estimate would score a point. It helped pass time during the dreary sameness of the trip. You didn’t have to pick up a local newspaper to suspect that Deb Fischer had won the Nebraska Senate race. Her signs were everywhere, while Bob Kerrey, either for reasons of inadequate money or organization, was invisible. Gas station employees expressed astonishment that Obama had been re-elected. Perhaps we are segregating political allegiance by geography.

It was growing dark as I arrived in Omaha, where a long series of storage silos along the riverfront were decorated with huge and colorful art panels that relieved their cement monotony. I crossed the Missouri into blue Iowa in search of a motel, hoping to sleep in a community where my Obama bumper sticker wouldn’t upset anyone. Up at 6:00 a.m., I decided to knock out the 90 miles to Des Moines before breakfast. I found myself obeying the speed limit the entire way as I followed a Pottawattamie (I wanted to work that word into this story) County Sheriff’s car. Suddenly there were wind farms every 20 or 30 miles, and more fresh road kill venison than you ever find in Colorado. Those rolling hills must harbor a massive deer population. At first I thought the corn stubble had been burned and then plowed into the ground. With better light I could see it was the soil itself that was rich, black and loamy.

Just outside of Des Moines, I spotted a Burma Shave sequence of messages on road signs cut out to look like cows:

URBAN SPRAWL
SURE AIN’T PRETTY
SAVE OUR FARMS
BUILD IN THE CITY

No wonder Obama carried Iowa. If Des Moines constitutes runaway development, we have definitely lost that battle along the Front Range. I also discovered the Video Game Hall of Fame is located in nearby Ottumwa. (Bet you didn’t know that.) My waitress at Perkins mentioned she hadn’t watched any broadcast television since Labor Day, TIVOing all her favorite shows so she could fast forward through the political commercials. I could sympathize — swing state voters should consider a cruel and unusual punishment appeal.

I always like to read the local paper when I am traveling. I learned that the Bonobo ape Panbanisha had died of a respiratory infection after 26 years at a local wild animal sanctuary. Darla Krom, a couples therapist, was stripped of her counseling license after moving in with the wife of a couple that had come to her for marital help. The photo of the President embracing Michelle that was distributed by the Associated Press with the title “Four More Years” on Wednesday was actually taken at a rally in Dubuque back in August. And, finally, in Sac City, a young couple purchased the home of one Mark Koster at a public auction. Koster disappeared in 2009 and was legally declared dead last year. Although the police ostensibly searched the house in 2009, the new owners found Koster’s body in the basement after they received keys to the house. The presumably embarrassed police chief said there was no indication of foul play.

Bruce Rohwer, executive director of the Iowa Corngrower’s Association, was critical of re-elected Congressman Steve King for failing to sign the discharge petition for the Farm Bill, which is currently bottled up somewhere in the House. King protested he was concerned he might not be included on the conference committee if he took a position on the proposed release. Rohwer replied by observing, “If it never gets to the floor that won’t be an issue.” Impeccable logic — and, all of this in a state with full-page newspaper ads for Carhartt’s flannel-lined jeans. Not to mention the Bob Feller museum, the Bridges of Madison County, John Wayne’s birthplace, the Amana religious colonies, the Lewis Sullivan Jewel Box Bank in Grinnell and the Herbert Hoover Presidential library in West Branch. Pretty exciting stuff.

Rolling across the Mighty Mississippi and into Illinois, I spied another sign sequence:

FREEDOM FROM
FOREIGN OIL
SOY BIODIESEL

If you like ethanol, I suppose you might love soy biodiesel? Or, is it likely this is just another dollars for crops boondoggle? Soon there were signs for Ronald Reagan’s birthplace in Dixon. It’s not hard to understand why both he and John Wayne would end up in Hollywood. They both grew up in communities where the most exciting thing that would ever happen was the annual unveiling of the new tractors at the John Deere dealership. The great communicator would probably roll over in his grave if he were to learn of Rita Crundwell, the Dixon town controller, who managed to embezzle an astonishing $53 million over 21 years. Apparently no one in this small town wondered how she could afford a breeding farm with more than 400 horses, a dozen trucks and trailers to transport them, a Corvette and a pontoon boat, as well as a $2 million dollar motor home. She pled guilty to one count of wire fraud, saving the state the expense of “…a long and expensive trial.” Ah, Illinois!

Finally, arriving in Chicago, I learned that a legislator named Derrick Smith, who had been expelled from the statehouse earlier this year following a federal bribery trial, won re-election to office last week. There is considerable debate about whether his expulsion should stand upon his return to Springfield. He claims to be a new man, reformed in both mind and spirit. I suppose if his constituents choose to be represented by a known felon that is their privilege. While in Chicago a decked out Hummer pulled up alongside my pitifully small KIA Soul, the driver honking and motioning for me to roll down my window. Speaking in a heavy Eastern European accent after I did so, he spat out, “You have crap all over your back door.” It took me a few seconds to realize he was referring to my relatively discreet OBAMA/44 bumper sticker. In the President’s hometown, he must be a very busy guy!

Each time someone figured out I was from Colorado, they would wink and say, “You guys legalized marijuana, didn’t you?” As I sheepishly acknowledged that yes, Denver was now in a competition with Seattle to become the American Amsterdam, they would grin back. Comments ranged from, “The best damned thing that happened on Tuesday” to “I know where I’ll go skiing this year.” I didn’t mean to pour cold water on a burgeoning tourism bump, but I admonished each enthusiast that it was likely to be a good long while before Colorado was setting up smoke shops. (The recently announced decision to cease ‘possession’ enforcement for small amounts is likely to prove welcome news in precincts far and wide.)

On Monday the 12th it was time to rumble home to Denver. In Kearney, Nebraska a crew was removing a billboard I’d noticed traveling eastbound: a headshot of President Obama with the phrase “Can’t cut it?” on top, and “Just fire him!” along the bottom. Deb Fischer, Nebraska’s freshman Senator, was likely back at her mailbox watching for the price support checks she and her husband regularly accept for their family farming operation. Apparently those federal checks aren’t the kind of income redistribution that so bothers her Tea Party supporters. It may feel like we are ‘spreading the wealth around’ each time prices jump at the supermarket, but that’s probably just more blue-state whining. Have you noticed that it’s the red states fulminating about secession that are the real ‘takers,’ receiving more federal largesse from Washington than they pay in taxes? If we blue-staters were to quit subsidizing them, we could find the money needed to rebuild our public infrastructure. But, I digress.

There was a skiff of snow on the ground when I reached Julesburg; five or six inches at Roggen and back to a bare inch or two in the Queen City of the Plains. My cooler was empty, the chips were gone and I had learned that the 35-cent per gallon savings on ethanol mixed fuels didn’t pay for the 15 percent reduction in miles per gallon traveled. Keeping the air cleaner for the cornbelt was a losing economic proposition!

mnhwriter@msn.com