January 16, 2000

Article at Washington Post

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Dead Center America

It has rained for most of the day as I've made my way west across Iowa and into Nebraska, but the rain has tailed off now, become a mist that is lifting like a gauzy curtain. I turned south not long ago at Grand Island, and I am headed down U.S. 281, the sun falling out of a bar of cloud above the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.

Cather came to Red Cloud from Virginia in 1883 with her family. She was 9, forced to trade the lush but limited vistas of the settled East for the broad, austere expanses that open around me here. Remembering her arrival later, she said, "This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention to us. So the country and I had it out together, and by the end of the first autumn that shaggy grass country gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake."

As the mist clears off in shreds, the country declares itself: the last houses of the town of Red Cloud fall behind and the tallgrass prairie rises in waves, the big trees in town giving way to the cottonwoods and scrub oak that line the wet draws. I roll over hills that rise and fall like the respirations of a sleeping body, my cruise control pegged at 75. On the radio, Stealers Wheel's guitars warble and Gerry Rafferty sings, I swear: Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. I am six miles north of Lebanon, Kan.

Lebanon, about 250 miles west of Kansas City and about 15 miles south of the Nebraska border, is the town closest to my destination--the spot the U.S. Geological Survey has identified as the center of the coterminous 48 states, the "Lower 48" that make up the sea-to-shining-sea block most of us think of when we think America. A narrow belt of corn alternates with another of wheat, a band of silage for the cattle in winter. I cross into Kansas, start scanning the southern horizon for the low blister of trees that marks all towns out here, that will tell me where Lebanon is. Just as I catch sight of it I see the sign for the park my research has told me marks the nation's exact center. The sign is just below the sunflower marker for Kansas Route 191.

I drive down a gentle grade, then up another, and from a quarter-mile away I can see the park where 191 throws out a loop of road and doubles back on itself, a needle and its eye. In the eye is a little postage stamp of green, an open shelter, a few trees, a couple of low bushes, a small white building whose use I can't make out yet. There's another low building behind the park: painted blue, almost lost in the weak light of evening. It's neglected-looking, the asphalt shingles of its roof patchy and stained.

I pull into the parking lot before this building and its lineaments are unmistakable. At the center of America, an abandoned motel.

I get out of my car and the stillness is palpable, like a coolness against the skin. The sky has cleared off and gone a deep blue, enormous above the ruler-straight horizon, and birds float impossibly high, like flecks of pepper. The park is ringed with silver-painted posts. The grass is cut, the shrubs pruned. There is a picnic table under the shelter, and I approach the white building, a tiny peak-roofed clapboard trailer. The sign under its eaves reads: "U.S. Center Chapel."

Inside it is barely the size of a pickup truck bed, flyspecked and drowsy with the day's stored heat. It's odd and sweet: paneling like something left over from the finishing of someone's basement rec room, four handmade plywood pews, a pulpit backed by a cross-emblazoned red-white-and-blue Lower 48. Carved wooden letters arced above spell out Pray America.

Early the next day I drive back to Lebanon from my motel in Smith Center, the county seat 14 miles away, intending to explore the town and meet the people. I turn off the state route and into town and drive the length of Main Street, barely half a mile, and park in front of a building I take to be the town hall. It is of mellow red brick, with big windows and grand crumbling steps leading up from the sidewalk to double doors.

I cup my hands against the dust-silted plate glass: In the lobby there are posters for the New Year's Eve galas of '53 and '57. I try the door and it's locked. A walk around the property yields more locked doors, the dials of the electric meter frozen in place. No lights on, nobody home. I circle back around to the front doors again and stand before them. From a low building next door a man steps out and looks up at me. He is stout, wears glasses and a Pioneer seed hat, a thick salt-and-pepper beard.

"Help you?" he calls, not unfriendly.

He is Wes Higby, owner of one of the last functioning businesses in town--Higby Bros. Gunsmiths. A gun shop. Closer, I can see he has a blue plastic protector in his pocket jammed with pens, and that his hands are work-roughened, with gunpowder worked into the cracks and pores. In the several hours of our acquaintance, he never takes off his hat, even indoors.

He listens, carefully and politely, as I tell him why I've come. And when I've finished, I seem to expect him to say something. He looks at the ground between us, considering.

"Well. It's a place to live, Lebanon is. It's home."

He invites me into his shop, which, during the Coolidge administration, housed the town's hospital, but now is given over to a wilderness of gun parts, boxes, crates and bluing tanks. We end up in his "coffee house"--a couple of folding tables ringed by folding metal chairs in one of the shop's storefront rooms. On a shelf there's a blighted urn and a can with a slot cut in its lid to let visitors pay for coffee "on a donation basis." It's a public service, as Wes sees it--this is the only gathering place the town has left since the one cafe, Reba's, closed the month before. In an hour of sitting and chatting with the men who come in, I hear several treatises on the Hard Times that have carved away two-thirds of Lebanon's population since its 1920s heyday, and that don't look like stopping, not any time soon, not ever. At the Center of America, gloom.

Marvin Shipley steps in from the street. He wears muck-spattered coveralls and gum boots and smells ripe as a week-old corpse. He pours a cup, sits and eyes the table's occupants sardonically.

"Yeah. I smell like hell. That's right. I raise pigs for a living, but all I get is the stink. Years ago, you could get $250 for a good hog. Now you're lucky if you can get 10 cents a pound."

As men drift in and out, I hear mainly variations on its theme. The Satans besieging the farmers at the center include the corporate operations that run hog lots the size of whole farms and farms the size of counties, banks that won't loan to the small operator anymore, and of course the Bastards Back East, the Regulators in Washington who've never gotten their boots dirty, who've never worn a blister on their hands mending a fence, who'd never be caught dead in a storefront that smells of gun oil and pig manure.

It's a chorus everyone can add to--the farmer, stubborn and tough, holding on at the storm's dark center, as the hero of each story--and the morning ages as I listen. Eventually, though, this vein of complaint plays out and the silence creeps into the room. The coffee urn gurgles and we stare at the table top, and in a quiet voice, Wes adds an odd coda:

"We got so many pretty birds here. It's remarkable what you see, out among God's creation."

There is a querulous note wound through this, something hard to define, a thin wire of sad, simple love strung through the tough muscle of the pride-tinged talk about struggle and holding on against long odds. I want to follow up on this, but I can't. Wes's gaze is on the table and won't come up again. And the others are similarly abstracted. Pondering answers only outsiders would ask. I change my tack.

"Who stops out there at the Center Park?"

Johnny Gribbs, a farmer who has lately joined us, answers: "Easterners mostly. They don't know quite what to make of it. I seen a couple of people with New York plates up there, didn't know what wheat was, didn't know what milo was. Lady asked me if you could eat the milo. I said I didn't think I'd do that; those beards can be kind of tough on the tongue. Different ones have got married in that little chapel."

It's not an answer, really, and the looks on the men's faces tell me they know it. What could the tourists be looking for when they come to this place, out of the way as it is, buried amid terrain that's not so much impassable as it is unmitigated? Out here the eye craves some landmark, and the center is all that's on offer. The farmers and their families keep the Center Park up; they cut the grass, clean the chapel, empty the trash barrel, because the center means something to them. They do not seem to know precisely what.

During the hours I walk up and down Main, the street stays so empty a dog could lie down in it for a long nap in no fear of being awakened, much less run over. The curbs are lined with crumbling Victorian gingerbread storefronts, mostly abandoned, dropping bricks and powdery mortar onto the sidewalk. No faces appear in their windows.

Getting whittled down was the way one of the men characterized the town. The men in Wes's coffee shop told me the town's population peaked back in the 1920s at around 900. That was when the town fathers dedicated the town hall, when vaudeville acts still came to the opera house, when the stores still saw a healthy business from the surrounding farms, and the town's finest homes went up. But the interstate went in too far away, and other towns prospered. The county seat shifted to Smith Center, and TV came with its siren song of other places, other dreams. The kids went into the service, or off to school, and didn't come back. Lebanon's population is 364 now, and many of its homes, which would be showcases elsewhere, are vacant, sagging, overtaken by shrubs, their lawns uncut and seeding.

I walk north and find myself at the end of Main, in the yard of a closed-down complex of school buildings. Wes told me the school district closed the Lebanon schools 12 years back: not enough students. A big consolidated school district formed elsewhere to concentrate what kids there are. The only sound as I walk about comes from the scores of grasshoppers that hop and fly away from me, flashing red-and-black wings. Locusts, I think. So many that they sound like the beginning of a small rainstorm, landing in the dried leaves and grass.

I go to the school's front doors, cup my hands to peer in through the crosshatched glass, into a case still filled with trophies, plaques and photos. Something wrenchingly melancholy about these remnants of school pride--the young faces of players and cheerleaders, mementos that nobody is adding to, that nobody looks at. The football field has been out of use for so long an eight-foot evergreen has grown up in front of the scoreboard. The goalposts still stand, and beyond them there is the emptiness of open country that laps at all the town's edges with the encroaching patient action of waves.

I turn back into the remains of the business district: the post office, the VFW. The buildings dwindle, give way to gaps choked with brick dust and rubble. Then nothing. At the very edge of town, near the railroad tracks, a one-room jail still stands. It's made of composite blocks, and through its unglazed barred windows I can look in and see two strap-iron cells, their bunks still hanging on chains.

It's a place to live, Lebanon is. It's home.

To get a sense of what this means, it takes more than the few minutes required to pass through. What it means to be at the center, the Heart of the Heart of the country, can't be divined when one is in motion, can't be glimpsed from a car window. It's something you feel if you stop the car, get out, stand hip-deep and soaking in the pond of stillness that spreads without a ripple, mile on mile on mile. Born as it is in such silence, this understanding resists words.

Lebanon is where a certain kind of life is conducted, growing stubborn far from help or comfort or the bright chatter popular culture makes in most of our ears. Most of the men who come to Wes's gun shop for coffee are farmers born to farmers, working land that's been in their families for generations. It's not as if this place is a shirt they can take off, hang in a closet and forget.

It's time to head home. Soon Lebanon will fall behind me, a speck against the wall of space and stillness, this landscape that so easily and quickly swallows any human gesture, no matter how grand, with sheer indifference. It's what the farmers told me,with their silence as much as with their words. There is no arguing with this place. There is only endurance.

As I drive away the air is so mild that I have my windows open to the autumn air. To my left, a combine is chewing its way through what remains of a brown field of grain. Combines are high as houses, and when they're in motion nearby they're deafening, producing a thunder felt in the bones as much as it is heard. I pull to the shoulder to watch. By the time it reaches midfield, the machine's world-filling roar has fallen to a mutter, and perspective has shrunk it to toy size. The combine keeps crawling, approaching the field's far side.

Half-swallowed in a halo of chaff, it keeps gathering the harvest.

Mark Baechtel, who teaches writing at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, last wrote for the Travel section about the Cayman Islands.