They build roads straight in the midwest. Very straight.
So the towns don’t sneak up on you at all. Rolling across the vast flatness, you can see them coming for miles, these little collections of humanity habitat. First you see the heartland skyscrapers: the skyline (usually) punctuated by a collection of soaring grain silos and (often) a proud water tower, proclaiming “Peetz” or “Gurley” or “Dalton” to the world motoring by.
Evidently from the population signs there really are more people in these communities than the number of letters on the water towers, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like much more. Northbound on Highway 385, Papa’s hometown of Alliance, Nebraska my destination, my thoughts look for something to do as the miles pass.
Why do these little towns appear where they do? I’m a west coast suburban boy, and the prairie communities don’t make immediate sense to me. Oregon towns center around important valleys, or riverways; geography seems to define where and how communities spawn. But in this immense flatness, this almost limitless sameness, why does Akron choose that plot of acreage to be birthed, and not the carbon copy farmland 2 miles west, or 3.5 miles southeast? I am puzzled.
I imagine myself a sort of Sherlock Holmes, or a modern day de Tocqueville. Can I deduce from observation the patterns and rhythms that birth village life in the heartland of America?
The grain towers are what tip me off. There’s a pattern-on the left side of the highway as I enter a new community, the silos always rise. The heights vary, the numbers vary, but they are always there, nestled next to the rails. Sometimes it’s just the silos and a few houses and maybe a mom and pop grocery lining the road I’m driving. Sometimes a Main Street branches off to my right, and I might see a library or a school or a post office. I begin to comprehend that it is the silos and railroad that are the anchor, the colony starter.
Suddenly even as my eyes stay on the unbending road before me, my mind escapes and soars upward, the ground swiveling in my mind. I’m looking down on this patchwork quilt of farmland now, a Google Map satellite vision in my mind of what I’m driving through, and I see it. I get it.
My neighbor is only going to buy so much of my wheat or my corn or my soybeans. If I’m going to do more than subsist, I need access to more customers. There’s a world that needs to eat, and each farmer needs access to those far-flung hungry ones. A town’s genesis is this focal point, this connection to the rest of the world, where a farmer can get crops to the ones who need it and receive in return money to live. The railway is the lifeblood of the entire region, each farm a little alveolus exchanging what is needed into the blood stream-I mean the transportation system-of the American continent. Dalton Nebraska is at 41.4972° N, 102.9733° W because that is the spot where those collections of farms can pass their crops into the railway system, the same way that lungs pass oxygen into the bloodstream.
I swell with pride at having cracked the code. And when Alliance rises up in front of me, I am greeted by a huge confluence of tracks, six trains wide. After hours of little towns in the hundreds, I have been changed. I see Alliance, 2000 people strong, in all its train-hub, county-seat glory.
This is my grandfather’s home.