Minds of States

Somebody should have taken that bet. Instead of the Kraft yard, I got sent north to Rockford to repower a load because a truck had broken down. They hadn’t told me about the breakdown, just said to meet another driver at a certain truck stop and swap loads. At the truck stop there was no truck, no driver, nothing but a loaded trailer. Which I assumed was mine, but before I could hook up and drive away with it there was the usual nonsense of tracking down the driver, confirming that it was my load, getting the bills of lading faxed to me, working out my trip plan and getting approval to roll. Which didn’t happen until six this morning. The good news is, I’m on my way to Sacramento, which is a great run: lots of wide open miles through the high prairie and the West and up and down Donner Pass, which is one of the grandest passes I know: not so high, mind you, but long and swooping and dramatic in the scenery department.

And I got to head across Iowa! I love to drive the interstates of Iowa. If that strikes you as odd, I suspect you are one of those benighted souls who thinks Iowa is nothing but cornfields. Well, what you didn’t notice is that some of that corn grows quite low to the ground and is markedly lacking in the tassel department, and is actually soybeans. And speaking of lacking, one thing Iowa does not have is billboards.

Do you know the poem by Ogden Nash?

 

I think that I shall never see

A billboard lovely as a tree

Indeed, unless the billboards fall

I’ll never see a tree at all.

 

One of the first poems I ever memorized, and I think of it every time I drive Missouri, the eastern 40 miles or so of which, along I70, is the mother of all strip malls. What do those billboards tout? Mostly fireworks and nude girls, either live or on DVD.

Which gets me back to my topic, which is how the various states reveal something of their essential nature, even to someone just passing through. The incredibly polite drivers in Minnesota, the other kind in New Jersey. Kansas, which is utterly obsessed, judging by the number of signs along the road, with abortion. (They’re against it.) Texas, which is utterly obsessed with itself. (The word, the flag, and the Texas star are everywhere.) My mother tells me that the most common sign in Colorado is ‘Rock Shop,’ something I hadn’t exactly noticed myself but there you have it.

The wonderful thing about Iowa, besides the dearth of billboards, is the wealth of internet access. All across I80, every single full-service rest area serves up a free wireless connection. I stopped earlier today and scooped some up, and boy was it good.

Iowa is big on information. They spend, I have been told, more per student on public education than any other state. Which has the odd consequence of making Iowa a net exporter (or so it would seem – fully half the people I know in Colorado Springs are from Iowa) of well-educated (and very polite, I might add, as one would only expect of Midwesterners) people, as once they’ve graduated from the fine public schools and the fine state university, you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm; as everyone knows, there’s nothing to do in Iowa but grow corn. Or soybeans.

Sometimes a state will do a wonderful job of defining itself for you in the most compact of fashions. On a recent trip down through ol’ Miss, a hot and muggy drive with the A/C acting up, periodically deciding to blow hot air instead of cold, late at night after having driven too many hours, Pink Floyd’s Money came on the radio. The rock and roll had been pretty weak up until that point, so I welcomed the change of attitude and cranked up the volume. To my irritation, the station censored out a certain eight-letter word, which left the subsequent off-rhyme ‘Learjet’ rather hanging. A perfectly good Anglo-Saxon eight-letter word, too. Bullshit, I thought. Humph, I thought. So much, I thought, for Bible Belt rock. I recalled a picture taken in Mississippi of a group of youths burning Beatles’ records under the approving eye of their minister after John Lennon’s remark anent the then-current popularity of the Fab Four relative to that of the Nazarene. Some things never change.

No, I am tickled to say, they don’t. Some miles down the road, tired and still irked, I pulled off at a primitive rest area cut into the steamy woods to rest my eyes and stretch. As I walked up and down, thinking of characters from Faulkner hunting in those woods or making moonshine or engaged in moonlit larceny of one form or another, a pleasant-spoken gent stepped over and chatted me up. A smooth character. Been on the road? Where was I from? The usual sort of conversation between strangers, very casual, until he came out with: Was I looking to fool around?

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Must get a lot of chances to fool around, out on the road all the time.”

“If that’s what you’re looking for,” I said.

“I know a girl down the road, if you’re looking for something.”

I declined the offer. Knowing his business, he pushed just a little bit more in case I was actually interested but shy, then ambled off to wait for the prospective customer.

 

 

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