The third week of May, you could hear the drone of lawnmowers in cities and towns off Interstate 35 from Texas to Minnesota. It had been raining. The weeds were out.
I was on the road for a few reasons. Among them was the low-grade claustrophobia that was calcifying in the house in Austin where I’d spent most of the pandemic. Also, I had grown to crave long drives over the last year. At first these were early-pandemic road trips of necessity, but the drives turned into ends in themselves.1 The pandemic enforced a moratorium on ambient listening, but at least you could still see people on the road, be among strangers. The interstate is a space of extremes, of both anonymity and participation in a collective. One of our last great civic spaces.
I-35 might be the ultimate American interstate. It runs straight up the middle of the country like a slightly scoliotic spine: Laredo—San Antonio—Austin—Waco—Dallas/Fort Worth—Oklahoma City—Wichita—Kansas City—Des Moines—Minneapolis/Saint Paul—Duluth—Lake Superior. Some people call it the NAFTA Highway; others call it Main Street. I drove all the way up 35 last fall, during election week. Biden’s win was called the morning I was staying on the sixteenth floor of a big-box hotel overlooking the Arkansas River in Wichita. Six months later, I was curious about how the country sounded, what people were saying to each other. The CDC had just relaxed its mask guidance and I was fully vaccinated, so I went back to Wichita and kept driving north.
“She’s not too smart with money,” a woman says to the man seated across from her at a Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks from the Little Arkansas. “She gets a manicure for forty dollars, and she can’t afford gas.” She is small and looks very much like Renata Adler. He wears a denim shirt and Wranglers and a gold chain from which reading glasses hang. She talks about furniture. “My couch and your couch.” I’m surprised to realize they don’t live together. He says a couple of monosyllabic words, to which she replies “What do you think, old man? Or are you thinking?” She talks about a cooking show where the contestants are given only three ingredients: “Chocolate candy bar, chicken, and an eggplant, and they had to make something.” She drops her rs and elongates certain vowels in a manner that makes a regional provenance hard to place. From the pace with which she changes topics, I sense a mounting anxiety. “Siri, what day is Memorial Day celebrated on?” They pay and drive away in separate cars. It’s raining hard and the only people outside appear to be homeless. A man is dancing wildly for nobody in front of a store called Economy Corner.
“I’m so happy to see your smiles again!” someone tells a receptionist at my hotel the next morning. When I checked in last night, employees were masked, today they aren’t—the rules changed overnight. I made a minor scene the last time I stayed here because the receptionist wouldn’t turn on the news on either of the lobby televisions when the election was called; she eventually did and the person who seemed to be her manager got livid. I recognize him; he’s friendly.
Downtown, a man on sleeps on a flattened cardboard box a few steps away from a Ford Fusion bearing the vanity plate GOLDDST. I’m walking to see where the Dockum Drug Store once was. Students led a sit-in there in the summer of 1958; it was one of the earliest lunch-counter sit-ins but until recently went largely unrecognized. The building is now a Marriott-affiliated hotel whose tagline is Exactly Like Nothing Else™. I walk inside and ask a receptionist about the site—I wonder if there is a plaque or anything. She says Dockum isn’t open. I ask what isn’t open. “The speakeasy.” The place was apparently gutted decades ago, and the basement of the hotel now has a cocktail bar named after the drug store. The lobby television plays CNN: “Investing in America ‘best way’ to meet worldwide threats.” The receptionist tells me there’s a sculpture of the lunch counter in a park down the block.
When I learn that Wichita has a living history museum commemorating its place on the Chisholm Trail, I’m unsurprised. It’s the trail up which several million longhorns were driven from Texas to railheads in Kansas in the two decades after the Civil War, and the road, allegedly, where the myth of the American cowboy was born. I call to see if the reenactments are still on despite the rain, but the man who answers informs me they’re not currently having reenactments on weekdays. Covid lull and all. I ask what the reenactments entail. “It’s like out of a dime novel, a skit, usually involving a gun fight,” he says, clarifying, “fiction.”
I get a manicure. A woman in a baby blue maxi dress is on the phone, asking someone about an ayahuasca retreat she came across on Facebook. “Who is the facilitator?” She insisted it was very important that she speak with this person, but then quietly said that she couldn’t really talk as she was at a nail salon. “Friend me.” My manicurist tells me that Wichita has exactly four seasons and that’s why she likes it. She was disoriented by the monotony of the weather in Las Vegas, where her husband had a job making lights for casinos. The person who seems to be her boss is wearing a long-sleeved baseball tee that says I RUN A TIGHT SHIPWRECK.
A lot of places claim that the West begins there. Fort Worth has a whole cottage industry around “Fort Worth, where the West begins.” (The motto is also painted on the city’s police cars.) Between Wichita and Kansas City, there’s an inn which advertises itself as “Obviously, Definitely Where the West Begins.” Apparently, the West also begins in Kansas City, Missouri, or began; the orientation is tied to a faded frontier. Leaving Wichita, I see a billboard for “Western Boots” and wonder if maybe the West ends when boots have to be specified as “western.” But generally you hear more about the start of the West than about its end.
I take 35 to El Dorado, one of the great oil boomtowns of the early twentieth century. But it was named El Dorado several decades before liquid gold was discovered underground. There are still a few pump jacks in fields along this stretch of the interstate, tiny ones, taking sips of whatever gold remains. It’s hard to believe any still does. The interstate runs over a lake—there are bare trees in the middle of the water that look like they shouldn’t be here, either.
I turn onto Highway 77 and drive into the Flint Hills, home of one of the last remaining expanses of tallgrass prairie in North America. Grasses that can get to be ten feet. Bison have been reintroduced to the landscape. I stop in Florence, whose water tower has 99.96% PURE SPRING WATER painted on it in blue. The town is rather dried up now. I go to a diner outside of which many cars are parked. A confederate flag decal is stuck on the back window of a new pick-up truck. The place is crowded; people at the table behind me are singing. The curtains have the words Penne, Linguine, and Fettuccine printed on them. I wonder if this has something to do with the name Florence, as the menu contains no pasta dishes. A girl wears a T-shirt for a high school sports team in Milan, Missouri. Behind the counter is a poster entitled “Coffeology” that features a numbered list of quips: “1. Espresso yourself” and “3. Despresso: life without coffee.” The diner doesn’t serve espresso.
It’s just after burn season, so everything is coming in neon green. The hills are tall enough for town names to be spelled out in white rocks at the top and be seen from a mile away. I grew up in the desert and experience a shock to the system driving through green on this magnitude. I imagine it’s the way people feel upon driving through Far West Texas for the first time.
I stop for a beer in a town called Strong City. My waitress is chatty and looks about 16. A coworker tells her come back to card me (I’m 30) and then makes some “that’s what she said” jokes to her and the other waiter on shift, who also looks like a teenager. This other one, on whom the girl seems to have a small crush, says he has family in Texas, but he’s from Wichita. “Ohhh, big city guy,” the that’s-what-she-said coworker taunts him. The girl grew up around here. I tell her she’s lucky. “People think there’s nothing here,” she says. On the way to school, she drives through the hills but doesn’t notice them. “Have you been to the tall grasses?” she asks. I went in the fall when the grasses were a sea of beige. I tell her how I tell anyone who will listen to visit. “There’s this story about a lady from a city who went there and had a panic attack because she couldn’t see anyone around for miles and miles. In the country we’d have panic attacks if we went to a big city and there were people all around us.”
The rain has stopped and a full rainbow arcs over a shop that advertises Guns & Ammo. A large painted wooden Uncle Sam sits out front and, from a certain angle, it looks like the rainbow is emerging from his top hat.
Approaching Kansas City, I scan the radio. A voice is speaking of “Hollywood elites” and “ivory tower elites” and Keynes and how “socialism’s great ‘til you run out of money.” The voice is steady, deep, cool. It extols William F. Buckley and calls Gore Vidal “that pagan homosexual.” It speaks of the Reagan Revolution: “a rising tide lifts all boats, which it does.” A call comes in and cuts off the radio; after I hang up, I cannot find the station. A Jeep with a vanity plate is driving too close to a truck hauling a freight car. With all the cargo around here, you can tell trains are near even without seeing or hearing them. Kansas City is an infrastructural layer cake: 35, Missouri River, and the second-largest rail hub in the country. It’s wooded and the city (dense, brick, industrial) feels eastern.
Local news plays on the television inside a laundromat on Main Street: FED UNEMPLOYMENT ENDING JUNE 12. It’s mid-day and I’ve forgotten cash for the quarter machine. A customer and the only employee on shift are chatting. “Yeah, I was a manager over there” the customer says about some place from which they seem to recognize each other. The pay was miserable. The employee shook her head. “Anywhere you’re going that’s not enough, with all that paperwork and everything.”
High schoolers pose for graduation photos next to Rodin’s “The Thinker” outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Inside, a gallery attendant makes small talk. “These kids in this one are my favorite,” he says in a voice at once gravely and high-pitched, gesturing to a Julie Blackmon photograph of a chaotic domestic still life. “That’s parenting for you.” A man around my age dressed in all black stands piously before Peter Hujar’s portrait of Susan Sontag. A teenager holding a tiny mint green Telfar bag takes in a LaToya Ruby Frazier photograph of a mother and daughter looking into a mirror that rests on a radiator, the camera on a tripod between them. A silver-haired woman in a cardigan that’s turned inside out stands very close to a disorienting Joel Meyerowitz streetscape, but the attendant doesn’t say anything.
Up a nearby hill, I find a fenced-in demolition site. I wonder what was blown up and what’s being made room for. Over the rubble, I see Country Club Plaza. The developer J.C. Nichols built it in the early 1920s. He prohibited Black people from living in the 6,000 homes and 160 apartment buildings he developed in Kansas City in the first half of the twentieth century and helped popularize the use and enforcement of racial covenants nationwide. A Gumby-like Tom Otterness sculpture called “Crying Giant” sits just across the street from the demolition site, face in hands, elbows on knees, like he can’t stand the view.
Driving north on 35, I cross the Missouri River. It’s huge and boatless and gray and looks like an empty highway. The land becomes rural after a suburb called Liberty. A sign indicates the Birthplace of Jesse James Farm and Museum. I’m staying at an Airbnb on a farm thirty miles off the interstate. The host is mowing the lawn around the barn. We talk about the past year. “Covid didn’t exist east of Highway 13,” he explains. It just didn’t register for people. He isn’t sure how vaccinations are going around here; people aren’t really talking about it. “For insurance companies, this is the frontier,” he says. The T-shirt he’s wearing has “Alaska, the Last Frontier” written on the front.
East of Highway 13, I eat lunch at a cafe whose walls are decorated with a large quantity of The Cure posters, in a town that calls itself the “Home of Sliced Bread.” I guess everything has to have a history, but this one is misleading. The mechanical bread slicer, which had been invented by an Iowan, was first put to use in a bakery here, but the “Home of the Bread Slicer” sounds violent. The place is crowded. A middle-aged man wearing a Trump 2024 hat is eating alone. I sit next to a four-top—two couples, probably late sixties. “What Biden is doing on the border is he’s opened it up,” one of the men says. “I think Trump did a much better job,” one of the women replies. Then the men talk about baseball and the women talk about a chicken recipe and then all together they talk about the work one of them is doing on a historic building preservation committee. The cafe doubles as a sort of bookstore; titles for sale by the cash register include Bob Woodward’s Rage, Roger Stone’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy, and The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain.
Driving into Iowa (“The People of Iowa Welcome You: Fields of Opportunities”), I feel like I’m approaching the center of something unclear. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this landscape doesn’t contain many edges. I stop in a town northwest of Des Moines to meet up with some friends. We eat shrimp at a Mexican restaurant. “So Jesse James’ birthplace has a museum and the site of that sit-in has a speakeasy in a chain hotel,” Erik says. “That’s America for you.”
There’s a meat-processing plant in this town, and the air feels like there’s something inside of it. A couple lots of parked refrigerated trailers sit near the plant, whose form is imposing. Some are decorated with images of sizzling bacon and crispy chicken tenders. A sign reads LIVESTOCK TRAILERS ←. A year ago, the state reported that 730 employees at this Tyson plant had tested positive for Covid-19—58 percent of the workforce. Advertisements for international wire transfers are pasted in the window of the Mexican grocery store a few blocks away. In the flower bed by the entrance is a sculpture of a cow.
I stay the night in a motel in Clear Lake, half an hour south of the Minnesota border. The town has a street called Buddy Holly Place, because he played his last show here before dying in a plane crash in a cornfield a few miles away. I walk to town and eat dinner in a gyro restaurant, where three teenage girls, probably 13 or 14, are eating chicken tenders. One of them is apparently crying. “What’s wrong with you? I don’t like sitting here when you are crying,” another says. And the third, more gently, “Are you feeling left out? Don’t worry, that’s happened to me a lot.”
A couple in graphic T-shirts—Trust Me, I’m an Engineer and Grateful, Thankful, Blessed—walks in. A woman at the table next to me is wearing a Perfectly Imperfect T-shirt. “This is the other ring Chad got me, it’s a blue diamond,” she tells her table; they seem bored. The lady liked the emerald and the sapphire, but when she saw this, the man sitting next to her (this must be Chad) says, “it was winner, winner, chicken dinner.”
The girls’ conversation fades back in. “He got outta Iowa, he got outta state, and now he’s back in.” It becomes clear they’re talking about prison. “My uncle’s in for murder.” On my way out, I ask them where on the lake I should go swimming. (It occurs to me that, in small towns anywhere in America, the people likely to be the least fazed by the presence of a woman not from there who is eating alone are teenage girls.) The one who is no longer crying advises against it. “It’s called Clear Lake, but it’s green.”
I walk back to my motel. The whole town smells of lilacs and boat fuel. A shirtless old man drives an old truck with the windows down. A young girl is rollerblading in an empty lot in front of Rumorz Bar & Grill, which is not open tonight. A car of teenage boys speeds down South Shore Boulevard; one sticks out his head and yells something mildly obscene.
The first tourist attraction in Minnesota for which there’s a road sign is the SPAM Museum. I don’t stop. The sky looks smaller the more pine trees there are. I recommend looking carefully at a pine tree when you haven’t seen one in a while—the fronds move in the wind like the gills of a fish. The interstate passes over a lake. The introduction of water into a landscape both lightens and intensifies it. Water has an edge.
South of the Twin Cities is a billboard about job openings at a federal prison: FCI Waseca: Now Hiring Correctional Officers. The former CEO of Enron was incarcerated in Waseca, but now it’s a women’s prison. A woman who tried to kill an abortion provider in Wichita (shot him in both arms) was held there, but she’s out now. In 2009, a man shot the doctor in the head, at church. I pass a billboard that says Life, Fragile Born and Unborn, and another for an upcoming gun and knife show. 35 splits into East (Saint Paul) and West (Minneapolis). A red motorcycle is parked on the shoulder of 35W; a helmet rests on the pavement and no driver is in sight.
Half a mile west of 35W, a nun in a white habit looks at the section of pavement outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered one year and one night ago. The ground is covered in hundreds, maybe even thousands, of flowers, real and fake. A woman in purple scrubs takes in the memorial. As does a family of three. And a couple. And some solo cyclists. A dozen or so people, some of whom have dogs, are sitting in a circle in front of a former gas station now named Peoples’ Way. It’s unseasonably warm and the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue is quiet.
A notice with the Minneapolis transportation authority logo on the top is attached with many zip ties to the bottom of a pole.
The next day, you can see the crowd in George Floyd Square from the bridge over 35W. In a small park one block north of Cup Foods, SAY THEIR NAMES is spelled out in white above a cemetery of cardboard or plastic headstones. On one end is a wooden casket, open. Inside is a dummy dressed in a tan suit and yellow tie; his face is an oval mirror. The sun is strong. Three blind women using canes walk among the headstones. Sound filters in: music and chanting from the Square (“What’s his name? Say his name”) and the voice of a DJ, in front of whom people are dancing (“See, this is what the neighborhood’s supposed to look like, y’all agree?”). Photojournalists file pictures in the shade. Two women walk past the cemetery carrying groceries and a small child. “Well,” one says to the other, “she wants to get the hell out of Minneapolis.” I think of a DeLillo sentence from the start of Underworld: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
I drive across the Mississippi but cannot see the river from the center lane. During rush hour on a weeknight in 2007, this bridge collapsed. Construction is miserable leaving Minneapolis—35 seems to be undergoing significant overhauls every time it passes through a city. East and West reunite and the land slowly fades rural. The pines aren’t bending in the wind, but the poplars are all tilting to one side, which gives the sensation of driving into an optical illusion.
A billboard whose finer print I can’t read says FREEDOM and the next says EMPIRE (an insurance group) and the next says ESCAPE REALITY (an image of a boat). This road leads to Lake Superior, which might as well be an ocean. 35 takes you to the end of America, or the beginning, depending on whom you ask. But there’s an energy to the ends of things. Cars and trucks are driving very fast.
Approaching Duluth, 35 widens and climbs a hill—it must be the biggest hill on the entire road. Descending, the lake appears. It’s early evening, the sunlight is softening, the water shimmers. Cranes crowd the port in the distance. The first industrial building you pass is Verso, a former paper mill. It used to make paper for magazines. Mounds of what looks like black sand (iron ore) sit high alongside train tracks like pyramids forming their own miniature skyline. The speed limit drops to forty. A yellow sign overhead warns FREEWAY ENDS ¼ MILE.
At a traffic light between a bar/restaurant, gas station, and liquor store, 35 ends. You either have to turn right on Highway 61, which takes you to Canada in 149 miles, or turn left on London Road, which takes you downtown, or go straight on 36th Avenue East, which takes you uphill to a pretty neighborhood. Painted on the side of the liquor store is a cerulean wave; it lines up with the water, which isn’t cerulean but on a day like today with the sun out almost is.
I turn left, park, and sit at the bar. It’s crowded. Five televisions stream some dog show involving an obstacle course. Three women discuss the pain of moving out of an apartment and how it has affected one of their sleep schedules. “I legit haven’t been to bed at my normal time in like a week.” I notice how the accent has changed between Texas and here; the way people talk shifts like the landscape, almost imperceptibly when measured in real time. Someone at the table behind me says, “Infrastructure, they’re talking about it a lot more.” I want to hear what he means, but it gets very loud, and I’ve missed the sound of a crowded bar.