In the belly of the country

Kansas is the first state that feels like a story book. I went to Lawrence with relatives and got back late. Took Armani for a walk down a long dirt road. Horses, soil and grass lend top and base notes to the humid air. 

I'd never heard cicadas till I got here. You would not believe how loud they get. I looked up at the funnel-shaped clouds and the stars and couldn't help but click my heels.


The prairie has a similar appeal as the desert. It puts me, a lowly human, in my place. The landscape fosters simplicity, clarity. 

On the other hand, Kansas planners love their toll roads. There is a fairly high sales tax and an income tax, too. Bigger cities have metered parking, though it's cheap.

There are some wonderfully unique houses here, including a Frank Lloyd Wright and others with unique detailing in Wichita:




And in Lawrence, I found some yin and yang:



On the road again…

Just a quick note to let you all know that I'm taking IMG_2092 off from Omaha today and regular posting shall resume!
Took care of a couple mechanical things with my RV and did a bit of detailing (including trying to remove an accumulated collection of various bug species).
Been listening to a lot of Tom Petty. He's such a great American poet.

Taking a break to meet family

A lot of my ancestors on my mom's side are from Nebraska, and in Omaha I finally met my great uncle and aunt, Stephen and Jacquelyn Pondelis. They are 87 and 82 and have lived their whole lives here, raising four children and staying active in the Catholic church.

Steve and Jackie

Steve worked 41 years for Omaha-based Union Pacific, one of the largest railroad franchises.
He and Jackie met as teenagers roller skating, but didn't start seeing each other until Steve got back from World War II. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served "three years, two months, six days, one hour and 10 minutes," including 13 months on the ground in the Aleutian Islands.

Though their children and extended family have all moved away, they have chosen to stay.
They drove me around the city and told me lots of interesting things about the schools and neighborhoods.
There is subdivision built in 1958, for example, where each house has a one-car garage.
Steve recalls returning from the war after telling his mother to sell his car, only to find there were long waiting lists to get a new vehicle.

Some of the houses built in the past decade have triple car garages.
I love how even domestic architecture is a history lesson.

I also learned that Jackie's dad (my great grandfather) used to grow and sell horseradish, which may partly explain why I love the stuff.

She showed me a couple places investor Warren Buffett likes to eat, including this buffet:


Just imagine him and Bill Gates getting together to play bridge and you've got a nice little image of Omaha. The city was historically known for its railways, livestock processing plants, cornfields and other agriculture. Today the greater Omaha area is home to 838,000 residents and a small handful of fortune 500 companies.

The wonderful thing about Steve and Jackie is that they still have each other and are still in love.
makes him lunch every day. They have "ice cream nights" twice a week.
Steve fixes things around the house and is pretty punctual for his 10
a.m. coffee breaks.

It's been nice for me to be a part of the
normalcy while the Ford guys hack away at my RV, attempting to fix some
safety recalls.

Plus they love my crazy little pit bull. What more could you ask for?


Observations of the midwest in July

I've made it through most of Nebraska, now, and can finally say I've been to the middle of the country.

I saw fireflies for the first time in St. Paul. It took a second for me to realize what they were. Then I walked up and down the streets, staring at people's lawns like an alien who'd just hit earth.

The other thing I could not imagine 'till I'd experienced it is the crazy humidity that builds up during summer. It makes me wish for a storm to release the atmospheric pressure.

When the storms do come, they are sudden and powerful. In Merna, I was almost stuck in four inches of mud after rain and hail pelted my van like buckshot, waking me up at 7 a.m.

I fell asleep one night in Whiteclay watching a pulsing lightning inferno that for hours illuminated a section of clouds beside the full moon.

The winds here are mighty, too. They pick up speed over miles of plains and have a different presence than the gusts off the coast I am used too.

People in Nebraska often come across reserved and matter-of-fact. I have learned behind that front they are generally very kind.

Midwest: ‘What recession?’

In addition to the promised gas price decreases (the cheap stuff is just $2.09 per gallon in Iowa!), I was surprised to see there is less eIMG_1944vidence of the recession as I head into America's farm land.

In the small town of Merna, Neb., I chatted with six locals during their regularly scheduled coffee break at the gas station.

"If you want jobs, you can find jobs," says Bruce Brummer (right), who runs the fertilizer plant at the local farmers' cooperative. "We're not short around here."

"There's jobs," agrees retired mechanic Dennis Worth. "But if you're used to making $30 an hour at the factory, you're not going to want $10 an hour (to do agricultural work)."

Because food is such a basic need, agriculture provides a buffer of sorts against a downturn in consumer spending.

But there are other factors at play. Farmers learn to budget wisely because their 'paycheck' comes once, annually. With equipment that can cost a quarter of a million dollars, or more, they learn important maintenance skills. And they know to diversify their crops to buffer the whims of Mother Nature. Many have alternate professions.

"People have had hard times here. They just know it's coming and they plan for it," says Brummer. "They always told us, 'It ain't what you make, it's what you save.'"

But the midwest feel the impacts in one form or another.

A July 14 article in The Omaha World-Herald ("Recession jabs at Rural Nebraska, too") cites poll statistics from a survey of 2,852 rural Nebraska households indicating there have been job losses in 11 percent of homes and about a third of surveyed households have seen work hours cut.

Omaha residents tell me the casinos over the border in Iowa, where gambling is legal, are less busy these days. They also say wages have been driven lower in some industries, as out-of-region contractors move in to take advantage of continuous growth.

So maybe it's not all rosy. Still, several restaurants were full to near capacity when I visited them during weeknights in Omaha.

St. Paul, Neb. – a car lover’s paradise

I arrived in St. Paul, Neb., a cool-seeming town of about 3,000, just in time for the Royal Coachmen car club's annual car show, drag race and street dance.

At the show I saw my first 2009 Chevrolet Camaro in the "flesh."


is an iconic American company in the news for recent financial
problems, so it's good to see they managed to release the new Camaro — promised since 2006 and the first since Chevrolet discontinued the line in 2002. With a base price of just over $23,000, it's still an everyman's sports car.

The owner of this one told me of the several Camaros he's had,
the 2009 model handles best. It's got plenty of power and gets 28 miles to
the gallon, he says. Fully loaded, he paid $45,000.

To get from the car show to the drag strip, people piled in the back of flatbed trailers being pulled by John Deere tractors.
Over bumpy fields and down the main roads we went.
I couldn't help but think, "This would never be allowed in Seattle… probably not even in Wenatchee. This is a reason to love the midwest."

The drag races were awesome. People lined up their vehicles in twos without regard for classes. Mustangs could race Mustangs, but it was more likely to see a guy in a late model BMW facing down his neighbor in a 1970s TransAm, or a Road Runner versus a pickup.

The driver on the right side of this picture spun his tires so long before the race, he left piles of smoking rubber in his wake.


I'm sad to say I missed the burnout contest and auto parts swap meet scheduled for the next day. I left all my good parts at home, anyway.