by Akim Reinhardt
I'm currently circling the nation in a black and orange ‘98 Honda Accord, my rusted chariot. About 7,500 miles in a little over two months. That's the plan. As far north as North Dakota, as far south as New Mexico, and as far west as California before closing the circuit by returning to Maryland. About 26 states in all.
It's a massive research/conference trip. I'm on sabbatical. A full year at half-pay.
A single semester at full pay is the more common sabbatical leave. For a full year sabbatical, the typical approach is to get a research fellowship that makes up the lost salary and provides academic focus.
But I usually end up doing things my own way. I'm not bragging. It's as much a blend of chaos and neurosis as anything else. But in this case the result is, no research fellowship.
Instead, I've rented out my house during the semester, and this past summer I took on a freelance writing project. I co-authored a coffee table book, which will come out next summer.
Bill moved in to my Baltimore rowhome in August. At the end of the month, I bid him a fond farewell and hit the road. And thus the journey begins.
The first stop was The Bronx. It seems only fitting to kick off an epic trek by visiting friends and family in my hometown.
Like the rest of the city, more chains are moving into The Bronx. Not at the same rate that sees Manhattan turning into a bland, congested, overpriced version of the rest of America, but it's happening nonetheless. Very depressing. Dunkin' Donuts. Target. Bla bla bla.
The day I see a real New Yorker, not some Midwestern transplant, order Domino's, is the day I turn my back on the city completely. When that day comes, New York's pointlessness will be profound beyond words.
For now, the pizza's still worth it. For now.
The next stop was Ann Arbor. I earned my B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1989. After a half-year back in New York, I returned to A2 in 1990 and lived there another two years.
I actually loathed Ann Arbor during my school days. Blame it on immaturity and culture shock. I was 17 when I left The Bronx for the Midwest. It was too much for me to handle. I was also quickly disillusioned by what I perceived the school to be: an overpriced diploma mill chock full of mediocre students so stuffed with unearned arrogance they were shitting it from their ears.
It was only during my later years in Michigan that I overcame the limits of my youth and provincialism and came to love the state. Michigan's a truly wonderful place. It's not on the way to anywhere. No one's just passing through. Everyone's there, it seems, because they've made a conscious decision to be there. It's gorgeous and cold and brimming with fresh pine.
During those latter two years I came to love Michigan. I still love Michigan. But Ann Arbor has changed a lot, and not for the better.
Like many once-quaint college towns around America, Ann Arbor has traded most of its charm for a sheen of tacky glitter. It's really part of the same homogenizing trend that's destroying much of New York City's cultural distinctions.
Ann Arbor has been flooded with money during the last quarter-century. As rents have increased, many small businesses have been replaced by chains. And many working class students have been replaced by preening rich kids who live in shiny new condos their parents buy for them.
As I sauntered the streets of the old downtown, people were all abuzz that the new crop of students included Madonna's daughter and celebrity chef Mario Batali's son. Sigh.
I spent one night in A2 and another down the road in Ypsilanti, home of the much more modest Eastern Michigan University.
Ypsi, as it's known, still has the grit. A former normal college, EMU has no real prestige, certainly nothing approaching U of M's nauseating self-importance. Most of the town's manufacturing jobs are long gone, and the local economy teeters. Ypsi's primary architectural feature is a brick water tower that looks like a penis. The Bomber Café still offers a cheap breakfast deal with so much food on the plate that if you're not careful, you might have to shit before you're finished.
It was good to end this leg of the trip in Ypsilanti. I waved goodbye to the penis and headed for I-94.
While driving across western Michigan, I noticed my Check Engine light was on.
You've gotta be kidding me.
I just gave my mechanic $1,200 to get this fashionably rusty bucket into tip top shape. And I love my mechanic. He's the man. I can't remember how many times I've showed up at his garage over the years and had conversations that went something like this:
“I think such and such is wrong with the car.”
“Okay, leave it here and I'll check it out”
(Upon returning after lunch) “So what's the deal with it?”
“It's fine. Nothing wrong with it.”
“Cool. What do I owe you?”
And now the fucking Check Engine light is lit up less than a thousand miles into a trip that I'm billing as 7,500 miles because “7,500” rolls off the tongue well, but to be perfectly honest, could be closer to 10k by the time all's said and done?
The mystery was solved the next time I pulled over for gas. I'd left the gas cap in Ohio. Fuck me.
It could be a lot worse. I was reminded of that while driving though Illinois. Saw one of those 22-wheel, double trailer FedEx trucks laying on its side in the median between the east- and westbound portions of I-80, a long trail of black dirt turned up from where it had skidded across the prairie like a massive plow.
I'm not a rubbernecker. I don't rubberneck. I think it's tawdry and gauche. It's inconsiderate to your fellow drivers and unspeakably disrespectful to the person who has just suffered great tragedy, gawking at them like they're part of a goddamn freak show. I hate rubberneckers. You're holding up the traffic, you slack-jawed baboon. Move your fucking car.
I didn't rubberneck. I didn't need to. The truck was so big that you couldn't help but see it, laying there like a dead whale out on the grassy Illinois beach.
“He might be dead,” I thought to myself. “I hope he's not dead. He's probably dead.”
The Quad Cities. Where Illinois and Iowa share the Mississippi River. I could name them all from years of driving back and forth. On the Illinois side there's Moline and Rock Island, it of the line that's a mighty good road. Davenport and Bettendorf hold down the Iowa side.
I still can't say “Bettendorf” without chuckling quietly.
I was in the QC for only about 16 hours all told. But it was pleasant. Good beer culture. Not a lot of pretension.
I like the Midwest. I've liked it every since I grew up and got over my immature distaste of Michigan. That was a quarter-century ago. In all, I spent 11 years living in the Midwest. Good times.
People who don't like the Midwest are provincial and unimaginative. They're like the people who don't like black and white films. Are you kidding me? Are you really that dumb and haughty at the same time?
I'm not talking about people who grew up in the Midwest and fled it. Everyone's entitled to their demons. I'm talking about all the cocksure morons on the coasts who've come to the completely unjustified conclusion that they themselves are really quite interesting.
No. I'm telling you right now. There's a big difference between “interesting” and “tiresome.” Fucking figure it out. And yes, it does take longer for some of the cool shit to come the Midwest. But once it gets there it's half-price. So contemplate that the next time you fork over half your monthly paycheck for rent.
The scene of the crime. Lincoln, Nebraska.
I got my Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska in 2000. Lincoln's a damn good town. Nebraska was always good to me. And now I spend 10 days here.
This is where the research part of the trip begins. In addition to the University library stacks, I do a few days at the State Historical Society. Among the many things I looked at were the papers of James H. Red Cloud, grandson of the famous Lakota Sioux Indian leader. How famous? There's a whole war named after him. Red Cloud's War.
Despite being a couple of generations down the line and living almost all of his life during the 20th century, grandson James H. was pretty much a monolingual Lakota speaker. Most of his letters were composed through an interpreter. There were also a couple of pads with his handwritten notes in Lakota language, which he taught himself to read and write. One gray banker's box at the historical society in Lincoln. It's a national treasure.
I also went on the radio while in Lincoln, during Paul Nance's Friday morning show, “Morning Breath.” Lincoln's got one of the best goddamn community radio stations in America: KZUM-FM. After doing radio for several years in Michigan, I spent five years behind the mic at KZUM in the late 1990s. I did the Friday morning 8-10 shift. Paul did the two hours before me, and we'd have some chirpy patter during the crossover.
All these years later, Paul's still at it, and he was kind enough to have me on. He spun the records (actually, he played them off his computer; a lot has changed since I had my own show back in 2000) and we shared the mic between sets of music.
I also played some softball while in Lincoln. The team I used to play for is still going after all these year. Many of the players are no in their late 40s and early early 50s.
I haven't played any ball in five years since spraining my ankle at a game in Maryland. I was very rusty. They stuck me in rightfield. I caught the first fly ball that came my way. A routine catch. Though for some reason I fell down. Just tipped over like a three-legged cow. Later, another fly ball soared majestically over my head as I badly misjudged it.
At the plate, I reached safely three of the four times I came up. However, two of those times were not because of my offensive prowess but because of defensive errors. I'll take it.
In the second inning I got caught in a rundown between 1st and 2nd base. Somehow I got safely back to the bag after sliding through the 1st baseman's legs; the ball got away from him again. My teammates mocked me for sliding.
“We're old now, Akim,” they said. “We don't do that anymore.”
A day in Omaha. I don't know Omaha very well because during most of my time in Nebraska I didn't own a car. Just biked everywhere. Omaha's about 50 miles from Lincoln, situated along the mighty Missouri River. Many “rivers” in the west are glorified creeks that dry up in summer. But the Missouri's the real deal.
While in Omaha I went to the Douglas County Historical Society. Afterwards I met friends for gourmet pizza, and then we went to a bar which has one of, if not the biggest scotch selection in the United States. It was the night before Scotland's independence vote. No one cared.
Vermillion, South Dakota is the home of the University of South Dakota, which boasts the South Dakota Oral History Center. It's an amazing collection of interviews conducted with South Dakotans, some of them dating back half a century. There are recordings of people talking about things they remember from the late 1800s.
When you're a historian, it really doesn't get much better than this.
In between shifts at the archive, I stayed at the 24-Seven Inn.
“How did you find out about us,” the motelier asked as I signed in. One of her rote questions, no doubt.
“I drove by it,” I said.
“You mean from the sign?” she asked incredulously, as if she'd been plotting to take it down for some time but couldn't quite justify the expense.
“Yeah, from the sign,” I smiled.
I headed north for Brookings, South Dakota, the home of the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits. I'm spending the weekend with an old grad school friend and his family. He's a geographer, so he's great at answering all my nerdy questions about the region.
Turns out Sioux Falls, which is between Vermillion and Brookings, is easily the biggest thing in this state. SoDak is four hundred miles across, more than 200 miles from top to bottom, and has only one at-large Congressperson. It still has just one area code.
I'm rockin' it in the 605.
The Missouri River bifurcates the state almost perfectly. Easter River and West River are the names for the two halves. My friend's wife is decidedly East River, from a farm outside of Watertown, which is due west from Minneapolis and only a few miles from the Minnesota border. She's got that accent. You know the one. Think Fargo.
Saturday night we went to a Jackrabbit football game against the University of Wisconsin-Osh Kosh. The weather began gloriously. When I say sunny, I mean goddamn bright. Not too windy. High in the upper 70s. This is the good life. I can say that because I won't be here in January.
By the second half the sun had gone down, the wind had picked up, and the feeling was quite autumnal. These people are hardier than me. I have no shame in admitting that.
Early this morning, as 3QD is posting this piece, I'll hit the road again. This week I'll circle South Dakota and go to several West River archives. Afterwards, I'll visit another grad school friend in Reno before taking a long trek down California and then heading back east. But more on that next month.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com