Windmills and Passing Train. Merna, Nebraska.

Prairie Poetry: Musings from “Flyover Country”

In October 2020, I completed a 4,000 mile road trip. I was running from lots of thoughts and painful feelings as our country was in turmoil. I needed space to breathe and to find that sense of wonder and beauty in the world again.

Golden Hour. Austere beauty. Northeastern Nebraska.
(L) Mom’s Kitchen. Oberlin, Kansas. (R) Break time. Bird City, Kansas

What finer way to find yourself than to hit the pavement on a solo good ole fashioned backroads road trip? The American meditation. I had a rough idea of where I was heading but no laid plans. They’re overrated. Impulsivity is the name of the game…saying yes to every alluring dirt road I came across. Poking my head in places that look like I might be tempting fate, sitting in a gas station parking lot enjoying my homemade mushy sandwich as I try to stay healthy and watching all the comings and goings.

“When you’re traveling, you are what you are, right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
― William Least-Heat Moon

The more I head into ‘nowhere’, the more likely I am to stay the course. Worries left behind just an open road full of possibilities. You see, I quickly grow tired of opinions. Oh, sure, I am full of them, but playing the expert resident social media and conversational Virologist, Politician, Doctor, Cashier, Electrician, etc.. is tiring. Yes, that’s satire. When did everyone become such an expert on EVERYTHING? As Plato told us many years ago, “Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.”

Nebraska’s Great Tetons.
(L) Workman’s brush and bench. Kansas. (M) Doesn’t get more Midwestern than turning a combine into a kid’s slide. Donnellson, Iowa. (R) Corn Mountain. Long Island, Kansas.

Try just sitting with your thoughts sometime. They’re both beautiful and tragic. They reveal more than you’ll ever understand.

The rough idea was to hit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the Fall splendor, but I wanted to take my time getting there. I wanted to bask in the beauty of ‘flyover’ country. I wanted to avoid interstates at all costs. Interstates bum me out. Give me those open country skies or Main Street U.S.A any day. Oh…and lots and lots of cornfields.

Passing through intriguingly named communities and towns such as Last Chance, Turkey Ridge, Plainview, Bird City, Promise City, Diagonal, Funk, Magnet, Alpha, Republican City, Joes, and so on. The places that even with a map in hand, you’d have a hard time locating.

Yes, my trip was made during the heat of the election signage, and yes most of my ground covered was inundated with a heavy skew of variations of pro Trump signage, but I’m going to leave political photos out of this post. We have enough of that in our lives right now.

Snake Alley. Burlington, Iowa. The most crooked street in the U.S. Most folks have heard of Lombardi Street in San Francisco, but this road on Heritage Hill has a total of 1,100 degrees of turns versus 1,000 on Lombardi.
(L)Downtown Atwood, Kansas. Classic trucks, a tank, gas station and liquor store. What more do you need? (R) Matching truck and house. Burwell, Nebraska.

Per usual, I set up my hotel suite in the back of my 5 foot truck bed. It’s just short enough that I can’t straighten out at night. 5 star comfort for free 99. The old before your time waking up kind of morning special. The back’s stiff, the body doing it’s best impersonation of post-mortem rigor-mortis. The knees out of order as you try to straighten. Crackling sounds announcing themselves from places you didn’t know about. There’s nothing better. I always say, “ Now this is livin!’”

Dawn on farmland outside of Worthing, South Dakota

It’s a liberating and no-frills way to wake up in the back bed not really even know where I pulled in the last evening. A surprise view as I unzip the soft top window flap. Sometimes it’s the lovely sight of a welcoming Private Property sign…oops, others it’s the greeting crew herd of cattle looking for their breakfast. Or maybe it’s those high beams shining right through the plastic window. As long as they aren’t flashing red and blue, I’m good. Those curated Instagram wake up photos with steaming hot coffee, and immaculate view of the turquoise waters lapping against the shore backdropped by jagged snow-capped peaks…yea they’re overrated. Give me the morning fragrance of cow shit and escalating heartbeat musing, “How long do I have before that man’s going to come running out of nowhere screaming…” Get outta here” with rifle in hand.” Or hopefully, perhaps a friendly invitation to come join for some fresh eggs and coffee.

(L)Rolling Hills. Fir Avenue. Cantril, Iowa. (R) Nebraska Big Red Football relics in store window. Grand Island, Nebraska. Football is life here.
(L) Cattle Breakfast rural Nebraska. (R) One of those alluring tattered roads you just have to take. Northeastern, Nebraska.

Everything gets a bit simpler. I know the day isn’t any longer, but boy does it feel like it. Milking the sap of it from the moment I wipe the crust off my eyes until my eyes grow weary and can stay no longer properly function. Always, I find myself questioning, “Why don’t I do this more often?” I go into a sort of manic state of observation. Ask my loved ones who have once joined me…my incessant wandering is exhausting.

The Good Life. Central Nebraska.
“ You Looking for me?” I was taking a photo of this old home in Bird City, Kansas when this fellow pulled up. I replied, “Just taking a look around.” He invited me to check out one of the largest private historic tractor collections in the country. I ended up spending two hours there exploring and learning. You never know who you’ll cross paths with, and where they’ll show you if you’re open to it.

So back to those dawn wake up calls. I hop out, make sure I didn’t have any visitors during the night, I stretch, tidy up my little space, brush my teeth, take a bathroom break in the nearest field, make some coffee on the small little stove, crank the truck up, put on some Americana music and set out chasing the first rays of the sun. I bumble down dirt roads chasing that magic only the morning can provide. The coffee in combination with washboard tattered roads renders all systems go.

(L) 1922 Holt Combine Drives. The largest of its kind during that time. It still operates today and fired up a few times a year. Bird City, Kansas (M) Storm’s Comin.’ Alma, Nebraska. (R) Gigantic American flags are omnipresent in the plains. Central Nebraska.
(L) Combine at sunset Southeastern Iowa. (M) Halloween House. Yankton, South Dakota. (R) Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Cathartic and Nostalgic. I often find these to be the most special moments of the day. There’s an unmatched presence and sense of gratitude as you seek out the unknown.. Untold stories to unfold.

As the light gets brighter and flatter, my mind transitions. Time to stop chasing the sun and start chasing small towns, oddities and satiating that inquisitive side of my mind.

New additions to the memory bank that will proudly hold unnecessary space in my cerebral until I go on Jeopardy or attend the next bar trivia night. Things such as the birthplaces of Wyatt Earp (Monmouth, Illinois) and Carl Sandburg (Galesburg, Illinois); the largest Czech Egg in the world Wilson, Kansas. The curviest road in America, Snake Alley (Burlington, Iowa); the world’s largest strawberry, golden spike, corn stalk and popcorn ball (all in Iowa); or the world’s largest stamp ball, porch swing and collection of clowns (Nebraska); the geographical center of the United States…Lebanon, Kansas. Lastly, I’ll leave you with this fun one to answer yourself….Which state has the most river miles in the U.S.?

“Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.”― William Least Heat Moon

Tractor Maintenance Tools and Relics. A history lesson in itself. Oozes nostalgia. Bird City, Kansas.
(Upper Left) Downtown Galva, Illinois (Upper Right) Rural Illinois (Lower Left) Northeastern Nebraska Farm. (Lower Right) Birthplace of Wyatt Earp. Monmouth Illinois.

I wanted to start this series of photos and musings from my trip with some photos from these cherished moments in ‘flyover’ country. I was born in Nebraska, so perhaps that is why the great plains are rooted in my veins. Oftentimes, less is more.

The austerity of the Great Plains is one of its greatest allures. A sense of humility not begging for attention. As down home as it gets. A slice of Americana. A simple kind of love that can speak to all of us

Here’s to my inner Huck Finn. Rambling. Seeking. Feeling and Observing. A visual love letter of appreciation for this place. A reminder of my roots. I could chronicle each encounter on my trip, but sometimes it’s best to let the imagery leave room for mystery and wonder.

I suggest putting on Thomas Csorba’s Highway Kid, the Avett Brother’s Salina or Andrew Duhon’s No Man’s Land and let the imagery transport your own curiosities and insights letting them flood into each scene. At best, they’ll inspire you to seek out the beauty of Middle America. At worst, they’ll further your reasoning to stay on the interstate and rush on by…and that’s just fine by me.

(L) Pete’s Place has seen better days. Riverton, Nebraska. (M) Old Gas Pumps and Soda ‘Pop” Machine. Auburn, Nebraska. (R) One of the historic tractors stored in Bird City, Kansas.
Amish children, playground on the Des Moines River and a Sunday Cruise in Bonaparte, Iowa.

These have all been added to my “America’s Heartland” Gallery for purchase or viewing pleasure on my website: https://www.ryankostphotography.com/Americas-Heartland/

Also, feel free to follow along for more on my Instagram https://www.instagram.com/rkostphotography/

Corn Mountain. Harvest season. Long Island, Kansas.
Scenes from a Fall festival near Donnellson, Iowa. Yes, that’s a corn box. Corn is a fabric of the culture ‘round here.
Parting image glowing corn left in field that birds thoroughly enjoy after harvest. Nebraska.

See ya’ll around the bend. Stay tuned as I rambled Northeast for more from this trip…

“I MAY NOT HAVE GONE WHERE I INTENDED TO GO, BUT I THINK I HAVE ENDED UP WHERE I INTENDED TO BE.” — DOUGLAS ADAMS

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Be Curious. Be Compassionate. Mental Musings and Visual Meanderings. Home is in Colorado. Guide in Peru. www.ryankostphotography.com

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Ryan Kost

Ryan Kost

Be Curious. Be Compassionate. Mental Musings and Visual Meanderings. Home is in Colorado. Guide in Peru. www.ryankostphotography.com

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