Due North From Lincoln

On the road from Lincoln to Platte (six hours), we head north into what is probably the real Nebraska. The area around Omaha is midwestern, but it’s not prairie. The bluffs surrounding the Missouri River and the added moisture make the town not much different from any mid-sized city in southern Ontario. The sprawl makes this doubly so.

Coming north of Lincoln, we hit a patch of flat ground, with cattle grazing, and a Union Pacific train paralleling a two-lane highway. You can see the town of Vanparasila a couple of miles before you get there, in broad daylight. The ground beneath the blue-grey sky is yellow and brown.

it’s still unnaturally warm, here. Not a speck of snow to be seen. I can only imagine what this landscape would look like in white. But already, as we head north, we approach the boundary of winter. The trees are white with frost. They shine in the sun. They make up for the lack of snow.

In South Dakota, I am reintroduced to big sky. One doesn’t think of Ontario being particularly hilly, but step out to the wide-open prairie, and you’ll get a whole new appreciation of flat. During the drive to Platte, I’m treated to scenes of the road stretching to the horizon like it’s going forever. A line of power transmission towers continues rock straight for miles, their matchstick forms swing across the vanishing point as the car breezes past. You see towns in the distance minutes before you get there.

Platte, South Dakota is one of these towns, barely 1500 residents, but still boasting a small downtown with a Radio Shack, tractor repair stores and a number of old brick buildings dating from the turn of the century. Again, it’s unnaturally warm, but stepping out of the car, you can feel the openness. You know that a wind could start up from Saskatchewan, and there’ll be almost nothing to stop it. The sunsets here are spectacular, take up half the sky, and last for a while. The trees are black and isolated.

Vermillion is near a river valley. The Missouri has the same impact on South Dakota as it has on Nebraska. The towns in the eastern part of the state seem bigger. Vermillion has almost 10,000, but is overshadowed by Yankton, thirty miles to the west. West of Yankton, the populations drop off dramatically until you get to Rapid City, and the whole thing has the air of being a last outpost of civilization before the wilderness. And an old outpost too. You can find a number of brick buildings dating from the turn of the century, even though a number are empty.

I could live here, but I think I would be quite lonely. But in some ways, that would be part of the appeal.

The above was typed on my laptop as I travelled from Lincoln, to Platte, to Vermillion. I am typing this in the University of South Dakota’s library here in Vermillion. It’s a good place, full of computers and books, smelling like any other library in the world — instant comfort zone.

The O’Connors will be having a large dinner for us tonight, and we’ll be leaving for Omaha after lunch tomorrow. After visiting godmother Therese for breakfast on Friday, we’ll be off to Kansas City, readying ourselves for the flight home. I’ve heard that Kansas City is the true home of barbecue, and we might just be able to visit one of their famous restaurants for some burnt ends sandwiches. I’m looking forward to that.

Travel here on this trip has been far, far better than I’d feared. Vivian travels very well in the car, and it has helped that the weather has been perfect for driving. Without fears from the weather or a colicky baby to worry about, we’ve had a great time seeing everybody and being served good food. Vivian, as you can well expect, has been quite a hit.

It was especially nice to show her off to Grandma Pheifer, who is 97 years old. Here’s a startling thought: if Vivian gets to live to Grandma Pheifer’s age, the year will be 2102.

Erin and I will be 130. :-)

Edited to Add

Last year, while travelling, Erin and I got so out of touch with the news that, when we turned on the television on December 27, 2004, our reaction was: “there was a what? It happened where? It killed how many?!”

My reaction is similar upon hearing about this. These shootings on Yonge Street took place not ten blocks from my childhood home. They are shameful and a dark blot upon my memories of my hometown. Jack Layton, in my opinion, says everything that needs to be said about this tragedy, and Christine Blatchford says even more.

But as shocking as these shootings are, we must be careful not to overreact or blame this on one individual (see the December 27th entry). I don’t know if you guys remember what it was like fourteen years ago, when the Greater Toronto Area was significantly smaller, and had more homicides, but Toronto has always been a big city, and big cities always have big crimes. And big cities always have far, far more people in them who are largely untouched by this crime, who continue to walk through the streets with a reasonable sense of security, who interact with our diverse neighbourhoods in ways which enrich their lives.

Toronto’s “innocence” has not been lost. Frankly, it was always a myth. David Miller is being no softer on crime than Mel Lastman, Barbara Hall or John Tory would have been. They, like the rest of us, would all have been shocked and angry, and they all would have spoken about the need to end this sort of carnage. And they all would have been able to do zip diddly.

Because Jack Layton is the only one with the recipie on how to really fix things, and we don’t have the patience for that sort of change. Fortunately, the system works well enough that crime in my old hometown is on its way down, rather than on its way up. And only those with axes to grind will argue that we are sinking into a pit of iniquity which, by their standards, has always been the case with my city, though they refuse to acknowledge this and treat these problems like some new occurrance.

Welcome to Toronto, where the good, the bad and the ugly have always intermingled. It’s easy to see the ugly, but those who keep their eyes open will easily find the good.

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