There's a song about the middle of our great land and how it was made both perfectly and purposefully. And now I finally get it after a lifetime of false preconceived notions.
North to south, many middle states lack a major metropolis or incite much interest from "coasters". The lightly populated flat states in particular may be more readily associated with mud-flaps than mud-wraps. And I admit, I was one of those East Coast snobs who assumed the "fly-over" states had little to offer.
But after taste testing microbrews in nearly twelve states and reviewing the most extensive bourbon list I've ever laid eyes on last week, I am happy to report that I was more than very wrong. Because as important as culture is (or perceived to be), the meticulously curated galleries, blow-out bars, and broadway plays, don't fill empty bellies. But middle states do. And they are equally beautiful in their bounties.
Our farmlands, great plowed expanses that cover millions of square miles in our nation's landmass, feed Americans and much of the world outside, both friends and foes. Among the most farmed states are Kansas and Texas. Kansas
farms 90% of it's total area, the highest farmland to residential/industrial land ratio of any other U.S. state.
This past fall, Ranger Joe (the husband) hunted birds in Pennsylvania and whitetail in both Michigan and Maryland. But for someone who's hunted big game in Africa, he's less than enthusiastic about spraying the adult equivalent of a BB Gun at a bouquet of pheasants (yes, that's what a group of pheasants is called, and yes, it sounds girly). Besides, for all that prep and effort, twelve birds and a mid-sized deer only lasts so long at a table for six. We're big meat eaters.
My entire clutch has wanderlust and we hadn't done a proper road trip since last March (to Sarasota and back). So when Joe was scoping out Cape Buffalo safari trips in Tanzania, I asked what any realistic, animal-loving carnivore might inquire, "What's the point of killing something that you don't plan to eat? And why exactly would you fly to the other side of the globe when you can hunt here and actually take the meat home? I'm sure you could find something big to charge at you on this continent...perhaps a moose or elk...or a bison, which tastes good and is bigger than
the African cape buffalo
...". Of course, I knew he'd go for bigger.
A week or so later I saw that he'd been searching South Dakota outfitters for Bison hunting. A few days after that, I found a chunk of cheese missing from the checkbook.
"Can we come too?" I asked.
"Do you want to come? I mean, it's almost thirty hours in the truck...You think your folks might want to babysit?"
"No, I don't want to ask them. Besides, I was thinking we could take the kids to see Mt. Rushmore..."
"That's even farther...like, three days one-way..."
"I know, but worst case, we need more Advil than usual..." He looked scared but played along anyhow.
"How'd you wanna get there?"
"I'd like to see Churchill Downs...and maybe get some good BBQ on the way. If the kids are really driving you nuts, you can just have beer for breakfast every morning..."
In order to talk the kids into being smooshed for a full week in Black Betty, I knew we'd need to make a game out of it. So over dinner, I asked the kids if we should try to drive all fifty states before our youngest graduates high school in 2030. We'd be the road warriors of Baltimore County!
The kids were all in. They'd be the only kids at school who would have driven the entire continental U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii and they liked that idea. And since we already hit twenty-two states in 2016, we were really close to half-way anyhow.
After telling our respective employers that we were going out west to fill the freezer, our family spent evenings at the kitchen table, plotting out points in which to stop, sleep, eat, and drink. Bourbon Row for dinner in Louisville, Jack Stack in Kansas City
, and the best pizza in South Dakota at MacKenzie River Pizza
. There's a reason my frame came home with a five pound bonus last week and that pizza was worth every ounce (which is why we also stopped there on the way back).
As if pork five ways wasn't reason enough for a road trip, what I though would be an afterthought, namely, the topography of the flat states, was actually quite beautiful. For a budding farmscape aficionado, there is nothing more alluring than silos against the backdrop of a Nebraska watercolor sunset.
There were white farmhouses, red barns, and green tractors lining the highways as if parade spectators. And the fact that it was unusually warm last week (thank you, global warming!) only added to the beauty. The smell was a little pungent with the windows down (steaming divots), but the ride was straight and peaceful. No weaving in and out of angry Chicago traffic or clueless bumper sticker-laden electric cars clogging the fast lanes. Folks were plain, friendly, and made me want to live out there.
Toby: Hanging weight 950 lbs.
Wednesday of last week, Joe downed a modern-day woolly mammoth that the children enthusiastically named "Toby" (above). The processor was a father/son business who butchered and flash froze Toby while we took in more of South Dakota. We drove another seven hours west to Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial, a privately funded project that was in itself worth the trip.
Our not so little trip out west was more than we could have imagined. We even got the farm bug. Joe was crunching numbers in his head in between pointing out roadside pronghorn, roadrunners, and sharing exactly how Custer State Park felt very much like Africa...no people, park rangers, fences or corrals, only wild animals happy to share a look with peculiar humans in an overstuffed pick up truck.
Next year we'll do Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, then head south the following year for Texas and neighboring panhandle coastlines. But for now, we have five-hundred pounds of Toby to keep us fat and happy (courtesy of a most splendid fly-over state).