Many people fly past Greensburg. And to tell you the truth, plenty even drive past it. The town is small, quaint, rural and remote — just another unsung slice of Midwest America. Yet Greensburg does have a home right here in Kansas, where the tallest buildings are eight-story grain silos that stand like stoic sentinels across the barren southern plains. Here the wind whistles past at 35mph, and tumbleweeds travel like projectiles with an uncanny ability of brutalizing bumpers. You rarely see people; it feels empty.
“There are a lot less people out here,” a 29-year-old miner in Leadville, Colorado told me. “In this part of the country, you got to drive a few exits before you get to the next town. In the East, y’all got a town at every exit!”
There is indeed a sense that this part of the nation is disconnected, sometimes to such an extent that you can feel the town’s collective abandonment, lose and distain. The factories, rail stations and mechanic warehouses look like they aren’t being used as much as they once were. Some Kansan agricultural depots — the veins of nourishment to America’s stomach — have fallen into neglect as big industry and global competition has taken over. Warehouses are rotting, grain silos are hollow and the town is so devoid of people that the only conversation the sidewalks provide are the tinkling chatter between wind chimes.
A lot of money was sopped up from the rural areas of Middle America and transferred to urban, coastal cities, starting in the 1960s when the job market’s shift from industrial- to serviced-based jobs began. These digitally connected modern metropolises boomed and wealth grew with every financial tower, but the magnetism of this capitalistic force created an ever widening chasm between living standards.
Today the US has the largest income inequality rate of the world’s developed nations, and no where is inequality’s economically destabilizing repercussions evident more than here in the US’s hinterlands. In fact, the three most violent cities draw a line straight across the Midwest — from Detroit to St. Louis to New Orleans, in that order. These cities aren’t exemplars of positive change, either. Detroit’s former distinction as the country’s Motor City — the manufacturing machine of the US — has since become a poster child for economic misery and industrial decay. St. Louis was last year the epicenter for one of the most racially incensed debates the country has seen in decades. And over 10 years on, damage from Hurricane Katrina can still be spotted in greater New Orleans — homes are boarded up, and, if a gimlet eye employed, water marks can still be seen stained on plastic shingles.
Yet places like Greensburg, though part of that unshakably forsaken Midwest condition, remind me that the tiny towns are still connected to that true American boldness and unashamed sense of pride that says: “Hey, look at me!” Indeed, they are the heart of America.
“Out of all the ‘out there’ places and paths you’ve gone, the one I find the most shocking is this trip across the US,” a Canadian friend told me after hearing about my intended cross-country journey.
“You’ll probably begin to notice what a strange place you come from,” she said.
That ineffable oddness that is tagged to the US personality is forged from somewhere deep within the borders, somewhere like Kansas, somewhere that is individualistic in its interpretation of American diversity.
Greensburg is home to the world’s largest hand-dug well. At 109 feet deep, the “Big Well” is emblematic of roadside Americana — that at times hypnotizing, at times repulsive sub-culture. It is this soul that jolts into motion the cradle of American ideology and gives birth to our boldness and beauty; our extremes and disillusions.
Another line is drawn across the Kansas plain, this one by oil and gas majors that tap the grounds from Texas to North Dakota. Gun control is the least restrictive in the hinterlands. Unafraid of the federal government undermining their state prerogative, Colorado leads the way with marijuana delegalization. Immigration reforms have the most impact. Racial divides are widening due to antagonism. The mountains tall. The bayou battered. And buffalo, burly and indolent, still roam.
These overlooked but undeniably symbiotic states were now on the radar. “I want to drive across America, I always have,” said John, my former boss, who has just recently moved back to the US. The founding idea behind the trip is to dovetail the American spirit in to the book we are writing about his life in Asia by peering through the lesser known parts of the US.
Yes, the 7,000-mile, 3-month-long road trip opened our eyes to the immensity of the US’s size and cultural gravity, but it also provided a close up of the conflicting systems that precariously balance the country’s diversity; it truly is a system that is embattled yet sustained by the variance of voices that compose it. Through the trip, I began to wonder if being loud and proud is an inevitable product of the American way, the undying prelude to that so-oft talked of dream.
Below is a photo essay of this road trip, a zeitgeist of America.