NOTIONS: Musings from a cross-country drive

September 10, 2007

In the waning days of August, my son and I drove across America. With Zach's jam-packed Honda sedan bearing everything a college freshman could possibly need, we left Indianapolis on a Thursday morning and arrived in Santa Barbara, Calif., the following Monday afternoon.

In the 2,465 intervening miles, we got a five-day dose of what modern air transportation has denied too many for too long: a chance to think, to listen and talk, and to marvel at this nation's diverse landscape.

We sped past the fertile farmland of our native Great Plains. Rolled through a Wizard-of-Oz-like thunderstorm in western Kansas. Climbed through Denver to 10,554 feet at Vail Pass. Wound our way through a Colorado River canyon of towering red rocks and lush green fields. Hiked through ancient stone "windows" at Arches National Park. Sat at the counter for dinner at Mom's Café in Salina, Utah. Sat at Caesar's Palace for dinner on the Strip in Las Vegas. Stood atop Hoover Dam. Witnessed the drought-decimated water levels in Lake Mead. Traversed the high desert of the Mojave where only the Joshua trees stand tall. And arrived, at last, amid the rolling vineyards, abundant orchards and wide Pacific of Zach's new home.

You can walk away from a trip like that with your choice of meaning and memory: Some rich or desolate landscape. Pride in your boy's driving through pounding rain, steep mountain interstates or crowded L.A. freeways. The decadence of Vegas or the brilliance of the Cirque du Soleil acrobats who perform there.

Then there was Pi Patel's search for God in "The Life of Pi" audio book that graced the first two days of our journey. Or Harlan Coben's search for killers in the audio mysteries that hastened our western swing.

And, of course, there was the new iPhone Zach had received as compensation for his summer internship-a gadget that preoccupied him whenever he was riding shotgun, got us directions to just about anywhere, explained our dining options even in the remotest of locations, recorded images of our journey for folks back home, and served, oh-by-the-way, as his phone.

But amidst all the technological, parental, natural and man-made wonders, a Midwestern sidebar lingers.

When you drive past Independence, Mo.; or Abilene, Ellis or Russell, Kan.; the billboards aren't about natural attractions, show-biz stars or the latest Apple product. They don't all advertise the next McDonald's, Motel 6 or Phillip's 66.

Instead, they're about folks who were raised here-Midwestern folks who started from these humble places and made a difference; folks who may have begun with less monetary means, but who demonstrated something more when it comes to other kinds of riches.

And so, their hometowns take pride not in some God-given or man-made asset (the grain silo is the tallest structure in town, after all), but in the leaders who've emerged from their midst. "We're the kind of place that instills good character," they seem to say. "Come join us."

And so we learn that President Harry S Truman was raised in Independence. We're reminded that five-star general and twoterm President Dwight Eisenhower grew up in Abilene. We learn that Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the auto company that bears his name, enjoyed a boyhood in Ellis. And we discover that not one, but two noted U.S. senators, Bob Dole and Arlen Specter, were raised in Russell.

As we passed these billboards-not just little historic markers, mind you, but BILLBOARDS-I could see Zach shake his head, wondering how anyone could ever come from here and make it there.

He's heard the stories, of course, as I have, of hard work and Midwestern values and tough times; how there was little else to do, and few other distractions, and great collective need.

So young folks from these parts spent their time learning, and imagining, and pitching in for the good of the family and the community. And lo and behold, all that dreaming, and book knowledge and work ethic, and sacrificing for others proved just the ticket in the bigger world.

But as we drove by these little hamlets still hanging their hats on fading memories of native sons, I wondered something else: Do we still have a rural America with an edge in producing such people?

Indeed, in a time when small-town America struggles with corporate takeovers of family farms; when little towns have been homogenized by the same fast-food restaurants and Wal-Marts; when smalltown kids have access to the same 278 satellite channels, the same Nintendo Wii consoles, the same video games, the same NetFlix, the same downloadable music, and, yes, the same iPhones; and when the cost of college has climbed so high that it's nearly impossible for the young Dwight Eisenhowers of the world to work for minimum wage at the Abilene creamery to help put their siblings through school, can these lush American acres still provide enough inspiration and character to overcome all the distractions?

I sure hope so.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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