More than 25 years ago, Joel Garreau penned, The Nine Nations of North America. It was an intriguing book that asked readers to reconsider the political boundaries of the continent without the temptation to think in terms of states (or provinces). If we simply grouped like minded regions he argued, it was possible to imagine that only 9 significant ‘nations’ existed in North America. It was an exercise in asking simple questions. Is northern Virginia part of the “the South” (or Dixie)? What do New Englanders value? How far north does Mex-American stretch?
As we traveled along today I found myself frequently wondering: where does the West begin?
This morning we awoke in Beatrice, Nebraska (longitude 96.7W) and after a day of real-world Etch A Sketch (that took us west, then south in Kansas, then east and then west again and then north) we stopped at Ogallala, Nebraska (longitude 101.43W). In short, we began the day closer to Baltimore (longitude 76.37) than to San Francisco (122W) and ended it closer to San Fran than to Baltimore. At any rate, we are a long way from either ocean.
Although I was cognizant that we had crossed from one major climate zone into another and entered into a new time zone during the course of the day, I’m not sure when I entered “the West” – perhaps it even occurred earlier in the trip say in Missouri. Garreau reminds us that the “middle in the name Middle West when applied to the Breadbasket today designates not only a geographic position but also a symbolic median between the industrialized East and the more natural West.” As I took in the rural farming towns and the miles of scenery, I did find myself reflecting on how different that rolling landscape of the breadbasket is from the more pronounced undulations of Virginia and the coal mining towns of West Virginia.
It is likely that many of my traveling companions will simply view tonight’s resting place, Ogallala, Nebraska as another interstate stopping point. I can’t help but think of the significance of the Ogallala aquifer to the prosperity of the breadbasket (and I encourage all readers of this blog to Google the Ogallala aquifer).
As we push westward – all the while contemplating the East – I am left wondering which part of America represents, in the words of esteemed author Wallace Stegner, the “geography of hope”. What might it mean if we continue the torrid pace of urbanization so prevalent on our coasts? What do the farmers of the breadbasket do when the water of the Ogallala aquifer is depleted? While the storm team searched unsuccessfully for tornados, I welcomed the time to consider the potential “political tornadoes” of this critical region.
Bob Oliver (typing quietly while Byron sleeps)