Death and Wood: An East-Coast Urbanite’s Foray in the Mid-West


Ahhh…the mid-west. I’ve been here thrice before but the visits were to major urban areas like Kansas City and Denver, and a more culturally diverse college town in Greeley, CO. But this is my first time in the sparsely populated heartland.

I made the trip to visit my dad and his wife, Erika, in Bloomfield, Nebraska where they relocated to some years ago. I got my first taste of mid-west flavor while people watching as I awaited my flight to Sioux Falls, SD in Chicago Ohare airport the day after the Cubs won the World Series. If I had a dollar for every dude that I saw sporting “dad jeans” and hiking shoes, I’d be Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Big agriculture is the name of the game in Nebraska. The landscape is gold and tan hued peppered with brown and black cows and accented with sprinkles of modernity in the form of giant white propellers.

 

Dry fields stretch as far as the eye can see and trees are small islands of green that pool around homes or separate property lines. It would be fair to say that I did not come across a true forrest the entire time that I visited.  And it is dusty. Extremely dusty. Tractors kick up clouds of dust so thick that it lingers still in the air if the wind isn’t blowing and the cutting down of end-of-season crops delivers pestilence to the doorstep of man. The flies, beetles and grasshoppers overwhelmed me. Acreages and acreages of trees and grassy plains displaced by crops of corn grown to fuel ethanol production and grazing cattle to satisfy Americas demand for beef unveils miles of barren vista. A sad sight for my urban eyes.


Bloomfield is a town with a population of 1,126 and it is what you would expect of a small Mid-western town. The pace is slow, the people are friendly, and the opportunities for fun and employment are scarce. Quaint is the adjective I used most often to describe the place. The convenience store owner, the real estate agent, and newspaper publisher that I met were all so friendly and accommodating. And they all seemed to have a great deal of respect for my dad and Erika.


Trips like these are often moments of self-discovery for me. The things that I frequently complain about, like crowds and traffic, are among the things that I miss the most about the east. You can drive for miles without seeing another car and move about the day missing human interaction as long stretches of road separate residential properties. The isolation is as depressing as the failing economy here.

The emerald green of the east with its tree covered hills, sparkling lakes, and massive traffic jams call to the urbanite in me. There are many reasons why the left and right coasts are so heavily populated. Buzzing restaurants, live music, walkable cities and communities, public art, the diversity of life itself…these things matter to many.  And yet there were some pleasurable discoveries and experiences in Nebraska. I ate an elk burger full of flavor. I shot a gun in an open field without fear of disturbing the neighbors or risk of being shot by the police for possession of a weapon. I discovered a winery that rivaled many on the Seneca Lake wine trail. These things I will long remember.  Still, my values won’t play well out here. A pair of Ferragamo shoes would be as useless as tits on a bull as they say.

My dad is nearing 78 and is as obdurate as you would expect a 78 year-old to be. He and his wife have settled in nicely in Nebraska and have become an integral part of the social fabric of Bloomfield. I amused myself, during this visit, with his obsession with wood and death. Not long ago they lived on a farm and partially heated their home by burning firewood. During this period, he collected a lot of fire wood. And although that is no longer the case, his tour of the area included areas where he collected the fire wood. Private property where he was given permission (and sometimes not) to remove fallen trees. A drive by of the old farm house revealed where he chopped the tonnage of wood collected over time.  Passing other homes I learned of the families fates including who died. Collecting and burning wood was a significant part of his life for such a long time that he now suffers from “wood envy”. He showed me properties where the homeowners had enviable stacks of wood. Piles of wood gathered in anticipation of the winter to come. The irony of a man’s obsession with collecting wood in a woodless land was not lost on me.

I am happy that they have settled into a place that they can call home. A place where neighborly connections are meaningful even in a place where people are scattered like sand in the wind. This place is good for them. It was a pleasure visiting the two of them, but the east calls to me now…and I must answer.

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