I love driving across the Midwest. Too often I hear people complain that middle America is flat and boring. Flat, yes, but if you get off the interstate (which is boring everywhere) and take the back roads you’ll see a fascinating landscape and a different kind of rugged America.
Driving across the Midwest this past spring on my trek from Maine to New Mexico, I crossed all of Arkansas and Oklahoma without ever hitting a major highway. As I cruised the back country roads through millions of acres of farmland, I was struck by the number of abandoned houses and farms. Many of these weren’t shacks, but lovely grand farmhouses gone to waste, rife with weeds and broken windows.
As agriculture becomes more and more industrialized, farms are no longer worked or owned by families. Farmhouses that have seen generations come and go now sit empty and are quickly falling to pieces.
I walked all around many of these places, peering in empty windows and through open doorways but never crossing the thresholds; every place was full of broken furniture, rusty nails and shattered glass. Such desperate messes gave me the impression that people didn’t leave these homes quietly, although I’m sure vandalism has been rampant too.
Touring these ruins, I caught glimpses of once loved homes: overgrown gardens, empty bird feeders, rusting backyard grills. Next to one Ozarks cabin, inexplicably, part of a carnival ride. Pieces of countless country lives, left behind.
Not everything was ruin and decay. It was mid-April and large lilac bushes in full bloom perfumed many of the properties. Each time I stopped, I picked a few fragrant sprigs for my car’s cup holder. Driving across the Midwest may be flat and at times, depressing, but by my recollection, it smells glorious.