The first time I really took notice of just how vast and empty the outskirts of Marion are was when I responded to the scene of a homicide. It was a 20 minute drive to the location, a small strip of 4 homes surrounded by prairie and farmland, and when I arrived dark clouds were gathering in the distance. Knee-high grass blanketed the ground and the changing winds of the storm drove rolling waves of cool air across the grass. While I stood watching the grasses sway, the shadows of the clouds began to creep from the horizon and quickly overtook the warm sunspots. It was beautiful, and in that moment the places I had referred to as 'The Middle of Nowhere' became much more. It wasn't nowhere, it was much more special than that dismissive label, it was freedom, a feeling that if you wanted you really could just disappear. There have been many times since that as I've driven along Groundhog Pike, or Linn Hipsher Road, that I've felt the compulsion to just drive and drive, because out there it is possible. Out there it seems anything is possible.
The following writing and photographs reflect, I hope coherently, this sense of vastness, how it relates to my own emotions of where I am at in my life, and the nature of the many smaller towns that dot the Ohio and midwest landscapes and the people that inhabit them.
Light falls early, and like water from a burst dam, the golden rays of morning quickly flood the landscape. Already the killdeer and Meadowlarks busy themselves zipping over the heads of Deer, still alert and grazing before the sun is too high.
A lone car, headlights burning through the thin morning fog, hurries its way down the gravel road into town, pursued close behind by a cloud of dust that is a brilliant orange in the morning sun. The sound of the engine cuts through the sounds of the morning, but quickly it passes, and slowly dissapears into the horizon, the red glow of taillights melting to nothing over a small rise.
Thick billowy clouds in the distance hide the still dark sky, though it is rapidly draining to a deep blue, the diamond glow of stars still shine brightly far above the streaking contrails. Out at the municipal airport, a pilot too stares up into the waning night sky as the sun slowly bleeds its rays into it, reading every subtlety. The warm styrofoam cup of fresh coffee warms his hand, and its smell makes his mind wander back to stories his grandfather told him of heroes who flew the skies and navigated by the same stars.
A farmer is already working on his machinery, before the sun awoke, he had already started his day and it won't end until after the sun has gone away over the treeline at the end of his field. 'The soil is good here, so we are good here' his grandfather had once said to him on a hot day late in the summer while he worked in the old barn. He remembers still how the dust from the wheat harvests glowed and danced in the sunbeams that had found their way in through the cracks in the walls. He remembers the taste of sawdust and sweat, and how the air hung stagnant in the barn with the thick smell of oil and rotting wood. He remembers how the dirt from helping his father in the tractor stayed under his fingernails for months, and how by the end of the summer his bare feet were hard enough to run on the gravel road. He often wonders if his grandchildren will ever have any memories of him that are as tangible as his.
The soil is good, the soil is very good. To even those who are not farmers but still abide by the instinct to create and grow gardens in their backyards, the gift of the soil is tremendous. Glaciers had once pushed onto the land, flattening it like dough, and when they melted deposited this thick rich earth in their wake. Earth that countless hands would toil and work to make a living, hands that would be blackened by it, hands that would bleed into it, hands that would one day become a part of it.
It wouldn't only be the crops though that would spring from the rich earth. Cheaply built but expensive homes began dotting the landscape at the end of the last decade. Their windows reflect the rising sun far across the farmland and prairie, they are stirring now too and coming to life. Isolated settlements like islands sepperated by the grasses and blacktop rivers that intersect here and there. Children grow up here, and in time the landmarks they establish and use everyday will dissapear as more settlements are built.
The schools have stood solid for the better part of a century. From the air, the baseball diamonds and the track look like alien symbols, such contrast on the landscape. The teachers working at the school remark on the 'bring your tractor to school day' and the prom which was held in the humble gymnasium when they were students at the same school. Nowadays though, fewer students are catching the school bus from the end of a gravel road, even fewer have ridden a tractor. Many are now learning computer programming or earning college credits before they graduate. With all the opportunities available to them now, most of their futures lay in other lands. This many of the older teachers will tell you with pride, but burried beneath, an undertone of sadness. Times are changing, and the world changes faster than many would like.
Somethings stay the same though. The history teacher still drinks two cups of coffee in the morning and stands on his porch, looking out over the vast expanse of untouchable prairie. The math teacher still has coffee breath but his co-workers are too polite to tell him. The poster with the graduating class of '72 is slowly decaying, despite the faculty buying a better poster frame for it. The baseball field is still mowed by a man with the last name Barger, who also coaches the baseball team, but it was his father's father before him who first decided to start a baseball team. The baseball team that would win a state title for the first and only time in the school's history.
The old roads run parellell to the infinite row of telephone lines and both keep their secrets, but memories good and bad still mark certain sections. A rock with the fading red comment 'I Still Love You' watches over a bend in the road before it comes to an intersection. Small crosses with flowers and balloons that dance gently in the wind remind motorists of old and personal tragedies. Some old and forgotten, and some still new and fresh with their sorrow.
In time, the efforts and structures that were built by man decay and become only another part of the landscape. The old house that may be haunted is slowly consumed by Ivy, its windows long ago broken out with rocks, its floor caving in. The one room schoolhouse that one time served as the townhall and church, is now merely a marker and a chimney. In the heat of the summer, when the locusts chir and the doves coo, when there is not enough shade to be found, and the beads of sweat gather and run from your hairline and burn your eyes, the youth find solace in the cool waters of the quarry. At one time the lake functioned as a staple of the nearby city, where livings were earned and production was key. Now teenagers plunge with a deep faith from the cliffs and into the icy water. Water so clear that on a clear day steam shovels and heavy equipment can be seen resting like shipwrecks on the bottom. They say several teens drowned here, most recently the quarry was closed after a drowning. The calm clear water gives way to a deep blue darkness far far down, like the secrets of the town, the calm inviting waters are not always as they seem. Sometimes the most inviting things in life hide a deep treachery far below the still surface, where the darkness overtakes the light.
As the harvest rolls around, the farmland comes to life in a special way. The rich smell of cut wheat, soy beans, and dirt hang thick in still air and overcome the senses on a windy day. Combines and tractors kick up clouds of dirt that seem to hang in the air forever. Bails of the harvested crops dot the land in the same way herds of gazelle do in the Sahara. Hard work is important, the times keep moving and there are those who accept and understand the only way to keep up is to speed up. It is a law that is understood by many, yet not all abide by them. Sweet tea home brewed in the sun sits on the unpainted back porch, condensation running down it. The brilliant gold color of the straw when it is time for the harvest is pleasant and relaxing. An old radio plays the best country music from the 70's Why rush? Time has a way of catching up with everything, and its not always guaranteed that the work put in yields desired results. The laziness of the summer day is made to enjoy, the landscape and smells are to remind us to slow down a little, enjoy what's around, and appreciate that the glory of everything is fleeting.
Flies buzz and the smell of decaying vegitation and dead fish hang thick in the air over the wetlands where a Green Heron waits patiently in the shallow water. The rich green of the algea hides the minnows and tadpoles beneath the still water. Spring peepers and bullfrogs chorus in with the locusts and crickets. With the final days of summer coming to a close and the familiar smells and sounds of fall growing to an invitable crescendo, the heron will soon be leaving the prairie for warmer lands. For now though, he is patient and content with the small ponds he's called home for the summer, and he will return once the snows thaw.
While the summers are lazy and hot, the winters in the vastness are cruel and aggressive. The cold winds rip mercilessly across the landscape, and in a fresh snow throw up blinding curtains of white over the roads. But in the cab of a snowplow there is warmth. The radio plays the most current rock hits and drowns out the grind of the plow as sheets of white powder erupt into the crisp cool air. It's a tedious job, and in the prairie, surrounded by the emptiness of an endless white horizon, the urge to doze is almost irresistible. The smell of coffee fills the cab and along with the heater, keeps the driver warm. A sasquatch air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror, bought in Cleveland last summer when she and her younger sister made the trip up to watch a Cavaliers game. A stack of books on Robotics and linear algebra threaten to topple off the passenger's seat as she maneuvers the snow plow around a curve in the otherwise straight and narrow road. She has to hold the tower of literature steady the same way she does when her daughter is riding with her and the driver in front of them breaks to fast. As soon as her shift ends, she'll be making her way on the same roads she plowed to the career center for afternoon classes on Fanuc Robots. Honda is hiring robotics programers, one of her teachers had told her, and once she earns her OSHA certificate she will be more than qualified for the job, and that will bring a nice change, but on mornings like this she doesn't mind the warmth and comfort of the cab.
The snow stays on the ground for weeks sometimes, with tempertures warming then cooling, melting then freezing. Through the windows of a farmhouse, caked with a thin layer of ice on the edges, the white sky touches the endless white ocean of old snow. A woman puts on her thick soled boots as she prepares to go and check the mail box at the end of the drive. Not much mail comes anymore, the occasional card from her children updating her on the weather down in Florida, the messily scrawled notes from grand children, and of course pointless letters in envelopes marked 'URGENT' from scammers hoping to swindle 'old timers' out of their money. The walk down the gravel drive is cold and windy, a semi truck roars by on the road bringing with it a cloud of loose snow in its wake. The american flag her late husband had wired to the mailbox post shudders violently with each gust of winter air. It is tattered now and she knows eventually it will have to come down, or be torn from the thin dawl rod holding it. It holds memories though, they had met at the Steel Plant, where they would both spend almost half a century working as husband and wife. When they were married the company had sent them a piece of rebar with their names ornately etched into the side like a piece of modern art, it still sits on the fireplace mantle next to his ashes.
Spring, like winter, comes on slowly. The heavy grey clouds that threaten snow storms gradually give way to darker sagging rain clouds. Spring showers pound the land and the small streams that had slowed to a mere trickle suddenly swell and surge with violence. Warming temperatures melt the last of the now grey and black walls of snow on the sides of the roads and the endless prairie transitions from the cold and barren landscape to bright explosions of green brought on by spring rains. The smell of blooming flowers and prairie grasses growing is faint but distinct in the changing air.
Spring fades slowly into summer. The graduating seniors are turning their tassles and stepping into the next grand adventure of life and the crops already planted. The days are becoming hot and the shade is scarce under the noon sun. Clouds stretch out as far as the eye can see, painted on the rich blue canvas of the sky. A car travels swiftly down a strange road, the driver admiring the freedom of the endlessness. He is no stranger now to the land, on days that allow it he often finds himself returning to the same spots, and sometimes when he's lucky, finding new areas that promise hidden treasures. The land whispers in low tones, awakening in him a sense of adventure and possibility that is so easily lost and forgotten anywhere else. The car slows to a stop and the purr of the engine dies down. Now, only the sounds of the wind and the birds can be heard. Through a viewfinder time can be stopped and moments preserved. Eventually his time of exploring will come to an end, with only his photographs and writings lingering, and long after he is gone and the photographs and writings lost to time, the cycle of the Vastness will continue on forever, unbroken and unyielding.