The road dipped and rose and dipped and rose, each dip and each rise similar to the one before but subtly different, as if the forested gullies, stubbled fields and windswept prairies evolved into before-and-after versions of themselves, a frame by frame advancement of time to come or, in some cases, devolution, a reduction of years into a forgotten past. On one low ridge a new home isolate in a treeless yard, on the next the imploded gray slats of another home half-concealed in gray November woods, the pair forming an unparalleled lesson on impermanence and man’s obdurate resistance to the inevitable. Each flashing into sight and just as quickly flashing past, disappearing in the blink of an eye to a fading afterimage on the mind’s retina. And on we sailed eastward toward a rendezvous with abandonment.
I was at once conscious of my companions, three relatives from Lori’s branch including one on his inaugural visit to Kansas. I’d tried feeling him out for his first impressions, but he seemed uncharacteristically reticent. “It’s nice” became “It’s as flat as everyone said it was,” an inconsistency that led me to suspect not exactly disappointment but not charm, either. This in spite of the road’s undulating lift and fall.
Also, I was acutely aware that our afternoon outing to the small town of Vermillion was dictated by my Winter Solstice Project, of which this was the 26th day. It marked the halfway point plus one and, as such, deserved something special, like a heavily-frosted piece of vanilla cake or a toast with small-batch bourbon or, dare I say, the accompaniment of a friend sympathetic to my cause. Or, at least, I thought so. That I’d have to settle on pumpkin pie and a cold beer didn’t escape me nor overly upset me considering my fondness for both. It was after all a day to give thanks, an odd little holiday suggestive that thankfulness was something to be hoarded until the last Thursday of November, when it was officially endowed with legislative sanction.
And thankful I was, for a great many things. However, there was the matter of being with people who had no interest whatsoever in my project, and their inclusion in the day’s outing seemed intrusive. They were merely along for the ride while I was in active pursuit of rust, decay and deserted agricultural facilities. It was hardly something I could explain. When I tried, my explanation didn’t fall on deaf ears so much as rebound, deflected as if sealed in Kevlar, and the silence that ensued unsettling.
Nor was it possible to adequately interpret to my city guests towns such as Vermillion, whose wide streets were vacated and empty, whose downtown was shuttered, whose businesses had fled and whose population was on an incremental slide toward oblivion. When I told them that census figures had declined since the turn of the century—1900, that is—I was told it was “unnatural.” An odd descriptive, I thought, considering how rural depopulation is the norm over the greater mass of the planet. If history is the judge, then migration to urban centers is the most natural thing of all, along with war, plague, extinction, religious crusades and genocide.
And if that could not be elucidated, how was it possible to make them see the terrible and forlorn beauty in these small towns? For those enamored of glittering skyscrapers, extravagant shopping centers and the mad hurly-burly interaction of thousands of faceless people vying for the same small place, Vermillion was nothing more than a ghost town. Its residents would undoubtedly disagree.
We drove through town to the south edge where railroad tracks once stitched the residents’ future to the world at large and parked by the abandoned grain elevator. On one side was a small lot filled with rusted hulks of vehicles from decades past and on the other a long, low, mustard-hued steel building with cracked and broken windows. Beyond rose a series of towering elevators entwined in a bewildering maze of tubing, their rounded exoskeletons patinated with oxidation the color of dried blood.
Three of us got out, the forth opting to remain in the vehicle. Part of me felt obligated to keep watch on my charges but I managed to shrug off the feeling and go about my quest. I shot the cars, their dented emblems and myriad textures of rust, and moved past to a shaded pothole where I captured the intricate swirls and whorls of ice, and went on to the buildings where I worked my way through to the road and back down the sandy trace of the former tracks and paused here and there to photograph whatever caught my eye. By the time I returned everybody was in the car waiting for me. Nothing was said of what had just transpired.
The same would happen again in the next two days, when another family reunion at the local Methodist Church saw me wandering the aisles and halls looking for compositions, only to be greeted by the amused expressions of the others, some who no doubt took it as one more eccentricity from a known eccentric and former city dweller (itself suspect). A long narrow shadow in the foyer, a hunched-over teddy bear bathed in light soft and golden from a honeyed stained glass window, the rich chestnut glow of oiled wood contrasting with the deep scarlet texture of cloth, all fell under my purview and, I’m sure, escaped the others as succinctly. It would be easy to dismiss this as merely a case of artistic vision versus willful blindness but it’s not that simple. Art is nothing if not subjective regardless of its universality. What works for me doesn’t have to work for others, and vice versa. Such is art’s power and its weakness. But by then I’d already experienced the sense of estrangement and made my peace with it.