When Scott Edwards left Wisconsin in April last year he had a dim outlook on the virtues of the human race.
He was walking from his hometown of Neenah, Wis., to the Grand Canyon— his destination with a “big hole,” as he called it—in part to recreate an artistic vision gone stale. It was also, admittedly, a midlife crisis of sorts, a “fat” (his words), fifty-year-old man trying to outrun a sense of loss and decrepitude. Besides a renewed interest in capturing the perfect image, what he found during the next 122 days was an America most people had thought lost.
“It’s an America most everybody else in the country would like to think of as us,” he said. “When you ask an American, any citizen, what they think an American is, they’ll recite these virtues that they hope they can live up to—but that Middle American actually does live up to. It’s not that they try to, it’s just ingrained in them.”
Edwards was in Vermillion last Monday while retracing his route to fulfill a promise. His return was supposed to be part of a book tour, but the book has so far proven elusive. Still, he had promised people that he would return, and here he was, photographs in tow. A small portfolio of his work was displayed at the Vermillion Public Library.
“People actually threw things at me in Wisconsin,” Edwards said. “When I crossed into Iowa people waved, crossed the street to greet me, stopped on the side of the road to give me food and water, and invited me into their homes. It was almost freaky.”
But it was in Kansas, when crippled by a stress fracture, that he found hometown America.
He spent three days recuperating in Vermillion, and then, a few miles down the road, in Frankfort for the same span. Residents paid for his meals, ferried him around, and local businesses put him up in a bed and breakfast until his foot healed. And then he entered Washington County.
“It turned out, walking from Vermillion to Clay Center, walking as much as I did, I gained weight,” Edwards said. “Barnes was ready for me. And then from Barnes it was like the ball just kept bouncing down the road. And they’d not only feed me when I got in their home, they’d give me this care package to keep me going. When I tell people this, they look at me like I’m crazy.”
He was treated to food at Our Daily Bread and ensconced at the Dh Ranch south of town. The beauty of the country mesmerized him.
“That was like storybook land out there,” he said. “It was Wizard of Oz land. Rolling hills and double-rutted dirt roads leading out to this farm. It was marvelous. I had the whole place to myself, and the fridge was chock full of food, and I did my laundry and took a shower twice a day, and I ate like a pig the entire time I was there.
“And I rolled out the next day—or should I say I waddled out the door— and it was the beginning of the worst day of the trip.”
The wind blew 40 miles an hour and the temperature climbed to triple digits. He quickly became dehydrated, his small supply of water evaporating under a raging thirst. A passing motorist gave him a bottle of water, which he drank that night while camped in the cemetery at Kimeo. His tongue swelled so much it stuck to the roof of his mouth.
On the road to Green he came across an abandoned schoolhouse. On inspection he found a faucet which dribbled red chunky water when turned on. Though it gagged him, he drank it anyway.
It was a hard lesson learned hard. After that, he carried more water.He talked of other adventures, blessings by Navajo holy men, nights of sleeping in roadside ditches, hunting shade and perfect light for the perfect black-and-white large-format image. When he reached the Grand Canyon he considered staying, but finally consenting to return home. And when he got in a car and took off, he found the speed dizzying—and terrifying.
On his return trip, Edwards planned on stopping at a select few places where people extended an extra measure of hospitality. “The first thing I noticed on my drive out here was, ‘that’s a long walk,’” he laughed.
He also intends on reshooting some images with a larger camera.In a lull between library visitors Edwards wandered outside and crossed the street to stand in the shadows of a series of metal grain elevators silent and rusting in the early autumn afternoon. High cirrus clouds flirted with the sun. Pointing to several places he photographed on his inaugural trip, he suddenly plopped on the ground and framed the grill of a truck against a skyline of twisted, half- destroyed elevators. “That’s it!” he cried. “The light is perfect! That’s the composition!”