The Frightening Heartland

During my life I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the American “Heartland”. I spent much of my time growing up, going to school and working in it. Today I still have friends and family thoroughly land-locked deep within it. But what I hadn’t done in quite some time was take a good, long drive through it… until a couple of weeks ago. And much of what I saw – mostly from the main highways – was pretty depressing.

In the 1980’s I regularly made the trip from Indiana to Oklahoma and back. I even had regular stops along the way (for instance, Collinsville, a once small ‘burb east of St. Louis was a favorite stop of mine). It was mostly wide-open country back then; eyesores dotted the landscape but they didn’t define it. What I saw on this most recent trip however, was a section of the nation now seemingly drowning in junk. In fact, driving I-44 through Missouri felt a little like driving through a country junkyard. The once beautiful landscape seemed filled with trash and trailer homes. I’m sure there are nice areas in Missouri, but I undertook this 3000-mile long drive in large part to see the changes and make a relevant – if subjective – comparison; and the view from the highways I once regularly traveled is a common denominator. If it wasn’t some small farm cluttered with rusting hulks and oversized, mult-colored plastic playground toys, it was some newly-built, architecturally-uninspired Mega Self-Storage Mall. Putting a nice(?) wrapper on junk doesn’t mean it isn’t junk anymore. I’ve seen self-storage facilities go up all over, but I’ve not seen them quite so big, quite so ugly and quite so far out in the middle of nowhere. Makes me wonder what I’d find in Texas where everything is supposed to be bigger.

It just so happens that while staying overnight in one midwestern motel, Frontline’s story on Wal*Mart was being re-broadcast (Link). I turned it on just before the part where a Port of Long Beach spokeswoman talks about what America is importing from China and what we export back (correction: what LITTLE we export back). Hey, maybe those rustcar-collecting farmers in the “Show Me” state are waiting for scrap metal prices to go up. You never know. In the meantime, I guess they’re just contributing to the new scenic vistas.

And speaking of scenic views, one sight took the cake. While mega-sized American flags advertising fireworks stands were a regular sight (sorry, I just can’t help but take offense at the flag being used for advertising), one view almost caused me to drive off the rode. Driving eastbound through road construction after St. Louis, I was greeted by the most tasteless (and dangerously distracting) structure I’ve ever encountered: a mega-sized cross right next to a bend in the highway. Next to the cross was a billboard which included a URL to a donation website (sorry, I won’t be linking to it). I memorized the URL because while I was tempted to get out and snap a picture of my very own, the road construction was problematic. I figured the site would have it’s own picture which I could share with you. Here it is (it’s much bigger and much gaudier in person).

Here’s another view snapped and posted by someone else – Link.

There’s something frighteningly surreal about having the radio scanning the airwaves for a decent station, picking up only rap, Christian talk-radio, and “Mega-Rock” music from the 70’s and 80’s, while staring up at this monstrosity. I bet they have a store that sells Big Ass Cross earrings and memorabilia too. Made in China.

{Image Copyright © 2005 The Effingham Cross Foundation}