A typical view of our rural roads, this one near Lima, IL.
My grandmother grew up outside of Herman, Minnesota, in a landscape of vastness. The last time I was there was summer and the corn was tall and heavy with cobs, but when I think of the landscape it appears as it does in early winter, the ditches yellow with dead grass, the few trees bare and revealing the rotting frame farmhouses and barns with caved-in roofs, the fields all stubble and mud, nothing to hide the immense distance between the nothing nearby and the nothing you can kind of see way off on the horizon.
My grandmother tells me astonishing things about growing up outside of Herman, Minnesota, about not having electricity, about building rafts and floating them down the creek, about eight-year-old girls killing chickens. But one of the most astonishing things she tells me is about walking in this landscape where the immensity is constantly hovering over you, walking ten miles to her grandfather’s house, walking ten miles to town.
How can people walk in the countryside? Where do they walk? How do they feel about it? Does it make them ashamed, afraid, or bored? Is it fun, beautiful, or inspiring? One reason I’m taking this trip along the Mississippi is to investigate walking in the countryside.
I have a friend who is really great and spends a lot of his time interviewing people, and not too long ago he interviewed an octogenarian Minnesota state legislator who chaired the House Transportation Committee. On my behalf, my friend asked him about intercity transit between towns in outstate Minnesota. While he misunderstood the question, the legislator maintained that small towns were compact and self-contained enough that they didn’t need transit. But the bigboxing of America has left small towns more interdependent than ever before. Travel between towns may be more necessary now than any time since Per Hansa snuck to Sioux Falls to file his fraudulent claim.
Recently I was talking to someone who was excited about a trip he was planning to England, in which he and his wife would spend a week or so walking across the countryside, taking advantage of a service that would shuttle their bags between inns as they hiked. I asked him why people didn’t get excited to walk from town to town in the USA. Population density, he said, towns are too far apart here. Maybe. As I’ve documented in the Crossings Accounting posts, there are plenty of cases in rural America where towns are clustered a walkable distance from one another, for example across a river. A more fleshed-out example would be the Root River Valley in Minnesota’s Bluff Country, where a number of towns and villages are strung along a trail system that offers a comfortable and scenic walk. Yet this trail is almost exclusively promoted for biking. Why hasn’t the concept of a three-day hiking vacation been explored here? Are Americans just not a walking people?
This morning I came across a piece that seems to be trying to teach Americans how to walk in the countryside by dissecting parts of Italy where it’s done so well. Charles R. Wolfe has written a book on urbanism, but he’s also interested in rural places and how they differ from and overlap with urban ones. While he hints that it may not be possible for American towns, which he believes were built around modern transportation technologies, to achieve the aesthetic delight of their Olde Worlde brethren, he also suggests that writing gradual transition zones (called transects by true believers) into our codes could help to mimic the success that the ancient ones achieved without thought.
I believe that the aesthetics of walking in rural areas is important, if only because people already walk there, so we should at least put some thought (if not money) into making it pleasant and comfortable to do so. But aesthetics is not the be-all and end-all. 70 years ago, it was probably not pleasant for my grandmother to walk eight miles in the Traverse County landscape, exposed to the biting winds and fickle weather of our continental climate. There must be a deeper motivation to walk in these places that have been abandoned to the car and the tractor. I hope that I can uncover something of this motivation as I travel along the Mississippi.