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CWU Route 5: Prairie Heartland

All journeys begin with goodbyes. At one time or another we have all bidden adieu to friends and loved ones before turning our noses towards an unfamiliar place. When preparing for extended periods away, we might even make it a point to identify those deserving a special farewell. For me, a group of individuals I hold very dear comes to mind: my expectations.

Before each of my long tours, most of which take me through places I’ve never been, I take a quiet moment to examine the biases, tropes, and simplifications floating around in my mind regarding the region I am about to traverse and the people who live there. I have made an implicit promise to you, my future readers, to do my absolute best in presenting an accurate depiction of this country we share. It is a duty I take seriously. So, scattered throughout this post are a few of the images that come to my mind when I think of America’s Prairie Heartland. My prejudices have been laid bare for your judgment.

I’ve never been to North Dakota, Nebraska, or Kansas, and I’ve spent only a day or two driving through the other states that make up CWU’s upcoming 2,000-mile tour. So, where did these images come from?

Well, these images came from the internet, of course. But what about the ones in my head—the ones they represent? The answer is: I don’t know why I gravitate towards them, but I can guess: movies, books, television, blogs, conversations with folks…stories, really. All stories. Over the years, my busy and imprecise little brain has taken bits from here, snippets from there, and has constructed an amorphous and hazy map of expectations for the huge territory I will set out to explore starting tomorrow. If I challenge myself, though, I recognize this, and I know that it’s not my invented story that matters.

Will I pedal past corn and baseball and bison? Will I meet farmers on giant combines? Will I chat with Native Americans? Will I hear Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen and be overwhelmed with patriotic fervor? Most importantly, will those little girls let me feed their pony?

I passionately hope the answer for all of these is ‘yes.’ But I will constantly be reminding myself that— while confirming my expectations feels good—the richest moments of learning and experience will come when my mind is open to absorbing whatever I encounter. In other words, I hope that I won’t be so busy looking for what I expect to see that I miss what I haven’t even thought about. To me, the challenge of traveling—the excitement, really—is in allowing the mind to run these two parallel programs: enjoying the familiar while remaining alert to everything else.

So, as I move through the middle of our nation over the next six weeks, I won’t be disappointed, whatever I see. Even after saying goodbye to my expectations, I’m sure they will linger fondly in my memory. But my eyes and hears will be open, also, so that I don’t miss…well, let’s make something up… sprawling suburbs and badminton and llamas; meetings with hipster organic vegetable growers from the city, listening to spicy Salsa music that fills me with the irresistible urge to dance. Whatever the Prairie Heartland wants to show me.

All that said, I still really hope those little girls let me feed their pony. Or pet it, at least.

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