Kansas City From Missoula, Montana to New Orleans is a long haul, more than 2200 miles. It’s not something I recommend doing every year, but every once in a while it’s good to see what’s happening out there in America. Having made it as far as my uncle’s in Kansas City, means we’ve traveled across all of Montana and all of South Dakota as well as down the border between Iowa and Nebraska. Trust me if you’ve never done that, those states are huge! And, there are a lot of changes!
Casinos are one of the big ones. They are everywhere it seems. Gas should have been way cheaper than $3.70 per gallon since so many of the fill-em-up stations seemed to be empty-your-pockets-out casinos. And, the big boxes are everywhere, but they are no longer just K-Mart’s and Walmart’s, there are now a bunch of Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops that are huge in town after town. There must be some folks seriously gearing up in the Great Recession for something out there in the small towns of the West.
We drove through Lame Deer, Montana in the southeastern corner of the state. Lame Deer is where the Northern Cheyenne agency is located. I went through forty years ago on some brief training I was doing there. It was different. There’s a college there now named after a former chief. There’s a sizeable casino but more functional than fancy, but enough cars to make you notice. It was still possible to watch a young man riding a horse at top speed, both bareback, across a pasture along the highway. It was also possible to see that at best the economic development has been very uneven on the reservation.
There are some grace notes that have come to the country though. We pulled up for the night in Belle Fouche, South Dakota, a small town in the Black Hills on the way to Rapid City. Walking the dog, I ended up on a nicely done parkway along the river. I didn’t see any water, but the cattails were eye level and I wished I had had the time to walk the whole route. Driving past Sioux City, Iowa, there were significant improvements along the river there as well that beckoned through the industrial zone, and of course there seemed to be a casino not far away as well, though maybe by that time I was seeing things. Who knows?
There’s another world in the edges of so many of these smaller cities. When you get to the areas where the Motel 6’s and especially the Super 8’s are all clustered, in the West (and South to be honest) you are suddenly entering the world of the man-camps. Pulling through a Super 8 parking lot at 930 pm the other night, the place was hopping. Folks were hanging out of their doors and along the balconies. Beers in hands there were three or four small barbeques going. If you weren’t in some kind of pickup or work truck, you didn’t belong in the lot. There was good spirit, but this was an urban camp of hardworking men after a hard summer day. Glad to have jobs that paid, even if they were booming out at a Super 8 to make it happen. The motorcycle riders heading west towards the annual Harley fest in Sturgis were old, fat guys lined up at Wall Drugs for gravy on their biscuits. They were the Motel 6 crowd, while workers were Super 8 all way.
Welcome to the changing face of America. A lot the way it’s always been but adapting in some new ways that we’ll have to watch to see what happens next.