Like many folks, including John Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon, I prefer two-lane roads to interstate highways. I like to see people and places, get a sense of life from the ground up. I like small towns and rural landscapes.
I like to eat with the locals at diners like the Blue Front Café in Glenwood, New Mexico; Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire, Michigan; or the Hilltop Restaurant in Lakeville, Indiana. I might stop by the public library, catch a ballgame, find a bench by the river, the park, the town square. I like to watch people living their lives.
When I’m passing through like this, I’ll think, So this is what Monday morning is like in Fort Madison, Iowa. Or: So this is how a lazy summer Sunday afternoon feels in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Or: It’s a happening Saturday night in Sedalia, and the kids are cruisin’ here, too.
Sometimes I marvel at all the life stories, the human dramas being written and lived in so many hometowns. You could throw a spotlight onto any street corner, bar stool or waiting room and get a real-life cast and fetching plotlines for a 21st century remake of Our Town or Winesburg, Ohio or The Spoon River Anthology. Life is happening all around us, and the meanings wait there, too.
Even the places themselves have lives of their own — steadily functioning organisms of interwoven parts, seemingly isolated communities of a shared self-sufficiency. And yet they are bound to national, even global influences and forces beyond their control. They thrive and prosper or decline and fail not only by their own devices but by the surge and sag of the planet’s willful tides. We’re all connected now.
We didn’t set out to execute this theme with this issue. But as we spoke with writers and mapped out storylines and topics, we detected this pattern: We have people like you and me wanting to write about specific places, and in writing about those specific places, they wanted to explore the meanings of those places, how those places are affected by currents seemingly far away yet intimately tied to that particular landscape, and how these stories are the stories of people living life in their communities and in the world.
There are narratives here of poverty and wealth, of wildness, agriculture and industry, of big power and the little guy, of destitution, faith and hope, of the world today and the world of yesterday. We go from the Alleghenies to the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains. We hear from a nuclear physicist tracing the oldest secrets of the universe at the most advanced facility on Earth and from a priest tracing the footsteps of a 2,000-year-old tradition in a remote village in Mexico.
Sometimes a road trip, if you stay open to its call, takes you to the unexpected.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.