Where Were We?

For 2,100 miles from the shotgun seat this week, Vermont to Denver, my older brother corrected me each time I done wrong. He’s bossed me around since we were kids 60 years ago. He taught me how to drive. Some habits are hard to break.

Day Two brought us to Chicago, where we delivered excellent, unasked-for advice to our niece, which she tolerated, because her mother taught her to be kind to the helpless.

As the sun rose on Day Three, we drove through the nearly infinite western suburbs of Chicago, past Soviet-size hotels and enormous corporate centers branded with the names of most every corporation I ever heard of.

From the urbs to the suburbs to the exurbs, we saw growth grown upon growth.

A century and more ago, businessmen sought workers and found them in Chicago. They sought managers too, and found them, or sent them to Chicago. And a great migration of workers followed the Mississippi River upstream, to the north.

Only the most successful managers could afford to move out of Chicago to the North Shore, where the owners lived. So some moved northwest. And America prospered, and unionized, and factory workers sought houses of their own. And the western suburbs grew. It was easy to blade the prairie for the workers’ houses, and the minor managers. The prairie was flat.

Then America became enormously prosperous after World War II, and corporations drew managers to Chicago, telling them: “Come to Chicago! Live in the suburbs!”

And Chicago grew, and its suburbs grew. And the highways clogged with cars every morning and afternoon, and all day, as trucks carried goods from the factories to the rails, or headed out on highways to everywhere in the Lower 48.

With highways clogged in Chicago, the corporations moved their factories and distribution hubs to the western suburbs. And enormous trucks took the factories’ goods just a few miles farther to the railroads and highways that met in Chicago.

And the managers in the new headquarters in the western suburbs came to see it as a blessing that they no longer had to drive to Chicago, save for the weekly or monthly meeting. And retail stores and restaurants and grocers and developers built and built in the western suburbs. So growth fed upon growth.

Within three generations, the mantra had changed from “Come live in Chicago!” to “Come live near Chicago — but you’ll never have to go to Chicago, or live there!”

And people kept coming.

Escaping all this to the west, cruise control set at 78, we streaked across the prairie that began 500 miles behind us in Ohio, and stretched across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.

Endless as it seemed, we could not see that the prairie stretched another 1,000 miles north to south, from the Dakotas through Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. More than 1 million square miles of prairie, most of it given over to feeding the world.

As we approached Kearney, Nebraska, where Day Three ended, sandhill cranes squatted by the hundreds of thousands in the stubble of cornfields, by irrigation ponds. They pecked up kernels the threshers had left, gobbled insects and the worms in the soil, while overhead more sandhill cranes, by the tens of thousands, wheeled in to join them.

The Audubon Society said that night that 239,000 sandhill cranes had arrived in Kearney this year, and another 200,000 were expected. Building up their strength in the cornfields to continue their journeys to Canada.

Shaking out my own road miles at sunset, in a field beside the Quality Inn in Kearney, I raised my eyes and saw ten thousand more sandhill cranes checking in for the night. They came in long high intermingling Vs; in long low Vs, intermixing; in Cs and Os — never alone, never in a straight line. The sandhill cranes looked like an enormous neural net in the sky, a sector of Earth’s brain, like a vision on LSD. They kept coming and coming. When one flock ended another began. I will remember that sight until the day I die.

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