Tuesday, October 20, 2009


A theoretical cardboard cutout of The United States balances on a pinpoint that corresponds to the real-life, non-cardboard town of Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County U.S.A., the heart of America, at which there is an abandoned motel, a pillbox chapel, and a flat-handed wind.

The wind threshes the surrounding fields, cold-cocks the chapel--itself there for those tourists hoping to meditate on what exactly they are at the heart of. It's a big land, they might think. And I am grateful for it.

The chapel and the motel seem to have sprung from a missionary's mind, a mind that may have seen this arbitrary center as a booming pilgrimage site.

Some writing suggests that the chapel was built as a wedding destination, a sort of Niagara Falls of the Great Plains. (Its four pews would allow only a small party, but the bride's five-foot walk down the aisle could prove quite dramatic.)

It would take an unlikely mix of quixoticism and blandness to plan a wedding or a vacation at the center of America. This place is like the New Year's Eve of tourism--it's a one-second event: move onto the center, have a vague feeling about it, move off of the center.

Perhaps, though, the same missionary envisioned an entire marketplace built up around this space the way shops crowd Four Corners State Park, the political junction of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. There, Navajos sell images of the ubiquitous kokopelli. Couples sneak in late at night to canoodle in four states. The most intrepid visitors do headstands. All of it a lively bazaar.

It's not hard to imagine a mall like that in Kansas called Center Center. A drive-in movie theater that shows the most patriotic films--The Best Years of Our Lives, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Maybe even a mini-golf course with an 18th hole Jayhawks's mouth marking the exact spot. Sink this putt and you're a true American, Junior!

People might put their chests on a magic stone to have a little heart-to-heart. They might send their penny-shaped romantic wishes into a crystal fountain. Or climb to the top of a tower to see--five dollars please--America as far as it goes in all directions.

And so a motel was built. By a wide-eyed man named Virgil, or an earnest veteran named Frank, or a misguided opportunist named Elroy. Maybe it flourished for a short time, but the dim novelty of the place couldn't support it for long.

Someone must have decided it was too sad to demolish it.

When I tried them, I was surprised to see that the doors of the motel were still open. Inside one of the rooms hung two used towels on bunked beds. I worried that I was intruding--on vagrants or ghosts from 1936--worried that I was about to be shot.

I closed the door and shuffled away in a curved line in order to evade the imaginary bullet. Then I left the park, headed off-center where I belong.

It's easy to joke about the symbolism of the place, the idea that the middle of the country is out of business.

But I'm happier to say that in Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County U.S.A., at the heart of America, big ideas sometimes falter, but there remains an unbent, if naive faith that we can be drawn together by nothing more than a notion.

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