A Dawn Trip In the Heartlands

It's dark as midnight as Ralph and I leave the Wayside Motel at 5:30 a.m. We're relieved to vacate the tacky room with grimy carpeting and chintzy paneling. We drive across the highway to the Colonial Cafe, free breakfast coupons in hand. I ask the waitress if Oakley, Kan., was Annie Oakley's home territory.

''Well, we claim her,'' she says. The words roll out slow and easy just behind a matching smile.

Five men in overalls saunter in and seat themselves around a table near the front door. A sixth fellow enters by the side door and walks past our booth toward the table of men.

''D---- sea gulls.'' I smile as I read the caption on his bright blue cap. White splotches splatter the top and the beak.

''They're a protected species,'' Ralph explains.

''Whattya up to, Billy?'' a voice from the table asks.

'' 'Bout 5 foot 2,'' Billy replies, pulling another chair toward the table.

Ralph slides out of the booth and heads for the cash register. I check the hand-crafted items for sale while Ralph proffers our coupons. The men smile and nod as we leave the cafe.

Our headlights shine on a billboard that says, ''Welcome to Bob Dole country.'' The sun begins to creep above the horizon and shines right in our eyes. Ralph reaches for his sunglasses tucked behind the visor.

Here and there I notice windmills outlined against the pink horizon and I am reminded of Willa Cather's great black plow silhouetted against ''a circle of molten red.... Picture writing on the sun.'' Kansas, like Cather's Nebraska, is a flat plain given to spectacular risings and settings of the sun.

Beef cattle dot the beige expanse of faded grassland. Tumbleweeds roll across the highway, piling themselves against the fences. Huge rolls of hay are snow-frosted. Here and there oil wells are pumping away - like those toy birds whose beaks you dip in water to start them bobbing up and down, up and down.

Country music plays on the radio. Two women make a pitch for money, asking listeners to call in and pledge dollars to the local PBS radio station.

''It's such a beautiful sunrise,'' one says. ''We should have a picture window that goes right down to the floor.''

''Oh, my! We can't waste our money like that,'' the other interrupts. ''Folks need to know we work on a mighty tight budget.''

A highway sign says 65 miles to Salina, and the weatherman is saying it's 24 degrees; high in the low 40s today. Then a male voice reminds, ''Now you be sure and call Town and Country Chevy. And, yeah, I write my own stuff. You've got my name. You know who I am.'' His slow twang continues.

In my part of the world, automobile commercials are rattled off at the speed of an auctioneer's song, so they can crowd 100 words into 10 seconds. ''I believe what I say,'' the Town and Country Chevy voice says. ''You know that.''

Thereafter, Paul Harvey reports, in that warm, trustworthy voice that seems so right in Kansas, that a fellow robbed three grain elevators. The first two jobs went just fine, but the third time the culprit broke his ankle and issued a statement from jail. ''There just ain't no use worryin'. Nuthin's gonna turn out all right anyway.''

Now that's hard to believe as we travel an arrow-straight highway in Kansas. Often we can see for miles. We make guesses, then check the odometer to see who's best at estimating distance.

A sign advertises Prairie Dog Town. Another says, Salina 29 miles. Then I see one that gives me pause.

''Did you see that sign?''

''Yeah,'' Ralph laughs. ''Garden of Eden. It looked like a legitimate state road sign. Wonder what that's all about?''

I don't question it. As we pass the Saline County line, it's early morning in America's heartland and all is right with the world. If we ever doubted it, a male voice sings a reassuring song for us. He will not be hurried. In a twangy, convincing tone, he croons:

''There's no place like Salina, not anywhere we know,

Some call it the good life, but we call it home.

Clean of mind and body, it's a place where each can grow.''

It was the winning entry, the announcer explains, in a song-writing contest sponsored by the National Bank of Salina.

A sign reads, Abilene 28 miles. And we have miles to go before we sleep.

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