[Ungawa! Intrepid global explorer David Von Drehle of the Washington Post Magazine dons his pith helmet and ventures into the geographical Belly of the Bush Beast. Result: another heapin' helpin' of turgid gorillas-in-the-midwest-mist reportage for the Sunday morning brioche set back in Dupont Circle. I know I've covered this ground before (here, here, here, here, and here), but... eh, what the hell. Hat tip to Tim Blair and iowahawk reader Greg Miller]
DAY ONE: BASE CAMP, IOWA CITY
Mission: bring back Von Drehle.
The words echo in my mind as I peer out the frost-framed window of 'Pretense,' a moderately priced new-American bistro on the edge of campus. My eyes follow clusters of students, shoulders hunched against the cold, criss-crossing the snowy Pentacrest like the exasperating strokes of a de Koonig canvas.
We all have a mission, I thought. For those faceless students: diversity seminars, Nam Jun Paik film retrospectives at the Union, maybe Dollar Pitcher Nite at the Airliner. For me: Von Drehle.
It - or rather, he - is the mission that has brought me to this dismal and lonely outpost on the edge of reason. Tomorrow I will make the dangerous trek north on Dubuque Street to Exit 242, merge into the river of semi-trailers on Interstate 80, and head west into the great red unknown between here and Boulder.
It is the same route Von Drehle followed before he went missing: I-80 to Nebraska, then south on highway 77 through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Ironically the Post had sent Von Drehle on his own mysterious mission - to learn why the natives were suddenly agitating against Post subscription offers. He went missing on January 11, emailing his final story draft with a cryptic personal note: "the horror... the horror."
My entree fork toyed with the competently-prepared lamb shank in merlot reduction, as I pondered the even more ironic irony that this ironic mission would take me to regions that were reportedly unfamiliar with irony.
"Is it true what they say?" asked Fleming, the young photographer whom the Post has assigned to accompany me on the journey up-asphalt. "I mean, about the religion, and the cannibalism?"
"No," I repond, managing a half smile. Fleming was visibly nervous, unable to eat his Portobello-duck gnocci. The truth is I had heard the stories too, and didn't really know the answer. I thought it best to reassure Fleming, a green staffer fresh from Columbia Journalism School. He might ultimately prove to be a liability on this mission, but if I was going to be in the middle of Kansas I needed a companion familiar with Maureen Dowd just to stave off the madness.
At least Fleming had an excuse for volunteering, I thought; he had that false bravado of youth. But what was it that drove me here? Was it Von Drehle, or was I actually looking for something missing inside myself? I didn't have time to answer, because the third member of our party arrived at the table.
"You Dionne?" said the hulking man in the Carhhardt jacket. "I'm Epstein, from the Sociology Department."
Epstein was the legendary University of Iowa sociologist who knew the west Red Country better than any man in civilization. He knew their language, their mores, their favorite NASCAR drivers. It was rumored that he had even lived among them for a time, but my editors at the Post warned me not to speak to him of it.
We poured over maps and discussed logistics until 7:45, when Epstein called for us to adjourn.
"There's a faculty panel symposium on Cuban health care over at Schaffer Auditorium," he said. "I suggest we attend, because there won't be any more where we're headed."
DAY TWO: CASEY'S GENERAL STORE, AVOCA, IOWA
Mile after mile of stubbly winter cornfields elapsed past the condensed steam on the Land Rover's side windows as we worked our way west, like the cheek of a gigantic albino George Clooney infested with tiny parasitic holsteins. The asphalt ribbon lead us through Grinnell, Des Moines, then Urbandale. I was now farther west than I had ever been. I tried to break the tension with a little small talk with Epstein.
"Where did you say you did your dissertation?" I asked.
"I didn't," he replied, staring unblinkingly out the windshield. I glanced back at Fleming. His eyes were clenched shut and he was clutching his dog-eared copy of Manufacturing Consent.
At 1:15 PM the fuel gauge was hovering ominously on 1/4. We were 25 miles from Nebraska and there would soon be no turning back. We pulled off into a Casey's convenience store along the interstate. Although it was 3 below zero, Fleming nervously volunteered to man the gas pump while Epstein and I ventured inside the spartan trading post. It would be our first face-to-face encounter with the red people.
I scanned the racks of the store's cooler for a bottle of Keringet mineral water, but they were out. Four elderly tribesmen sat in a simple formica booth in the rear of the store, sipping coffee. They eyed us suspiciously, but I thought they might hold clues to Von Drehle, as well as the missing Keringet.
"Approach them slowly," warned Epstein.
I furtively edged toward them, sidling between the Doritos rack and the two-stroke oil. Using Epstein to translate, I asked the elders if they had seen a man in Donna Karan casuals pass through the area.
"The elders say they have seen no such man at Casey's," said Epstein. Sensing menace, we bought a Twin Bing and quickly left the store. Suddenly we realized were were not the only ones to feel impending danger.
Our screams echoed off the store's aluminum siding.
After pumping $21.78 of Ethanol Plus, Fleming had deserted.
DAY TWO: BEATRICE, NEBRASKA
After crossing the muddy mud-colored mud of the Missouri river we had finally arrived in Omaha, the last stop before our maps became strictly conjectural. From here on out, until we reached Austin, we would have to rely on our wits and our training in journalism to navigate through hostile red enclaves.
Luckily we stumbled upon a primitive university in Lincoln. We were surprised to encounter a native maiden, Heather, who had taken graduate studies in Lacan and Franz Fanon. She directed us to the cinderblock hut of a kindly Semiotics missionary, Professor Mintz.
"We may be doing the Lord's work here, gentlemen, but the local tribes do not always look kindly on it," he warned. "Last month one of our tenured friars merely told his students that Bush was the anti-Christ, and he was viciously attacked by counterarguments. He was so traumatized he had to report the student to the disciplinary committee."
Mintz wished us well and gave us directions, along with a copy of Howard Zinn's People's History. As night fell we drove through Beatrice, near the Kansas border.
The neon sign read "VFW Hall." A trailer marquee in front was even more explicit: "Friday Nite All-U-Can-Eat $5.95 Fish Fry."
Von Drehle was known in the Post pressroom as a thrill junkie, and this was exactly the type of place he would be unable to resist. I told Epstein to stop.
"You're a fool, Dionne - maybe even a bigger fool than Von Drehle," he snapped.
"And you're a bad liar, Epstein. You want to see what's going on inside of that VFW hall as much as I do."
"All right Dionne," he said angrily. "But if anything starts going down, you're on your own."
I took a deep breath and tried to conceal my jagged nerves as we entered the Hall. They say the Nebraskaners can smell fear a mile away, and I would be damned if my life was going to end over a red plastic basket of deep-fried cod and a can of Falstaff.
I could feel the eyes of the lodge penetrating my coat as we walked across the linoleum and took a seat in a booth near the skee-ball machine. A zaftig waitress approached.
"Tell her I'd like the pan-seared mahi-mahi, and a glass of the house chardonnay," I instructed Epstein.
Before he could respond I was startled by two hulking, bearded men in snowmobile suits who began prodding my coat with their fingers. They traded gibberish with Epstein.
"They want to know what kind of coat that is," said Epstein, warily.
"Tell them it's from Burberry's," I said, trying to avoid eye contact.
"Buh-bay," said the men, curiously. "Buhhh-behh."
The two men began laughing menacingly, and gestured for the others to come and join in their fascination. I tried to ignore them, assuming they were simply drawn by the novelty of houndstooth wool. Then I peered up on the wall and saw a large nylon banner. On it was printed:
GO BIG RED
"Run, Epstein! Run!" I screamed, hurtling through the diamond-padded door.
DAY THREE: COUNCIL GROVE, KANSAS
Every drug pushes its own tolerance limit. Even adreneline.
After we crossed over the border into Kansas, I thought I would be prepared for the scene that would await us. I had read the seminal book on the region "What's The Matter With Kansas?" by Thomas Frank, an explorer who had onced ventured 50 miles into its blackest heart. In his journals, Frank had explained that Kansasites were in the thrall of a delusional, self-destructive madness.
Was it due to eating human brains? I would find out soon enough.
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