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Heartland of America Trek, Post #1: Introduction

I’m on a trek across America’s heartland right now, ostensibly to put me in the vicinity of the total eclipse next week. But who knows if the sky will be clear that day? To ensure myself a worthwhile trip, I’ve planned a baseball trek to take in some of the places I’ve heard of over the years but have never had a chance to visit, including the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and Kauffman Stadium.

We flew into Kansas City last night after a plane change in New York City. Our flight path took us down Manhattan island such that we passed directly over Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and then hooked a left over the Statue of Liberty to land at LaGuardia. We live in such a politically fraught time that just seeing the statue felt like some kind of a sign to me. A reminder, perhaps, that the strength and vitality of this nation comes from immigrants, from the colonists who came up with the wacky idea for this country on up through the 65,000 foreign-born service members in the current US military and the 29.8% of major league players who come from somewhere else to play our “national pastime.”

Hey, lady.

Hey, lady.

As a child I believed that Washington, D.C.–as the capital of the United States–was located in the very middle of the country. I don’t know why I thought that, but it meant, looking on a map, that it must have been part of Kansas. The Wizard of Oz only reinforced my childhood idea that Kansas was a mythical American place. I’ve never been to Kansas the state before, nor to Kansas City(s), the dual-metropolis that exists on both sides of the state line divide between Kansas and Missouri. Until now.

As an adult, for me Kansas City has taken on a stature as a mythic American place for its role as a seeding ground for popular culture: for jazz, for baseball, and as the place Walt Disney grew up. The “Main Street USA” one finds at the entry to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World is based on Walt’s nostalgia for early 20th century America.

My hotel is on Main Street. Not metaphorically. Actually.

The "Buck" O'Neil Bridge heading into Kansas City.

The “Buck” O’Neil Bridge heading into Kansas City.

Last night we took a ten minute drive from the hotel to have an iconic KC dinner at Joe’s Kansas City, a barbecue joint whose ribs are legendary. It was amusing when our GPS told us “Welcome to Kansas” when we crossed State Line Road. Barbecue is of course a quintessentially American cuisine. (But don’t think I didn’t notice when we were driving in from the airport the billboards for a Thai restaurant and Big Bowl Pho which is presumably Vietnamese.)


Joe’s was worth the trip and worth the wait in a line that snaked out the door and into the parking lot. Joe’s is in a working gas station. We’re driving a Ford (rental). This trip was bursting with Americanisms already and we hadn’t even gotten to anything baseball-related yet. The ribs were succulent and the french fries (bought on a whim for $3 a bag) were some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve eaten a lot of french fries in my time. We rubbed elbows in line with various people from all over the country, all of whom had made the pilgrimage to Joe’s after hearing of its legend. Many of them are in this area because of the impending eclipse.

I’m very curious, of course, to see if the day of the eclipse unites the country or divides it further. The recent national news has been dominated by the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, the violence that followed, and the resulting movement countrywide to pull down Confederate monuments. I’m very aware that we’re going to be driving across the state where Ferguson is located.

What a time to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, eh? More on that tomorrow. I’ve got to get some sleep.

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