It’s been a cold spring. Temperatures have mostly been in the 60s with an occasionally foray into the 70s. It was early May and we had not had one day in the 80s. And then finally, the warm weather came with highs skipping the 80s altogether and shooting straight into the 90s.
Indeed! It was a Sunday afternoon on a gloriously hot day so I was driving west. “Hot,” after all, is a very different experience in the West and the Midwest (which is why I was driving west). I give credit to Keith Roumpf, my form Presbytery Executive in Northern Kansas, for explaining the difference between West and Midwest. According to Keith, the dividing line is U.S. 81, which in northern Kansas (where I was at the time), goes through Salina, and in Siouxland, goes through Yankton, South Dakota (and divides a lonely cattle lot in the middle of nowhere along U.S. 20 in Nebraska, which is why I mention Yankton instead of a 4-way stop at the intersection of US 20 and US 81). (And, by the way, even though this will probably offend the Dallas folk, this line of demarcation makes Fort Worth a west Texas town and Dallas an east Texas town. No matter what you do with Dallas, I have to affirm the idea that Fort Worth is indeed the start of west Texas in all its lonely glory!)
I asked Keith why it was that points east of U.S. 81 were Midwestern while points west of the highway were Western. His first answer had specifically to do with effective pastoral ministry: Midwestern cooks are better than Western cooks. Never miss a Presbytery meeting lunch if it’s in Topeka, Hiawatha, or Blue Rapids (where I was the pastor). On the other hand (and this top-secret, proprietary information known only to clergy – absolutely don’t say this to any Presbyterians that you might know in Western Kansas!) if the Presbytery meeting is in Colby, Wakeeney, or Hays, it’s just as well to forgo the church ladies’ lunch and stop downtown at the local café.
Once the really important pastoral information (such as church lady lunches) had been covered, Keith explained the other difference between the Midwest and West. There’s humidity in the Midwest while there’s sagebrush in the West. There are trees in the Midwest while there’s … well, there’s sagebrush in the West.
Over the years I realized that there was a third characteristic difference between the Midwest and West: The Midwest is flat or hilly. The West is slanted; it’s where the Midwestern prairie begins to slowly rise toward the Rocky Mountains. The geographical difference between West and Midwest is largely a matter of elevation.
Even though I’m western born and bred, for years on end I have lived in the Midwest (Blue Rapids KS, Lincoln NE, Sioux City on the Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota border) but always within spitting distance of the West (Salina KS, York NE, Norfolk NE, Yankton SD). And when the weather gets hot I love to drive west and feel the air change from steam bath to dry sauna as I travel from Midwest to West.
Flying down the road with windows and sun roof open, loose objects tied down, and a hat to protect my head and ears, that dry heat soaks to the very bones, bleaching out all the accumulated junk from months of winter and destroying mold collected on my spirit from the rainy spring weather. Letting that dry heat blow past your face at 60 or 70 miles per hour is one of the best purgations that exists.
I’ve always loved hot, dry air blowing into the car from the hot, lonely prairie. One brutally hot August day back in the early 80s, having recently moved to Hays, KS (which is definitely in the West and not the Midwest), I realized that Texas was less than a day’s drive away. I had never been in Texas, and like the proverbial mountain, once I knew it was there, I had to go.
I asked Brenda if she wanted to go to Texas for dinner. She was game, so we got in my car (with no air conditioning) and headed for the Lone Star state.
There is a fine line between the purgation of a Sunday afternoon drive in 90° weather and the damnation of a 100° plus day in the wastes of western Kansas, hour after hour of 100° temps … after hour.
That same heat that purges everything bad about winter and the soggier aspects of spring, once the purging is done, begins to parch the soul of all things good, leaving only a burning thirst, a blackened shell, and an emptiness prepared for the wraiths of the empty wasteland to occupy the empty space. Scripture calls it the abode of jackals and hyenas. Westerners simply call it “summer afternoon” and begin to look to the western sky, because on days such as that, thunderstorms can’t be too far behind the heat.
Like the spring rains which wash the winter dirt away and give a jump start to flower gardens, lawns, and rubber galosh manufacturers, the late afternoon thunderstorm of summer has the glorious ability to quench the burning damnation of a high noon August scorcher. But that’s another story altogether.
To return to the story at hand, we never made it to Texas for dinner. Somewhere, probably within shooting distance of the infamous Boot Hill, we threw in the towel, turned around, and headed back to Hays, texasless, but glad to have survived the slow burn of a summer afternoon.
Some little boys like to play with fire. I rather prefer to play with that dangerous line between the glorious purgation and hideous damnation of hot, Western afternoon in a speeding car with the windows down.
The difference is, now I do it in a car that at least has air conditioning if I need it.