05 Aug Central Time

Cleo is in hiding, behind me under the rear seat, because we’re in the midst of a thunderstorm. We’re camped by Lake Erie. I thought by going north, I might evade the heat. But no such luck. The campground is crowded and sweltering. The humidity must have been 90% before the rain. Until half an hour ago, there was a teen dance going on at the main pavilion nearby, disco music reverberating through the trees. Got to keep the kids happy in the wilds. But now the storm has quieted things. Some of the tent campers have left. I just rolled out my awning. Lucky me. The rain is bound to cool things down. And help combat the drought.

Lately, I’ve been camping at highway rest stops and have decided that I like them better than Walmart parking lots. When I’m camped at a rest stop, I feel connected to the open road and all of its possibilities. The storm-drain whoosh of traffic seems an invitation, not an irritant. A highway rest stop is similar to a train terminal, with its immediate promise: we’re all going somewhere. When camped in a Walmart parking lot, on the other hand, I feel like a bum, hunkered on the edge of an asphalt wasteland.

As I approached Chicago last week for two book tour events, I picked up Route 66 again. I’d left it behind in Arizona over a month ago. Along that famous old highway, south of Chicago, I came across one of the most stunning mansions I’ve seen in my travels: it’s a 3-story, brick Italianate (6,000 square feet), built in 1869 smacked dab in the middle of the soy fields. Nothing else is around. This grand old house epitomizes the preservationist’s dilemma: there are too many splendid old buildings in too many remote places. You may be able to buy such a house, but could you live here — that is, could you get a job here? find friends here?

Happily, the Duncan Manor will be saved. It has just been sold. The realtor told me that 9 prospective buyers had put in bids the first day the house went on the market. It helps that the mansion is only 10 miles from the thriving Bloomington/Normal, IL. Still, I wonder what the homeowners might feel like on a snowy night, way out there in the fields, their nearest neighbor miles away.

Mauricio, my dear friend in Milwaukee, introduced me to one of the best pizzas I’ve had on this trip: the place is called the Transfer Pizzeria and is run by a man who so loves pizza, he apprenticed in Italy to learn the art — and it shows. The pizza I had in Chicago wasn’t nearly as good. I know, I know, Chicagoans brag about their pizza but I’ve not had any pizza luck in that town. Tell me where to go! Speaking of which: I had a couple of appointments in downtown Chicago and, oh my, I had difficulty finding a place to park my van. After a half hour of searching, I ended up paying $24 for a space — and, by that point, I was happy to.

In case you don’t know: Indiana is not on Central Time. Not knowing this, I nearly missed my TV show in Indianapolis. That’s twice these time zones have messed me up. I know, I’m a dunderhead. I happened to be in Indianapolis for the opening day of the state fair. What could be more authentic than Indiana’s? The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant, hilarious, earnest essay about it, “At the Fair,” which you should check out.

I agree with Wallace, you’ve got to give the farmers credit and look on their children with gentle awe as these youngsters groom their prize cows and pigs. The families sit in crowded circles next to their cattle pens — they have been working hard to get their animals to the fair and many have traveled far. And they’re under a lot of stress — each animal represents many years’ of time, money, love, and worry. That’s why these people look exhausted. When I arrived, I found the farm kids cooling their cows with high-powered air blowers. I couldn’t help feeling good about America as I watched these kids work.

Okay, I know I’m sentimental. When I watched the girls riding their horses in the barrel races, I almost got choked up. The object of the race is to ride your horse in a particular way around some barrels. Best time wins. The girls rode their horses hard. They were fearlessly fast. And the horses were fierce. I got a little choked up because the race was so clearly a celebration of the girls’ grace and power. I was proud of them for their toughness and independence and I worried that they might never again feel the exhilaration of a free reign in their capable hands, that possibly this was their peak, at fifteen or sixteen, because soon they would come of age and shoulder the compromises that make the adult world so cruel.

The From Animal House to Our House tour is taking me through a lot of classic small town main streets. Perrysburg, Ohio, across the river from Toledo, is a notable. In one small town, I parked at its sad little park and watched its afternoon action: the young and unemployed waiting for something to happen. The Midwest, like the far West, has been having plenty of trouble with meth addiction. I’m not saying that I saw such action, I’m just saying it’s a worrisome trend. What I did see, when the few scraggly, skinny youngsters left was this: a rolled up note, tied with a red ribbon, It was stuck in the space between the tabletop slats of a picnic table. I hesitated whether or not to open it. Because the park was popular with the underfed tattooed set, I assumed the note was a message for drug dealing. But, since I was alone and it seemed nobody was watching, I liberated the note. Here’s what it said (with corrected spelling):

Encouragement. Be honest with your friends and neighbors. It’s better to tell the hurtful truth than it is a comforting lie. “The Truth can set you free!” A lie can ruin a friendship. It can set you in the worst way. You will be a better person for the truth you tell.

I rolled it back up, tied it with its bright red ribbon, then returned it to the table — a gift that might surprise even a big-city skeptic like me.