Monday, September 26, 2011

Peter Smith's Lesser Horrors: Sinclair Lewis doesn't really want you to channel him.

Sauk Centre's "Original Main Street," which author Sinclair Lewis brought to life in his book Gopher Prairie. Here, Peter Smith tries to channel Lewis as a college sophomore. Image source.



MPR's Peter Smith's series of "Lesser Horrors" will run on Mondays for one month on this blog. Missed his previous entries? You can catch them here.

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Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain.


BY PETER SMITH
Author and MPR contributor

On a cold gray Saturday in the autumn of my sophomore year at Saint John’s University, I walked out to Highway 152 to hitchhike up to Sauk Centre and try to channel Sinclair Lewis.

I was an English major. I was going through a phase. I liked to visit places where writers I admired had lived—to wander around and sop up any ambience they may have spilled.

Sandburg’s Chicago. Fitzgerald’s Saint Paul. Lincoln’s New Salem. Places like that.

It was cold. A thin, bitter sleet slanted out of the northwest, and my fingers and toes were numb by the time a semi, an old yellow cabover Peterbilt, pulled over. I climbed in and almost immediately began to channel John Steinbeck, and the opening scene from “The Grapes of Wrath.”

I haven’t ridden in many trucks lately. Maybe they’ve found some way to address how the tractor and trailer buck one another, adding oomph and emphasis to every little bump in the road. That day on the tire-scalloped concrete of Highway 152, the ride was violent. I would have fastened my seatbelt if the truck had had seatbelts. This was before Ralph Nader. It did not.

We bounced west and north, paralleling the railroad tracks. Little towns came and went. Avon. Albany. Freeport. Melrose. The church steeple for the last town receding in the big side mirror, the steeple for the next town emerging up ahead. The towns seemed to have been spaced so precisely and so regularly that a Catholic in a car traveling sixty miles an hour would have time to say exactly one decade of the Rosary between each of them.

I didn’t know it that day, but I was falling in love. There isn’t a stretch of road anywhere in America that can hold a candle to that one. Not for me. The rolling landscape. The stubborn little farms (melded into larger operations now). The bull-and-cow peasantry. The “t’ick” “Cherman” accent I would come to hear along those Main Streets.

The trucker let me off on the “Original Main Street” in Sauk Centre. I walked around for a while then, to warm up, had a coke at the drugstore. It was there that Sinclair Lewis spoke to me in a small, persistent, almost sniveling voice.

“Get out,” he said. “For God’s sake leave.”

So I walked back out to the highway, caught a ride (eventually), and retraced my route. Melrose. Freeport. Albany. Avon. Saint John’s. It was cold. It was bleak. Autumn was over. Except for the red oaks on the hills in the distance, the leaves were all down. I could almost feel the frost pushing itself into the earth.

I came to know those towns better over the next three years. The bars. The ballrooms. The diners. Those churches. The seasons. The people. I even met a girl from Freeport, a nursing student. She took me home to meet her parents. It started to look like the fix was in.

Not to be. Not to be. The Army stepped in and in no time at all I was sans girl, alone at the war, channeling Hemingway, trying to be manly, asking myself, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

The towns were still there when I got back, but I would never again come close to belonging. I’ve driven through that part of the world hundreds—maybe even a thousand—times since.

The speed limit is 65, maybe even 70 now. But I set the cruise control at 60 as I pass Stumpf Creek at Avon just to make sure the Rosary decades space out just right.

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Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.

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