The Geographic Center of America

The Seattle Times
September 24, 2001
By Alex Tizon

LEBANON, Kansas  — You could take a nap in the middle of Main Street, right on the gravelly pavement, with your belly button directly over the center line, and you would not have to worry about the morning commute messing up your hair. The six or seven people who drive to work downtown hardly make a stir. Throughout the day, the mostly gray- and white-haired townspeople drift through as unobtrusively as tumbleweed blowing across the prairie.

This town in north Kansas is the geographic center of the continental United States. A few more than 320 people live here, and they are as far removed from the American mainstream as any rural outpost in the land. They don’t seem to mind. For residents, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., while they caused some commotion and worry, only seemed to affirm the rightness in their choice to remain in a place that so many others have left. Life continues unruffled and unchanged.

“It’s been like watching a movie,” Wendy Atwood says. “You know it’s happening, you’re watching it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s happening.”

The attacks in some ways are regarded as a crisis “out there,” in the world of cities, with little, or yet unknown, local repercussion. As a local point of interest, they were on par with other points. The weekly newspaper, the Lebanon Times, which came out two days after, devoted five paragraphs to the attacks, sandwiched between stories about utility poles in need of painting and George Stange’s 50th birthday.

We don’t find out much about George. It would be a good bet he is a farmer or connected to farming, like most who live here. Many are the descendants of farmers, and by choice don’t know any other way. They know wheat and milo and soy the way most of us never will, from below the ground up.

America has all sorts of “centers.” There are economic and cultural centers, even places claiming to be spiritual centers. The geographic center — the exact point at which the continental U.S. would balance if it were flat and perched on a fulcrum — is mostly a novelty.

It doesn’t serve any purpose except to stroke that part of us that likes to say, “We’ve been there.” Or in the case of residents: “We live here.” Yet there’s something about going to a core: Maybe it will reveal some essential element.

So we blazed our Expedition from the Colorado Rockies to the golden high plains of the Kansas prairie, the horizon en route as flat as any tabletop and our line of sight boundless, thinking fancifully that the center of the country might somehow be closer to the nation’s heartbeat.

Kansas is a state of straight lines and durable people. As we approached Lebanon on Highway 281 near the Nebraska border, the land rolled like the breathing of a person in slumber. Cottonwoods grew on the sides of streams leading to town. Lebanon itself, or what remains of it, could run on a car battery: a smattering of old houses, one gas station, one bank, a grocery store, a post office and Christy’s Café. Half the buildings on Main Street are boarded up. Lebanon is a ghost town in the making. A few gems remain.

Wendy works at the cafe. She is 22, blonde, blue-eyed and no doubt the object of cornfield daydreams for the young men of Smith County. She waits tables by day, tends bar at night, can identify every kind of tree and flower in town, and makes a mean martini on those rare occasions when someone orders one.

She was born and raised here, the daughter of a wheat farmer, and says she intends to stay. She likes living “in the middle of nowhere.”

On Sept. 11, she was getting ready for work when she heard news of the attacks on the radio. She telephoned her mother, who works at a grain elevator, then rushed to the cafe. No one had heard yet. News and gossip travel along the same lines, by mouth and only as fast as a person can drive, walk or run. By early afternoon, farmers had left their fields to crowd into the cafe, about 40 of them, muddy boots and all. Wendy served coffee. The gathering was like the rest of the country that day, transfixed. Prayer vigils were held.

At midafternoon, amid a rumor that gas prices would shoot up, townspeople rushed to their cars and lined up at the gas station, across from Hoss’ Antiques. The station owner did raise the price that day, from $1.69 a gallon to $2. A station south of here, in Salina, made national news by hiking up its price to $5 a gallon. But in the next few days, prices dropped back down, and life pretty much returned to normal, with the exception of a few individuals.

“Connie’s been glued to the TV. She’s a nervous wreck!” Ava Lee Maydew says to Christy Rightnar. Maydew sits with a small group of mostly older women at the cafe, which Rightnar owns and runs. “I’ve told her get out of the house, walk around in the real world.” The real world Maydew refers to, of course, is Lebanon.

“We’re glad to be out here,” says Cecilia Streit, the town postmaster.

“The best part of going to the city is coming home,” Sharleen Allen says.

Once, nearly a thousand people lived in Lebanon. For these women, for Wendy, and for all their men in the fields and pastures, it’s taken a kind of stubbornness to stay, and it clearly stems from an abiding fondness for the place itself. Where others see monotony and desolation, they see calm and space to stretch out. Others see remoteness; they see security, more so now than ever, their shield ironically forged by the half-century exodus into the cities. Because so few live here, what terrorist would bother with them?

Meanwhile, sleepy dogs will plop down in the middle of Main Street. The utility poles in town are due for a new coat of paint — City Council willing. And George Stanges, whoever he is, whatever he does, presumably will be enjoying the first days of his 51st year of life. So it goes in the geographic center of America.