‘The Profligate Sense of Space Had a Hypnotic Effect’

A hypnotic prairie vista. (Credit: Ken Dewey, Applied Climate Sciences Group,
School of Natural Resources, UNL)

The archives of The Times preserve some of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) examples of purple-prose reporting by citified pantywaists. They blink their eyes like children at prairie vistas (or vast forests or ice-capped mountain ranges) and carry on like no one has ever seen such a thing before. Pity most of all the humble cornfield, whose stalks have waved mournfully and tirelessly across pockmarked, sun-baked highways at a thousand stump speeches.

Portrait of George Bird Grinnell from Nathanie...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Travel section of today’s Times, ironically, offers a worthy entrant to this dubious Pantheon. The fairly accomplished, we are led to believe, travel writer Tony Perrottet introduces readers to the 19th century environmentalist and adventurer George Bird Grinnell, right, and in a preamble to a glowing review of the sights of rural Nebraska and Kansas provides this hard-to-believe-anyone-would-type-it sentence: “With all the changes in the West over the last 140 years, I wondered if following Grinnell’s route would offer any glimpses of the 1872 frontier.”

With all the changes “over the last 140 years”? Like world wars? Or just interstate highways?

English: Walt Whitman. Library of Congress des...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least Perrottet did not disguise the stereotype, admitting freely that he “was a New Yorker longing for empty horizons and open skies.” The hyperbole and heavy breathing begin immediately, as if following page by page in the Handbook for Parachuting Reporters. Step 1 is to introduce a literary element totally foreign to the locale, in this case a quote from the poet Walt Whitman, left, about prairies: they “fill the esthetic sense fuller.”

Stand in one some day, fill your lungs with a deep, manure-scented breath and you will undoubtedly agree.

Perrottet’s “esthetic” sense is on full, near-hallucinatory display. “Even the modern metropolis of Omaha,” he writes of my hometown, “took me back in time.” He claims to have been stirred at dawn by “the lonely whistle of a freight train,” and then describes a stroll “through the 19th-century warehouses of the Old Market district,” below, which is now less about the 19th century than it is wine bars and so-called gastropubs.

English: Old Market Omaha, Nebraska, summer 2010

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Perrottet did not come to Nebraska for the Bordeaux ($7.95 a glass) and charcuterie (from $9) at La Buvette. He was eager to point his rental car toward the mystical countryside. “As I was fresh from the East Village,” Perrottet writes, using an adjective and a proper noun that, I assure you, are not often used together, “the profligate sense of space had a hypnotic effect.”

Wait. It gets better:

I wound down the window, smelling “the wild lyrical drizzling air of Nebraska,” as Kerouac rhapsodized in “On the Road.” Under the midday sun the landscape can seem bleached and monotonous, but when the golden dusk catches the sunflowers, the setting is as sublime as Provence.


It goes on. (Of course it does.) Perrottet nimbly displays awe and naiveté, as in phrases like “even the remotest towns revealed their passion for history;” “the old bank had been turned into a hotel;” “oceans of undulating grass extend to the horizon;” and “the stroll was eerily idyllic, with butterflies flittering among the bluestem.”

Flittering is what happens to your brain by the end of Perrottet’s journey. I have no doubt he enjoyed it, and undoubtedly there are many places in the Plains that are profoundly beautiful. It has always been thus, but it does not seem to stop big-city clods from being bowled over. (I am talking to you, Theodore Roosevelt!)

However, I can speak from experience that rural Nebraska has almost nothing in the departments of remote towns, undulating grass and 19th-century commercial districts that, say, rural Indiana, or even rural New York State, does not. You can call it a “passion for history,” but really that is a desperation for tourist dollars. And the only thing lonelier than the whistle of a freight train is going to be the Perrottet-inspired traveler who has not fully grasped that the “hypnotic effect” derived from wide-open spaces bleeds inexorably into personal torpor.

God forbid Perrottet ever points his rental car toward the covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa.