Note: First published on Blogger on July 7, 2006
Unfolding the Map
We keep inching along across the country, rolling along the Nebraska plain. Click on the image. Do it -- now!
"Then an old man who said nothing...took us to Shelton. Here Eddie stood forlornly in the road in front of a staring bunch of short, squat Omaha Indians who had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Across the road was the railroad track and the watertank saying SHELTON. 'Damn me,' said Eddie with amazement, 'I've been in this town before. It was years ago, during the war, at night, late at night when everybody was sleeping. I went out on the platform to smoke, and there we was in the middle of nowhere and black as hell, and I look up and see that name Shelton written on the watertank. Bound for the Pacific, everybody snoring, every damn dumb sucker, and we only stayed a few minutes, stoking up or something, and off we went. Damn me, this Shelton! I hated this place ever since!' And we were stuck in Shelton.
"A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us.... 'I own a little carnival that's pitched a few mile down the road and I'm looking for some old boys willing to work...' I said 'I don't know, I'm going as fast as I can and I don't think I have the time.'"
On the Road: Chapter 3
I can relate to two things that Sal says about Shelton, Nebraska. The first is the boredom of being in a small town where nothing is going on. His friend, Eddie, who went through once before during the War, obviously had such a reaction to the place that he remembered how much he hated it.
This is probably not the reality of Shelton. I find that when in small towns, your mood to start with helps determine how you feel about a place. If I were to put myself in Sal's shoes, I might want to hate Shelton too. Here it is, on the middle of the plains in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska. Sal has been dreaming of getting to Denver and hooking up with his friends, and has made it this far. But, he's stuck in a town with the possibility that he will never get a ride, and he has a bunch of people staring at him. This combination of wanting to get to the goal, and feeling stuck, would definitely color the way he feels about a place.
The other thing that strikes me is the carnival. Places like Shelton, and the small town I grew up in, were fertile grounds for the traveling carnival. Often, small towns are hours from any type of amusement of the kind. I remember growing up that we might make a trip to San Francisco once every two to three years. The closest amusement park, Marriot's Great America, was down in that area. So for us, it was a big deal when the carnival came to town.
I have ambivalent memories about the carnival. It was a break in the old routine. Usually, some area in town was suddenly converted into a large playground, with fantastic machines whirling around and large booths filled with toys and edible treats. As a kid, I never noticed what I would notice now -- the unsafe looking machinery, the stale smells. My sister, who has a much better memory than I do about the look and smells of such places, remembers vomit smells from the poor, sick kids who went one too many go-around on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I remember being somewhat afraid of the carnies, who often appeared to be old, dirty, lacking teeth, tattooed, and often lame or with some other bodily injury. Most of the time they just did their job, until you pissed them off, and then they'd scare the crap out of you when they barked something your way, usually in a raspy and menacing voice. I also remember that when I would want to get something to eat, a cotton candy or a caramel apple perhaps, my mother would steer us away because she felt the food was dirty and unsafe.
I also remember a distinct excitement and a distinct sadness, not my own but just in the air. Excitement as the carnival set up, and sadness as the carnival broke down and left town. I think the excitement explains itself. The sadness? Well, maybe the sadness stemmed from the fact that after the carnival left, we'd go back to our dull, boring, never-changing lives again. Or maybe it was a sadness emanating from the carnival itself -- always traveling, never settling in one place, a kind of poor man's version of a circus that seemed caught in its own era of time, never moving ahead but always cycling through town after town, setting up, entertaining 3 days of visitors, and breaking down again and moving on to the next town.
In Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, the carnival brings its own (in this case malevolent) spirit. Those who join the carnival are caught up and trapped in a version of hell. Of course, carnivals are neither evil nor good, but what we make of them. But for some, they may indeed be a trap. Perhaps Sal, when he refuses the offer to join the carnival, senses this as he envisions miles of dusty prairie and rosy faced Nebraska cherubs and their moms being rooked out of their money by carnies.
If you want to know more about Shelton and the surrounding area, or traveling carnivals
Next up: Gothenburg, Nebraska