Author Alan Wilkinson contacted me about doing a cover for his upcoming book “Toad’s Road-Kill Cafe,” a travel narrative, about a trip he took up the Hundredth Meridian from the Mexican to the Canadian border, through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
The year is 2000. British author Alan Wilkinson sets off from Laredo along the Tex-Mex border, turning north when he hits the hundredth meridian, the longitudinal line that separates well-watered croplands to the east from dry lands to the west: corn from cattle, farmer from cowboy.
Many a travel writer will claim to take you to the heartland of America. Most of them head from coast to coast, comparing the lifestyles that define the separate and distinct cultures of New York and California. Toad’s Road-Kill Café offers an entirely different experience, a trip that goes slap-bang through the geographical centre of the nation, northwards from Mexico to the Canadian line, with barely a stop-light in 2,700 miles.
Wilkinson’s journey takes him across vast empty spaces, through farms and settlements established little more than a century ago by pioneers who thought they could wrest a living from the Great Plains. Some succeeded; most failed. And as with individuals, so with their towns, their railroads, their farms, their businesses.
This is a country of big skies, dusty trails, and one-horse towns where the churches sometimes outnumber the houses, where there are more names in the cemetery than in the phone-book, where the past overshadows everything. It’s where the tide of history left its human jetsam to sink or swim.
Wilkinson’s account of his journey is sharply observed and spiced with humor. His observations are those of the outsider, but he clearly relishes the characters he meets along the back-roads of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. When they offer up their life stories he records them with affection and delight, all the time pondering the question: was the settlement of this area just a piece of foolhardiness in most cases? The fact that he only finds his answer in the final chapter, after he’s driven back to Texas, suggests that it was a question worth asking.