Taking The Pulse Of America: Book is chronicle of travels on 'American Artery' Jerry Wilson, managing editor of South Dakota Magazine, is the author of a new book that tells the tale of his 5,000-mile journey down the Meridian Highway. He will read excerpts from the book Nov. 2 at the Coffee Shop Gallery in Vermillion at 7 p.m. by M. Jill Karolevitz In the spirit of Lewis and Clark, Jerry Wilson set out on a journey of discovery in 1995 � not to chart the unknown, but to learn more about himself and the people who live near and traverse the Meridian Highway.
Better known as U.S. Highway 81 in this country, the Meridian Highway stretches 5,000 miles from Winnipeg, Canada, to Ca�ita, Panama. It is also known as the Pan American Highway � the only road that links the nations and the peoples of North America � the stories of which have intrigued Wilson for years.
"I've spent nearly my entire life along Highway 81," he said. "It's the main street of where I grew up in Hennessey, OK. I lived on it when I was in Texas in the Army and I've lived and worked near Highway 81 in Yankton for 20 years."
Wilson, who with his wife Norma lives in rural Clay County, calls Highway 81 and its extensions, "an inescapable axis of my life." Thus, he began researching the story of the route in 1994, but found little available information.
"As I became more interested, I looked for a book on the highway," he said. "There was one written in 1940, but it only covered the southern part, not the U.S. So I decided it was time that someone wrote about the entire span of the Meridian Highway."
Wilson's research naturally called for first-hand experience � traveling the highway himself.
"I wanted to become more aware of the historical significance of the highway, the first international road connecting Mexico to Canada," he said.
Wilson's journey began in Winnipeg, Canada, in August of 1995. H ended his trip in Panama just before Thanksgiving. His experiences have now been compiled into the first book ever written about life along the complete stretch of the Pan American Highway. American Artery: A Pan American Journey was published by South Dakota Magazine, of which Wilson is managing editor.
Wilson's travelogue takes readers through nine nations and six capitals, from snow and ice to sweltering tropics, and into the lives of people of many diverse cultures.
"This is a historical, sociological, ecological travelogue," Wilson said with a smile. "There are many inter-related themes.
"I want readers to get to know the people I met and to appreciate their views and values and what their contributions are to our universe," he continued. "I want readers to become more aware of what a colorful salad bowl we�re part of � the cultural diversity � and what our role is as citizens of the United States in relation to the rest of our continent."
Wilson realized, however, as he traveled and chronicled his journey, that he would not only be a teacher with the resulting book, but a student as well.
"The trip really made me aware of my role and obligations as a citizen of this world, not just someone who lives in South Dakota or America," he said.
As Wilson traveled, his goal was to �stop in every city and town, walk in the forests, talk to people on countless streets. I wanted to know their vision for the future, their fears for their children and the Earth. Perhaps it was the soul of the continent I sought, the heartbeat of America, throbbing with life along the great American artery,� he says in his book.
Throughout the U.S. leg of his travels, Wilson met people like Nate Blakey in Yankton, with whom he attended Sunday worship at the A.M.E. Church.
"The sweet songs of this 80-year-old truck gardener and refuse collector haunted the little church with a spirit of genuine peace," Wilson wrote in the book.
In Columbus, NE, he met Carolyn, a waitress at Glur's Tavern.
"She's served burgers and beer in Glur�s for 18 years," Wilson wrote. "You must like it," I asked. "Too dumb to do anything else," was her reply.
Wilson traveled through Kingfisher County in Oklahoma, where the block-buster movie Twister was set. North of Waurika, OK, he visited Monument Hill, a landmark on the old Chisholm Trail.
"When I reached the summit I could see at least 50 miles to the south and west, all the way to Texas," Wilson wrote in American Artery. "But I would have missed most of what I found there if not for the chance encounter with Snake ? who declined to give any other name ?"
Wilson learned that Snake, who had parked on Monument Hill, was watching for his fishing buddy Jack, "with whom he hoped to repeat his recent feat of pulling over a hundred crappie from a local pond. He was a rugged-looking character of about 60. His rusted yellow Courier pickup was full of junk, both front and back: oil cans, beer cans, spare tires, baling wire, fishing gear, clothes, cigarette butts."
It was Snake's first trip to the top of Monument Hill, he told Wilson.
"Hell, I've been by this sombitch a thousand times," Snake said to him, "but I never took the time to drive up here."
Entering Mexico on Nov. 2, El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, Wilson drove through squalid neighborhoods of minimum wage workers in Nuevo Laredo, "emerging at last at El Jardin de Los Angeles, the Garden of Angels," he wrote. "Here the upper crust of Nuevo Laredo are buried, a city much finer than that inhabited by most of the living. In fact, I�d never seen a more beautiful cemetery in Mexico, or for that matter, anywhere in U.S. 81 ?
" ? I wondered which Mexicans had it better, the real dead of the class who lie in the Garden of Angels, or the living dead who are buried in the factories of the giants of international industry, who labor long days and years for the stale crust of life."
The farther south he went, Wilson observed even more devastating poverty and political depression. Ecological and environmental issues also became obvious, including the rapid depletion and destruction of resources, from topsoil to tropical forests.
"I discovered a contradiction in making this trip � the highway is a marvelous means of cooperation, communication and trade between the Americas, but it's also a path of destruction because in its path, the forest falls," Wilson said.
In American Artery, he writes, "Highways are marvelous links that bind us together, allow us to know each other, to visit, migrate and trade. But they also allow us to haul away what the Earth has produced, and too rarely have we considered the balance of assets and liabilities."
Of the many memories Wilson created on his Meridian Highway journey, one stands out as special.
"The most enjoyable day I had was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica," Wilson said. "The forests are protected there and I spent the day hiking through them with an extremely knowledgeable, self-taught naturalist and learned about the plants, animals and birds and saw what was possible � an ecosystem in balance."
In stark contrast with the beauty of flora and fauna, Wilson also found another extreme as he traveled � the devastation of human spirit.
"I had many encounters with poverty, hungry children and people who seemingly have no hope," he said. "I learned of people in Nicaragua who are earning 25 cents an hour � the going wage, if they can get it. Some work for less and it is such an injustice that people have to work so hard for so little. Many cannot even earn enough to feed their families, even working seven days a week. We, the affluent, need to be aware of that and work to help alleviate the problems these people face every day."
Wilson explained his realized humility in American Artery.
"? I could not escape the violence of poverty, the constant reminder that here, I was fabulously rich, cruising down the road in my 15-year-old Omni, eating $2 dinners, sleeping in beds with sheets," he wrote. "I couldn�t stop seeing my children�s faces in the hungry eyes of kids in the shadows ?"
Upon arriving home, Wilson pondered his trip, never questioning that in his travels, he enjoyed the journey much more than reaching his destination.
"Having traced the American artery across eight boundaries and through the lives of Americans of many hues and tongues, I had left all frontiers behind, entering the realm of eternal motion, of constant flux, the medium where solid and stable give way to shifting and fluid," he wrote. "Perhaps there, better than anywhere else on my journey, I felt the universal, the connectedness not only of all mankind, but of all life."
American Artery is available at selected book stores or from South Dakota Magazine, PO Box 175, Yankton, SD 57078, phone 605-665-6655.
Wilson will read excerpts from the book Nov. 2 in Vermillion at the Coffee Shop Gallery at 7 p.m.