From Big Sky country, the gulf crisis looks mighty small

Sandy Grady

September 26, 1990|By Sandy Grady

CRISIS? What Persian Gulf crisis?

Out in the great American heartland, Saddam Hussein gets the big shrug.

After rolling for 11 days, 2,000 miles across the most hauntingly beautiful chunk of the West -- the Great Plains, mountains and salt flats between Chicago and San Francisco -- that's this gypsy's impression of the West's mood.



More absorbed in quotidian stuff of daily lives -- lack of rain, gas prices, or how the high school team would do Friday night -- than prospects of a shooting war.

"Nobody's nervous," said a trucker at Al's Place overlooking the Missouri River. "If this wacko (Saddam) starts something, we got high-tech stuff to kick his butt fast."

At Mitchell, S.D., home of the monumentally zany Corn Palace, folks were more troubled about drought and the local team -- the wonderfully named Kernels -- than Iraq.

"Let Bush handle it," said the guy at the Mitchell Chevron. "I think he'll be real careful before he lets a bunch of boys get killed for nothing."

At the dusty speck of Wall, S.D., whose World's Biggest Drug Store sits in "the geographical center of nowhere," a woman peddling $10.99 plastic Indians says tourists ignore the Mideast crisis.

"They're mostly shook up over gas prices," she said. "But I see pictures of those boys in the desert and pray Bush's doing right."

No war jitters, no fury at Saddam. Understand, this was no formal poll. If I'd played probing reporter, maybe I'd come back with a different story: "U.S. SMALL TOWNS GRIPPED BY ANGER, FEAR."

But after crossing the country at 30,000 feet for years, I wanted to light out for the territory as a tourist, the way Lewis & Clark would have done it if they'd had Motel 6's and Interstate 80.

It's no scoop that this country is damn big. And magnificent. Those endless, dun Great Plains, the Badlands, Black Hills, Big Horn range into Montana, then Yellowstone and the Tetons -- almost hourly, one of us said, "Is this a great country, or what?"

Here's another non-surprise: Citizens in Big Sky country do not spend every minute brooding about the claustrophobic egos of Washington, D.C. You lose Beltway Pomposity fast scanning nothing but mesas, buttes and horizon.

And ghosts. You can stand on the wind-blown Wyoming hill where Custer fell. But there are no monuments to Indians; only the masked hostility of a Crow reservation. You can buy a $3.95 Buffalo Burger or a $150 buffalo skull in glitzy Jackson, Wyo. But it takes luck to spot a faraway herd drifting in Yellowstone's dusk -- history's other losers.

Politics draws cynical laughter in this sagebrush vastness. Joe Karius, Rapid City, S.D., Journal columnnist, suggests the Persian Gulf crisis started "so Dan Rather could wear his $279 Banana Republic safari suit."

I'm not saying provincials west of the Potomac are blase about Middle East dangers. In an Ogden, Utah, fast-food joint,, a tear-stained woman says her brother has been sent to Saudi Arabia. "He was going to be married next week," she says. "Now, who knows . . ."

At Ellworth Air Force Base, S.D., rows of B-1 bombers and Minutemen missile silos are a jolt of reality. On a base athletic field you see clumsy, khaki, waddling figures -- GIs trying poison gas outfits.

"Going overseas," says Tim Harms, a retired Air Force man. "This place is emptying out."

Ironically, highways crawl with tourists in Winnebagos and Airstreams. At Winnemucca, Nev., a neon strip in the desert, a motel owner says, "If Bush starts shooting and there's a gas shortage, these casinos will be Ghost City."

You have to hit continent's edge to smell war anxiety. At Berkeley -- where else? -- 1,700 hear Ron ("Born on the 4th of July") Kovic shout, "No more Vietnams." In San Franciso a protest mob chants, "No war for Big Oil."

But out in the Big Sky lostness, folks feel wars, presidents and dictators are small stuff. It's tough, serene, mystical country.

Too big to worry about Saddam Hussein.

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