Joplin- After back to back Coronas, I posted up in southwestern Missouri for a few nights to gather my thoughts before heading further south and west. My night drive from Springfield, “Queen City of the Ozarks,” was a white knuckle affair. A maze of orange and white barrels, doused in fatigue, with big rig headlights bearing down on my tailgate.
Joplin lay at the heart of the Four State Area (a term I’d never heard of despite numerous trips from coast to coast). This is Walmart country through and through (it’s headquartered in not far away Bentonville, Arkansas). The food is processed. The people are quite friendly. Not a terribly remarkable place, it was ravaged by a tornado in 2011 that laid waste to much of the now rehabilitated city.
The terrifying, rare multi-vortex tornado claimed the highest death toll in recorded history at 139 fatalities. Then President Barack Obama went from the career high of the Abbottabad raid just three weeks earlier that vanquished Saudi salafi dilettante Osama bin Laden to managing the aftermath of a deadly disaster in the American heartland. I only vaguely remember this episode as I was consumed by the Libyan revolution at the time. The young woman checking me in at the Days Inn reminded me of it when I, having not much to say, asked “So what’s Joplin known for? What goes on here in non pandemic times?”
“Well we had a major tornado tear through here back in 2011” she replied smiling, a now distant childhood memory. “A lot of people know Joplin from that.”
That struck me like trying to relate New York to a friendly stranger though the shattered prism of 9/11.
I wasn’t sure how to reply. I noted on how absurdly low the fuel prices were in town. Every place tells a story. Everyone has something to say. This place is a crossroads in the most geographically literal sense of the term. It sits on the road to Tulsa. The Kansas state line is right there. Arkansas is to the south. Joplin resides at the very centre of the United States. Yet it doesn’t have all that much to say, at least outwardly. Black clouds gather over the strip mall. A brief spring torrent bathes the asphalt.
This small place having rebuilt from natural disaster in recent memory was now shuttered from a pandemic that is, or was, mostly a coastal phenomenon. At least the trucking industry still appeared to be thriving as Americans ordered more than ever online to further enrich Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But socially distanced consumerism isn’t quite a sterile people-less affair. Those packages don’t fall from heaven onto your doorstep. When goods leave the polluted Chinese littoral and land in southern California’s outdated port facilities, then are then trucked far and wide. I’m simplifying the supply chain’s complexity but you get the idea. Even the virus which has its origins in central China has not succeeded in stopping the global transshipment of goods to market. People are sheltering in place but consumer products are on the move. And Joplin acts as a well situated way station in this vast network. Men chew tobacco. Steel rigs belch fumes along the highways.
Light shines on this heavy carbon footprint.