The Great American Grid

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Likely as not, when René Descartes invented his grid system of coordinates in the seventeenth century, he did not have Carroll, Iowa, in mind. No matter. Carroll, like the rest of the state and a good deal of the nation, is laid out in a Cartesian grid. For this geometric landscape we have the Ordinance of 1785 to thank. In that year Congress enacted a law “for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the Western territory.” The West in those days was a good deal closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific, so it was Ohio that was first laid out according to the new legislation: in townships six by six miles square, each divided into 36 one-square-mile sections of 640 acres apiece, the boundaries aligned with meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude.

Laying out a country in squares proved a quick and easy way to settle it. Even the most ignorant of surveyors could mark off boundaries, and buying and selling land became a matter of trading just so many geometric abstractions. When Americans left the eighteenth-century West across the Alleghenies for the nineteenth-century West across the Mississippi, they settled into an ever-lengthening and widening national grid. And in that latticework is Carroll.

Americans from the seaboard states are most likely to notice heartland geometry during their coast-to-coast plane flights. Then the Midwest is the proverbial patchwork quilt, curiously rumpled in hilly sections, tellingly violated by the undisciplined course of a river. Flying over the Indiana counterpane, I once tried to figure out how fast the plane was traveling by counting the number of mile sections traversed in a minute. Amazingly, it worked.

But it is one thing to fly over a grid and another to live in it. My friends in Carroll show a distinct sensitivity to direction that bewilders me. To my Connecticut way of thinking, west is California and east is the ocean, though, of course, in New Haven it is really south, but then who gets picky about such things in New England? Doesn’t the eastbound Interstate 86 take you north to Massachusetts? What Connecticutian besides a Boy Scout lost on a cloudy day needs a compass?

In Carroll, though, everybody has a built-in orientation. People know almost instinctively where north is, and what is more, it matters to them. Ask how to get to the post office in Carroll, and you will get just what you asked for: directions. Two blocks north and one block east. None of this uptown, downtown, take a left at the traffic light.

But you have to drive out of Carroll, bisecting the square fields of corn and soybeans, to tell just how strong the presence of Descartes is here. The roads run due north-south and east-west, and so do the farmhouses, the machine sheds, the barns, and the rows of corn and beans. Go into a farmhouse. Provided you were so inclined, you could follow the line of the kitchen counter, the linoleum pattern, and the ice trays in the freezer to the North Pole.

Strictly speaking, the town of Carroll itself is not perfectly aligned with the points of the compass. It is a grid, of course, but one oriented to the train tracks that run through the town from Lidderdale, heading southwest to Omaha. When the railroad came to the region in the 1860s, it pretty much made Carroll, so it must have been taken for granted that the town’s streets would run parallel to and perpendicular with the tracks. God’s lines, nature’s lines, the United States government’s lines did not matter. In the American West in the nineteenth century, only one type of line counted, and that was the railroad line. So there it is today, the jog in the road right over the town limits, and when we cross it and are heading true north again, my Carroll friend Norma turns to me and says, “Now I feel right with the world.”

There are bigger jogs here and there all over the Midwest, jogs built into the design of the grid. These have to do with superimposing a flat grid on a spherical earth. If you have ever hemmed a flared skirt, you know that to keep the hem straight and not end up with a lot of extra material, you have to make a tuck in the fabric every once in a while. In establishing the boundary lines that crisscross the Midwest, surveyors had to do essentially the same thing. If the roads were going to keep pointing due north, there would have to be corrective jogs along the way. Drive north, sidestep a bit, drive north again.

Because roads for the most part follow the original checkerboard plan, you almost never go from one place to another as the crow flies, not unless your destination is due north, south, east, or west of your starting point. When we drove to Webster City, sixty miles northeast of Carroll, we moved like soldiers in formation, laboriously marching to the far corner of the parade ground in a series of straight lines and ninety-degree turns. Theoretically then, since there are no diagonal shortcuts, one route through the checkerboard is the same as another. If you cannot cut the distance, the only way to shorten a trip is to increase speed. Routes differ not by length but by road quality: you look for the paved, multilane, high-speed roads.

 

In this case, though, there was a route that shaved a few miles off the distance to Webster City. It took us through Lehigh, a small town on the Des Moines River. We had been driving on arrow-straight highways, through the tableland of corn and beans. A grain elevator, a water tower, and a few trees in the distance meant a hamlet was coming up. and we would slow down a bit, take a right-angle turn, or drive straight on through. When we came up on Lehigh, though, the road began to curve and, just as unexpectedly, to descend. We followed the contours of a hillside into a valley and drove along the winding river. It was damp down there and wooded; it was like Connecticut. Norma said this place had always given her the creeps. We were up and out of that valley quickly, back on the familiar straight roads and flat land.

Norma had me sleep in the west bedroom that night. I turned back the patchwork coverlet and slipped into bed southward. In that dreamlike state you sometimes enter right before sleep, my head lay over the Canadian border, my feet were in New Orleans, the fingers of my right hand played with the waters of the Pacific, and my left hand pointed home.