OTTUMWA, Iowa. It’s taken Elaine Snyder the better part of two years to make it here, to approximately the half-way point in her trek across America, but she says she’s going to keep going until she finishes what she’s started. “We certainly admire all the folks from the right and left coasts who come through here on symbolic walks across the country,” says Earl Byrum, night shift manager at the Oren Grain Elevator as he offers her a bottle of Nehi orange soda from a vending machine. “What is it you’re walking to call attention to?”
Snyder, a native of Needham, Massachusetts, looks at the garish-colored soft drink with distaste. “You don’t have any Diet Coke?”
“No ma’am,” Byrum says. “Menfolk around these parts like their women like they like their pork shoulder–with a little meat on the bone.”
Byrum smiles but Snyder, a latter-day version of the type of New England woman once known as a “bluestocking,” doesn’t join in the merriment as she forces down enough of the beverage to clear her throat.
“I asked what you was walking for,” Byrum continues as she finishes off her drink with a gulp.
“Time was growing short,” she says with an air of gravity. “I’m involved in a lot of causes, but no one–and I mean no one–took this one as seriously as I do.”
Byrum nods thoughtfully, not sure if he’s missed something. “So it’s . . . a disease?”
“No,” Snyder says.
“A raging ethnic conflict in a war-torn nation?”
“A looming threat to civilization itself, like global warming or nuclear proliferation?”
Snyder looks at the begrimed man with a fresh sense of admiration. “My,” she says, “you’re really up on the issues of today.”
“Have to be,” Byrum says as he flips the switch on a seed-cleaning machine. “Traffic is so heavy in the spring you can’t tell one walker from another. So . . . which is it?”
Snyder is smiling now, as she decides to bring her little game of twenty question to an end. “It’s the most important cause I can think of.”
“Me!” the 50-something says as she strides off down State Highway HH. “There’s nothing closer to my heart!”
Frustrated by a life that has seen her raise two average children, reach only the Vice Presidency of a major charity in Boston, and liquidate a greeting card and stationery store that her husband pulled the plug on after years of subsidies from his accounting practice, Snyder decided in 2012 to walk across country for the sole purpose of getting her picture in the paper and her face on local TV broadcasts to fill the gaping hole she felt in her suburban mother soul. “I could leave it up to somebody else,” she says, “but I don’t think they’d bring the same passion to the task as I do.”
And indeed she is her own #1 supporter, writing press releases for radio stations looking for “feel good” news copy between sets of country and western music and grain and livestock market prices. “We had her in for an interview,” says Lowell Broder, Jr. of Tarkio, Missouri, a journalism student working an unpaid summer internship. “It was just like the national news–earnest, boring and self-absorbed.”
Along the way Snyder is playing the role of cultural critic of the rest of the country, a tendency that Americans have noted in natives of Boston since the nation first began its westward expansion. “You call that a Dairy-Queen?” Snyder “blogged” about Keokuk, Iowa, after a local soda jerk responded “What are jimmies?” when she asked that he add the little chocolate sprinkles that go by that name in Massachusetts to her ice cream cone. “This is the saddest excuse for a laundromat I’ve ever seen,” she reported as she headed out of Danville, Illinois.
Still, locals agree that their peripatetic visitor is walking for a good cause. “The sooner she gets out of town,” notes Broder, “the better everybody will feel.”