Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring Break In Western Kansas

Whoever says Kansas is flat hasn't driven through the Smoky Hill River Valley. There are some righteous hills right around Cedar bluff, where we were detoured yesterday by the highway patrol. We had just crossed the bridge over Cedar Bluff dam, heading south, when we ran into the patrolman, blocking the road. He said a semi had overturned the day before and had spilled grain all over the road, and they hadn't got it all cleaned up yet. So he sent us the long way around  ---three miles to the east, four miles south, and then a couple of miles west back to the highway.

Man, those dirt roads are steep, traveling through terrain that is more wild than the smooth plains further west. There are rocky outcroppings and the land is covered with an unruly mixture of native plants and grasses. How untamed and heaving is the bosom of Kansas! "I really need to get out here more," I thought, while navigating the sharp uphill twists and plunging descents.

When we finally got to Ness City, we drove straight to the nursing home, where mom was in the middle of a concert. Every other Tuesday, she loads her keyboard and stand into her car and drives a block and a half to the Long Term care facility. She played "Red River Valley," "Wooden Heart," and an original, titled "Nostalgia."

We're hangin' in western Kansas for spring break, and we got out here by way of my brand new used car. My 2008 Honda Civic is easy to drive fast. When I get above 60 in my 1994 Corolla, everything starts vibrating and rattling, and the engine gets really loud. I can hear Scotty yelling, "She's breaking up, Captain!" The cd player skips and air whistles through the breach in the sunroof. My new car is smooth as silk and it has an MP3 player hookup. And as you accelerate, the volume increases automatically to compensate for the increased highway noise.

And something else. By the time we got to Ness county, the sun was bright and unchallenged and it had grown quite warm inside the car. So we were glad to have working AC, that flowed easily at the push of a button, and didn't require the imagination to make it colder.

The car is three years old, but from our perspective, this road trip was its maiden voyage. We christened it by picking up a sack of Cozy Burgers in Salina and eating them in the car. Lilah and I like ours plain, so we can really taste the beef and onions, but Annabelle's burgers had ketchup on them. I cringed inwardly, but tried not to think about the possibility of ketchup dripping onto the newish seats.

What a different world I've been living in these past few weeks, a world where my car's interior is impeccable, and not crusted over by food crumbs, french fry grease, chocolate stains, beach sand, snotty tissues, and dog hair. Now I have a chance to make a fresh start. All these years, I've blamed the state of my car on the grubby urchins occupying the back seat. "Well, you know, I have kids...." I would say, waving my hand over the front and back seat to indicate that all of the debris, all of the detritus bulging under the seats, was an unavoidable consequence of ferrying two uncivilized passengers for over a decade. Now that the kids are older, I may find out whether I've just been an overwhelmed mother all these years, or just an incurable slob.

Today is a wonderfully warm and mild day in the 70's, and so we'll play tennis, and swing by the Frigid Creme to see if it's open yet, or still closed for the season. And tonight we'll work on the 750 piece puzzle named "Carnival in Venice" that we started last night.

 I started the day off right by doing something I've been wanting to do for ages. I spent the entire morning reading. I finished the young adult book "Steinbeck's Ghost," that Lilah had read and urged me to read. In it, the characters of some of Steinbeck's books reappear, so to speak, and so does the ghost of Steinbeck himself, until he finds someone who will tell the one story he had left to tell, that he was afraid to tell while he was alive. The book also follows the fight of the Salinas, California community to save its public library, the John Steinbeck library, that is threatened with closing. I love the book's passionate message about the importance of books, stories and libraries!

Now Lilah has checked out several Steinbeck books, and is currently reading "Grapes of Wrath." It's been a long time since I read any Steinbeck, but I think my favorite book was "Cannery Row", about the fish canneries near Monterey Bay. I just may have to read that one again. But right now I'm ready to crack open "A wrinkle in time," which I have here in western Kansas with me. I barely remember it, but I remember where it was shelved in the children's section of the Ness County Public Library, and I can still picture its  nondescript cover. It had no fancy book jacket, just its plain title on the original binding. But inside it was weird, so unlike anything else I had read before, it quickly became one of my favorite books.


  1. aaahhhhhh.....FINALLY!! i had to scroll down, way down, in my drop down address bar to find your blog address,,,it's been so so long. loved this post! i count on you to keep writing about western kansas. i am so happy that you can now travel in late-model(relatively speaking) luxury . i remember "a wrinkle in time" (madeline l'engle) because willa had to read it in middle school. book didn't make no sense to me, lol. i look forward to more posts while you are on spring break. and by the way,,thank you for honoring mom by going to listen to her concert.

  2. I am far from an expert on western Kansas, but there are a couple things I do remember from visits over 50 plus years ago right up to as recent as last summer.
    First, I would characterize the terrain as irreconcilable. Generally, it seems so flat. But, about the time you find yourself being bored by the proverbial pancake, the bottom falls out and you find yourself diving into a gulch.
    Supposedly, the visible horizon should be only a little less than 3 miles, but it can be so deceiving when you can see Ransom or Utica from Arnold. Granted, you are seeing grain elevators but that is still over 7 miles.
    Second, I remember, from the 50-year-ago visits, that, given a bit of rain, those dirt roads can turn from a hard claylike surface into a slimy concoction that is near impossible to navigate. I have a memory…not sure if all the facts are accurate…of being out at the farm in Burr Oak for a family gathering. It had rained during the night and we woke up pretty much stranded because of the muddy roads. We spent most of the day waiting for anyone else to show up and it was becoming clear that our party had been rendered inaccessible by the ribbon of grease that ran by the house. Then, all of a sudden, my Dad runs off the porch and stands in the yard staring off to the west. “Listen! Can you hear that?” We all ran out and joined him, stood and listened. Nothing. “No. Hear that? That’s June!” We all thought he was going crazy, but he just kept shooshing us and telling us to listen real close. Sure enough, there it was. It seemed like it was miles and miles away, but you could hear the sound of an engine. It was maintaining high rev’s like it was in first gear, straining to climb a steep grade but never reaching the top. It was slowing getting louder and louder, closer and closer, but still not in sight. I remember running into the house to let the other know that June was coming. Wait! June? What the….! How do we know that?
    I went back to Dad in the yard, still staring off in the distance. “How do you know it’s Uncle June.” (and this is the part that I will have to rely on you to verify) “I can tell by the sound, that’s his Mercury (or Hudson).” He was dead on. Here comes the car into view up the road, barely maintaining momentum in spite of the V-8 running at the top of the tach, using the entire road from ditch to ditch, slipping and sliding in slow motion as if on ice. He was committed. If he stopped, he would never get moving again. If he slid into the ditch, same fate. But he made it! He rolled that thing up into the drive, covered half way up the doors with mud….and the party was on!

  3. oh, h.b...what a wonderful memory. i vaguely remember a scary ride to burr oak. bet my mama was cussin' up a storm. i remember burr oak VERY fondly. wish the place was still there. sigh...

  4. H.B., that is a fantastic story! Thank you so much for sharing that. I'm glad you can remember as much as you do. I don't think I was even born yet, and though I've heard of the farm in Burr oak, I've never heard anyone else recall that muddy drive. I am going to print your account off and keep it with other stories about the family. It's so interesting to get the perspective of you and Grandpa, as you hear the slow advance of my family's car.

  5. yes! thanks for that great story! i think the ones involving Hal and Dad are some especially prime tales!

    mony - i know it's hard to keep a car clean. once, i found a dried up old apple core in your car!!