Thursday, May 20, 2010

A JOURNEY INTERRUPTED

It is often hard to know where the line is of the wonder at a place and the mere acceptance of it is and thus it is time to move on. I have reached it here at nearly three weeks.

I have heard the stories now, having spoken with both the young and old of this place here in the far eastern corner of what my friends on the Coast would call “one of the square states.” They do not use that appellation because they find them strange but rather because they can’t tell these places with the precisely drawn borders one from another, assume they are all the same since they are “out here” and see no reason to know much more.

Some of the people have lived only here, something nearly unheard of in this day. Their lives seem limited to us, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. They assure me it can be both, and I nod and smile with some condescension yet I am reminded until quite recently in our history, the majority of us had lives this way and that our lives can also be both enlightened and constrained by so many other things besides the distances one travels. It is--life is--what one puts into it, whether that is at the PTA, the farmer’s market, or the time one spends on the road finding other places and other things. While the things one finds to be fascinated by or to enjoy may be different, there is no evidence for me that either is the more fulfilling experience.

So, having come to this place in the normal course of discovery, I have found myself constrained to stay here by forces I cannot control and thus have tried to find enjoyment in what these people, these geographically disadvantaged people, have. For a time, as always, that is easy. Their stories and their uniqueness are a discovery. I am an oddity, a different sort to them which lends to the mutual pleasure of the experience. Yet there is a point when one is no longer the interesting fellow in a camper from California, but rather someone who is just here, tolerated, no longer unique. I become someone who understands a little of the local custom and history, but has heard enough of it now to be satisfied, but does not live it.

What now, besides the weather and the bad karma of the local Walmart do we discuss? Well, we don’t. If one probes too much it is for them too personal and disruptive. They have a life here and they understand, accept, and in many ways and cases they thrive here, but it is not something they want to talk about much with the man with the broken van.

The weather is easy enough to talk about. It rains. It rains every day. It has for ten days. The obligatory inch a day that comes with living in or near the edge of tornado country. We can discuss hail—it’s size and frequency—and how much longer before the next extreme weather warning is issued. There is superficiality in that. Perhaps it is the cold and wind, the dark skies and the sameness of the landscape of the last several weeks that has made it seem so fruitless to pursue a deeper conversation. None are offered or attempted so now as my traveling companion has reached the end of her isolation in the cold damp recesses of the monoxide filled bay at the garage, I no longer care. There will be more rain, but a hope as we leave this place that the next place will be, not better, but different. These people, these happy, yet geographically isolated people, will not miss us and perhaps be glad we are gone.

I will be glad to resume a journey so long interrupted that it will be hard to remember where I was going and will need to alter the itinerary to allow for the time consumed here. I miss the woods, the search for the fauna, even the silence, the dark and quiet of the night . I did not come out here, now more than 2000 miles from home, to live in a room with plastic glasses, cleaned by a maid, in a building peopled each night by a different group of young eager looking men and women with the same black suitcases on wheels and laptop cases slung over their shoulder. These are the busy ones, those who, unlike me, who have no time to stand and watch but must be on to the next thing, the next client, and the next place.

Independence Kansas is city of 9848 people when they were last counted. Among those who are natives of this place are Bill Kurtis, the TV journalist, who still owns an interest in the radio station here, Alf Landon, the 7th Governor of Kansas and a Presidential a candidate in 1936, William Inge, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who wrote “Picnic,” Harry F. Sinclair, the founder of the Sinclair Oil Company also was born here. At one time, it is believed that more millionaires per capita lived in Independence than any other place in the United States. It is also remembered as the home of the first minor league team that the late Mickey Mantle signed to play with, the class D affiliate in Independence, which also played the first organized baseball game under lights.So it is not an insignificant place, just one I know enough of now and time to leave.

Tomorrow I will leave. I am informed by the childish face on the electric television set from nearby Tulsa, that it will be much as today here, still wet, still cool and still threatening to uproot trees, automobiles and people’s lives. La Coachasita and I will try to outrun it, move to a place to the east and south where it will not track us down with such fury. I will sort through the detritus of the past few weeks and try to find my way back to the more bucolic places in my world and in my mind where I am used to being this time of year.

It has been a nice place to visit, but it is more than time to take my leave.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

YES, WE ARE STLL HERE

I am still enjoying the sunsets on Elk Lake in Independence Kansas. The damage to La Coachasita was more extensive than thought. They may make me mayor if I'm not out of town soon. I may be the only Californian that took spring break in Kansas. The dealer here has been most helpful and I have been able to drive, albeit slowly, for the past three days so have not had to seek housing. The initial part sent was defective, caused more trouble, and  Chrysler is now on the hook for the repairs.Thus, staying is more pleasant as a result.

We returned here to the park on Friday afternoon. The new parts from Dodge will arrive on Tuesday if all goes well and it will make this a good place to have a motel stop, do the laundry, and shopping. My warrior friend will be up on the lift for two days while machinations too complicated explain will be performed. I am not sure now where we will go from here. The Missouri park system has been annoying me by asking for reservations, I refuse to make them. I may go down into Arkansas after I find out just how bad the parks were harmed in Tennessee. Our ultimate goal is still the Smoky Mountains and then we will head north if we stay anywhere near the itinerary.

The weather has turned chilly and it will rain next week, so being indoors Tuesday and Wednesday doesn't sound like a bad idea. I will see television again then, I expect, and remember n why I haven't missed it.

There are a number of locals are here for the weekend, although it is still early for a full campground this time of year and I am sure that the fact that we went to 40 degrees last night from 60 the night before also might have something to do it. They are amusing  and friendly sorts who find the California license plates a bit mysterious. Some will spend Mother's Day here.I have been to most parts of the Wildlife Refuge, taking a long trip today out to where the birds were not expecting me and saw many that are not common around the campground noise. It is a peaceful and contemplative place of prairie grass and trees, many hollowed by the omnipresent woodpeckers, flickers, and occasionally used has places that eagles perch, steely eyed, looking for prey. The Blue Herons moved as the number of people increased. It is almost as if they know it is the weekend. I enjoyed the quiet and again was reminded how pleased I am to have found it.

When I get the rest of the trip figured out, my faithful friend running properly again, and to a new destination, I'll be in touch.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

DOROTHY AND TOTO ARE NOT HERE

Most people that have reason to drive across the country, find there are certain words that make them disagreeable and induce immediate ennui.

Kansas is one. As Henry James once famously said, a word such as that denotes, “…a long reluctant march through enemy territory” for many people. It is seen as flat and faceless, a piece of the earth to be traversed, peopled by corn fed yahoos that do something involved with the earth or cows. It has no real cultural merit except perhaps that it was where Gram’s house was, the place that Dorothy and Toto left so violently and wanted come back to so badly.

If your route is the fastest, it is on an Interstate and grinds from cloverleaf to cloverleaf with the cruise control set at 75. There is an occasional stop at lookalike gas stations, or a plastic fast food palace, or a stay in a chain hotel. For all you see, you might as well be flying. You are not because you have more baggage than they will allow you to check. A memorable “blonde’ joke from New York has a man suggesting that the women go to the Midwest if she wants to find a good, solid man. Her reply is memorable, since for many New Yorkers, the settled universe ends at the Hudson River. She said, “Oh, you mean like to Pennsylvania?”

Reamus must object. All those things are “out here” but there is so much more if one takes the time to leave the fatty burgers and wide roadways to others. For example a wildlife refuge in the southeast corner of the state is nearly the size of Orange County California. It contains all manner of flora and fauna, eagles, blue heron, song birds, woodpeckers. Its lake has enough fish in it seems to feed the entire state.

This place is near Independence Kansas and is known as the Elk Lake Refuge and it is special. It was once part of an Osage Indian Reservation until they were moved with so many other tribes, to reservations in Oklahoma. The early settlers along the river contended with the Dalton gang, floods, and the obligatory tornadoes that spawn here.

The happy times are celebrated too. In Neodosha the first oil well west of the Mississippi is honored. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author famous for the Little House on the Prairie series is remember for the time she was growing up here, and the first organized baseball game was played under the lights at a field in Independence. This Refuge came about as a result a Corps of Engineer Project for flood control and was completed in 1966 and while it cost 16 million dollars, the flood damage aversion since then, is estimated at 217 million. Whatever the cost/benefit ratio is in flood control, the refuge also provides habitat for both migratory and non-migratory water fowl and all sorts of wildlife.

It is a wondrous place with one of the prettiest lakes I have ever seen and most thoughtfully laid out state park which sits on leased land in the middle of it all. I am a resident of it now for longer than I had anticipated. In fact, by the time I leave I may qualify for residency and be able to run for governor of the state if I like.

I am here this long because my faithful traveling companion has been grievously wounded and is, I am sure, in great pain that she suffers in the noble silence of her workhorse heritage. La Coachasita has soldiered on proudly and has brought us to this bucolic place despite her worsening condition. On Saturday, we were forced to drive from Logan New Mexico to a State Park near Wichita because a ranger neglected to tell the person answering the phone at the park in Meade Kansas that all water and electric spaces had been reserved for the weekend by a large group of people named Spencer. So we drove on for more hours than usual, logging 490 miles for the day, which is well over our usual limit. While making this forced march, the check engine light came on near the end of the day. It had been seen earlier in the trip while leaving Deming, NM. The computer codes were read then and it was either something very bad or something benign that could wait until we returned home. The consensus was that it was likely the benign one since the van did not appear to be running or shifting roughly and had no problems for the next 900 miles. Suddenly, late on that long afternoon drive, it reappeared and my sense was that it was not as simple as it seemed. La Coachacita was in great pain.


One of the laws of long term camping on the move is that if you have a serious problem, it will occur either very late on a Friday afternoon, or over a weekend if you are stupid enough to still be driving in the rural countryside then. Most of Kansas is closed on Sunday and the closing begins around noon the day before. Needing fuel, for example, and traveling the back roads as always, I came to a town with one gasoline station. If you had a credit card, you could buy gas, if you did not, you couldn’t. No one was there. Only the “pay at the pump” service was available. I asked the man who pulled in after me if this was normal. He snorted that not only was it normal, but it was beginning to be true on Fridays as well. It was the view of the native that the owner made enough money doing repair work four days a week that he could run his “hobby” farm the other days.


I have traveled through the very southern part of the state this trip along U.S. 54/75 and U.S. 160. The small cities along the way have sculptures on the street corners of renovated downtown sections. The routes I travel here do not have a city “bypass” as so many other places do. They want the traffic. They need it. One bronze statue that memorializes the Dalton gang, I swear was by Remington, the famous western sculpture. Had the traffic not been what it was I would have a picture to prove it. The renovations are not recent. Some of the stores are now empty. This was pre-recession building, when all were so optimistic, when money was real, banks told the truth, and people spent it with pride on their towns. It is quite wonderful to stop on these streets and see these pieces of art, these signs of civic pride. It gives one hope that the Heartland will be back. Not soon perhaps, but they are the reminders of what there was here and, we can hope, will be here again. This stubborn civic pride does not die easily. It does not die as quickly as businesses leave. These art pieces are a memory of what it was. It is what it can be again. They are proud of that here. They should be.


If express shipping brings the new pieces for the heart of my proud warrior friend tomorrow, she will have five hours of surgery on Thursday and we will move east the next day. In the meanwhile, the weather is lovely, high 70’s and little humidity, and even the wind is down for the week so we will enjoy this place of beauty and be glad that we found it.


While I am here I will try to get a picture of one of those eagles that seem to come by only when the camera is somewhere out of reach. Our next stop will be in Missouri near a state forest named for Davey Crockett and then it will be time to move indoors for a day or so, air the place out, and see whether Nashville Tennessee is still under water and contemplate the next destination.