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.