Road Trip Part Two: Captured By Kansas

For part one of this series, see Paradise on the Platte.

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The epiphany of the cranes and the Great Interstate Archway provided energy enough to put on a few more miles that first night. From Kearney, I headed south and west through Axtell and Funk to Holdredge, where I paused to gas up.

After being nailed by a heavy downpour on I-80, I was wary of the fact that thunderstorms were developing in several directions–it’s one thing to be engulfed by one in the daylight, but quite another at night, on hilly, dark two-lanes full of truck traffic out on the High Plains. The young man at the filling station took my snack money (you pay at the pump after dark) and said, “be careful out there,” which, considering the lightning crackling to the north, I took to refer to the weather and not anything sketchy about the town itself.

South from there on 183, over twenty miles of dark road and lightning on three sides to Alma, on the Republican River and near the border. There are several motels there, but I didn’t want to stop until Nebraska was behind me, so on I went over the river and into The Great State of Kansas. From there, I picked up 383, a diagonal state highway marked with the ubiquitous golden sunflower (that, I’m sorry, looks like an amoeba when it’s stretched to encompass three digits),¬† running along Prairie Dog Creek through the northwest corner of the state.

It was dark, and concentration was flagging. I can see well enough driving in the dark, but my eyes wearied of watching for deer, and oncoming headlights were making it worse. A semi came up behind me; the road was winding; there wasn’t anywhere to pull off. Even after adjusting my mirrors to cut the glare, it was obvious I was just going to have to hole up in the next available place.

Thankfully, I spotted a water tower ahead, and a neat-looking little town just off the highway–well-lit and promising a bed for me. I slowed; the semi passed me, and I was executing the turn before I saw the sign: “Norton Correctional Facility.” Oh, hell. Probably not the bed I was looking for! But, where there’s a prison, there’s a town for its workers to live, and I found that and my rest just a couple more miles down the road.

High wind warnings for the next day drove me out early and without breakfast–just a couple cups of mediocre motel coffee and the belief that I’d find interesting food somewhere down the road. The idea was to stick on 383 southwest, then hook up with 83 down to Oakley, before turning west on 40 and into Colorado, toward the Sand Creek Massacre site.

Or, maybe I’d go further south on 83 and check out some points of interest before picking up 96 west. Either way, the early part of the day would get me to Colorado, and then a right turn would have me entering New Mexico by sundown. It turned out to be a good thing I’d planned some flexibility in my route because it flexed a lot more before the day was done.

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While this is in Kansas, it is not a U.S. Highway, no matter what you might have heard.

The morning went by along with several small towns, none of which had the requisite number of pickups parked in one place to signify a good Midwestern cafe. I craned my neck hard passing through Jennings–a sign read “Czech Us Out!” and I was thinking I could “Czech out” some kolaches, but no such luck, at least from what was visible passing through. Outside Selden about a mile, the highway was completely blocked off and closed (for no ascertainable reason, so…zombie invasion?). A detour forced me to backtrack east six miles, then south to Hoxie.

By the time I hit Hoxie, the wind was howling out of the north, and I was starving. I drove around town twice looking for a likely cafe, and stopped at one on the main drag where, fighting gusts, I managed to exit my car and order what was bar-none the worst hot beef sandwich of my entire life. Hints were there, of course, in the multiple blaring TV screens and coffee “whitener” nestled next to the fake sugar packets. The artificial potatoes were so cheap, they didn’t even bother adding potato flavor, and don’t get me started about the gravy. Just awful.

But, like a good Midwesterner, I ate it, said it was “fine,” and got back on the road, vowing to snack on gas station crap rather than letting myself get desperate enough to repeat that experience. If I’m going to take time to stop and eat, I’d like it to taste better than dried out chemical-laden “croissandwiches” from a rotating warmer cabinet by the highway.

To get back on my intended route, I needed to head west, and west was getting really, really difficult with sustained winds in the 40mph range. Tumbleweeds attacked by the dozens, and semi trailers noticeably shuddered in the gusts. At Oakley, I gassed up–and gave up–on the Colorado route, letting the Kansas wind capture me and sail me straight south.

And what a blessing that turned out to be. “Everybody likes to hate on Kansas,” a friend from there exclaims. I guess it’s probably like Nebraska in that its attractions are not well-known, and it’s in the way of getting to “cooler” states like Colorado and…um, Colorado. Heading straight down the west side of Kansas not only gave me ten extra miles per gallon, but the definitive knowledge that there are, in fact, some really cool things to see there.

The first one is Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark. You might think that because it’s called a “National Landmark” that it’s nicely accessible with a paved parking lot and clean restroom facilities. Actually, it’s located on private property seven miles off the pavement and over a couple of cattle grates (which means, yes, there are cattle grazing in and around the limestone formations). There are no facilities other than what you might’ve brought with you. And it’s really, really cool.

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Out there in the wind and sun, being blasted by limestone eroding off the formations, it’s worthwhile to remember that you’re standing at the bottom of what was once a vast inland sea. Though, you might not know it unless you have some grounding (heh–get it?) in geology, or you stop at the information kiosk on the main highway–because there are no signs out here except those that tell you not to climb on the rocks.

Back on the highway, I traveled a few more southerly miles before dropping down into Scott State Park, nestled in a canyon and situated around a pretty, spring-fed lake. The park staff were all in the office when I walked in, and provided my $5 day pass along with lots of maps, information, and suggestions of other points of interest along my route. But the purpose of my visit there had less to do with the lake or getting out of the wind (that was really nice) than visiting the northernmost pueblo ruins in the United States.

That’s right–they’re in Kansas.

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El Cuartelejo (as it’s now known) was constructed around 1664 by a group of Taos Indians fleeing Spanish rule. It was inhabited by a few other groups before being abandoned in the 1700s and later re-discovered by white homesteaders on the land, excavated, and the foundation reconstructed.

The foundation itself was not as interesting to me as the story–more unknown than known–and standing right there on land settled three-and-a-half centuries ago by people who were a long, long way from home. What was their journey like? How long did it take? Why did they travel so very far north? And, turning slowly around to take in the landscape, what factors are visible to me that helped them decide on just this location to build a “permanent” resting place?

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The third stop I made that early afternoon was one I would not have bothered with had it not been for the state park staff. “Battle Canyon” is only a couple of miles down the road from the park office, and it didn’t appear on my maps. It looks to be on private property, but there is an information kiosk and guest register across a cattle grate and at the foot of a short, but winding, washed out, and rocky road to the monument on top.

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Having had my butt in a car seat for much too much of the day already, I strapped on my hiking boots and did a little climbing down in the canyon, which is reputed to be the site of the last Indian battle in Kansas–between the U.S. Army and a band of Northern Cheyenne that had been removed to a reservation in Oklahoma and got fed up (no pun intended) with the sickness and starvation there, so decided to head back home (against the government’s wishes) to Wyoming, where they could take care of themselves.

photo 2(21)There’s a lot of “wild west” anti-Indian bull-crap still out there, even in today’s supposedly enlightened world, so I was really pleased to read the handout on the “Battle of Punished Woman Fork,” which was written from the perspective that, hey, this band of Northern Cheyenne was being starved and sickened by genocidal U.S. government policies, and they did what they had to do for the good of their people, despite being chased down, attacked, and killed for trying to get home. And at least in the battle that took place here–they won.

Getting back in my car and looking at the time, I realized that as cool as western Kansas was, if I wanted to be in New Mexico by nightfall, I needed to put some serious miles under me. I made it past Garden City (which is as lovely as the name suggests) and into a landscape that starts to look more and more like the southwest–irrigated wheat fields giving way to sagebrush plains and feedlots with their haze of pulverized manure dust. Near Sublette, with the wind dying down, I picked up U.S. 56 and resumed a somewhat westerly route through Cimarron National Grassland, and into the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Next installment: Out of the Panhandle and Into Enchantment.

 

Road Trip Part 1: Paradise on the Platte

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Crossing over…

In early February, I got a call from an old friend in Southeast Arizona whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. She’d heard I was moving (and yeah, also about the divorce and leaving my job), and wondered if, being somewhat untethered by other obligations however briefly, I might want to pay her a visit and see some of the work she was doing for a watershed restoration project down in the Chiracahua Desert.

Now, I’m not much of a desert girl, but after six winters in Minnesota (during which I learned I’m a much happier person if I commit to wearing long underwear every day), getting to a warmer clime for a week or two, seeing things growing and flowering (even on otherwise inhospitable plants), and eating lots of green chile seemed like a really fine idea.

Still, it was a full month (filled with packing and moving, stresses and negotiations and endless hours on the road) before the trip blossomed as a genuine possibility in my mind. The date for leaving was set not quite a week in advance, and all the fine details about animal care and car tune-up and eating all the leftovers came quickly after.

The day before I departed south- and west-ward, I drove the seven-hour round trip north to Minnesota to deliver the dog to my ex, pack my garden tools, and give him a tour of what herbs were popping up in the gardens that he could eat. Then, to stretch my muscles a little more (and because I couldn’t stand the look of the thing), I spent another half hour or so cutting back and cleaning up perennials in the triangle prairie garden I planted last summer.

Needless to say, I didn’t plan on leaving first thing the following morning. But the majority of that calculation didn’t have anything to do with the time I’d spent on the road the day before. It had to do with cranes.

I’m not a big subscriber to the whole “Bucket List” mentality–maybe because there are lots of things I have wanted to do before I die that turned out (so far) not to be a big deal whether I did them or not. But, after explaining that to my kid and describing my own list as “stuff I’ve really wanted to see or do if ever I get the chance,” he turned to me and said, “Mom, I think that’s pretty much a Bucket List.” Damned teenagers.

One thing I’ve really wanted to see for a long time was the migration of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska, and it turned out my timing for this Arizona trip took me right through that area, and at just the right time.

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I arrived at the Crane Trust outside Grand Island in the early evening, about an hour before sunset. I’d called a couple days in advance, but there wasn’t any room in the viewing blind for that evening, so I just used their bathroom and asked where to find the public viewing bridge. Maybe you wouldn’t think that a place in the middle of Nebraska would be spectacularly busy on a Monday night, but all the viewing blind slots were packed, and so was the viewing bridge–a long, wooden platform constructed just off the highway about a mile south of the Crane Trust Center.

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I got there just early enough to secure the last parking space in the little dirt lot, and then the roadside started filling up, too. It was a little scary because trucks were cruising over the Platte River bridge at about 50mph, blaring their horns at the bird-watchers wandering in the road, their eyes to the sky rather than on the fact they were about to be flattened by oncoming traffic. Oy vey.

The other problem with the viewing bridge is that not only are you right by the road, you’re also massed in plain sight, and people are talking and laughing and generally not paying attention to the fact that cranes are shy of people, and all that ruckus makes it extremely unlikely that a single bird is going to come in anywhere near where you’re perched.

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This is as good as it gets, folks…

Still, I would not call it a waste of time. Among the many beautiful prairie rivers, the Platte is a real stunner, especially in the spring, at sunset, with a thunderstorm in the distance and the prehistoric cacophony of tens of thousands of cranes coming in to roost (albeit far downriver of where you happen to be standing). Satisfied with the experience, I got back in my car, and headed west just before sunset, intending to put a few more miles under me and toward my ultimate destination. And then…

The road from Grand Island to Kearney (and beyond) is flanked by cornfields between the interstate corridor and the Platte, and it is in those cornfields that Sandhill Cranes forage during their brief March visit. As I pulled onto I-80 and drove into a sunset blazing beneath deep blue storm clouds streaked vivid with lightning, I noticed patches of grey and sparks of red flashing from the fields. Cranes are shy of people, yes, but they’re not shy of traffic blazing by at 75 miles per hour.

As I rocketed along beside semis and passenger cars and pickup trucks, hundreds and hundreds of cranes–in twos and threes and fives and more–were lifting off from the fields alongside the interstate, swooping just a dozen feet or so over the traffic, back-lit by the sunset, heading toward the river.

It. Was. Amazing.

So, here’s me: laughing, crying, singing, hollering random lines of ecstatic poetry, driving 75 miles per hour down the interstate toward Kearney, Nebraska, squinting through a bug-spattered windshield at a prairie sunset and the lines on the road I’m sharing with fully-loaded semis, when the actual thunderstorm hits.

And now, I am blinded simultaneously by a torrent of rain and its refraction through blazing colors and there is this crazy huge THING in the distance looming across the road, and I think maybe there are a few other things on that Bucket List that I might want to get to, so I get the hell off the road.

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The Great Platte River Road Archway

And that, my friends, is just (most of) the first leg of the road trip adventure.

Next stop: The Great (No, Really!) State of Kansas.

Settled In

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The past two months have brought many changes–from terminating my position at a well-respected sustainable food and farming non-profit, to leaving my second marriage, my little farm and gardens and flocks, the rural food co-op I tried to help steer out of rocky financial waters for the [second? third?] time, to exiting Minnesota–the state I called home for over five years.

I’ve come back to Southeast South Dakota, to a community I’ve called home more often than not over the past two decades, and specifically to a site I came to know while tending market gardens for my CSA and farmers market customers.

It took a couple of years to exorcise my feelings for this farm after I moved away: I wept more than once–occasionally, to my embarrassment, in front of complete strangers–while describing the process of leaving. Now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how little I knew it, having in the past weeks taken a fuller measure of its acres of bluffs and ravines on long jaunts with the dog, and hours spent cutting invasive cedars and searching for the skeletons of remnant prairie forbs poking through the thick mat of brome. Then, I only had eyes for the few acres of soil I turned and tended.

Since the announcement of my impending return, a number of friends and acquaintances have expressed their pleasure over the fact, and have suggested that we get together when I am “settled in.” Granted, I have been on the road frequently, and back up in Minnesota almost every week (last week more than once) to retrieve my belongings and tie up loose ends. On Super Tuesday, I left in the mid-afternoon, drove the three and a half hours up to the old farm, filled the car with art and houseplants (and enjoyed a convivial glass of wine with my ex), then headed to Clinton to caucus before turning south again–arriving back where I’d started an hour before that day turned to the next.

My landing here is potentially temporary, so “settled in,” to me, is approximately where I am now. Not quite all my possessions are relocated, but the dog and cats are with me, and my houseplants sitting in front of a sunny window. My tractor and most of the garden tools still need fetching,. and I’m trying to figure the logistics of transporting the greenhouse spans. I don’t have a job yet, but I offered myself up for a few shifts at a little fair trade shop in town, after sensing from the ladies who work there the same friendly tension I felt as manager of the primarily volunteer-run co-op I left in Minnesota: How soon is too soon to pounce on a potential new volunteer?

One of the volunteers I trained before I left, who had recently moved back to the area after many years away, shared that the transition had been more difficult than she’d imagined. Sure, she knew a lot of people from her youth, and even people who, like her, had gone off to the Cities to pursue careers and then returned–to retire, to care for aging parents, to settle the farm affairs. But, weaving herself back into the fabric of life in that small rural community, where relationships and social circles and guest lists were so, well, settled in, was difficult.

She ended up finding more comfort in the new relationships she kindled than in the ones she’d counted on from the past. It turned out for her that settling in meant something very different than she’d envisioned–letting go of those who had built up a surfeit of rich relationships without her, and creating a vibrant new network of people who, like her, wanted to share ideas and experiences they’d gained while away.

Armed with that experience, and others like it (while not implying any disingenuousness on the part of friends), it occurs to me that settling in can function counter to expectations–the more “settled” a person is, the less likely they are to form or re-kindle relationships, and the more likely they¬† have established new patterns that exclude. For that reason, and my tendency toward restiveness, I am determined to avoid settling in for as long as possible.

To wit: a recently planned excursion to the New Mexico/Arizona border area to visit a few ecological restoration organizations and projects–on a route that crosses paths with the Sandhill Crane migration in progress, and near the lekking grounds of Greater Prairie Chickens. More than the grand vistas of the canyons and deserts (which are exciting in themselves), these moments of witness, and of connecting with people who are working to heal and protect the environment are what I yearn for most of all.

But, of course, I’ll be returning to my South Dakota roost from that adventure (and others, I hope)–not to settle necessarily, but to seek out new connections, new understanding, and a deeper knowledge of this place I once believed I knew so well.