June 6, Great Bend, Kansas – In an effort to combat the gnawing ennui which puts me on course for despair, I set out for a stroll amid the commercial sprawl that dominates the western stretches of 10th Street, aka U.S. 56.
When trouble get the upper hand in the mind, a walk never hurts. Joe Mitchell knew this. Thoreau knew this. Of course, even the most liberating saunter into beyond the spreading bounds of civilization won’t turn you into a Thoreau, sure as mainlining heroin won’t make you Charlie Parker.
Here is the legendary flatness of the Great Plains. Normally, peculiar landscapes, much like the people who inhabit them, defy stereotypes. The sameness stretches westward until the head swims and the eyes beg for perspective. The sun is high and hot. It too pokes in westerly yearning, in search of a good horizon to set upon. Here in Great Bend, where the humble Arkansas River makes a sweeping turn from northeast to southeast. Here in the heartland, they call it the “Ar-Kansas” River. Well, we are Kansas.
Poor Thoreau, he’d find no hills nor fields to saunter over here, no woods to amble through. Civilization holds sway hereabouts, at least for now. Signs therein: KFC, 10-piece mixed bucket only $14.99. The Best Western, Perkins, Dollar Tree. It’s less than a mile to Dillons supermarket, the terminus of this walk.
Sometimes I find comfort in the neon welter of the corporate bosom.
I bring to checkout: $1 white tortilla chips, $1.89 jar of medium salsa and three-quarters pound of broccoli crowns (75 cents). Here is evidence of civilization’s victory, however temporary: I discover we have a Dillons supersaver card, or at least an obsolete phone number that will earn us the desired savings.
Dillons, launched by Jonathan S. Dillon in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1913, is a division of Kroger’s (1883, Cincinnati). Kroger’s also owns Fred Meyer (Portland, Ore., 1922).
My old Fred Meyer card, or the phone number I attached to it sometime in the last century in East Bremerton at the intersection of Riddell Road and Wheaton Way, is good here. That’s 1,780 miles and 18 years ago.
To the bathroom to shave. I ponder the ceaseless wonder of global capitalism as I carve up my face with a dollar-store razor.
The return trip. I cross McKinley, the sun at my back, as is Pizza Hut. I pass Burger King ($4.99 weekday specials) and Sonic (America’s Drive-in). I stumble on. I think about straightening my posture, but know I am listing to the east. Sometimes it seems I’m on the wrong evolutionary course.
I look down at my hands. They are streaked with blood which still trickles from the razor cut on my face.
I cross Grant, pass Wendy’s (Tuscan Chicken on a Ciabatta Bun, $6.99). Taco Bell, under construction, is decked out in Pink-Panther Tyvek. Seems like Taco Bell chose well its location. Here on the 3400 block of 10th Avenue, you’re snug in the orbit of Walmart. The Dollar Tree, where I got the razors, lies on the north side of 10th.
Next up is Arby’s, which pimps its FreshM arket (sic) chicken pecan salad.
We’ve been in Great Bend more than 24 hours, trying to take the measure of the Kansas prairie. We found a gravel lot adjacent to the Best Western, Perkins et. al. Truck parking, the sign says. Becky noticed the electrical hookup. We’re plugged in, wondering if someone will present us a bill.
It’s Thursday. Yesterday we took a pass at Kansas’ fabled Flint Hills, guided thereabouts by my friend and former colleague Arn Lytle. Kansas is much like Arn. We butted heads early in my tenure at that newspaper in Tacoma. I figured him to be narrow-minded and pedantic. He wielded the Associated Press stylebook like old John Brown wielded a Beecher’s Bible.
I figured Kansas to be the same.
Takes time to get to know a place, the road insistently chides. Same goes for a person.
Sweetheart that he is, Arn gave me a detailed list of suggestions for our Kansas sojourn. I ignored most of them, though not with intent. I love and respect him too much to do him that way.
We stayed at a rest area off I-335 near Emporia on Tuesday night, after a desultory first day in Kansas. We had left Kansas City late in the night on Monday after parting ways with our friends earlier in the day. We found our way to Lawrence.
Sadly, we saw nothing of Lawrence save Walmart and McDonald’s. Mea culpa.
In our temporary home off 335, we watched “Splendor in the Grass,” the 1961 Elia Kazan film about repressed sexual desires, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. I didn’t know it was set in Kansas, written by Kansas native William Inge. Fortuna, again. I was fascinated by scenes featuring striking waterfalls.
Didn’t look like any Kansas I’d ever imagined. Alas, “Splendor” was shot in upper New York state. I did some further research and compiled a list of potentially enchanting Kansasa cataracts to visit.
I did a lousy job. That’s how we ended up at Chase State Fishing Lake outside the city of Cottonwood Falls (which sounds hopeful enough). We didn’t find a waterfall, but we did see some turtles, including this fellow, who is the official state reptile:
After saying goodbye to the ornate box turtle, we faced a decision: Continue west on Lake Road or retreat the three miles to Cottonwood Falls. We chose the latter.
It takes a good bit of mucking about and getting lost to even find Cottonwood Falls. It’s a mile off U.S. 50, the old east-west highway that slices through the Kansas prairie on its way from Ocean City, Md., to San Francisco. You have to decide to turn left at Strong City to even have a chance to fall into Cottonwood Falls.
Serendipity. Good or bad. It’s what brought Knute Rockne here.
I was surprised to discover that people come here other than by accident. The tour bus pulled up alongside the French Renaissance courthouse. The oldest operating courthouse in the state, it looks over the downtown area from its commanding position at the north end of town. It is the town’s lone tourist attraction.
We made an end run around the courthouse and drove through the residential area of town before coming back and I parked along Friend Street and left Becky and Max behind to see if the museum was open.
Serendipity was about to punch me in the gut. I walked through the door and ran headlong in William Least Heat-Moon. Everywhere I go, Least Heat-Moon is there to mock me. He shakes his head sadly, only with a hint of condescension. Perhaps I imagined it. He refrains from outright dismissal. Doesn’t matter. It’s written in his eyes.
What I should’ve known, but didn’t know: Cottonwood Falls is ground zero for Bill Trogdon, aka William Least Heat-Moon. He is the master of the literary travelogue. Always. Forget Steinbeck. Forget Pyle. Forget them all.
I’d forgotten all about PrairyErth. But here it was, staring me in the face. The laughter of the gods howled in the bowels of my brain. Goddammit. A decade after writing the peerless “Blue Highways,” Heat-Moon returned with a deep meditation on the Flint Hills, aka the Bluestem Prairie. His boots are here, hanging on the wall alongside his walking stick. There’s the $1,000 check he made out to the Chase County Historical Society.
It recalls the day I wandered about New Mexico searching for a connection to an Ernie Pyle story about Pablo Abeyta, who once had the ear of Teddy Roosevelt. I talked to several people, including Abeyta’s 75-year-old grandson, also named Pablo. He directed me to a professor at a local branch of the University of New Mexico. I followed the trail to its end, where I found the kindly professor, Richard Melzer.
It would’ve been fine, had I not told him I was working on a book project about Ernie Pyle. He smiled thinly, reached into his desk and pulled out a copy of his book: “Ernie Pyle and the American Southwest.”
At least Least Heat-Moon was not standing before me in the flesh. Sharon Umholtz was. And she’s too nice to say anything derogatory.
I didn’t know what to say. I humbly admitted to working on a book project. I smiled wanly and said something about being foiled once more by Least Heat-Moon. She was nice. She’d even met him at Emma Chase’s a few years back.
“I wandered in to get a cup of coffee before work and sat down, I come to find out it was Least Heat-Moon. He asked me where I lived, and when I told him, he said, ‘I know exactly where that is. I think I was in your barn.’
She grew up outside of Hays, off U.S. 183, 190 miles west and north of here. She says Hays was once seven miles to the south, but expansion and sprawl have since brought it three miles clsoer.
Sharon came here in the 1980s with her first husband. They bought an old farmhouse and a slice of historical cachet. On March 31, 1931, a Fokker F-10 Trimotor en route from Kansas City crashed in the pasture that would one day be theirs. It’s not any longer, it’s been broken up and sold off into parcels.
Knute Rockne, who at 43 had long since established his legend, met his end in that pasture. There is a memorial at the crash site, established by Easter Heathman, who as a boy was the first on the scene. Notre Dame zealots and other curiosity seekers still come to pay their respects and commune with his legend.
“One day we heard some rustling outside,” Sharon said. “My husband went to check and he saw this woman come through the fence. She said she was here to see the memorial. He said, ‘it’s a 2,000-acre pasture. You’ll never find it, and you might get lost trying.’ It’s unbelievable. They still come. I remember a woman came with two toddlers, one barely walking. Her car was stuffed. She was making her older boy a Notre Dame room.”
Sharon said she loves to talk. I said that makes us complementary people.
Still, I have no business in Chase County. Knowing when I’ve been whipped, I decided to escape the Bluestem Prairie. That I might add anything to the master’s “deep map” of the Flint Hills strikes me as a ludicrous flight of fancy.
We tacked west and south. I drifted to sleep. Becky guided us through Hutchinson and pulled over for gas in Safford. We considered staying there, but pushed on, turning north on U.S. 281 toward Great Bend.
In less than an hour, we were safely behind Least Heat-Moon’s gaze. In my haste for breathing room, we bypassed the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and another junior ranger opportunity. In my defense, it was late, too late to tour the visitors center. Here more than 10,000 acres of tallgrass prairie have been preserved.
We’re holed up with a handful of truckers in a gravel lot across the street from the Best Western. There’s electricity here, and someone must be paying the bill. We’re not.
Today we spent a few hours at Stone Lake park. Becky made scrambled-egg sandwiches that couldn’t be beat. Max wandered off down to the pier to trade bon mots with a fisherman who had driven in a few minutes ago. His name is Tom Holmes, and he’s a property code enforcer for the city of Great Bend.
Walking along the Arkansas River, it’s hard to believe this river has the wherewithal to rise above its narrow banks and wreak havoc on little Great Bend. Tom Holmes assured me it does.
Back in 1981, nearly 32 years ago, it rained for 12 hours, nearly 20 inches. On the northwestern edges of town, the Dry Walnut Creek surged over its banks with a vengeance. Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from Great Bend by boat, truck and helicopter. Most of Great Bend was still under four feet of water two days later. Damage estimates ranged to $42 million.
I asked Tom how he fared. He brought his hand up to his chest.|
“It was up to my front door, but it didn’t get in the house,” he said. “I had a woodstove in the crawlspace. It destroyed that. It caused a lot of problems, especially in the northwest part of town. The entire town of Great Bend lies in a depression. We’re prone to flooding.
“And they developed in the floodplain. It’s a pretty area, but they lived to regret that.”
We have curiously short memories, especially when it comes to developing, buying, selling and keeping up with Joneses.
I thanked Tom for putting up with Max’s curious presence in the middle of his lunch-break quest for solace. He waved a hand, said not to worry.
“He reminds me of a couple of my grandkids.”
Wandered back to the Behemoth. I’d had my eye on an older guy who’d been fishing the lake’s eastern end since we arrived. He must have some stories. But I battle the inclination not to bother people.
I could see he would get away. Until he packed up and headed over the gravel lot. I gave him a smile as he approached. He slowed to a stop.
So we met John Negrete. He tells me he’ll be 80 on St. John’s Day. I don’t know about St. John’s Day. June 24, he informs me.
I ask about the fishing.
“My first three casts, I caught three bass,” he said. “I threw them back in. I’ll catch them again later.”
He lives in Lewis. To get there, you have to drive 28 miles back to 50 on 281, then another 28 miles west. I ask why he comes here.
“I’ve seen nearly everything,” he said. “When my kids were young, we used to hit the road every weekend. My wife was from Colorado, so we had a built-in excuse to go there. We made a pact. One weekend she would decide where we went, the next weekend I would. We lived by that rule.
“If I went tomorrow, I’d have no regrets. I’ve seen my highs and lows, but I’ve had enough highs to compensate for the lows.”
A daughter, his oldest, died recently. His wife died 13 years ago. He comes here often. He drives his son up here on Thursdays, he’s pursuing a Master’s degree.
John Negrete has worked in Lewis’ hydraulic cylinder plant for 56 years. He still reports for work 30 hours a week.
His father worked on the Atchison,Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
“He helped lay the track from Lewis to Boys City, Oklahoma,” he said. “Then they needed to maintain the track, so he stayed on. He worked on the railroad for 50 years. Maybe that’s where I got it from.
“I still got my sanity,” he said. “My kids might disagree.”
I said goodbye to John Negrete. We set out on a walkabout around the lake in search of the river levee. We circled to the west and south of the lake. Empty pints of liquor and tins of tobacco were discarded in the grass.
Everywhere you gaze, you see evidence of man’s effort to eke out a living. And evidence of the struggle and the failure.
Sand quarry. Grain elevator. Freight railroad.
Down by the river, campsites for the homeless replete with misery.
Nobody here during the day, but they’ll be back. People on the underside of the steamroller global economy, finding meager refuge from the often vicious vicissitudes of life. A shopping cart abandoned in the tall grass along the shallow, murky river.
We came up away from the river and rejoined the levee trail, which is paved for six miles. The river is shielded by trees. There is a curious tradition, anglers gutting fish and hanging carcasses on fence posts. I came back the next day to ask if this has some sort of import, some sign to wayfarers to be wary on this turf.
Apparently it is much ado about nothing.
That’s all, save for a few more shots from our nature walk: