Friday, June 7 – The day dawned cool and clear. A stillness in the air hinted at hotter days to come.
With Becky still sleeping, Max and I took a stroll into the heart of Great Bend. We were in search of a playground. We’d shuffled north and east for more than a mile when we found the small playground at Park Elementary School.
Little did I know we were only a block from the southern border of sprawling Brit Spaugh Park, Zoo and Aquarium. There is a downside to uncharted travel. You can’t rely on serendipity to cover all the bases. Also, we tend to steer clear of popular tourist attractions, and that built-in bias causes leaves us prone to a certain kind of blindness.
Since the Spaugh complex indeed sounds like a civic gem, I’ll put in a plug for it, in case one of my 19 readers finds his or her way to central Kansas anytime soon.
“Dedicated to the conservation, preservation and rescue of animals,” the Spaugh Zoo features more than 100 mammals, raptors and reptiles. The best part for a parsimonious bastard like me? It’s all free.
And I’m sure they have a kaleidoscopic array of state-of-the-art playground facilities.
Oh well. Swings, slides, jungle gym: What else you need?
On our way through town, we passed through neighborhoods of varying affluence. On this block, expansive, two-story houses fronted by shaded porches. Two blocks away, listing frame houses crying for a paint job and a new roof. Somehow the whole thing held together with what appeared to be relative harmony.
In a field adjacent to Great Bend High, the morning came alive. Teenage boys, animated by dreams of athletic glory and sexual conquest, tested their mettle in spring football practice. Shrill whistles and strident voices pierced the morning calm.
Then, two blocks away, silence regained the upper hand. I pushed Max on the swings. A Hispanic girl rode up on a pink bicycle, hopped off and tossed it aside in one motion. Her shy smile did most of the talking for her.
Her name is Gabby. The two of them frolic for 15 or 20 minutes, going from swings to jungle gym to slides.
After about 20 minutes, Gabby climbed onto her bike without a word and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. When Max has had enough, we move on, walking three blocks to the downtown Dillons. We pick up a block of extra-sharp cheddar and three bolillo rolls for breakfast sandwiches.
As far as amenities go, a wide gulf separates this humble market in the heart of a gritty town and the one plunked down amid the burgeoning sprawl along West 10th Street. No bakery here, though managers have imported fresh rolls from their wealthier cousins across town. The aisles are narrower, the floors dirtier, the produce paler.
We paid for the rolls, exited the store and walked south along Main Street. Max was thirsty. Max was tired. He frequently expressed his fervent hope that the camper was just around the corner.
We crossed Main Street and entered the cool, venerable recesses of the Barton County Courthouse. Max found a water fountain, which provided him a fleeting relief.
On 12th Street we encountered the city offices. I thought of Tom Holmes, my friend in property-code enforcement. It was nearly lunchtime. I wondered if he had a lunch date with his rod and reel over at Stone Lake.
I imagined him bent over the rail of the little pier, staring down largemouth bass, bluegills and crappies with a Clint Eastwood squint. Maybe he was on the job, making sure the lawns of Great Bend are cropped at or below the standard 12 inches.
I hoped to see him again and make him stand still for a photograph. I hoped to mine him for further insight into Great Bend. Maybe another time.
Before long, we arrived at the Behemoth and collected Becky. We drove downtown and parked opposite the courthouse. We walked north along Main, taking one final opportunity to appreciate Great Bend.
The downtown boasts several evocative metal sculptures, including one of boys playing baseball with four gentleman watching from the third-base line.
We picked up a few pieces of flatware to augment our ever-disappearing collection and returned to the camper. I was plagued by a vague sense of regret as we turned right onto Main Street and began our exodus from Great Bend. In a few miles we passed through the hamlet of Hoisington, which must look on Great Bend as if some kind of colossus.
Hoisington has a story of its own, though I didn’t know it. I’ll touch on that later. U.S. 281 jogs to the west at Hoisington and runs for eight miles before it regains its northward trajectory. From there it’s 22 miles to the junction with Interstate 70 at Russell.
As usual we plod along in desultory fashion as if we fear what we might find up the road. There is little vigor or curiosity in our collective mindset.
Russell is famous for being home to Bob Dole and Arlen Spector. Philip Anschutz, too. The three of them give Russell the aura of a Fortune 500 board meeting. The less said the better on that score.
As it was, we barely touched Russell’s hem. Just southeast of the interstate, we stumbled on an obscure idyll called Fossil Lake. Max was asleep, so I parked the Behemoth on private land. Becky and I walked along the slippery beach. I wondered about the secrets the shallow lake held.
One hundred million years ago, this place was deep under water. The great Cretaceous Seaway covered the entire middle of the continent from the Rockies to the Appalachians, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.
Today, little Fossil Lake is just a reminder of the awesome sweep of time. I was fascinated by the lake’s collection of fat, indolent catfish. They did not seem as fascinated with me.
Fossil Lake is apparently a little-known jewel in the heart of Kansas’ Smoky Hills region. It is the product of the damming of Fossil Creek, a tributary of the Smoky Hill River.
Of Fossil Lake, I dare you to find something on the Internet. Good luck to you in your search. You can Google till you’re goggle-eyed. You can surf your way to a surfeit of useless information.
And still of Fossil Creek, you’ll find precious little. By little, I mean nothing whatsoever.
Well, the Fossil Lake catfish were sick of my antics. They might’ve been placid as the dead, but their indifference had limits.
Wish you could’ve seen me flinch when one bottom-feeding leviathan flapped his tail in disgust before moving away from my annoying presence.
We decided to take a ride on Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. In a shade more than 28 miles, I-70 deposited us in Hays. We needed extra batteries for the camera and so went looking for a dollar store.
First we turned north, perhaps guided by the memory of Sharon Umholtz, whom we met at the Chase County Historical Museum in Cottonwood Falls. She grew up just north of Hays.
We soon learned Hays’ northward sprawl ends just beyond the interstate. We made a U-turn and headed south. We made our way to the local Dollar General. Max, who suffers a keen vulnerability to heat, was feeling sick. Or as he puts it, he had “the hot head.”
When heat gets the upper hand on him, it’s only a matter of time. In a few minutes, he vomited in the parking lot. That always makes him feel better.
Then serendipity rose to the occasion and deposited us in an idyllic nook at the south end of town. After a series of expertly rendered blunders, we pulled into a cozy little park next to the Kansas National Guard headquarters and across the street from the Fort Hays State University athletic department and 6,000-seat Lewis Field Stadium, home of the Division II Panthers.
Becky has become adept at spotting electrical outlets. Her eyes flashed with covetous excitement.
It looked like Frontier Park at one time was an RV park. Electrical outlets and water pumps were dotted across though only in our little parking lot could you park near enough to stretch an extension cord to plug in.
There were no signs prohibiting such an arrangement. This would be our home for the weekend.
By dumb luck, we had situated ourselves within earshot of Larks Park, home to the Hays Larks of the Jayhawk League, a wood-bat summer league for college players.
Later that night, the roar of the crowd wafted in through the open windows and filled the Behemoth. The Larks had rallied with two runs in the bottom of the ninth and sent the game to extra innings.
The PA announcer told us the game was going to the 10th inning. I was seduced.
I felt a bit of that W.P. Kinsella magic. I used to be prone to flights of whimsy when it comes to baseball. What cured me? Probably too much exposure to baseball philosophers and their rhapsodies about the game’s elysian beauty and ineffable perfection. One can take only so much George Will and Bob Costas.
Still, I was intrigued. I’ve always loved extra innings. I’ll say no more about the timeless nature of baseball, or I’ll end up being a charter member of my very own Kansas baseball confederacy of dunces.
I sauntered over to the park. I arrived in time to see Desmond Roberts, who plays college ball for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, launch a fastball high into the Kansas night. I half-expected the lights to shatter.
Roberts’ drive soared over the scoreboard 310 feet away in right field, and the Larks celebrated an 8-7 victory over the El Dorado Broncos.
I found time to strike up a conversation with a local who happens to be a fellow northeasterner. Bob Duffy is his mid-40s. He came here from Connecticut 15 years ago to work as a counselor at Fort Hays State University.
He had picked tonight to attend his first Larks game.
“The price is right,” he noted with a sly smile.
Yes, it’s free. After 60 years, Hays nearly lost the Larks in 2007, but residents rallied to create a booster club and save the team. Just last fall they tore up the infield and replaced the Poligras turf. The park, it’s a beauty.
I asked Bob about his acclimation to the Great Plains. The sparseness, he said. forces you to recalibrate your idea of what a city is.
“There’s 20,000 people here and it’s the biggest city in all of northwestern Kansas,” he says. “You might’ve noticed the mall out on 183. They call it “The Mall” for a reason. It’s 90 miles east to Salina till you find another mall. Going west, you have to go to all the way to Denver. That’s 350 miles. There’s towns north and west of here where their whole phonebook is one page.”
Bob attended the ballgame with his wild-bull-in-a-tabernacle puppy, Scooter. Scooter’s part golden retriever, part lab.
Bob Duffy didn’t have much time to get used to the idea of Hays. He never thought he’d land the job in the first place, since he lacked the requisite alcohol-counseling certificate and the desired Ph.D.
But he’s grown to like Hays, though there are some things you don’t get used to.
“I haven’t got used to the smell of money,” he said. “There’s a feedlot on the south end of town. When the wind is blowing in just the right direction, well you can imagine. It’s like low tide, except that it never ends.”
I continue to be surprised by the people I stumble into on the road. They are a generous, articulate lot. I asked about the cattle industry. Bob says it’s booming.
“They raise cattle so they can grow wheat,” he said. “They’re getting $130 or more a pound. The price of wheat is the same it was in the ‘7os, except now a combine will run you $250,000.”
I said goodnight to Bob and walked back to the Behemoth.
In the morning, the sky was a veil of gray. Thunder and lightning, followed by rain. The skies cleared later in the afternoon, and I conned Max into walking over to Lark Park for the middle game of Hays’ three-game series with El Dorado, which is located 200 miles southeast of here on the outskirts of Wichita.
The Larks are managed by Frank Leo, and have been for more than three decades. The native New Yorker came west to play college baseball here and never left. Leo has fashioned something of a juggernaut on the plains. They’ve won seven of the past 12 Jayhawk League titles. Leo, who has coached the Hays High School team for longer than he’s managed the Larks, is a member of the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame.
More than a few of his players have gone on to play in the big leagues, including Albert Pujulos, Lance Berkman, Jack Wilson and Jim Leyritz.
It’s military night at Larks Park. After all the veterans in the crowd have been honored, the focus turns to the game. The infield turf shimmers. The outfield lights bathe us in a preternatural glow. My son sits next to me, face full of expectation. Beam me up, Ken Burns.
And then they start playing baseball. Max soon realizes watching a ballgame is nothing like playing a video game. Not at all. After Hays starter Jason Zgardowski breezes through top of the first, Max is ready to go. We last another inning before I agree to leave. It’s too early to force baseball down his throat.|
I take him to the camper, then wander back the park. El Dorado, stung by the late rally Friday, has nothing tonight. The Larks scratch out a run in the second, add an unearned run in the third and cruise to a 7-0. Zgardowski, a lanky right-hander from San Antonio, stifles the Broncos with seven innings of two-hit ball.
It is my good fortune Bob Duffy decided to take in his second Larks game in 15 years.
I want to know how he’s acclimated to the black beast of the plains, the tornado. They’ve been on our mind lately.
The volatile specter of the tornado had been something of a silent navigator on our journey. The two storms that brutalized Oklahoma had us nervously keeping tabs on the weather map from Louisiana to Kansas. Family and friends peppered us with worried questions about our itinerary.
Tornado fear was the reason we didn’t plunge farther south in Kansas, why we eschewed the Medicine Lodge-to-Coldwater run through the Red Hills, which had been recommended by blog superfriend Arn Lytle.
Bob Duffy has seen the results of the tornado’s peculiar black magic. His work as a counselor has provided him intimate knowledge of tornadoes. He was on the ground in the aftermath of the Hoisington storm of 2001 and the 2007 twister that leveled 95 percent of Greensburg, about 100 miles due south of Hays.
Back in 2001, Bob had a graduate student who lived in Hoisington. After the tornado struck on April 21, he went there to help. He saw blades of grass embedded into a car dashboard as if they were stainless steel steak knives hurled by circus performers.
He toured the house where his grad student lived with her husband.
One of the things he saw:
“In the garage, there was a shelf with a gourd sitting on it. Her husband said there was a circular saw blade right next to the gourd. Four hours later, we found it. It had hurtled through the air, traveled diagonally across the street, torn through a wall of a neighbor’s house and stuck in the refrigerator door.”
It could’ve been much worse.
“It touched down a mile west of town,” he said. “The first thing it took out was a tornado siren. If it hadn’t, hundreds might have been killed, because the first thing people do when they hear a tornado siren is go outside and watch. My grad student, she was at the sink washing dishes, looking west. She saw the darkness and said to her husband, ‘Go to the basement, I’ll meet you there. ‘In a couple minutes’, he said. ‘Now,’ she said.
“When they got there, the wind was so strong they had trouble closing the basement door. It took both of them to pull the basement door shut.”
He was impressed by the gallows humor victims seemed to exude in the wake of a devastating storm. He recalls signs advertising “second-floor pool” and “open floor plan.”
“My favorite was one that said, ‘We’re like a bride on her wedding night. We’re pretty damn nervous, but we’re glad to be here.'”
Again I thanked Bob for his insight and bid him goodnight. Maybe I’d see him tomorrow. Maybe I wouldn’t.
Susceptible as we are to inertia, we stuck around Hays on Sunday. We visited the aquatic park on the other side of the national guard headquarters. Max was freaked out by the water slides. He preferred to float in an inner tube down the “lazy river.”
Becky and I, we abandoned ourselves to the slides as if we were barely teenagers. We let Max float on his own while we chased our bygone childhoods.
When night rolled around, we all went to Larks Park for the series finale. Max found a gang of other kids to ingratiate himself with and thus was spared the tedium of a night of baseball. It wasn’t much of a game, though it seemed like it might be for a while.
The Larks broke open a tense game by scoring five runs in the fifth inning and completed the sweep with a 12-2 rout.
After the game, we took a walk through town. Max was exultant, saying his experience at the park was “the best boy time ever.”
We’d had a pretty nice time ourselves, though we figured it was probably time to think about leaving our little slice of heaven.