Out in western Kansas, tumbleweeds seem to outnumber gas stations by a million to one.
I was in tumbleweed country, with a quarter-tank of gas and who-knew-how-many-miles to go before I could sleep in something other than my car. When I saw the metal building with its gravel parking lot and a pair of pickups out front, it might as well have had a sign nailed up saying, “Tourist Information”.
I pulled in, walked over to the open doors and saw two fellows welding pipe. The one facing the door saw me, pushed up his helmet and walked over, smiling as though he’d been expecting me all day.
“What can I help you with?” he said. I explained my concern about seeing no gas stations, and asked where the closest one might be. “Well,” he said. “You’re about a tenth of a mile from it. You see those Co-op grain elevators across the way?” I did. “They’ve got gas pumps over there, too. Drive over and stick your head in the office and they’ll give you the go-ahead. Around here, we get our gas at the Co-ops. If you see an elevator, you probably can get gas.”
When I pulled up to the pumps, I still couldn’t find the credit card reader, so a trucker getting diesel across from me explained what no one else had thought to mention. Just one card reader served all six pumps, and it was hidden away at the end of the island. As I keyed in my pump number, I noticed him grinning. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’re gonna have to revise that old song.”
I must have seemed confused, so he added, “Looks to me like it ought to be ‘T for Texas, T for tumbleweeds‘“. Following his gaze, I turned to look at my car and started laughing myself. “You saw that, huh?” “Couldn’t help it,” he said. “Don’t often see someone driving around with a tumbleweed in their back seat. Where’d you pick it up?”
In fact, I’d chased it down not far from Dodge City. I’d stopped to take a look at the ruts and swales left from the Santa Fe Trail when the strong Kansas wind sent an entire army of tumbleweeds marching toward me from the horizon. The one I eventually snagged was noticeably lighter in color than the others and easy to pick out in a crowd. I made a dive for it as it whipped past, but missed. Then, it got caught on a fence and it was mine.
In some ways the movement of tumbleweeds is like a great, botanical migration. Several species of plants cut themselves loose from their roots and head out into the world as “tumbleweeds”, but in Kansas it’s the Russian Thistle that most commonly rolls across the plains.
Their ability to fascinate is undeniable. Thirty years ago, I dragged one home from Nevada and kept it in a pot until it dissolved into a pile of dust. If I’d known, I could have purchased a replacement from Linda Katz of Garden City, Kansas, who’s made quite a business for herself selling them by mail order. Even NASA has gotten tumbleweed fever and is exploring possibilities for using the lowly plant as a design model for their new Mars Rover.
Still, one of best uses for the scorned and lowly tumbleweed is as metaphor and model for travel. There’s a time for planning, but drifting along, pushed hither and yon by winds of curiosity, has a lot to commend it.
Through years of visiting family in Kansas City, my route rarely varied. I’d pick up the Indian Nation Turnpike in Oklahoma, make a beeline for McAlester and Joplin, then scurry north. This time, I turned east at McAlester, hoping to see autumn color in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas before visiting the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville.
Just before crossing into Arkansas, I found this cemetery gate in Muse, Oklahoma. I’ve joked occasionally about my Muse heading off to Poughkeepsie for vacation, but it never had occurred to me that Muses, too, might have a natural life-span. This could explain a lot.
On the other hand, Muses seem alive and well at the Crystal Bridges Museum. My visit there was so enjoyable I would have spent another day had I not been expected in Kansas City. The setting, the architecture and the collection are noteworthy, and a return trip in spring to see the extensive wildflower plantings isn’t out of the question.
An exhibit opening November 9, “The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe & the Alfred Stieglitz Collection”, unfortunately ends in February, but the permanent collection is well worth another visit. I’ll say more about the museum in a separate post.
After my stay in Kansas City, I began traveling west. This large mural near the courthouse square in Harrisonville, Missouri portrays a Civil War raid by Jennison’s Jayhawkers, the Seventh Kansas Cavalry. Already known as the “Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawkers” before Charles “Doc” Jennison took command, the group was considered heros by some, looters and thieves by others. As so often happens, both views appear to hold some truth. You can find an excellent short article about them here.
Speaking of conflict, an unusual plaque tucked into a corner of the Courthouse in Harrisonville led to this, from the September 1, 1887 New York Times.
“…Some fourteen years ago [R.S. Stevens] was mixed up in a complicated railroad bond transaction in Cass County, Mo. According to our recollection, there was a fraudulent issue of one hundred and sixty-two county bonds of the denomination of $1,000 each, and through a certain land grant railway trust company, of which R.S. Stevens was agent, the citizens of Cass County were saddled with a debt of $229,000, for which the county never received a dollar of consideration.
There was something of a disturbance over this affair, as we remember it, and we believe that Judge Jehiel C. Stevenson, Mr. J.R. Cline, and Mr. Thomas E. Dutro were subsequently shot to death at Gun City by citizens of Cass County during the adjustment of the difficulties growing out of the issue of fraudulent bonds…”
There’s nothing peculiar about conflict over taxes and bonds, but when I asked two ladies at the Peculiar, Missouri post office how the town got its name, only one knew the story.
The town first petitioned the U.S. Postmaster for the name Eureka Springs, but it had been taken. They tried again, hoping for Eureka, but that name had been used. In a fit of pique, they told the Postmaster to “pick just any peculiar name” -and so he did. Their town motto is “Peculiar, Missouri – Where The Odds Are With You”.
About an hour down the road, I crossed into Kansas and caught a first glimpse of glorious fall color. As it turned out, the trees were planted around the Louisburg Cider Mill, whose apples mimicked their colors.
After watching the cider-making process and talking to the ladies responsible for turning out the store’s apple cider doughnuts, I bought a half-gallon of cider, a half-dozen doughnuts, and headed off to the prairies.
The Tallgrass Express String Band sings of a “clean curve of hill against sky” – one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of the almost indescribable prairie landscape.
Even outside the various preserves that dot the Flint Hills, the land has a pristine feel. It took days for me to realize one of its greatest “lacks” also is a great virtue. There are no billboards. There’s almost nothing to catch the eye until you reach the horizon – or an especially nice gate, like this one at the Division Ranch.
Chase County, the subject of William Least Heat-Moon’s extraordinary “PrairyErth”, has as one of its social and cultural centers the Emma Chase Café and Music Hall in Cottonwood Falls. Not only is the rhubarb pie delicious, it’s one of the best places in the Flint Hills to find entertainment or information.
Just down the road from the Emma Chase, I found Matfield Station, my home-away-from-home. Utterly engaging, it was the perfect place for train-spotting and served equally well as a jumping-off point for visits to Konza Prairie, Teter Rock, the Tallgrass Prairie and the tiny towns scattered through the hills. Softened by morning fog, the view from the deck was beautiful.
Only a few miles away was open range. With no fences, there was no reason not to stop and have a walk straight into pastures alive with meadow larks and grasshoppers. The cattle guards were a good indication that cattle were around somewhere, but it’s a big land out there, and all I found was a delightful en plein air painter transferring the magic of the land to his canvas.
As it turned out, he’d been to Houston’s Bayou City Art Festival last year, and was hoping to return. We bumped into each other three times, in three different locations, which amused both of us greatly.
Both the Konza and the Tallgrass Prairies were remarkable. I was especially taken with the bottomland section of the Tallgrass Prairie, with its mix of grasses, trees and flowing water. Piece by piece, the land along Fox Creek is being restored with native plantings, though it’s filled with beautiful sights even now.
There’s life beyond prairies, of course, and for me that meant picking up the Santa Fe Trail, following more gravel and dirt roads than I have in the past quarter-century. TheTrail is far too long and complex to follow in one trip – unless you have a year or two – so I chose the section from Council Grove, Kansas through the Cimarron Grasslands.
Along the way, I learned that not all explorers memorialized in Kansas are from the 1800s. I wonder what Dr. Tombaugh would think if he knew that “his” planet has been kicked off the team?
Many important Santa Fe Trail sites are located within the Cimarron Grasslands, and long sections of wagon tracks are visible. The land here is starker and more difficult. Lush, rolling prairies give way to rocky outcroppings, prickly pear, yucca and sagebrush. Pronghorn antelope appeared from time to time, at the eastern fringes of their range.
When I reached the “Eight Mile Corner” windmill marking the point where Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado intersect, I turned south, and headed for Texas.
Texas itself is a big state, and I’d never traveled the Panhandle north to south. While I missed Palo Duro Canyon on this trip, Highway 70 from Clarendon south provides equally spectacular views, particularly if you’re willing to get out of the car and do a little climbing. One of the formations reminded me of Shiprock, in New Mexico.
Once through the canyons and back up on the flatlands, cottonfields appeared. The harvest just had begun, and many fields still were drying.
In the midst of all that cotton and rangeland, I found an unexpected treat. I had no idea I’d be driving through Turkey, Texas, or that Bob’s old bus would be parked on the main drag. I pulled out my Asleep at the Wheel tunes in his honor, rolled down the windows and cranked up the volume – just for fun.
It was at that point that the emotional turn toward home was complete. I was ready for the comfortable and the familiar, and for time to begin absorbing all the experiences of an extended trip.
Today, my tumbleweed is at rest, no longer pinned against barbed wire but tucked into the comfort of a living room chair. As it watches, I sort other souvenirs – a clutch of books and trail maps, some postcards, a museum guide, a photograph from the gallery at Pioneer Bluffs.
Each of these tokens will continue to delight, as will those which lived as parts of the natural world I explored. A perfect shell from the cicada Tibicen dorsata evokes Matfield Station. The seedcase of a prairie primrose once rolled across the Konza Prairie. Buffalo gourds encrusted with dirt from the Cimarron Grasslands, bur oak acorns from Council Grove and black walnuts plucked from the Cottonwood River bottoms are fragrant with autumn’s sweet decay.
A cotton boll, a handful of carded and combed buffalo fur, a six-foot exemplar of Big Bluestem – all set my mind to tumbling before the stirring winds of curiosity, interest, memory and imagination. Like my tumbleweed, I’ll be setting off now on new travels and a different journey – a journey toward deepened understanding of the wonders that I’ve seen.