The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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How To Bribe A Bison

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Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.

Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.

Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction. Continue reading

Life’s Little Vacancies

Wichita, Kansas

Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.

By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.
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Reconsidering The Lilies

Egg dyeing; a surfeit of candy; patent leather shoes; fancy dresses in pastel colors; white gloves, and hats decorated with straw flowers: such were the traditions of Easter during my childhood, and I loved them all.

Only one aspect of our celebrations held no appeal: the appearance of the ubiquitous Easter lily. Its image adorned greeting cards, church bulletins, and the Easter Seals we affixed to letters and bill payments, while live plants filled store aisles, appeared at the front door in the hands of well-meaning neighbors, and nearly outnumbered worshippers on Easter Sunday.

Everyone said they were beautiful. It’s true that they were pretty enough, but what others called their fragrance, I thought of as their odor. In my twelve-year-old opinion, eau de skunk would have been preferable.
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Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Roseate spoonbill at Olney Pond
(click for greater clarity)

The morning seemed unusually quiet. At the edge of Olney Pond, a single spoonbill stirred the water, swinging its bill with a pendulum-like rhythm: shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish. Glossy ibis, long-billed and svelte, picked over their sandbar like latecomers to brunch. Only the stilts, hidden among the rushes and reeds, shredded the silence with their sharp, clean yips of warning and complaint.

In the rising heat, clouds bubbled and built before bending to the will of the winds. Distracted by their shifting shapes, I barely noted the soft, muted sound behind me. Then, I heard it again: the sound of a pillowcase being snapped and shaken out before being pinned to a clothesline.

While considering the possibilities — Alligator? Hunter? Frogs? — I heard the sound again: closer this time, and more resonant. Suddenly, with a fluttering of wings and loud, croaking cries, a great egret dressed in breeding plumage landed at the edge of the pond.
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A Grace Period

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Had T.S. Eliot lived in coastal Texas, he might have chosen August rather than April to be his cruelest month: bringing, as August does, a wasteland of over-heated concrete, limp vegetation, and silent birds.

Picking lethargically at their food, the birds show little more interest in the world around them than their increasingly silent, sighing human companions. Caught between memories of the delicate, blooming spring and desire for October’s cooling winds, spirits grow dull, insensate: failing to revive even when washed by overheated rain. Continue reading