Tuesday, June 22, 2004

SEPTEMBER 14, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meridians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the ninth part of my report of the trip; it recounts part of the second and final day of the drive.

More working windmills watering herds of cattle. Here the cattle are kept off the road by "cattle guards" - devices at the fence-line that lay in a hollow of the driveway, fashioned of round steel tubes cattle won't step on. These are better than a gate. Cattle will push through a gate, you have to stop and open and close a gate. You can drive your pick-up over the cattle guard, yet the cattle won't cross it. The cattle guard, perhaps, is a somewhat western notion; I'm not sure my German-Iowa ancestors would approve of such a solution, however obvious. It is somehow not righteous.

At a stand of trees, an empty corral and a chute for loading cattle. All of a sudden, sand hills ahead of me! Trees start to fall away behind me, openness rolls ahead, now I'll see the world according to the wind's definition of it.

Beyond Holt Creek, trees, the Buss farmstead. I climb the first of the sand hills. A mailbox along the road for the Smiths: half a mile to the east, their tin roof shines.

Range-land and cups of open sand. A few cottonwoods along the water's low course.

When I top another hill, I find a wealth of trees standing to the south. Another congregation of meadowlarks along the Sunday morning road. In spite of the trees, this looks like ranch country.

I meet a woman driving a van that looks as if it should belong to a plumber. How can you make harsh judgments out here? Life itself is a hard judgment. Behind her, a woman in a pick-up pulls a stock trailer. This is Sunday morning.

A dead coon in the middle of the road. Horse at a bale of green hay.

I crossed Dry Creek a ways back, I cross it again; this time there is water in the creek bed.

Wolcott Ranch four miles to the west. The road beneath me changes from a gritty surface to a smooth one. The South Fork of the Elkhorn River goes under the road in a culvert.

The purple flowers along the road - alfalfa plants in bloom.

The South Fork of the Elkhorn River goes under the road again, a culvert again. Then again for a third time. It is trying to find its way. We are trying to find our way.

Open sand along a fence line.

Sign: "Swan Lake -->." Around a curve, the blue explosion of it. Two farmsteads have a view of its loveliness. White buildings shine in the morning light.

A collection of blackbirds, too many for pie.

A power substation. A stand of trees, a real grove, with evergreens. Yet if they didn't have the cottonwood, what would they have? The cottonwood finds water, pins the land in place, talks all night.

A windbreak of evergreens runs for a mile along the right side of the road. They are back from the road. Are they here to act as snow fence? Where this line of trees ends, a fellow stands guard, in camouflage, with a gun. He is looking off to the southwest. The gun looks like a shot-gun. (Yeah, sure, Tom, you can tell that from three hundred and fifty yards away! Can you tell what make it is, too? And what gauge?)

Sign: "Entering Garfield County."

A grove of trees. A ranch house. Junk cars. A farm implement dealer. A "Bible Church." Mike Sitz Angus Ranch.

A white pick-up passes me at a stately pace. It is moving faster than I am, yet it doesn't seem to be in a hurry. This moment shall never pass this way again.

More open sand, on a hillside at the corner of a fence where cattle have tampled away the grass.

Is there anything I won't try to understand, won't try to explain?

These sandhills aren't middle western. They are over the line, no matter where the Hundredth Meridian falls.

Hardly enough left to that abandoned farm house for me to mention. Imagine building that house in this stand of trees in these hills and expecting to farm. Who settled these hills? How desperate were they? Did they know enough of ranching?

My gas gauge is sinking towards Empty. I need Burwell to come sliding into view fairly soon. It's a long walk to anywhere from here.

Sign: "Nebraska Highway 11," just in case we've forgotten where we are out here. There aren't many choices - what else would it be?

Suddenly: soybeans, a field of corn, alfalfa.

A desolate house and barns, a defeated trailer house set in amongst some trees: maybe it's lived in, maybe it's not.

Burwell Feeders. It's a big cattle operation at a curve in the road. The feedlot looks to be a mile deep.

Big Legion Hill - I suppose it's high enough that you can see hope from there.

Down in the valley, a thickness of trees. Jensen Feeds. Burwell comes into sight just as my gas gauge indicates I have one gallon left. I've come down out of the sand hills to greenness.



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Here is a strange one," Ivan writes. "Last Monday I was talking to a guy and he said 'As near as I can tell' etc. Later on the same day I was talking to another guy and he said 'As far as I can tell.' And they both mean the same thing. So if it is near or far, it's just a guess."

"Claude Gripp sat down and made the flat out statement, 'I'm gonna vote for a Democrat.'" Ivan says. "When I heard that my heart stopped momentarily. Then it started racing and pounding until I could feel the pounding in my ears. I adjusted my hearing and said 'what did you say?' He repeated, 'I'm gonna vote for a Democrat.' He said 'I'm votin' for Janis Lee.' That makes two of us. We could use a few more."

"Mike Hughes says he thinks he is losing weight," Ivan says, "then he looks behind him and there it is."

"Dennis Ratliff offers this bit of advice," Ivan says. "Dennis says 'don't volunteer to help a doctor or a lawyer move - they got too many heavy books.' Dennis helped his daughter and her veterinarian husband move to Andale, Kansas."

"Oh," says Ivan, "about those pillars that flank the front door or the Smith County State Bank building - would you say they were Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian? I'm leaning toward Ionic myself."

"When it comes to work, let me tell you, Ken Poyser is a good un. Ken not only knows how to work but he can see things that need to be done. That is a pretty rare combination in this day and age. I don't know if I would draft him number one on my golf team, but he sure would be my first round choice on my work team."

"George Herdt, who moved up here from Trego County, says he is getting kind of confused," according to Ivan. "He says he hears the weather forecast and northwest Kansas is supposed to get rain - and we never do. Then he says he hears the weather forecast for northcentral Kansas and northcentral Kansas is supposed to get rain - and we never do. George is kinda wondering just where Smith County is located."


JUNE 18, 1998

Only one peony bloom left along the garage - the rest are broken and brown. The peony season is over for us.

It is a cool, blue morning, but will be hot again as yesterday was. Perhaps some haze of humidity in the air.

Tomorrow morning we will be on our way to Missoula, Montana, across a landscape far different this one - no trees - into a landscape even more different - mountains. The beauty of home is that you get to go away. The beauty of going away is that you get to come home.

The winter rye looks like it is thinking about turning color - it is no longer green exactly.

Two power poles along Highway E have been split and broken. The cross bars are dangling. A power company truck is there, with a man investigating. What happened? Lightning? It doesn't look like a lightning strike but I can't imaging what else could tear the cross bars loose. Wind? A storm rolled through last night, but didn't seem that windy. There are puddles of rain still at the south edge of Ripon and in town there are branches down. Still garbage cans sit in place and haven't been blown around.

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