Day 3

Friday, January 14, 2011

Grey sky, though slightly warmer. When they find out we’re from Madison, everyone we meet makes a joke about how we must have come to Kansas for warm weather. It’s been the kind of cold in which it’s the first thing people talk about. It’s like we’re in the UK. We drove out of town and after about four miles the pavement suddenly stopped and turned to hardpack. Undaunted, we traveled about two more miles before suspecting we might not be on HWY56. It’s amazing how the mind can operate in complete opposition to common sense. This happens all the time (with ideological belief, for instance). At least when it’s geographical direction that is erroneous, you figure it out a little sooner.

This is where we were:

Avenue X. That had to mean something. When we discussed this trip months ago, we toyed with the idea of  not using modern maps or GPS. We wondered what would happen if we just counted on asking for directions and following the partial maps and descriptions in the guide book we checked out from the library. People, that would have been a disaster.

We cross-checked with the iPhone.

Just as we suspected. We were in the middle of nowhere. We forged ahead when suddenly, we came upon a burning cross.

Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t really a cruciform. But it gave us ideas. BA kept the car running for a quick getaway and after about twenty minutes a white pick-up pulled into the field. He informed BA that the flame was burning off the H2S gas that was being generated by area oil wells (it turns out that Kansas is a big oil state and we saw pumps everywhere). Then he said that it was a good thing that it was breezy because the gas that leaks out of the valve near the flame can melt your lungs and drop you like the proverbial canary. He told BA that if Chele fell down to not rush over because it would be too late to help (RIP) and she’d die too. All this information was delivered with friendly evenness. Totally Kansan. Then he walked over and re-explained everything to Chele and showed us the H2S gas sensor clipped to his jacket. We need one of those. For now, we vacated the premises.

Daryll was great. After we discussed deadly H2S gas, he asked where we were from and what we were doing. He gave us some clues as to where we were, and not only did he get us un-lost, he knew a site where SFT travelers camped and offered to lead us there. Obviously, he was a great candidate for the camera project and he was happy to get on board. Here’s Daryll in front of the company truck. We think he said that his company is the 2nd biggest oil producer in the state. Or was it the country. We need to fact check.

As he led us out to HWY56, we passed this:

Embarrassingly, there was an identical sign near the flame, but now it had gravitas.

Our next stop was Pawnee Rock. Kansas is so flat that even though we were in the Flint Hills this out-cropping was a major stop on the SFT. It was a welcome landmark, but also provided a lookout for hostile forces. People would carve their names and the date they passed through into the rock. Taggers of the 19th century.

We drove up the road (?!) that now paves the backside of the outcropping and read Susan McGoffin’s diary account of arriving at Pawnee Rock. The rock used to be about 40 feet taller, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was quarried for building stone. (Wha?!) They built a massive picnic shelter on top to give an idea of the original height of the rock. Here is the view from the top; it can be added to the “Endless Kansas” category:

There is a Kansas Historical roadside marker nearby that spins a tall tale about how Kit Carson (he was realated to Daniel Boone, btw) was on lookout atop Pawnee Rock and was startled in the middle of the night and shot his own mule.

We don’t know who makes this stuff up, or how it makes its way to the final edit of a historical marker, but we love it.

Here are two sides to the same sign just down the road from the historical marker:

We stopped for gas on the way to our next destination, The Santa Fe Trails Center, and decided to place a second call to the Jedediah Smith monologist that Ned had mentioned.  We had left a message the night before but were worried we might have sent freak vibes. Just then, the phone rang and it was Jedediah aka Jeff Troutman. Jeff is really involved in SFT preservation and seems to know everybody in and every inch of Kansas. He was booked so we made a plan to be in touch later. In the meantime, he gave us contact information for people re-enacting Kit Carson, Bill Cody, and a guy who focuses on the Cheyenne. He also gave us numerous sites and areas to visit and the name of a Buffalo (Bison) farmer. And he said to say ‘Hello’ to Linda and Ruth at the SFT museum. So we did. Thanks Jeff!

The Santa Fe Trails Museum

This might be our favorite museum yet. They had a creative (and sometimes quirky) style of display and a real range of artifacts in the collection. Here are a few highlights:

Did we mention earlier the stats regarding the Bison decimation? It’s strange to read about it over and over while standing in front various taxidermied Buffalos.

…or Buffalo hide coats, Buffalo blankets, or this Buffalo wheel tread (below is a mexican cart reproduction). We need to figure out a way to make these displays more animal friendly, maybe out of polarfleece or pipe-cleaners.

Here’s something we had never thought about.The wall text said that Indian head-dresses were only worn by Plains Indians

because for Woodland tribes they would have gotten caught on tree boughs. Logically, this makes sense but for some reason we are having a hard time buying it. We’re tossing a lifeline to the audience here.

In addition to the inside collection, the Museum has re-located several historic buildings (a school house, a train depot, a dugout house…) and structures to the lot.

Here’s a sod house:

and a cool windmill:

and a CME church:

The church represents another kernel of serendipity along our route. For one, Chele lives in an a former AME (African-American Methodist Episcopal) church in Madison. This church is the CME Escue chapel built in 1906 and moved and restored in 2006. CME stands for Colored Methodist Episcopal. The congregation spearheaded the preservation of the chapel and is still active (led by Pastor Anthony Hill) in Larned. We talked to Ruth and Linda about the church and its history and they told us about a town called Nicodemus, KS. Nicodemus was named for a former slave who purchased his freedom. The founders of the town formed a town company and passed out handbills in the south to encourage black Americans to relocate. Nicodemus is the oldest (and only) surviving western town established by African Americans. And who knew? the town has a Green Bay Packer connection. We mentioned that we were interested in finding more information about Hiram Young (the blacksmith) and Ruth lit up and handed us a flyer of the museum’s upcoming events. At the top of the docket for February was a first-person interpretation of Hiram Young enacted by Pastor Hill’s son Jahman. Excellent.

We purchased patches with the Santa Fe Trail logo (one more thing to check off the list) and headed south to see ruts.

A note on ruts. They are a big deal and the book we are (half-assedly) following chronicles all of them. The problem is that they are really, really (really) subtle. If you are imagining a set of wagon wheel ruts in your mind, now imagine a featureless grassy prairie or corn field. Blend the two images with an emphasis on the corn field. And now recall what it was like to believe in Santa Claus. It takes imagination, a keen eye, and patience to see ruts carved 150 years ago. On principle, though, we decided we had to make a better effort to find some. The ruts south of Fort Larned were described as ‘excellent’ so we figured that even we might be able to see them.

The forty acre site adjoins a working farm field. In this picture you can (?) see the ruts in the preserved field and where they end abruptly at the fence-line.

More obvious at this site was the prairie dog town. There were hundreds of tunnels

and a lot of poop. (this post is for Chele’s nieces and nephew)

Here’s another shot of “Endless Kansas” from the SFT rut site. The sky cleared and it has warmed up considerably.

After the Larned, KS attractions we headed for Dodge City. We passed by some super smelly feedlots. It made our eyes water and strected on for about a mile. Thousands of animals. It was surreal. There’s a Disney-esque establishment in Dodge City called Boot Hill. Basically, it’s a complex with a row of historic (looking) buildings, and a couple of original buildings (a school house and blacksmith shed). In addition to the operating saloon and general store, the other storefronts hold displays artfully contained terrarium style.

You enter Boot Hill through the gift shop (no surprise there) and buy tickets ($10). We were dubious about this place to begin with, we were a little burnt out and they were closing in less than an hour. The clerk said that we could go to the saloon and general store without a ticket. We opted for that. The general store was stocked with all kinds of things you’d need on a cross country wagon trip: scented candles, keychains with plastic buffalo fobs, Reeses Peanut Butter Cup fudge (we did stock up on that). The lady in the calico frock was really sweet and to be fair, there was a glass case with some authentic store items from the 1850′s. The saloon also had people dressed in historic costume. The piano player (please don’t shoot him a sign above the piano implored) asked if we had tickets and before we could answer the bartender asked us where we were from, made the Madison/Kansas weather joke, and then told us to have a nice time looking at the exhibits. We neither confirmed nor denied about whether we had tickets and just moved on. There is a dressmakers shop, an undertakers shop, a gambling hall, a bank…it goes on (and on). Sprinkled within the shop re-creations are bits of historical data. One example that caught our eye was the description of the brothel business.

There is some wall text next to this picture that tells of how prostitutes were euphemistically referred to as ‘soiled doves’ or ‘fallen frails’ but then states that while a few of the women entered the business because they were homeless Civil War widows or orphans, the majority were “shrewd businesswomen…pursu[ing] a sellers market.” The text states that the women were typically between 16 and 23 and that after three years or so they left prostitution to settle down to raise a family. So far, we’ve  tried to maintain a fairly open and non-judgemental attitude towards the information we’re been gathering, but this proto-feminist account of brothel life was disturbingly off the mark.

On a brighter note, if women weren’t busy developing a sex trade start-up, they might be crafting a hair wreath:

There were a few buildings in the Boot Hill complex that weren’t on the main boardwalk. Up the hill there was a jail (moved here from somewhere else) and a new building that housed information about the SFT trail, native American culture, and buffalo hunting. Of course, they had a dead bison on display to explain that they had been wiped out:

There was also an enormous bison head in the saloon. Behind this building was a cemetery. We realized that it was after five and also that there was no way out but back through the gift shop. It must have been our proximity to the jail and all the wall text about scoundrels that made us decide to scale the fence to get out of Dodge. (argggh…we know you were waiting for that. It had to be done).

While driving around looking for coffee we saw this crazy green house:

Inside they had a fine selection of boots. BA would’ve bought these if they had fit:

(the green ones of course) Besides the shelves of of colorful ostrich boots, they also had a wall of jeans (the sign said “all Wanglers $24.99″), frozen meat, ice cream, a great selection of Mexican chips and junk food. What they had the most of, however, was bongs. Hand blown glass pipes, short bongs, tall bongs, red bongs, blue bongs —hundreds of them… and some soft-core porn calendars. For some reason, we chickened out on getting a picture of it. We named the store “Wanglers, Boots n’ Bongs,” bought a self-stick Virgin of Guadeloupe for the dashboard, and continued the coffee search.

Night was falling as we left Dodge City and we returned to the Grapes of Wrath. Just as we entered Oklahoma, the Joads were driving out of it. We passed one more enormous feedlot. It was dark so we couldn’t see it but had to hold our sleeves over our noses for about five minutes as we made our way past. Somewhere along the way at around 8pm we spied a Mexican Bakery housed in a converted, retro-style corner gas station. We could see the cookies from Main Street.

BA bought a ginger pig and took this picture:

Chele bought lumpy cheese. We ate hummus (thank you basecamp:alpha) and crackers and continued to Clayton, New Mexico. Stayed at the Best Western Kokapelli Hotel. Privately owned, super clean, excellent wifi, ultra friendly people, heat, and real cotton sheets. A far cry from the previous night at the TravelLodge. Highly recommended. As we unpacked our luggage we realized that it was….warm. Hallelujah.

Final flag count:

Half-staff: 13

Full-staff: 29

Tomorrow we head to Las Vegas, New Mexico.

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