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Westward Ho: Day Ten

“East.” I’ve always thought it an uglier word than “west.” “West” has so much promise and has such a moving, refreshing, almost whooshing sound. “East” just sounds flat and whiny. Nonetheless, we have left Pike’s Peak behind us and are now in the flaaaaaaaaat landscape of Kansas, headed back east. We decided that we’d like to take something other than I-40 back home, so I-70 is our return path. There’s something a little more poetic about Kansas than about Oklahoma, although I can’t really put my finger on it or words to it. I suppose I could try. The air, today at least, cool and tempered

by a breeze that never seems to falter. The colors. The pale, whispery, light butter color of ripe grain, the lush, dark green carpet of almost-there corn and alfalfa, the soft, powdery, cocoa brown of the stubbly fields that have already born their crops and been hacked low for the next tilling….I’ve tried to photograph it millions of times, but I’ll be darned if I can’t get on the paper what I see with my eyes.

(We’ve stopped at a travel stop in Colby, Kansas, the “Oasis of the High Plains.” There are plastic palm trees in the median just to drive the point home. A stupid little yippy chihuahua is sniffing and watering the grass and alternating blinks and stares at the passers-by with his big buggy eyes. I get annoyed at dumb-looking dogs for no reason at all.)

Back on the road, the oil rigs out in the fields are pumping steadily and so mom and I have been prompted to wonder and dialogue about our government and our sad lack of self-sufficiency as a nation. The cost of gasoline on this trip is, as you may have guessed, almost as much as a plane ticket would have been. To think that we live in a time where flying over our beautiful country is more economical than driving through its middle, well….ugh. What a depressing notion. I don’t pretend to understand any of it as well as my Uncles Mike, Bob and John do, but I do understand the simple concept of being good, thoughtful stewards of what we have been given in this rich land. The oats out to the south are glowing bright yellow and waving gently in the winds that blow across the plains. The lonely power lines and the irrigation systems that disappear into the blue distance make me wonder, “who does all this work??” Sometimes it’s just too much for me to think about, kind of like heaven or the endlessness of the sky or the human eyeball; my brain shuts down after a few moments of considering. But there are little clumps of trees out in the middle of this expanse of green, yellow and blue. In the shady, silvery groves, sturdy farmhouses and outbuildings sustain busy families — the hearty people who do all of this work. This was my grandfather.

After learning more about the lives of grandpa and his siblings as young people, I now know that Philip was the son who stayed at home on the farm while his brothers went to the towns to wear suits and ties and to find work in the automotive business and eat occasional lunches at the corner cafes. He learned everything his father knew about working a farm and quite often necessity was the mother of invention, or at least the mother of going about his tasks in a more unorthodox, homespun fashion. When their family moved to the farm in Wyoming from Nebraska, when my mom was a toddler, the place had no running water or electricity. He appealed to the Rural Electricity Association and asked, if he dug the holes for a quarter mile’s worth of posts, if they would run the wires to the house. Can you imagine?? The ten-foot-deep holes for that many posts, dug without the aid of anything but manual machinery? Then he wired the house for electric and outfitted it for water which he ran from the nearby well. I know, I know, everyone did these sorts of things back then, but it doesn’t lessen my fascination with the lives my ancestors lived.

One of my favorite stories about farm life is when my mom was a little girl of eight, and had the chore of gathering the eggs. One Spring afternoon, a morning’s worth of arguing with her mother had gotten her nowhere. It was cold and muddy, and furthermore there were ornery sheep and angry chickens that surely had her in their sights. Martha was given the bowl and firmly ordered outside to garner the fruits of the hens’ labors. She was wearing one of her favorite sweaters, one of the steel blue pullover sort, and her unbuckled galoshes and started out the door. As she walked, she glanced sideways at the barn which was not far off, because she knew the temperament of the few sheep that lived there, and always made a point to steer clear of their territory. Inside the smelly henhouse, the odds were not in her favor: there were twenty of them and one of her. Each time she ventured her hand into the pens, she invariably got pecked by their sharp, greedy beaks. But after completing her duties, without too many battle wounds, and striding carefully through the muck holding a colander full of pretty brown eggs, she started back toward the house. I can only suppose that the sheep had nothing better to do than terrorize the farmer’s daughter, and so they began their stealthy trot in her direction. It remains unknown (or unremembered) whether they actually knocked her down with rough butts from their hard noses or whether she got so scared and started an unwieldy run, but whatever it was, it caused slippage and spillage. Meanwhile, grandpa was in the barn and had seen the woolly beasts lumbering toward his little girl and ran across the yard to head them off. He hollered loudly, waved his arms to call them off and kicked one of the sheep, but his leg came down and landed on the back of the bleating animal, sending him flailing to the ground and landing on his back, mud flying. Likewise, little Martha ended up, muddied and now holding mostly broken eggs, on the dirty ground of the barnyard. I have imagined this scene so many times over in my head, and every time it has caused a spontaneous chuckle. Oh that I could have known what was going through grandma’s head when the soiled pair came back toward the house. What must she have said? “Oh con-sarn-it! Ooooohhhh dear!” I have the advantage of knowing what her voice sounded like. You, dear reader, do not (unless you’re a family member, and if you are, you know what I’m talking about).

We are almost to Salina, Kansas. The shadows in the fields are growing longer and darker, although the sun still has a-ways to go before she settles in for good. We’ll be tucking in at Lawrence for the night, just east of Kansas City, and then will complete the trek tomorrow. Mom has done all of the driving today so that I could write, so I’ll have my fair share of road awaiting me in the morning. I suppose we’ll be making some eggs on the propane grill for dinner. It’s all we’ve got left in the cooler and also, eggs are really never a bad idea. Especially when there are English muffins, tomatoes, green chiles and cold beer to accompany. We just drove past a semi truckload of pigs. On their way to market, maybe? Poor things. Hmmm, maybe we should also have some sausage with our eggs…..


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