Some non-scenic sights from my recent road trip to Wyoming/Montana.
This afternoon I drove up to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, located about 15 miles north of Fort Collins and about 10 miles south of the Wyoming border. The last several miles are on a very well graded dirt-and-pea-gravel road. I went to the north parking lot, where there was only one other car, and walked a short trail to a site that overlooks a former archaeological dig, now restored to prairie. This is some of what I saw. I’m still working on an identification for a couple of the plants. I’m also a bit puzzled by the rocks atop the fenceposts—are they decorative, or do they have some sort of significance I can’t read?
The sense of remoteness and the solitude were gratifying, very different from the isolation of being at home. It was a beautiful, unusually cool day for August and it was windy; my ears actually got cold. I was fine in a T-shirt but began thinking longingly of earmuffs; what a strange sight that combination would make! A hat or scarf would have done the trick. I want to return to this area soon with my Olympus and my binoculars.
This is a copy of “Night blue fly” (1982) by Chinese-American artist Walasse Ting. I’m not sure where I acquired a postcard of this work. Upon looking for online images (there are some, under copyright), I was chagrined to see that I’d been holding the card upside-down. It works in both orientations, I think.
Day 4: Lawrence to Hays.
My hair has been whipped into a Medusa-like appearance thanks to the high winds here in western-central Kansas. Tonight I’m staying in Hays, and although one thunderstorm developed behind me as I was heading west, more storms are expected. I’m used to Kansas being windy, but this is unusual, and high-wind advisories have been issued.
I left Lawrence at 8:30 a.m. and got on the tollway headed for Topeka. The land opened up to the sky and I began to feel I could breathe freely. This landscape suits me much more than the landscape along I-70 in Missouri, which feels overgrown with trees and stifling. I hightailed it to Manhattan and the Konza Prairie. For years, on trips to see my parents in Broomfield, Colo., Steve and I noted the big sign along I-70 that announces the Konza Prairie. But I didn’t know much about it until I interviewed SIU plant biologist David Gibson, some of whose research involved prairie restoration out at Konza. This is a Nature Conservancy site administered in cooperation with Kansas State University. I walked for about half an hour along the main nature trail. It wasn’t far enough to get to the true prairie section, but it was peaceful and pleasant. Thinking of nature reminds me of how loud the cicadas were in Lawrence, even in heavily commercial areas, whereas here in Hays there are some kind of screaming, squabbling birds. I’m not sure what they are; they look something like crows, but their heads are differently shaped and they splay their tails.
After that short spell at Konza, I headed for KSU’s insect zoo, which specializes in tarantulas, walking sticks, katydids, cockroaches, and scorpions (the latter I passed by; reading “The Pearl” did it for me and scorpions, which I despise). Now that I think about it, more than half of the critters residing in the insect zoo are not insects at all. They’re other types of arthropods—arachnids (tarantulas and scorpions) and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes). (In confirming this online, I discovered two odd facts: Because all centipedes have an odd number of pairs of legs, no centipede species has 100 legs. Furthermore, no known species of millipede has 1,000 legs. So neither type lives up to its name. I feel compelled also to quote this from the Wikipedia article on centipedes: Even nonvenomous centipedes are considered frightening by humans due to their dozens of legs moving at the same time and their tendency to dart swiftly out of the darkness towards one’s feet. A 19th-century Tibetan poet warned his fellow Buddhists that “if you enjoy frightening others, you will be reborn as a centipede.”)
Lunch was a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish at the Bluestem Bistro, and a couple of chocolate-covered pretzels at Cold Stone Creamery. Then I headed out of town, intending to take a secondary road all the way past Salina to Lucas. But K18 was detoured onto I-70 because of road construction, and a good thing too. If I’d taken it, I never would have gotten to Lucas in time to make a quick tour of the Grassroots Arts Center. This quirky little museum preserves and displays outsider art (the more common term than grassroots art, and a better one, I think, for these self-taught artists truly are outside the mainstream, and their art often takes the form of large outdoor assemblages).
The docent told me that the museum is in Lucas because four such artists had lived and worked there. The museum tries to track and save outsider art installations across the country; too often, upon the artist’s death, these pieces, which are typically made of unconventional materials, are discarded. Two of my favorite pieces at the museum were full-size replicas of a car and a motorcycle made of thousands of aluminum pull-tabs from soda cans. Not for nothing is the artist, Herman Divers, described as “the master of pull-tab construction.”
I took many photos here and also at the town’s Bowl Plaza, which is the entrance to their public restrooms. (“Bowl” refers to exactly what you might think.) The mosaics in the plaza are made from pieces of colored bottles, bits of old porcelain plates, and other miscellaneous objects. The restrooms themselves also have mosaics; they’re supposed to be gorgeous and are actually listed in the AAA tour guide as among the state’s attractions. That sounded laughable until I saw the beauty of the outdoor mosaics. I wonder if these are the only restrooms in the United States so honored. Unfortunately, they were closed for repairs when I was there. But I hope to return to Lucas on the way back home.
This region of Kansas is called Post Oak Country due to the use of quarried rock posts instead of wood for fenceposts. The interstate from roughly Manhattan to Wilson also is paralleled by hundreds of wind turbines. As I drove a back road up toward K18 and Lucas, these gradually petered out. In a couple of places an old-fashioned windmill to bring up water for stock tanks was juxtaposed against the landscape of turbines. The drive from Lucas back to I-70 winds through sculpted bare hills reminiscent of some of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, though in a different palette. Trees line the creeks and cluster in hollows; at Konza Prairie I learned that these are called gallery forests.
Then the road curves around the east end of Wilson Lake, which had whitecaps today from the wind. To the east the land drops off from the road into a huge valley; to the west is the lake. There are two or three parks and wildlife areas here that I’d like to check out on the way back. The light from the hazy sky—today has been very hazy, I suppose from the high winds picking up dust from the gravel roads—gleamed off the lake. (Note: The haze, which persisted to the Rockies, turned out to be pollution from the wildfires in the West Coast states.)
I stopped in Wilson, “the Czech capital of Kansas” with “the world’s largest painted Czech egg,” for supper, a piece of pecan pie. I didn’t have to go out of my way to drive by The Egg, which was propped up on a corner lot with what looked like makeshift, rusty metal braces. The world’s largest painted Czech egg should have a better setting than a weedy lot, it seems to me. Say, a corner-lot-sized park with some flower beds. That would be a big improvement.
Then it was down the road to Hays, with clouds and sun ahead of me and dark thunderclouds behind me. My legs and feet are sore from driving and walking. Road-trip fatigue has set in early, since I’m toting a ridiculous amount of stuff into the motel each night, even while leaving things in the car. That’s the biggest disadvantage of a solo road trip. Well, aside from the mixed-up jumble the suitcase becomes as dirty clothes mingle with clean clothes. And not knowing the good places to eat. And road construction. And the driving itself. But otherwise, I love road trips!
Days 2 & 3: Boonville to Lawrence.
Yesterday morning I left the Boonville Comfort Inn before 10:30, ready to face the “major delay” promised at mile marker 77. There turned out to be no delay, so I ended up parking outside the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City a little before noon. This is in the 18th & Vine district, where Charlie Parker came to prominence, so I listened to some of Parker’s music while I was driving to K.C. to put me in the right mood. (For those who haven’t seen it, “Bird,” starring Forest Whitaker as Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood, who is a jazz aficionado, is excellent; see what Roger Ebert had to say about it here). The museum was small but had lots of listening stations. I wandered around looking at the exhibits and listening to some classic jazz. The place was deserted. I would like to also have seen the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is on the other side of the same building, but my legs needed a break and my stomach needed lunch.
I decided to look for a lunch place while en route to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which had been a disappointment when David and I visited in 2012. Why the Kemper? Because the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I always seem to be going through Kansas City on Monday or Tuesday. Argghh!
On the way a no-left-turn sign diverted me from my route and I found myself in a couple of gentrifying blocks. I photographed the sign for Bellicose Church, on the assumption that it was indeed some sort of place of worship and not, say, the design studio of someone who’d given himself a peculiar name. The typography was uncommonly good for a small church, or for pretty much any church. But I thought it was funny, whatever it was. (I just now looked it up and no longer find it funny. It is a church—a “missional community”—with this action statement: “We named our church Bellicose because we don’t believe that Jesus wants his church to be passive. Therefore we’re inclined or eager to fight for people’s hearts (John 15:13), aggressively hostile to the gates of hell (Matt 16:18, Matt 11:12), and warlike against sin (1 Pet 2:11, 2 Cor 10:3-5) — we’re aggressive in our love for God and people.” Well, at least they’re honest about it. But God save me from people who are aggressive in their love for God. So is ISIS.
After photographing the church facade, I went into, and back out of, a place called the Corner Café. I am indeed a total rube when it comes to food. I’m reluctant to try anything with ingredients that I need to have defined or that seem bizarre. For instance, one salad came with espresso vinaigrette, which seemed to be overreaching for originality. Every lunch entreé involved one or more such oddities, so I after I visited the Kemper Museum I sat in my car in the parking lot eating the string cheese, carrots, and almonds I’d packed, which was much cheaper and probably more healthful.
I spent very little time at the Kemper, which was again a disappointment because the main building has only a couple of small galleries devoted to their permanent collection. However, included in those galleries was an absolutely wonderful purple painting by Helen Frankenthaler called, appropriately, “Bacchus.” It alone was worth the visit. I took some photos, none of which begin to do it justice. Then I fell for a ceramic vase in the gift shop, which is precisely what happened the first time I went to the Kemper. Don’t go in museum gift shops when you’re tired and hungry: That should be one of my mantras. There is a vacation phenomenon whereby you give yourself permission to spend money on such things even though you tell yourself not to. And here I’ve been getting rid of as much stuff as possible at home.
I decided not to take the turnpike to Lawrence, but to go the southern route, through Overland Park. Once I got off 470 and onto Kansas Route 10, it seemed like I was in Lawrence in no time. I found the main drag easily, ate cheese ravioli and spanakopita at a Greek/Italian restaurant, then hit the nature store and the toy store that I’d spotted on my first drive-through. Oddly, given that I’d just mentioned Mexican jumping beans in my recent blog post on spirit animals, the nature store had some of those little clear boxes of beans on the checkout counter–the first I’d seen in years. The sales clerk, an older woman, knew about the larva, and about why they jumped. Some of the beans were in sunlight, and they did seem to be jumping more than the ones that were in shadow. “Here,” she said, handing me a section of newspaper. “If you put that over the display, they’ll stop jumping.” I did it, and bingo, the jumping stopped immediately. That was impressive. I did it a couple more times and told her about my blog post. I bought a 50-cent plastic lizard as a mascot for the trip and also an inexpensive but lovely fossil, an orthoceras–an ancient cephalopod that navigated by squirting water out of its body. The toy store, which was jaw-droppingly extensive, made me wish I knew someone with a little kid. It would have been great fun to explore the whole place and buy tons of presents.
This morning, in my motel room in Lawrence, I decided that I needed extra sleep before going to the Spencer Museum of Art, my main reason for stopping here. I ended up sleeping all day. In the evening I called the museum, which the AAA Tour Guide said was open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and a recording announced that it was closed for renovations until sometime in 2016. So that was that.
I’d forgotten that when I sleep in the daytime, my dreams tend to be more nightmarish than usual. Now I’m feeling very bad emotionally, with my legs aching from driving, and I’m beginning to think about aborting the trip. The drive out seems overwhelming, and the drive back, impossible. Given everything I’ve learned about Fort Collins real estate in the last two weeks, it seems a fool’s errand to go out there. I’m also worried about my sister back in Carbondale, who has descended from hypomania back into depression, and I feel guilty about leaving the dogs in the kennel for so long. I’ve decided to put off the decision until tomorrow morning. I showered after getting up at 5:30 tonight, so tomorrow I can just get dressed, throw everything into the car, and take off. Whether west or homeward, I don’t know.
A few weeks ago I watched an Internet video of a sloth crossing a road with agonizing, preternatural slowness, and it suddenly hit me: The sloth is my spirit animal.
I conceived of it as a Steven-Wright–type joke:
“I found out that the sloth is my spirit animal, but I’ve been kinda slow telling people.”
This seemed hilarious to me, although only a couple of people on my Facebook page seemed to appreciate it. But the incident got me to thinking about the whole issue of spirit animals, which certainly seems to fall into the category of cultural appropriation by Caucasian New Agers of a Native American concept. But that’s a matter for anthropologists or activists.
What interests me is that only certain animals seem to be candidates for spirit animals. You never hear anyone claim the echidna as her spirit animal, for example. I can imagine the reaction these would get in a standup comedy routine:
“My spirit animal is a naked mole rat.”
“A turkey vulture.”
No, it’s always a beautiful or strong or otherwise majestic mammal or bird. Eagles. Horses. Bears. Lions. Perhaps some inventive person somewhere has tabbed the Luna moth or the chameleon, but if so, I haven’t heard about it.
And after all, what would be wrong with an amphibian or reptile, an insect or crustacean? They have admirable qualities. Couldn’t your spirit animal be a jellyfish or a brittle sea star? How about a sea cucumber? The octopus is an extremely intelligent creature for an invertebrate; I’d be honored to have an octopus as my spirit animal.
It just isn’t done.
It subsequently occurred to me that, in my case at least, one spirit animal is not enough to cover the territory. I can’t deny that I have sloth-like tendencies. But on other occasions my spirit animal seems to be the little larva inside a Mexican jumping bean that makes the jumping bean jump (a purposeful thing: it’s trying to move the bean to a cooler place; but it looks erratic). Other times, my spirit animal seems to be a termite colony. I figure it can’t be a termite, singular, because a single termite can’t really do squat; the colony acts like one huge Borg-like organism. So when I’m working hard and my brain is brimming with activity, my spirit animal is the termite colony. I seldom have days any more when I feel pretty, but if I did, on that day my spirit animal would be a leafy sea dragon.
When you think about it, all sorts of possibilities seem plausible. This could be a new party game: What spirit animal fits a given celebrity? Donald Trump’s spirit animal is the crocodile, I think, and Mike Huckabee’s appears to be some type of pit viper. The Kardashians (and I still don’t really understand who they are, nor do I wish to) collectively seem to be a horde of mosquitoes, constantly whining away on the media.
So much potential unexplored! The concept of a spirit animal, I think, has a lot of life left in it.
One of the many bits of wisdom parents perpetrate on their children is this one: “If you leave it alone, it’ll leave you alone.”
This is a blatant lie, especially where stinging insects are concerned.
It is true, of course, that you’re at much greater risk of harm if you provoke a bee or yellow-jacket or some related critter. When my sister was about three years old, she was riding her tricycle down the alley when she tipped it over directly into the path of a bee, thus simultaneously bagging two highly improbable achievements. The bee, of course, promptly stung her, but who could blame it? It was just cruising along minding its own business. A bee doesn’t expect a tricycle to suddenly come toppling into its flight path.
My sister soon got her revenge, though. One early summer evening my dad called me and my mom to the back screen-door of our house. Our tiny lawn was filled with clover, and hence with bees. My sister, who was forced to wear heavy orthopedic shoes when she was young, had discovered that she could kill the foraging bees by stomping on them. Very possibly Dad suggested the idea; if so, she carried it out effectively and ruthlessly. She was stomping with glee; Dad, delighted and impressed, was snickering with approval; and Mom and I were staring at both of them like they were crazy.
Our family had no more run-ins with stinging insects until several years later, when I was a teenager. In the early 1970s Mom and Dad bought five acres of land with an old two-room house on it. This was just outside Perryville, Mo., the town where my grandparents lived, and it was intended as a weekend retreat. The house had electricity but no running water. There was an outhouse and a cistern, a small yard with an old wire fence, a chicken shed, and an enormous dump. (The ancient farmer who’d owned the property had just chucked all of his trash, from food cans to rat poison, over the backyard fence. For years. But that has nothing to do with this story.)
The cistern, it’s important to mention, didn’t last much longer. Two miles away, blasting for Interstate 55 was taking place. As most dedicated cavers know, Perry County is basically a huge chunk of limestone riddled with caves and sinkholes. One weekend we arrived at the house to find a big, deep pit at the back corner of the house where the cistern had been. Dad didn’t bother to fill it in or cover it. I think he may have put up a token sawhorse between the side door and the cistern hole, in case someone had to get up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse.
Anyway. The house itself came equipped with virtually nothing except wasps. It had a narrow, fairy-tale–like door that gave onto steep steps that led up to a small attic. Up there lived a veritable wasp society, possibly composed of multiple colonies. But this menace could be dealt with by simply never opening that tight-fitting door. The real problem was the porch, where an especially aggressive colony of red wasps had set up housekeeping in one corner. These wasps would come after you if you so much as looked their direction, and often if you didn’t. Unfortunately, whether you were inside or outside the house, you couldn’t get to the car or the rest of the property without passing the porch.
No matter how much I pleaded, Dad wouldn’t get rid of the colony. I gave these wasps as wide a berth as possible. “If I leave them alone, they’ll leave me alone,” I would chant to myself sardonically as they made threatening forays.
One day the wasps apparently had had some sort of bitter family dispute, and they were more pissed off than usual. I was walking cautiously in the yard toward the front of the house, so far away from the porch that I was practically scraping the rusty old fence. Maybe 12 feet away. Maybe 15.
It wasn’t far enough. One of the wasps zeroed in on me at warp speed and landed in my hair, which was extremely thick and long. I started running when I saw the wasp coming, but I didn’t have a chance. When I felt it tangling in my hair I flailed around with my hand to try to get it out. Instead, I accidentally closed my fist over it. In the midst of this mayhem, I had time to be impressed by the stone-like solidity of its body. Then a needle-sharp heat shot through my palm.
Meanwhile I was still tearing around the house. As I rounded the back corner, the cistern hole suddenly loomed directly in front of me. I’d forgotten about it. Like a palsied football player, I leaped sideways with a graceless lurch and almost ricocheted off the chicken shed. Still running, I managed to fling myself through the side door of the house. Somewhere along the way the wasp had escaped to live another day. Thank god only one of them had gone on the warpath. Since, unlike my sister, I’d never been stung by so much as a honeybee, I was unprepared for the amount of pain a wasp sting can cause.
That was some 40 years ago. My wasp phobia has abated somewhat. For a time, in my mid-twenties, I lived alone and therefore had to deal with any wasp problems without help. I lived in the second story of a house—essentially a large, finished attic, which had some little doors leading to unfinished storage spaces. Wasps lived in those spaces, and periodically one would squeeze through into my territory.
A coward to the bone, I didn’t know if I was more afraid of the wasps or of the toxic bug spray I needed to kill them. So I invented a different solution. Whenever I spied a wasp, I grabbed my bottle of 409, set it to “Stream,” and hit the wasp with a jet of liquid from as far away as possible. My aim, focused by adrenaline, was pretty good. The detergent in the 409 would gunk up the wasp’s wings, disabling it just long enough for me to move in with a blunt object for a safe kill. Then it was simply a matter of wiping up the 409. (My apartment was unusually clean in certain sectors.)
Anyone who’s afraid of wasps—or bug spray—is free to use this method. You’re welcome. Use at your own risk, however. Remember, it only works on one wasp at a time. Don’t try to wipe out a nest with 409 or everyone will deem you an idiot, assuming you live to tell the tale. And if for some reason you fail at this method, or if wasps have evolved a detergent defense over the past few decades, don’t sue me.
Also, when it comes to wasps, don’t ever tell your kids that if they leave it alone, it’ll leave them alone. Tell them to leave it alone and get the hell away.