The Big Trip: Konza Prairie, walkingsticks, and a whole lotta weird art ~

Konza Prairie

Konza Prairie

Grasses closeup, Konza Prairie

Giant Sonoran Centipede

Giant Sonoran Centipede

Giant Wingless Walkingsticks. There are at least seven walkingsticks in this photo.

Giant Wingless Walkingsticks. There are at least seven walkingsticks in this photo.

Giant Wingless Walkingsticks. Although this photo is mostly out of focus, I'm including it to show how much the insect can bend its body. These two look like they're doing a ballet.

Giant Wingless Walkingsticks. Although this photo is mostly out of focus, I’m including it to show how much the insect can bend its body. These two look like they’re doing a ballet.

Indian Domino Beetle

Indian Domino Beetle

Pumpkin Patch Tarantula

Pumpkin Patch Tarantula

Bowl Plaza mosaic, Lucas, KS

Bowl Plaza mosaic, Lucas, KS

Grassroots Art Ctr 1145 web

Courtyard sculpture, Grassroots Art Center, Lucas, KS

Courtyard sculpture, Grassroots Art Center, Lucas, KS

Courtyard sculpture, Grassroots Art Center, Lucas, KS

Cloud lit by sunset, Hays, KS

Cloud lit by sunset, Hays, KS

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!

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The Big Trip: Jazz and jumping beans ~

Part of neon sign collection, American Jazz Museum, Kansas City. The Fox’s Tap Room sign is original.

"Spider," by Louise Bourgeois, 1996. This sculpture serves as the Kemper's logo.

“Spider,” by Louise Bourgeois, 1996. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. This sculpture has been adopted as the museum’s logo.

Detail of "Bacchus," by Helen Frankenthaler, 2002. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Detail of “Bacchus,” by Helen Frankenthaler, 2002. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Bellicose Church, Kansas City

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.

The closest I get to wildlife photography ~

Wolf Spider

Wolf Spider

I found this beauty outside my local Kohl’s store. It was dark, but I had parked under a light near one of those little shrubbery-covered islands with the curb around them. (What are those things called, anyway? Shrubbery islands, I guess.)

I wanted to photograph the spider because two friends of mine had, a few months ago, found such a spider in their house, had captured it and photographed it as well as they could through a Ziploc bag, and had posted the photos on their respective Facebook pages with a plea for information. (It was revealing of their personalities that one of my friends wrote “THIS IS THE BIGGEST FUCKING SPIDER I HAVE EVER SEEN” on her Facebook page while the other one simply but eloquently wrote “This thing. What???”) I was pretty sure theirs was a wolf spider, and I knew this one was.*

For once, I had my camera bag in the car. The wolf spider was near my car door, so I wanted to proceed cautiously. Wolf spiders can move pretty damn fast. They can’t jump, but something in the limbic area of my brain persists in believing that they can. Besides, darting doesn’t differ much from jumping, if a large spider is darting in your general direction. To assess the situation, I tapped my foot on the curb a safe distance away. The spider stayed put. I then made an awkward kicking motion (which I hope no one saw) toward the spider, and it still stayed put. So I edged the quarter near it for scale.

Since the spider remained motionless—either dying or depressed, I figured—I got braver with my shots. Finally I put the camera on super macro mode, which required putting the lens scarily close to the spider. But I was emboldened by its apparent indifference. I recently bought a little Fuji X10, a very capable retro-looking point-and-shoot with a bright lens and lots of controls, and that’s what I used here. The image needed a little lightening and a little sharpening, and I cropped it.

It’s fortunate for me that I prefer abstracts and semi-abstracts for my “serious” photography work. Several of my friends excel at wildlife photography, and I admire their work greatly. I don’t have the patience to do it myself, however. I hate using tripods, and my weak hands don’t like dealing with the weight of long lenses either. But those are mostly excuses; I simply lack the talent for photographing wildlife, just as I lack the talent for leading a wild life. This is as close as I get on both counts, and it’s good enough for me.

* Wrong again! I have now seen a much better picture of my friends’ arachnid, and it was in fact an orb weaver. They have assured me that it was much bigger and much scarier than my wolf spider. B. swears it was as big as her face. This seems hard to credit, but okay. It’s also possible that one’s perception of spider size is at least slightly influenced by whether said spider is outside where it belongs or inside one’s house.