I’m back in Kansas, my home state and, you know, I couldn’t mistake it for any other. Just beyond the Colorado border I was greeted with fresh green corn fields, frosted with a blanket of golden tassels, proper corn fields unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere in my travels. I was greeted with friendly waves and nods of the head by grizzled old farmers in pickups and mesh hats — the friendliest people in the world. I paraded through towns given the name of the only person who lives there (Kim, Pritchett, Walsh, Bartlett, Saunders, Johnson) and only evidenced by the squat grain elevators, an almost unwelcome change in topography. Each of these towns were identical by any means of measurement. The grain elevators were all the same, the row of houses, lone Coop, white Ford, red Dodge — all the same. It was Piqua, Kansas — our neighborhood example — cloned a hundred times over and dispersed across the already pathetic western shore of our state.
It wasn’t all friendly greetings, though, as I was also approached with a terrible road weariness (who knew my home state would be the only place capable out of over thirteen thousand odd miles?) and a general frustration that made me wish I had time to cruise all the way home tonight. I was teased with a speeding ticket on my first such encounter in all these miles by a Kansas Highway Patroller. I was forced — incited may be more appropriate — to move my tent to a new location, the first time in all of my nights of camping. The full story is that they were going to charge me $8 for camping and $6.50 for having a car — a total of $14.50 for a night’s site in the Meade Kansas State Park. The “ranger” was friendly, however, and showed me a place on the map, and only a mile or so away, that I could camp for free. Even though I had a lovely spot by Meade Lake, a gentle cool breeze floating through and the hypnotic lapping of waves to lull me to sleep later, I couldn’t pass up another free night. And so I carelessly shoved the tent into my trunk and re-pitched it, a mile away, for the last time of the trip.
I had a dreadfully long drive today. I got straight into it at 7 a.m.; I couldn’t have slept longer even if I wanted to. My batteries were full. The first couple hours were a nice drive through the mountains, but they wouldn’t stick around much longer and I knew it. I tried to delay the inevitable for a while by stopping in Alamosa for breakfast and an hour or so at their library, longer than necessary perhaps.
Eventually I had to face the endless plains, the unwavering straight road that doesn’t so much as flinch for sixty mile stretches. I pounded through the very last of the mountains, silver capped and bare, near Cuchara where Tony & I helped my uncle Fred and cousin Dylan build a new deck on their cabin about this time last year. I recognized a lot of sights from the highway, things that called out for me to come explore — the narrow uplifting of diagonal rock where Dylan pointed out Abraham Lincoln’s silhouette and I saw the Marx Brothers; the narrow pass between the mountains where we saw countless deer and even a baby Black Bear, climbing to over 11,000 feet where you could see into New Mexico; I think I may have even seen some of the dogs from the Dog Bar, where mutts are allowed to wander through and eat up the scraps and everyone loves it that way, health code be damned.
But I couldn’t stop, for I knew that no amount of deviation or procrastination would make the forthcoming drive any more bearable. So I pushed on, turning abruptly south at Walsenburg, teetering on the edge of nothingness and somethingness, to catch US-160, the artery that would guide me almost all the way home. One-sixty is a different route than I’ve ever taken before, a fact containing most of its attractiveness at the time. Plus, I noticed on my map that US-160 bounces up and back, down and forth, basically using other roads to carry its moniker for short stretches at a time, and seemed to hit a large number of Points of Interest along the way. True, these are nothing comparable to some of the places I’ve seen, but these are Kansas sites, places of importance to the state of my birth, places like the Dalton Gang hideout, St. Jacob’s Well, and the Pioneer Museum. The highway also ran through (or near) some Kansas towns with fine names like Protection, Climax, Kismet, and Burden; Bloom lies directly between Moscow and Cairo. So the route was chosen and all I had left was to drive it.
And I did, for five more hours or so. The road was straight and desolate and I had to forget I even existed, that the road existed, that time and the Universe existed at all or ever, because nothing else helped ease the road along. I felt like I was driving one of those old video games of the car racing genre, where the programmers had only included a brief background that kept being played over and over. My programmers designed a gray road, lined on one side by evenly-spaced telephone poles and on the other by a plain golden ochre bitmap. They ended the sequence by adding a small deserted town, complete with white grain elevator and a pair of pickups (a white Ford, a red Dodge). Cleverly, to disguise the endless repetition of their background, they programmed the scene to reverse each time through: the grain elevator that was on the left side of the road before was now on the right; the telephone poles switched sides at the same time.
In due course, I got to the part of the game where I decide I’ve had enough (of mom nagging to come to supper), so I swung my car into a telephone pole. Game Over or Restart?
The only deviation to this monotonous repetition of highway came when I decided to stop for the night. My eye had been on “Meade S.P.” on my road atlas for the past few hours, but I had no idea of a good way to get there. I zoomed in with my Streetfinder program and noticed that all the roads extending from it were of the same hierarchy, the bare gray line identified as “Other Road” in the legend. So I found the most direct one of these “other roads” and headed down it when the time came. It wasn’t paved, but that was no problem; the gravel had been thrown off to the side and the well-trodden dirt handled 55 mph very well. But then the road narrowed and squeezed through a gate with one of those cattle guards in the road, the series of pipes that hoofed animals supposedly can’t walk across. The road immediately morphed into some kind of private backroad, a road farmer might use occasionally to go to their fishing pond. The ruts were cut so deep, I could hear the scraping of coarse plants along the metal bottom of my car. I tried pulling one wheel onto the median, but the edges of the road were tightly bounded by tall weeds and I would rather scratch the bottom of my car than the painted sides. I beared the road and it endured me and eventually it thrust me onto a better, maintained gravel road that led me directly to the state park. It was quite the experience, but I was too embarrassed to stop and take pictures or videotape my predicament. I only encountered one vehicle — a truck, of course — and they pulled off into a large lot overlooking deep, randomly eroded ravines, only giving me a confused look, sparing me any words or hand gestures.
I stopped early tonight, not only because I have a few things I need to work on, but also to give me an opportunity to savor everything I do, the last time I do it. I wasn’t even all that upset about having to move my tent, because it gave me a second chance to pitch it for the last time. And I’m sure that when I go to bed tonight, even though I’m all alone out here in the middle of nowhere, vulnerable, I’ll try to appreciate each moment of fatigued stargazing, of shifting positions, of pillow flipping, trying to find the cold side. Then tomorrow morning, early no doubt, I’ll take extra care to fold everything properly, put my tent away appropriately, roll that sleeping bag up nice and neat. And tomorrow, on the long drive still ahead, I’ll try to take pleasure in each roadside artifact and Kansas antiquity, check out every museum that strikes an iota of fancy. In those last few miles, I’ll use my turn signal at every possible opportunity, even when I accidentally drift into the other lane.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck says that “we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” He says that the lifespan of a journey seems to be variable and unpredictable — that a trip is often dead and over before the traveler has returned; the opposite is also true, he says, that many a trip continues long after movement in time and space has ceased. He tells of a man he used to know that traveled to Hawaii once, and that journey continued for the rest of his life — that he’d watch the old man rocking in his chair, eyes squinted, endlessly traveling to Honolulu.
My own trip started half-a-year before I left, sending out requests for travel brochures, reading books, searching the web, watching the Travel Channel and complaining that they only show Top Ten lists and shows about Las Vegas. My journey will continue until I reach my front door and, perhaps, a little longer. I had been worried that I would give in to this recurring urge to sail straight through Kansas, fall flat on my doorstep in the middle of night after a dozen hours of driving. I was concerned that I would miss including Kansas as a destination, miss seeing it with objective eyes, miss seeing the people, the landscape (or lack thereof) and miss seeing what I’ve always failed to notice. Steinbeck couldn’t fight the urge; he says the road became an endless ribbon of stone, the trees green blurs, the people simply moving figures with no faces, and he says the food all tasted like soup, even the soup. I’m proud to have a stronger will than it seems old man Steinbeck had.
But it’s not over yet; tomorrow I have almost a full day of driving and sightseeing in store, over 300 miles for sure. I also plan to stop some place familiar, some place near home but isolated and free from distraction, to write tomorrow’s journal before I get whisked into the river of greetings and welcomes, before I fall back into the lethargic routine that is my ordinary life.
There is so much I feel I need to say, hundreds of ways to say the exact same thing. Things like: “I can’t believe this really happened” and “It’s so surreal” and “It’s hard to believe this is the same trip when I was in Missouri, Kentucky, etc.” but I won’t be so verbose. I’ll save that for tomorrow.