Get Ready for Kansas
Before I left Kansas City everyone told me to be ready. At Jiffy Lube, when I took my car in, the clerk said the drive would be long and boring. Outside Starbucks, a group of kids canvasing for the ACLU to protect LGBT youth told me the drive between KC and Denver would be dull. I made a new friend named Jimmy who showed me around Kansas City, and as I left he alerted me via text:
“Get ready. It IS a boring drive.”
“It’s just flat.”
“I’ve driven through South Dakota, it’s nothing but corn for hours and hours.”
“Corn is vertical, and aren’t there hills up there?”
“But pay attention to the toll booths an hour out, I helped build the irrigation canal there.”
I had something to watch for. Something small, but still.
So as I pulled out onto Highway 70, the four lane highway that used to be the Kansas Pacific Railroad, I psyched myself up. The highway signs in Kansas are strange, less circles or shield-shapes, and more like golden suns with their rays swirling around the number – 70! I had a new playlist including The Band Camino, Andrew Ripp, Billie Holiday and The Steeldrivers. My audible que was full of interesting new books: From Sand and Ash, a romance between a Catholic priest and a jewish woman in WWII written by Amy Harmon; Trials of the Earth, the essays of a true pioneerwoman named Mary Mann Hamilton; and Would Everybody Please Stop, a book of comedic essays by Jenny Allen. But mostly I got ready to prove them wrong. Isn’t boredom about perspective?
I’ve never been particularly drawn to Kansas. Or not drawn to it. It just didn’t register in my mind. Perhaps that’s why I was surprised to enjoy Kansas City so much. But that’s for another post. And besides, the city’s name is a misnomer, as most of it is on the Missouri side. It seems, according to the people near this state, that Kansas is just a state people find bland. In a world of high couture, this state is the Target. Kansas was the first state to ban alcohol, with a prohibition starting in 1881, near forty years before the 1920 passing of the 19th Amendment. That could be part of it. Or, with a population of just under 3 million people, it might just be hard for Kansas residents to defend themselves against the rest of the country. If you think about it, the state hovers in the background of our collective psyches as the place Dorothy escapes from, and returns to, in The Wizard of Oz. Which would you choose: Oz or Kansas?
As I drove along highway 70, I paid more attention to the terrain. It didn’t start out flat. In Wichita swaths of green trees lined the highways, and the corn alongside was alternately half dried, or golden and ready to. Only a few weeks prior in Iowa the corn was young and rich. There were a few patches of Kansas sunflowers, heads heavy in prayer for harvest. Roadkill, a common part of any trip like this, varied, as I passed a dead coyote, armadillo, and sadly, tabby cat. The billboards hinted at local values shared and hidden: Super 8 Motel, Boots for sale, Truck-Henge, Historic battle sites, Lion’s Den Adult Store, and something you don’t see in big cities, biblical quotes sharing Jesus’ salvation, and god’s damnation. As I drove west, I noticed how the low crops hugged the earth. It was wheat, more than anything. Some of the fields had been tilled already. And here and there I noticed a gorgeous red-tipped crop, which I later discovered was Sorghum. Heavy at the crown, the fields undulated in the wind like ocean currents. But it was, without a doubt, flat. That song from the Dixie Chix rang out in my head, no, let’s be real, in my voice, “I need wide open spaces, room to make big mistakes.” I wondered if a land this flat would feel like it’s own mistake if I stayed, if it would set me free, or trigger some odd kind of agoraphobia.
My new friend from Kansas City told me the day before to watch for the majestic windmills. I thought first of the traditional windmills, steel frame towers and wooden vanes that rose near outbuildings, windmills famed from the photos of Dorthea Lange. No, he’d attested, saying those are beautiful too. He then described the same turbines I fell in love with when I was sixteen, driving down 101 with my mom to visit colleges. The clean white towers rise from the prairie like religious icons or church spires. In a landscape like this, it is natural to look skyward.
That’s where everything changes. That’s where we point when we talk about heaven. Where we sit at dawn and dusk with romance in our eyes. But in the great plains, like in the south, it’s also the origin point for so much danger. No American gets out of high school without reading some excerpt of Grapes of Wrath. The unit I taught included background on Black Sunday, the April 15th Storm in 1935 that carried winds upwards of 60MPH, and air so thick in dirt you’d suffocate if you weren’t wearing a mask. People didn’t know how crop rotation could help, how irrigation could be run differently. Shoot, I don’t know how I’d do it, just that it was a perfect storm that led to years and years of migration, poverty, and early humanitarian activism. This journey I’m on, I don’t take for granted, is one I’ve chosen, not one I’ve been forced into. Something always got under my skin teaching that unit – it felt eerie that a land could seem so peaceful, and be so dangerous.
A couple hours into the drive I pulled into a rest stop and noticed a strange hiss in the car. All the windows were up, and I’d just had the car checked in Kansas City. With the next rest stop 90 miles away, on a 100 degree day, it would be a grave misadventure to have something go wrong. I have gone overboard in taking care of this car, in part because I read about the jalopies in Grapes of Wrath. Or perhaps it was that in my college years my Subaru XT blew heating cords, tires, and all kinds of other things I can’t name. I once heard a pop and saw smoke in the Caldecott Tunnel between Oakland and Orinda, coasting to the side of the highway twenty feet west of the tunnel. I grew up in used cars, unable to fix them, always needing help. I cross myself and say a prayer each time I pass someone stopped on the road side. I pay close attention to my car. Right now, it’s my most consistent home. At the rest stop, I tried to forget the hiss as I took Hoopla on her walk and made myself a turkey sandwich. But it hadn’t been hissing until I got out of the towns. What was it?
It may be a unique skill of mine to catastrophize. In a state known for being boring, I think it would almost be my duty to generate drama. But I am a reader, a listener, and I live boldly. Not only have I driven cars that felt like monsters, I have seen monsters written in novels and film scripts. As I sat at the picnic table in the middle of nowhere, I mused about how we adopt each monster as our own. I have a Scylla and Charybus swirling in my imagination because of Homer. I have poison ivy in my panic box because of my friend Raven. I have the destitution of “living in a van down by the river” in my one-liner of fears because Matt Foley said it on SNL. I have counted clowns as demons forever because of Stephen King, or maybe because that shit is archetypal, and goes far beyond it. Anyhow, a hiss is a million things. And nothing.
Before I pulled over, I had been musing that this trip has been so fast. I have slept in near 40 beds in the last few months. I want to write about each place I’ve been. But the place I’ve seen the most is the road. The USA has over 4 million miles of paved roads, and in the recent months I’ve seen near 20,000 of them.
It has taken me a long time to get here, but I have wanted to be a nomad from before I knew what the word meant. When I was in fourth grade, my class performed a song and dance to the tune “Love Potion Number 9.” I was voted, hands down, to be the gypsy woman. Since then, I’ve dreamed of this. When I traveled to Seattle in high school, I met a young hippie couple traveling with their mut cross country in a VW bus. I dreamed that for myself. As my musician friends booked tours with bands, I imagined myself a witness to a moving landscape and a servant to recording it. This is not the same road Kerouac wrote about. It is not the same path charted by Voltaire’s Candide or Cohelo’s Santiago. But that’s why I’m here.
This is the asphalt and the reality of my imagination and attitude. My windshield is a veritable graveyard for bugs. Under the front seat tote bags of dog supplies and my non-fridge food, crumbs of BBQ flavored potato chips are stuck to the mat. The trash bag is stuffed. The truck in stuffed. Since my old phone, stolen in New York’s West Village, had the only magnet I kept with me, my magnetic cell phone stand is useless until I return to Seattle. At any given time, Hoops is either napping, or barking at some livestock or busted tires on the roadside. I have an address plugged into the GPS, but it’s not always where I’m truly going.
There’s something that opens in my chest when I turn the ignition and pull onto a long road. Back in SF, I would dream some mornings of just overshooting my destination, and driving until I ran out of gas. To be that free. The aphorism rings true that it’s the journey that shapes us, not the destination. William Butler Yeats made a living on the theme of impermanence. It’s bravery and cowardice alike. But the road feels like the right kind of inbetween. It’s where I can leave behind all the failed relationships, the random Airbnb that smells like cat litter, the constant pulse of a bar under an old apartment, the music venue where they know my name, and I have amassed a suite of joys and disasters, the job where my voice was heard but not heeded, the slope of disagreement between income and outcome. I don’t want to let go of everything, my life is rich and blessed, but I know there’s something I’m still trying to shake.
When I finish my lunch at the rest stop, I get back into the car and listen for that hiss again. As the speedometer nears 60, 70, and then 80, the whistle resumes, and the volume lowers. I look at the Sorghum waving on the roadside, and take my place in the community of drivers en route to their own somewheres. It dawns on me that this hiss is the wind. The last time I drove over a country so flat was South Dakota, and I was attacked by rain and lightning. I looked at the clouds dotting the blue sky, and felt grateful.
Dorothy’s famous line from the Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.” We all understand that, but at times forget that she had to leave, to face her demons, to discover her gifts before she knew what home meant to her. In 2017 most people I know have called upwards of three cities home. Which one will be mine? Five days out from a hiatus to my cross country trip, I am aware of the home I’ll have to choose when I finish this journey. It is still uncertain. I am alive in this moment, here and now, in an unfamiliar land. As the land keeps changing around me, I feel myself change along with it. I feel right on the road, lucky, gifted. But I’m a nester, I love setting up my space, hosting my friends and loved ones. When the time is right, I have to trust, I will feel as at home as Dorothy. What I have to get ready for is not the boredom of this road, but the building of my own home. Ironically, right now, Kansas is still Oz.