Monday, March 23, 2009
Steve, my twin, had done a very good job of clearing brush down behind the shed along the creek that meanders through our homestead. I walked to the Sawmill Creek to see how much water was in it following what sounded like a dry winter.
Not only was there no water in the creek, the bed was so dry the dirt was like powder. I crossed to the south bank and began walking along the trees that had grown up along the edge. A biting south wind slapped my face as I walked, sending a shudder down my spine.
I spotted some trails carved into the prairie next to the trees, and just out of curiosity I began following one to see where it would take me. The ruts were deep and vertical, telling me they had been gouged out by hooves --- most likely deer, since we no longer have cattle or horses on the place.
The ruts carried me close to the water's edge - if there had been water in the creek, that is - and also cut the strong south wind to a teasing whisper. Suddenly, the day seemed transformed. Protected from the worst of the wind, the day seemed pleasant: sunny, with just a touch of breeze.
As the path curled up the slope and away from the trees and the creek bed, the forceful wind made its presence known once again. I was reminded of something my oldest sister, Mary, said as we'd braved a harsh east wind the evening before while checking out the west end of the creek and the small bridges spanning it so an irrigation pivot system could cross.
Even as the wind made us quicken our pace and shield our faces (with her granddaughter tucked inside layers of clothing like a kid in a kangaroo's pouch), she talked about how much she missed the wind when she moved to northwest Missouri. The wind, the prairie, the sky. She talked about how the wind could define a day with its strength, shifting directions, and whimsical whirls. She went on about the subtle beauty of the prairie and how she loved feeling grounded by the soil. And she loved how the undulating prairie gave proper homage to the vastness of the skies, as if it realized what a remarkable stage the heavens could be - whether it's sunrise or sunset, approaching storms or the grandeur of the stars at night.
For true people of the prairie, trees and mountains feel confining. It's as if the sky becomes their compass (as it was for centuries of seafarers), and without it they feel adrift.
The deer tracks dipped down to the creek again, and as I followed them the wind spun around to blow again from the east. Down in the trees, following an east-west stretch of the creek, it was as if there was no wind at all.
By the time I emerged again from the woods, the wind was out of the south again. For me, a south wind symbolizes spring and summer in Kansas. It carries the moisture that feeds the spring storms, as well as the dry air that cures the maturing wheat in the nation's bread basket as summer arrives.
Those characteristics capture the dichotomy that is a Kansas wind. It's such an integral part of what defines the state, at times giving and at times taking away. Even as I shivered at times on that walk in the woods, I remembered all those simmering summer days on this land when it was the wind that offered blessed relief from the heat.
Friday, March 20, 2009
I had hoped to eat lunch at the Carriage Crossing in Yoder, but by the time I got there after loading up the car and running a few errands, the waiting line stretched to the door and beyond...and I didn't have that much time to wait. Too many tasks awaited me in Larned before I ever reached the farm.
So instead of darting off K-96 at Crupper's Corner to take Trail West Road to U.S. 50 and save several miles and several minutes, I tooled on in to South Hutchinson to get a quick lunch. But that meant I would be climbing onto U.S. 50 at a different point - one that took me past Whiteside Road...which had long been our link to 4th Street Road.
I decided to take 4th Street this time, just because it had been so long since I had last touched that road with my tires. 4th Street runs deep in our family's roots. It was the route we took each year to the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, the road I rode on my way to Wichita when I attended Wichita State University.
Fourth Street resembles Morse Code for the letter R - dot, dash, dot - in that its length is defined by a short jaunt, a long stretch and then a short final section, split up by stop signs as it linked the outskirts of Hutchinson to U.S. 281 in central Kansas. For some of us in the Finger family, it was also known for featuring one of our favorite stretches of highway anywhere: a canopy of trees shading about a mile of highway a couple of miles east of the Reno-Stafford County line. It was like entering a leafy tunnel that had blossomed amid miles of wheat fields and pasture land, its gateway a tiny corner gas station with two old pumps camped at an angle to the intersection over which they stood sentry.
That gas station looked like it dated back at least as far back as the Great Depression, and the writer in me longed to pull in there one day, introduce myself to the owners, sit down in a lawn chair and chronicle a day in the life of that timeless place. Alas, by the time I was in a position to do that, the gas station had shut down.
But most of the reason I chose to take 4th Street on this sunny, windswept day was just to see how much had changed since I last laid eyes on it. And it didn't take long to spot some. Trees that towered over a country cemetery dating back nearly to the Civil War just west of Whiteside Road looked like they had been sheared off at the top and stripped of almost any branch that reached out beyond six feet - a haphazard pruning so stark I searched my memory for any tornadoes that had hopscotched through the area within the past few years.
The trees weren't dead: tiny branches had sprouted from the main trunks, giving gnarled wood the appearance of peach fuzz from a short distance. But they looked more like battered survivors than leafy lords casting a stately air on the surroundings.
Less than a mile from the cemetery stands the marker denoting the spot where President Warren G. Harding paid a visit in 1923 to talk to unhappy farmers and pitch in on the wheat harvest. It's a largely forgotten moment and monument in Kansas history, but every time I see it I reflect on how Harding was on a long cross-country train trip to revive his flagging popularity when he came to Reno County - and he would not live to see Washington, D.C., again. He died of a heart attack in San Francisco later that summer.
At least the monument is no longer obscured by brush and weeds...only by history, I thought as I drove past it.
Many more trees had the fuzzy appearance of tiny branches emerging from chopped-off trunks as I continued west. While it was still too early for leaves to be seen on those branches, another sure sign of warmer weather awaited me farther west on 4th Street: road contruction. A flagman who looked like he hadn't shaved in days held out a stop sign and brought me to a halt for several minutes. While I waited, I challenged my wisdom for choosing this route, unaware of any projects that demanded such measures and wondering how many more may await me as I continued west.
Thankfully, the wait wasn't terribly long. Before I knew it, I had reached the stop sign that marked K-14, the north-south highway that links Sterling with Arlington and eventually U.S. 54. And then comes the most tempting stretch of 4th Street Road - dozens of miles of asphalt with precious little traffic. Tempting because one yearns to ignore the speed limit. But it's also where I got my first two speeding tickets, because I surrendered to that temptation.
The irony is that long stretch is actually the signal to begin to slow down......slow down to the pace that dictates central and western Kansas. They do things at a certain pace out there, and no amount of effort will change that. Those of us used to life in the city - even a modestly paced city like Wichita - find ourselves having to downshift when we get out there. For those who live on the East Coast, the transition is even more abrupt.
Winter wheat has begun to emerge from its winter slumber, but I can tell it's been a dry few months. The wheat is spotty, and even pale green or yellow in patches. But that's not what made my heart sink. That reaction was saved for when I came to the long line of trees that held such a special place in my memory. The canopy was no more, hacked into history so the limbs didn't threaten the highway or the power lines.
What was left looked decimated, demoralized and denigrated. And I realized I would never see that gorgeous canopy again.
The old filling station has been converted into a small house with blue paint and a white rail fence where the gas pumps once stood. This journey was reflecting change, all right - even more significant than I had anticipated.
I passed the road leading to the Quivira Wildlife Refuge, just a mile to the north. Cattle grazed lazily in pasture lands that still looked asleep for the winter. Cottonwoods not yet putting out buds towered above the grass, and I wondered how many trees settlers saw when they first arrived on this stretch of prairie more than 150 years ago.
I had passed or met only a handful of cars by the time I reached U.S. 281 in Stafford County, which marks the end of 4th Street Road. I had to wait for that many coming north on 281 just to make the turn. It was a symbol that my journey on the road less traveled was over.
It was a trip that told me much of the magic of that ribbon of asphalt now lives in memory alone.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
What's been happening is that I'll think of something I want to write about, but then get swept away with the day's activity and by the time I have a few minutes late at night that moment of inspiration has slipped from my grasp.
"If it's that good, you'd remember it," the internal critic says.
Except that's not true. It's more a reflection of how busy my days are at work than anything else. I will simply need to e-mail those "hmmm" moments to myself to serve as a reminder.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
It wasn't Saturday's thunder, lightning and tornado warnings that told me spring was here - or nearly here. It was the birds chirping merrily at sunrise in the days leading up to the weekend. They've been gone - or silent - for months. Welcome back. You've been missed.
Catholic Masses leading up to Lent included gospel readings about Jesus feeding crowds numbering in the thousands with only a few loaves and fishes. Much has been said and written about His providing so much from so little.
But I found myself reflecting on how Jesus could speak to thousands at a time and still be heard clearly in a time long before megaphones, microphones and speakers --- all without raising His voice. Imagine someone speaking to a packed house at Koch Arena or the Kansas Coliseum and having everyone in the audience hear it clearly without amplifiers.
Yes, there was the Sermon on the Mount, where I'm sure being on a natural platform helped Jesus' voice carry. And I recall times in the Bible where He would get in a boat and put out into the water a short distance....which I imagine helped project His voice as well. I wonder how many times He spoke on hillsides that served as natural amphitheaters?
The only time I remember Jesus shouting in the Bible was at the money-changers in the temple. And yet countless souls heard His message and had their lives changed.
I guess it's a reminder that truth resonates even when spoken softly.
I can't shake the feeling that Wichita State got the shaft from the clock handler at the end of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament game against Creighton. Not so much that final 1.9 seconds in which Booker Woodfox made that clutch game-winning jumper...but in the final 12 seconds or so. How much time went off the clock as Ramon Clemente grabbed the offensive rebound that had fallen to the floor following a missed free throw? It seemed like an eternity, but precious little time seemed to melt from the clock.
Of course, all of this is academic if the Shox hold onto the rebound of the forced layup with less than 5 seconds to play.
And Creighton played Saturday as if they shouldn't be there.
If WSU takes the right approach, the end of this season can serve as a nice launching point to next season, when more talent and more experience will be taking the floor. The Shocks should be in the discussion for a finish in the top half of the Valley -- perhaps even the Top 3.
This has been the harshest winter in recent memory for stomach flus, respiratory flus, allergies....just all sorts of medical maladies.
I'm sure the stress and anxiety about the economy have been major contributors to that, sapping immune systems even as the economy gnaws away at our wallets, purses and retirement funds.
If the Big XII tournament brackets hold form, KU and K-State will meet in the semifinals. Gotta like the Jayhawks in that one. But a KU final against either Mizzou or OU won't be easy.
Earlier this year, I had KU as no more than a Sweet 16 team, and perhaps even losing in the second round. But now I wouldn't be surprised if they made the Elite Eight. I still think OU could make the Final Four. Mizzou? They could make the Sweet 16.
K-State? Three letters: NIT.
Happy birthday, Dad. You would have turned 85 today, and not a day goes by that I don't think about you.