Two miles from Corning we coast to a stop behind a KDOT sander. It’s parked on the upslope of a deep prairie trough, far enough down to hide the top of the grain elevator. A man steps from the cab and walks back. There’s been an accident up ahead, he says. They’re just clearing the wreckage now.
An icy north wind rocks the car. His hood is pulled tight around his face. Ice pellets rattle against the car like spent buckshot.
It is not the most auspicious beginning for a journey. Already a detour has added twice the miles for the opening stretch, and though we didn’t have to drive into Frankfort we did anyway to snap a picture of the Whiteway Chevrolet sign, one of two known remnants of the Great White Way, or Trans-Kansas Route that once stretched from Chicago to Colorado Springs. Back in the early 1900s it was one of the first organized highways in the state, though still primitive and all gravel. Two Frankfort men, A.E. Blackney and Everett Lindsay, were paid to paint a white stripe on every other telephone pole for 1,161 miles. They were paid fifteen cents per pole. It’s not known how long it took them.
I feel like a carpetbagger setting out for a bright new future, all my hopes and dreams stuffed in a bag. The bag being the trunk of a Ford Taurus, and my cargo books. But the analogy is inexact. Carpetbaggers invaded the South in the aftermath of the Civil War to exploit and take, and I am attempting to connect and sell. Maybe that makes me more a peddler, or mendicant.
A wrecker crests the hill and passes us. Strapped to the bed is a car half its original length. As we start moving, we see Corning half-veiled in the mist. What’s left of a pickup lies upside down in the ditch. A stainless steel tool box lies crumpled a few yards distant. It’s a sobering moment. We have many miles to go and the weather is turning vicious, but it’s evident that the thing to fear is other drivers.
In 1926 the state began designating highways with numerals. The Great White Way became Highway 9. In time the poles were replaced, the small cafes emptied, the towns depleted. In Netawaka we find a street sign that says, “White Way Street.” Other than a few isolated notes in the history books, there is nothing left.
It is not a road to take when in a hurry. There are tight sweeping curves and right angles and stops, the impedimenta of prairie fault lines. Travelers tend to be locals. It is an explorers’ road, one to take when gallivanting about, or retracing a historic route. On this day, with the land disappearing under a coating of sleet and ice, there are few travelers, mostly near the small towns, and then there are none but us. The road glazes white and slick. I tell my wife to chart us a course southward. Our plans of seeing Atchison just died.
In all fairness, I was warned. The easy part is writing a book; the hard part is marketing it. So I was told, and so it is true.
Two bookstores have agreed to look at my book—one in Leavenworth, the other in Lawrence. Tomorrow I’m supposed to speak at a Kansas Author’s Club meeting in Topeka, which makes for a nice loop across the eastern part of the state. We’d planned for a leisurely exploration but now we’re in trouble. My latent homing ability is bewildered; I cannot tell north from west or south from east. Visibility is less than a mile. If not for the map we’d be hopelessly lost.
Writing is such a solitary occupation that having to push the fruits of your labors on others seems like a form of betrayal, or at the very least a base sort of metamorphosis. Creativity sullied to crass mercantilism. I’m uncomfortably reminded that shortly after graduation I took a job as a cutlery salesman. It lasted two days. I swore I’d never do it again, and yet here I am, somewhere in eastern Kansas, doing just that. Do we ever learn from our mistakes?
We hit Highway 159 and head south. It looks like Leavenworth is out, but then the sky pales and the sleet turns to a fine drizzle. Highway 192 takes us east. We climb into steep hilly country furred with hardwood forests, pass ramshackle houses awash in junk, twist and weave through county reminiscent of the Appalachians. Lori sees a herd of belted Galloways. I turn around and go back. Sure enough, oreo cows. Things are looking up.
Leavenworth goes well, Lawrence does not.
Lori says: I hope they burn their supper.
I hope their husbands beat them for it, I add.
It’s nightfall in the city. I stare out the hotel window at a world fading into nothingness. I’m not cut out for this, I say. It’s not what I bargained for.
You did your best, Lori says.
It’s small consolation.
We take backroads into Topeka. The morning is foggy and gray. The city sucks us in and we find the restaurant. In the basement I set out my books on a table at the back of the room. People trickle in and greet us. A few I know; most I do not.
After a meal, the president introduces me. My mind instantly goes blank. In panic, I whisper to Lori, What do I say? The crowd awaits.
At the podium I adjust the microphone and grip my book tightly. All these faces, some smiling, some not. I recount our adventures with bookstore owners, and say how relieved I am to now be among friends. Smiles break out like a contagion. Heads bob. Some hard thing collapses inside me.
This is why we do it. It’s right here, in this room, with these grinning faces, this energy, this enthusiasm. These people. These friends.
I’d like to read you a story, I say.