Odd, the town. Mansfield, final abode of Laura Ingalls Wilder who followed much of Sadie’s route through eastern Kansas including a potential resting spot at a spring not far from our house. It seemed unusually contemporary with a fondness toward steel siding construction and few hints of antiquity, mostly in the downtown area where only two buildings retained any of their original facades. The Weaver Inn, our bed-and-breakfast, was the oldest building in town (erected in 1885), while the bank across the street looks older still but dated to 1917 according to an engraving above the front door. The downtown huddles around a small rectangular park open to the railroad tracks on one side, anchored in the center by a bronze bust of Wilder. It’s doubtful any of the dozens of kids who have come to get hooked up pay her steely gaze much attention.
So far Missouri had freaked me out with the contagion of billboards, but I was about to get an even bigger shock. When we asked the proprietor for a good place to eat, she heartily recommended the cafe next door—a Mexican food joint.
“Do they have sanchos?” I asked, sanchos being my personal flight trigger.
“No, but their chile rellenos are excellent.”
“With green chile sauce?”
“Yes.” The lady looked puzzled at my expression, halfway between astonishment and skepticism. I didn’t know whether to believe her or run like a rabbit, but it had been a long day already and we’d skipped eating lunch in Springfield on account of its hellish road destruction, the congested traffic and, well, because it was Springfield.
One of the rules of journalism dictates “verify, verify, verify.” When I asked the waiter how the rellenos were made his answer could have been word for word from any restaurant in New Mexico, and the chile verde made with pork and roasted green chiles. If it sounded too good to be true, the verification was even better. They were wonderful, and welcome after the contagion of Jesus, porn and fireworks billboards.
After we were settled, we headed to Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. It was, I discovered, a small part of a larger tourist attraction billed as Bakersville Pioneer Village. We were directed to park in a grassy field and walk to the “village,” a faux settlement community with apothecary, café, opry house, blacksmith shop, rustic barns and vendors selling everything from homemade jams, jellies and pickled eggs to wooden cutout machine guns, broadswords, pistols and other weapons of destruction. (Billed “toys for real boys,” it was continually swamped with hyper adolescent boys and their fathers.) Visitors included portly farmers in overalls, women in gingham dresses, bonnets and cowboy boots, urbanites festooned with tattoos and chic attire, scruffy environmentalists looking like hippies with PhDs, school kids temporarily freed from the classroom, Amish with their distinctively severe couture, folk musicians, mountainmen, blacksmiths, farmers and gardeners dressed in period costume, period being a loose term. A pencil-thin slip of a man wore, for reasons known only to himself, a coal-black karate costume, open-toed sandals and a pageboy haircut. He looked like an anorexic Captain Kangaroo with a black belt. With that oddball mixture it was difficult if not impossible to concentrate on any single person or identity. In fact, it reminded me of the Strip in Las Vegas where people-watching was an art in itself, only here it was more wholesome and rural in nature. And the girls, well, I wish I could have photographed every one of them.
While Lori went dizzy in the seed warehouse, I roamed the grounds looking to entertain myself. This mostly involved studying the physical geography of the valley with its high rounded knolls, unfamiliar woods and weathered outcrops, the sociobiological underpinnings of cornpone humor exhibited to wild acclaim at the BV Opry, and the physical characteristics of Missouri women. (Impressively healthy was how I described it to myself.) I was having a delightful time when I came upon an old covered wagon sandwiched between an agri-tourism display and a music group sawing away on banjos and fiddles, its canvas rigging discolored from the elements and the ancient wood gray as bleached bone. Sadie, I thought, but not here, and not now.
For a long moment the kaleidoscopic chaos around me flowed unheard and unseen. Sadie was half a state behind us moving through a mined wasteland while we idled at a tawdry, sanitized yesteryear that never was. Relegated to the status of a prop in this manufactured village, overlooked by most and ignored by the rest, the wagon nevertheless was the one true thing. It was real and not a cheap simulacrum, simple in form and function, each seamed plank and pitted iron-shod wheel a story in itself but unheard and unlistened for except for one unlikely soul who stopped and stared and started charting a course back through a blizzard of billboards and a hundred years of civilization’s inexorable march toward vulgar ostentatiousness.
(To be continued)