Saturday, November 26, 2005

Digital painting of the Blue Rapids elevator

Confluence of Juganine Creek and Big Blue River

Wanting it all—a creek, a name, a dream

Part 1 of 4

Long had this obsessed me. To come to this moment at a city council work session where something as mundane as the redrawing of a lease for the fair board could answer a question unanswerable until that moment. And perhaps unanswerable still.

On an obscure portion of an obscure document, a legal description set the eastern boundary of the Marshall County Fairgrounds as Juganine Creek. I stared at the word. I saw nothing else but it.

I said it aloud and everybody looked at me. Talk stopped.

“It says Juganine Creek,” I feebly said.

“Yeah?” the mayor asked. “So?”

“So I never knew the name.”

“There’s lots of things you don’t know,” he said.

The meeting resumed.

But what was discussed was lost to me as I mentally chewed on the word. Juganine. I’d always wanted the perennial creek separating the westernmost two streets from Blue Rapids proper to have some melodic name, something lyrical and poetic, and instead I got something that sounded like a cheap brand of rotgut, or that had evolved from some other entity or form. Jug of nine. Jug o’nine. Jugonine. Juganine.

Not what I expected. Not what I wanted.


What I wanted was to walk the Pecos River from the snowfields of Pecos Baldy above Santa Fe to its confluence with the Rio Grande northwest of Del Rio, Texas. It was a tall order and one I had no idea how to manage. Nor did I own a justification for so audacious an undertaking, other than my youth, and inexperience, and dreams of a larger world than that which hemmed me. Maybe it was about knowing both the beginning and the end of something in a life that seemed an inexplicable synthesis of absolutes and uncertainties.

A boy’s life is more about longing than fulfillment. Things desired seem utterly out of reach, much like stepping down 900 miles of river on an illogical quest. And what did I know of the river? That it formed from snowmelt high above timberline, and that once I had straddled it and heard its inceptive music, and from which height I could see it widen as it gathered other waters to itself, and that I imagined its many long windings and meanderings as it crossed the only two states I loved. That I watched my father stand in its current and cast white-winged flies that enticed from the unseen depths creatures with vibrant rainbow flanks and eyes forever open to their liquid worlds. That I stood on its tamarisk-lined bank near Imperial, Texas, surprised at its narrowness, its insubstantiality, thinking that after so many miles a river should have grown into something fierce and sprawling, and disappointed somewhat that the river, like myself, had remained small and inconsequential.

I knew that it flowed under the bridge near the small town of San Jose halfway between Glorietta and Las Vegas, where one could look northward to the tall barren peaks of the Pecos Mountains and southward onto the vast plains where junipers gave way to scrub and cattle and sunblasted stone. That the immense midsection of the river’s length would probably be eternally unknown to me. And that knowing wounded me, for though at that age my dreams were congealing into recognizable forms, they were already bitter with the certitude of impossibilities.

Some gifted people hold these dreams as challenges, and ultimately fulfill them; the rest of us simply let them go and try not to let their loss cripple us. Or, little by little, we pare them down to manageable levels. A few years ago I stood at the confluence of Elm Creek and the Blue Earth River and remembered the dream and wondered if I could resurrect it on a more local plane. If I could turn my back on the river and walk down the creek’s birthplace. If that would suffice. And I never did.

In the Blue Rapids community center I read the name Juganine Creek, unfolded my metaphorical knife, and whittled the dream down. Not 900 miles now, but two at the most. A microcosm of the Pecos. It was the best I could manage.


“What’s in a name?” Juliet would have us imagine it to be no more than another word, a string of letters without weight or history. I’m not so sure. What images are conjured when hearing of the Yellowstone River, the Colorado, the Mississippi, or, in Kansas, the Republic, the Smoky Hill, the Big Blue? Of course I’m discussing a little no-name feeder creek that’s dry most of the year, but still…

For the first time in my life I searched Google for something and came up empty. In all of cyberspace, out of trillions of bits of data, there was not one reference to the name “Juganine.”
Which makes the name suspect. There is no Juganine in any of the early deeds, no founding father who carried the title. The 1904 plat map of Blue Rapids shows no scribbled meandering of a creek, only the boxy rectangles of property lines. It’s as if it never existed, or was considered of so little importance that the mapmaker could dismiss it out of hand.

Nor is there a Juganine listed in the Geographic Names Information System, the nation’s official repository of domestic geographic names and information. Out of 16,887 place-names in Kansas, there is nothing corresponding to the creek.

But a name, whether real or artificial, had been dropped in my lap. A boyhood romance rekindled. It was not time to ponder bitter impossibilities or failures, but to act. I slipped binoculars around my neck, grabbed a hiking stick, and set off for the source. It was time to fulfill a dream.

(To be continued)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sunday calls and dilemmas, or, opposing urgencies between a birder and his wife

On what well might have been the last really warm day of autumn, a Sunday morning, with sunlight spilling over the barren trees bordering Juganine Creek, shortly after we’d finished eating breakfast and were settling down to another cup of coffee, the telephone rang.

Rarely welcome is a call so early on a Sunday morning. Lori and I stared at each other. I frowned deeply.

“It’s for you,” she said.

“I think it’s for you,” I countered.

It rang again.

Lately we’ve been going so many directions on our various and sundry projects that we realized we were working seven days a week. After some discussion, we agreed to hold Sunday as an inviolate day of rest. Since only three weekends had passed since initiating the plan, it was too early to tell whether we could stick to it. But at least it was a start.

The phone rang a third time. We watched each other. I was a bit more ambivalent about the ringing and could easily have let the answering machine take a message. Women, however, are by their very natures disposed to grab the infernal device at the first shudder of a ring, as if it were a matter of life and death. This is something that has long puzzled men.

Still, for it to ring this early, on a Sunday, was cause for worry. Given the opportunity, the mind will summon forth a multitude of disasters, tragedies, crises and woes only tenuously connected to reality. And yet that connection, tenuous though it be, binds one’s fears of inevitable loss to a suddenly uncertain present.

Of course, it could also be someone wanting us to meet them at the shop, or asking a favor, or an invitation to an event we’d somehow forgotten about, whether through an actual lapse in brain synapses or a Freudian slip.

The phone rang again.

We have our answering machine set to pick up on the fifth ring. This means that if we intend on filtering the call—the coward’s method of hiding—we have four long rings and their concomitant pregnant pauses to wonder who it is on the other end. Sometimes the suspension is comically palpable.

I wasn’t surprised when Lori lunged for the phone and grabbed it. My only surprise was in how long it took her to do so.

She spoke for a moment and then handed the phone to me. “It’s for you,” she said.

I hate it when that happens.

A woman’s voice informed me that the birds were back, their numbers having grown from five to eighteen.

“They’re there right now,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“I’ll be right out.”

We’d had a similar conversation the week before—not on a Sunday, but on a Friday. I was just walking out the door to go to work when Beth Warders called to tell me there were five large gray birds in her field, each about four feet tall and with red markings on their heads. Did I have any idea what they were?

I did. They were sandhill cranes, a species of bird that occasionally passes through the county but never when I was looking. And their exclusion was an ulcer on my county list. Within two minutes I had lined up someone to take my place and off I went, but by the time I arrived, around fifteen minutes later, they had disappeared.

She and her husband, Gary, met me at the end of their drive. He said the birds had flown south not two minutes before.

So here I was being handed a second chance. “Let’s go!” I shouted, grabbing for my binoculars and camera.

“Let me curl my hair,” she said.

I tried to say something but my mouth was locked open. In fact, my entire body was stunned to immobility while it waited for my brain to register the impact of her words. Hair? Curl? It was a form of concussion, bludgeoned by a shockwave of surprise that even thirty-some years of marriage could never have prepared me for.

“You look great,” I finally stammered, following her into the bathroom. She looked at her reflection and ran a comb through her hair. “There’s no time,” I implored.

“Please,” I begged.

She cooched one side of her head, and poofed her upper tresses, and fluffed the other side.
I said something else and we left.

There is no fast way to get to the Warders’ place. You go west out of Blue Rapids to the Fawn Creek School marker, turn north and follow the narrow dirt road as it winds, bends, dips, snakes, curves, and undulates for five miles. All the way, we watched the skies and the stubble fields for cranes. I wasn’t about to let them slip past this time. Lori pointed out how dirty the windshield was and how the wiper was in shreds. She alerted me to several soaring bald eagles, a mob of crows, and a harrier.

The Warders’ drive is a quarter-mile long and passes through wheat fields now ragged and sere. I could see Beth and Gary waiting for us, so I coasted in, trying not to flatten their dogs, one whom apparently had a death wish.

The birds had taken wing a few minutes before, Beth said. We probably couldn’t see them through the dirty windshield.

Sunday is almost here again, but this time if the phone rings I’m going to answer it. It may be a day of rest, but some things just won’t wait.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Remind me who I am

The mailman delivered a package I had long anticipated. So long, in fact, that I had given up all hope for it. It had become like something out of a dream, imagined once in the lonely hours of night and then only half-seen, lurking on the periphery of my vision, quick to dance away once it sensed my attention, not quite a figment of my imagination and not wholly substantial, either.

And yet it was there, heavy in my hand, the return address giving away the secret of what resided within the blue and white envelope.

I didn’t open it right away. Instead, I set it down and sorted through the other mail. Bills were laid aside, junk mail tossed.

Lori watched me with a look her in eye I could not decipher.

In the stack was a magazine with an article I’d written, and I thumbed through it to see what kind of illustration they’d put to it. I was not only pleased to see that the artist had nicely captured the essence of the story, but envious, also. Painting has always been something I wished I could do though I never learned how, or never tried, which is a truer statement. My admiration for artists is unbounded. I once vowed, only half in jest, that upon attaining a certain age I would take up brush and palette and sit on the crests of the hills with a canvas and easel, perhaps wearing a white smock smudged with a rainbow of colors, or a French beret, my beard grown wild and white and tangled. But that certain age is far from certain.

Lori pointed to the package. “What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s my book,” I said.

She wanted me to open it, and I did too, but something in me was almost afraid. The process of publication had taken far too long, and I was left drained and haggard. There should be more excitement, I felt. Some part of me was missing, though I could not name which part.

In my mind’s eye I saw the procession of our lives, from the first date, when I showed up on her parent’s front porch feeling like a man who’s been given a reprieve, to much later, after the kids had grown up and left and we first started talking about trading Colorado for rural Kansas. Throughout those years I recalled sensing an abiding faith that the future was unlimited, that whatever we set out to do would be successful, and here I was at this juncture hesitant to open a package I had waited to receive since graduation, if I was honest with myself.

I wondered where that faith had gone, what was holding me back.

Our choices are always finite. I picked up the package, tore off the strip, and pulled the book out.

It was exactly as I’d pictured it but somehow less real. Or more. Or maybe it was I who was insubstantial. I felt as if all the many things I’d been engaged in suddenly swept around me and carried past like the flow of a river, leaving me immobile as a boulder.

Earlier that day I had listened to an author friend read from her books, and afterward we’d talked about publishing and marketing. She agreed with what I’d heard, that writing was the easy part. Once the book is in your hands, she said, life becomes something else.

I handed the book to Lori. “Is it what you expected?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

After we married, we moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I worked as a guard at a Public Service generator site supplying electricity to the northern part of the state. Lori would sometimes bring me lunch or supper. We were crazy in love, and young, and had little concerns other than just getting through my shift so we could be together. Life was simple and the few complexities were shunted aside by the newfound freedom we had found. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle, or so we liked to think.

I wondered how things could get so complicated.

Lori handed the book back. I wondered what it would look like on a bookshelf, or on a display, and though I tried imagining myself giving a reading as my author friend had done, or of autographing the book, it was always a stranger I saw in my place.

I put the book on the arm of my reading chair and went on to other matters. Life indeed becomes something else.

That evening I stepped outside as the moon brightened in the dusk. It hung pendant in the eastern sky, veiled behind the last of November’s leaves, so I walked into the field to see it better. A few crickets trilled, their songs muted. A light breeze rustled the dry grasses.

The wild baying of geese filled the air, and I turned to see a small group skim the trees by the house and bank toward the sewage ponds. For a moment they were silhouetted against the moon, and then they were just a fading echo in the dark.

Light spilled from the window. Lori was in the kitchen washing dishes, oblivious of my departure. I watched her for a moment, thinking of that young girl in New Mexico, and I wondered again, not for the first time, what she had seen in me. What quality or character or trait. And I wondered, too, how I could find my way back to that undoubting man, or whether it was even possible after all these years.

In the deepening dark I felt the weight of time, of successes and failures, of dreams won and dreams lost, and saw for the first time an unbroken chain linking them, a chain that stretched back over the decades to a girl forever young, a girl who would hear the door open and come to me, and who would remind me, once again, of who I am.