Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Boundaries redrawn and refreshed

Late afternoon, Friday. A sudden chill whispers the air as if a door somewhere opened onto a winter place, and the day’s warmth lapses into lengthening shadows flowing eastward like a rising tide. The midwinter sun hangs low in the western sky, weak and ineffectual but warm enough for my purposes. Warm enough, too, for a cardinal, who suddenly belts out a rollicking song from across the road.

It’s the conclusion of the workweek, more or less, and the unseasonable temperature has given me a hankering for beer and barbecue. I set the portable grill on the picnic table, dump in charcoal, douse with starter fluid, apply a match. Flames lick the air. The cardinal runs through his vast repertoire.

This is early February? I hear the slurry whistles of bluebirds, the nasal intonations of nuthatches, the hammering of woodpeckers, the full-blown convocations of finches. Closing my eyes, I pick up a few more distant species: collared-dove, chickadee, junco. The greasy stench of lighter fluid burns my nose. When I open my eyes I’m looking south at a ridge rising into an azure sky. It’s not the same ridge that was there yesterday.

I’m talking metaphorically, of course. It still runs parallel to the river in a mostly east-west direction with a slight decline to the south where the Big Blue swings toward its confluence with the Kaw River. To my right the crest drops down into a broad valley where Juganine Creek is born. Trees and thickets furze the ravines but the summit is grassy with pale limestone outcrops showing through like bleached bones. The ridge has changed little but my perception of it has undergone a metamorphosis, brought about by a surprising twist to what should have been a routine meeting on tourism.

Bob Cole, director of the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation, was the guest speaker, and his topic was on the recently released study entitled “Experiential Tourism Strategy for the Kansas Flint Hills.” It falls in line with Marci Penner’s “explorer tourism” approach with the addition of a more unpronounceable adjective. I’m not sure what Mr. Cole said during the meeting because I was busy staring at a map that came with the handouts.

It showed eastern Kansas from Salina to Lawrence and Nebraska to Oklahoma, with the center portion heavily shaded in green. The lighter green depicted the heart of the Flint Hills, bounded roughly by the Kansas River in the north and the open prairies below El Dorado in the south. What interested me most was the darker shading, which extended from the Oklahoma border almost to the Nebraska line.

Look on a state map and you’ll find it color-coded to the eleven distinct geologic areas, such as the high plains in the west, the Cherokee lowlands in the extreme southeast, or the narrow finger of the Chautauqua Hills near Independence. The glaciated region covers the upper northeast section of the state, and is represented by gently rounded hills carved from the polar ice sheets that once covered them. This is where Blue Rapids lies.

So I’d always been told. For years I’d been blissfully ignorant of this and thought this place to be along the northern fringe of the Flint Hills, a region encompassing the last remaining expanse of tallgrass prairie in America. The Flint Hills carries with it a sort of romance, a magical quality that sets it apart; the glaciated region does not. When I was apprised of my error I became nearly inconsolate and have secretly resented the exclusion ever since.

But the new map, published by the Kansas Geological Survey, boosted the Flint Hills ecoregion nearly to the junction of the Little and Big Blue rivers. Beyond that point are large tracts of nearly pristine tallgrass prairie. Below it are the Flint Hills proper—and the southern half of Blue Rapids.

Once Mr. Cole relinquished the podium and the group split up into work sessions, my wife and I bowed out. I could barely sit still and needed to get home. The night was starless with cloudcover, the ridge invisible, but the very air seemed changed. I couldn’t say how, only that it was, and my place in it, too.

And now, a day later, perhaps the birds sense it, too. They sing with the lust of springtime and pull me out, so that I grab a chair, a book and a cup of coffee and sit for a spell while watching my steak. My eyes are continually pulled to the ridge, but this is only natural. Our eyes are naturally drawn to high places. I trace the gullies and thickets and recall my steps in days past, and imagine the view of our little town nestled in a bend in the river.

An almost delirious joy suffuses me. I feel vindicated somehow. And once dinner is finished and the dishes washed and put away, I step outside one last time into an evening gone soft and dark. A thin reddish streak marks the horizon, and the first stars are popping out. The church bells intone a hymn and fall silent.

As I stand there, a familiar whistling sound comes to me, and I look up to see a ragged flock of goldeneyes winging their way south. They pass over the house and the fields and the railroad tracks and lift to clear the ridge and vanish into the gloom, dragging the sound of their wings with them, and in their wake night descends on these, oh yes, these Flint Hills.

Thinking the unthinkable: time without us

This thing, this indiscernible blade, this surgical slicing through skin bone marrow and soul—I do not understand. If I sit here long enough staring out the window at the leaves swirling in the eddies formed in the lee of the building, at the glowering gray sky and the trees bowing from the force of the wind, I think I might get close enough to grasp at it, though I do not believe for one second that it can be caught with physical hands. Or that by staring empty-eyed into space its mysteries will be revealed. Maybe some things are conceived in darkness and in darkness remain.

How deep are our scars? Some I can name and chart, their physical traits and characteristics, the method of their execution: the melted patch on my right shoulder, the waxy pucker on my thigh, the pale thread half-circling my ring finger. Each a remnant, a memory of blood or fire, and shallow, though deep enough certainly to forever leave their imprint.

But it is not of these I speak.

It is some unnamable thing I reach for, and it eludes me. It slips away light as a shadow. But it is always there. Especially when blood flows like water.

It was a morning like any other. Lori off to work with a kiss and I retreating to the back of the house to brush my teeth. When I returned to the kitchen Lori was there, dazed, eyes glassy, face bloody from a cut on her nose and chin, her nose scraped raw. A fall outside off the front step had launched her face-first into the gravel, and for several minutes I laboriously scraped bits of rock and dirt from the cuts. My hands shaking as if possessed with the ague.

She would heal. I would not.

Seeing her like that sundered me somehow, so that even as I led her into the bathroom to daub her wounds I passed beyond the boundaries of the physical and entered a room whose pastel walls were unbroken by door or window, illuminated by a soft light that came from everywhere and nowhere. My presence cast no shadow. There were two of me now, one with her, the other lost and terrified and unsure how to return. But I knew the place.

Deep wounds leave their dermal histories through a condensation of collagen fibers and structural molecules, a lessening of blood vessels, a reduction in nerve endings. An imperfect, if visible, mending.

This sudden severing left neither trace nor sign, nor pain, but brought in its wake a fear so great it was like a pack of wolves descending on me to rend and tear. I was breathless in panic, seeing nothing but my prison while that other me stanched the blood with a confidence I in no way possessed. That other me an imposter. The real me was cast into an otherworld where I wandered alone.

My wife is stronger than I will ever be. She sat at the table for a minute while gathering her composure and then left for work, against my admonitions and pleading. And my two halves slowly merged, as though a tentative truce had been bargained and both parties remained distrustful of the other. That terror, the metaphysical knife that cut through the strings which keep me upright, was still lurking in that tenebrous shadow I carry inside like a scar, but in the days that followed I kept returning to the place and snooping around for answers. There were things I wanted to know, things about myself I do not understand.

Why this blade, this terror? Where did it come from? It’s been with me for decades, yes, and possibly before, but there is nothing in my past which would account for it. I only know that sometimes a sense of mortality is so strong I can barely breathe, and a sense of dread falls like midnight, and that when Lori is injured or sick it comes out of the shadows like a singing sword and I fall screaming not again not again. No. Not again.

Time without us is unimaginable. We may peer cluelessly into the future and on one plane understand that in an indeterminate future we will no longer walk among the living, but to draw so close to the edge that we are singed or bloody is another thing entirely.

And yet, I do not fear death. Not my own, anyway; Lori’s is another matter. But the real fright must come not in the contemplation of loss but in the witnessing of a loved one’s pain. If there are levels of hell on earth, that surely is the worst.

With little warning, a friend’s husband slipped into advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Every day, without fail, she drives 30 miles to the nursing home to be with him. Most of the time he does not recognize her. She told me that after the initial heartbreak she now finds it fascinating how the mind works, and memory, in Alzheimer’s patients.

Another dear friend is dealing with her father’s struggle with cancer. Her mother is at the hospital all the time, rarely leaving her husband’s side. “I couldn’t do what my mother is doing,” she said, and then, after some thought, she said it’s probably just something we learn to do. I wanted to say something sensitive and touching. I couldn’t.

Later, it came to me that I should have said, Find the joy. It’s a creed I want to live by for the rest of my days, and yet seeing Lori with blood streaming down her face left no place in the universe for joy.

We will walk down dark roads in the days ahead. Somehow I must learn from my friends as they wend their ways through those twilight valleys, and find a way to blunt the knife, to escape that windowless prison. But for now I stare out the window and look for something hidden behind the dancing trees. I am afraid and don’t want to be.

Do not turn away. This is your life, too.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Palmer Cafe, Palmer, Kansas

The Haddam Cafe, Haddam, Kansas

The Barnes Cafe, Barnes, Kansas

Keeping the community alive: community-owned cafes play central role for rural towns in Washington County

When the owner of the Hometown Café in Barnes wanted to retire, the residents of this small rural town of 144 knew their options were limited. With nobody showing any interest in taking it over, they worried that they’d lose what many considered a critical component of their town. So they did the only thing left to them—they borrowed money and bought it themselves.

From the beginning of negotiations to the purchase and fundraiser for additional money for supplies and equipment, the process took only six months. “It went fast,” said Gloria Moore, a member of the Barnes Community Development Corporation, whose 100-plus stockholders shared the initial expenses. Which tells you something of the value a community places on its restaurant.

Kenny Stettnisch, the mayor of Barnes and a frequent customer of the café, said a café is much more than simply a place to eat, or a convenience to the residents. “It’s the life of a community,” he said.

His sentiment is shared by residents of other towns in Washington County. Besides Barnes, the towns of Haddam, pop. 160, and Palmer, pop. 102, both have come into ownership of their local cafes. Each town went about it in a different way, and each town has seen its own successes and failures. The cafes are gathering places, meeting halls, a place to catch up on the news and get in out of the rain. As one customer said, “It’s good food and good fellowship.”

It’s also hard work. But these towns are intent on keeping their cafes open. This is how they’re doing it.

The Hometown Café, Barnes

The wooden structure looks like something out of an Old West boom town, with a tall flat-faced front, a metal stairway leading to the second floor, and a weathered wood exterior, recently painted. Following this theme are painted silhouettes of gunslingers and gunfights in the top floor windows. All that’s needed to complete the picture is a hitching rail out front and tumbleweeds tumbling down the road.

For 13 years the Hometown Café (or Home Town Café, depending on which sign you go by) has been owned and operated by the Barnes Community Development Corporation. Any major decisions regarding finances or maintenance are the responsibility of a seven-member board of directors, but the day-to-day operations are left to the manager and staff.

This is good for the employees, who prefer to cook, serve and baby-sit without having to worry about where they’ll get the money for a new stove. That’s the BCDC’s headache, and it’s something they’re working on.

“It might be time for a new fundraiser,” Stettnisch said. A new stove costs $3,000. So far the Lions Club, a major benefactor, has anteed up a third of that, and the board is shopping around for a used model.

Besides revenue generated from hungry customers, the café gets some of its operating finances through the bingo hall, which is also owned by the BCDC. “If it’s doing a little better,” Stettnisch said, “sometimes we borrow money from them. And sometimes it goes the other way.”

On a January morning so warm it could pass for a day in April the mayor was sitting at the table by the front counter. With him were two other self-described regulars, Darrell Keefover and Verlin Richter. Keefover lives a few blocks away; Richter’s farm is nine miles south of town.

It was normally the ladies’ table, Keefover explains. The breakfast crowd consists of a different bunch than the lunch crowd, with the women sharing this table and the men another across the room. He explained that the problems facing Barnes are simple: lack of people, lack of adequate housing, lack of jobs. Even if old bachelor farmers like Richter wanted to move into town—and they don’t, he said, they tend to stay out on the farm until they’re, and he let it drop with a finger jabbed at Richter—there’s no place to live.

Richter nodded his head. “I’m 81 and never been married. I’m going to the nursing home,” he said.

On this day the café is lacking people, too, the competition of a big funeral and an auction whittling down the customer pool. But then winters tend to be slow anyway, said Pat Rahe, a part-time waitress.

“There’s not many restaurants left,” Keefover said. “Most of the people who eat here are older. Young people don’t support the café.”

“I eat here every day,” Richter said. “If I don’t come up here I tell them because they worry about me.”

“I call!” came a shout from the kitchen.

Checking up on regulars who miss a meal is customary at small-town eateries. That, and making special events even more special.

I’m told that whenever Rahe knows about someone’s birthday she bakes them a cake.

Keefover said he wasn’t going to tell her about his birthday because he didn’t want her to go to the trouble.

“When’s your birthday, Darrell?” Rahe called.

“I’m not gonna tell you.”

“I’ll bake you a cake.”

“You’re going to bake me a cake and I hate to see you have to do it,” he said.


“When is it, Darrell, the fourteenth?” This from Stettnisch.


“February the tenth!” Rahe practically crowed in glee. And then, softer, “You know I enjoy doing it.”

The Hometown Café employs one person full-time and six others part-time, and every one of them is as caring and friendly as Rahe.

“Finding help is difficult, but they do find good help,” Stettnisch said. He added that the strength of the café lies in its good home-cooked meals. And the Wednesday pan-fried chicken really packs them in, so much so that Stettnisch claimed to make reservations. “But we still have struggles,” he shrugged.

How important is a café to the community’s identity? When I pose this question, Keefover shakes his head and glances down at the table. “Without a café,” he said, “the community is over.”

Hometown Café is open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

On Sundays, Richter drives to Hanover and gets his lunch at Ricky’s Cafe. It’s farther to drive, but what’s a bachelor farmer to do?

Palmer Cafe

Multi-hued brick, blocky, with staggered sides like steps near the roof and gingham curtains showing through the front windows, the Palmer Café sits at the very heart of the town. Palmer itself is an anomaly. With unpaved streets and only a hundred-and-some residents, Palmer still has a grocer, post office, lumber yard, grain elevator, barber shop, insurance agency, filling station, truck repair shop and, of course, the café.

To keep the town alive, it takes hard work and a close-knit community, said Randy Hiltgen. Hiltgen serves on the café board and can occasionally be found behind the counter with his wife, doing their part as volunteers. It’s something many of the residents do. In fact, there’s a sign-up sheet to schedule volunteer help for the evenings they’re open.

“Finding help is a tussle,” he said. Fortunately Palmer is a farming community and many of the farmers’ wives help out with the cooking.

For over 20 years the community has owned the café. Back then the owner was wanting out and didn’t have any prospects so he and his neighbors worked out a deal—he’d sell it to them cheap. Residents threw in $25 per share, or whatever they could afford or felt right, and enough money was raised to purchase the building and stock the kitchen. The only time the café has closed since then is on Sundays.

It’s a constant struggle, though, to make ends meet.

“It’s like we tell them at the yearly members meeting every April,” Hiltgen said, “we lose money from eight o’clock till eleven, and make it from eleven to two, and when we’re open from two to five we lose it, and from five to nine we make money. The coffee drinkers don’t make us any money but we keep it open because it’s a place people come to meet and visit with their neighbors.”

After all the bills and salaries were paid last year, the café made a $100 profit. “And that’s all we care about,” Hiltgen said. “We can break even and it’s okay.”

The bank contributes sometimes, especially on costly items that need repair or replacement, and donations continue to flow in through special requests or through a jar situated next to the cash register.

A recent project involved insulating the walls and replacing windows, something that the community in typical fashion took to heart. The windows were donated, the bank offered generous sums of cash, and the men gathered in the evenings, rolled up their sleeves and did the work themselves.

It’s not just about the convenience of having a place to eat in town. It goes much deeper than that. It’s a matter of what happens if you lose the café, or another business? What then?

“People here in Palmer know that if we lose it, same way if we lose the grocery store, and on down the line, you just start a domino effect,” Hiltgen said.

“The café is horrendously important,” said Rhonda Meyerhoff. Meyerhoff is something of an anomaly herself, being a bookkeeper by trade and a part-time cook who claims she can’t cook. This last part is patently false. The customers lined up at the buffet table all spoke highly of the cooking and said they come back every day for more.

As in the other cafes, segregation seems to be the norm. In Palmer, men sit at the counter and the women at the tables, and on fish fry night the men work the kitchen and the women sip the coffee. Also, the café serves as a community center, there being none in town.

The walls are decorated with beer posters, old photographs of historic events and people, and a big display of Washington County News articles. In the foyer, shared between the café and the barbershop, is the community bulletin board. Besides the usual notices of recycling schedules, American Legion dances, a Valentine Day dinner at Zion Lutheran Church and cars for sale, there’s a note asking for help in locating a female redbone coondog that answers to Daisy. The dog has no collar.

Hiltgen credits the success of the café to the quality home-cooked food—and plenty on the plate—plus the fact that lunch diners can get in and grab the food with no perceptible delay. Regular menu items are available in addition to the daily buffet specials.

The Palmer Café differs from other community-owned restaurants in that it serves beer. It’s also by far the largest building, which makes for a higher overhead in energy costs. Each shift consists of a cook and a waitress, so on days when 30 meals are served it can be somewhat hectic.

Its hours are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 until whenever the last customer walks out the door. Which could be midnight, Hiltgen said.

The idea of all the work required to run a restaurant day in and day only to show $100 profit at the end of the year gnawed at me. I reminded Hiltgen that in a big city the profit would seem far too little to justify the expense.

He laughed. “It gives us a place and pride of community where we can say, hey, we have a restaurant, about the only place in Washington County where on eight o’clock on a Wednesday night you can go in and get a hamburger and French fries. Not too many places you can do that.”

Haddam Cafe

White-washed brick, air conditioner suspended above the front door, lace curtains, heart decorations, CAFE in big red letters, an ice machine—the Haddam Café, sandwiched between a tin barricade and the tiny limestone community center, is as plain Jane as they come, but there’s something about this place that positively invites the hungry traveler to enter. It’s not just the locals that feel that way. Just ask Eddie Ray Cantrell, if you can find him.

Odds are you won’t unless you catch him in hunting season. Otherwise he’ll be back in Lancaster, Ky., where he’s the executive vice president of the National Softball Association and the National Director of Umpires. His title sounds impressive but Cantrell admitted he’d rather be in Kansas. In Haddam, Kansas, to be precise.

When I walked into the café I didn’t know about Cantrell, had never heard of him or met a soul who lived in Haddam. None of that mattered to the women working that day. I ordered a burger and fries and sat down alone. When my lunch was served it was placed at the table where the staff, all five of them, sat down to eat. “You can eat with us,” the lady said.

The lady was Oleta Zenger, manager of the café, and that kind of down-home friendliness was no doubt what won Cantrell over. My burger was mostly intact when I was introduced to him via a framed letter removed from the bulletin board and thrust into my hands.

It was much better than the notice asking that the person who recently lost a blue Roughneck trashcan lid fitting a 32-gallon can please come to a certain house to pick it up. “It needs to go home,” the note said.

As I read Cantrell’s letter, Zinger told me that the café had been owned by the City of Haddam for around 10 years. It was by now a familiar tale, an owner wanting to retire, a city not wanting its heart cut out, the community coming together to make it happen. Ordinary chores like ordering food and managing the help were left to the manager, and the city council handled the bills.

And here was where Haddam deviated from the other community-owned cafes—it is open seven days a week, with Sunday being its busiest day. People from neighboring towns flock in to partake of the three specials served that day, and it’s not uncommon for the café to serve up 60 dinners. A similar thing happens on Wednesday evenings, when biscuits and gravy are served until 8 p.m.

Normal hours are 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. everyday including Sunday, and Wednesday evening from 5-8 p.m.

“We’re always busy,” Zenger said. Though breakfast isn’t a big item, lunch can be hectic. On the day I visited there were five people working, and once the place thinned out they were able to find something for themselves. Sometimes, there’s nothing left of the two different specials they serve, so they either cook something else up or go hungry.

Still, it’s not always this way. “It’s easier finding customers than help,” Zenger said. Usually three employees work each day, but if it gets busy they call someone else or another resident will step in.

The city pays for utilities but when something needs upgraded the community steps in with donations and fundraisers. A new floor was laid down through the generosity of the townspeople, and the bank pitched in $300 in gift certificates for the annual community Christmas party. Zenger said much of the money went into repairs, and hinted that it might be time for another fundraiser.

Birthdays and special occasions are carefully noted by the staff, and if any regular misses a meal phone calls are quickly made. Zenger told of one time when a regular coffee drinker didn’t show up and the rest of the group of regulars hopped in their trucks and went looking for him.

Birthdays are a little different in Haddam. Rather than receiving a cake, honorees are expected to provide cookies and buy coffee for the rest of the community. And if someone can’t make it down to the café for lunch, the staff will gladly deliver it.

Like Palmer and Barnes, the people of Haddam see the café as the heart of the town. The big fear is of losing it. Dody Cramer, a waitress, said, “When it’s gone, there won’t be much left.”

Besides a bank and a post office, there’s not much left now. Cantrell pointed this out in his letter, but he wasn’t referring to it as a bad thing. There’s nothing about Haddam that he doesn’t like.

His letter opens with “There’s a place in Kansas that I long to go home to.” The reasons are spelled out in detail, including the slow pace of life, the friendliness of the people, the unspoiled beauty, the solitude, “the cows being driven down the town road,” and especially the café, where there’s always a pot of coffee on. And especially, he said, “there’s hope.”

Hope seems an odd choice of words for rural communities at the beginning of the 21st century, when so many are fading away like the color in old overalls left outside too long in the hot summer sun. But perhaps that’s all that’s left at the end of the day, and the desire to keep their way of life alive. There’s always another fundraiser or donation.

I tracked Cantrell down in Kentucky and asked him how he had found Haddam and why it was so special.

After pheasant and quail hunting had dried up around Seneca and then Concordia in 1993, he and a friend headed to Washington County, where others from their town had hunted in the past. After meeting several landowners, they were introduced to Warren Zenger, who allowed them to hunt his property on two conditions: “If you see any cattle, stay the hell out of the field,” and “You have to eat at the café.”

“We needed a place to eat, and we sure needed a place to hunt, so both fit into the mix pretty well,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that Haddam would adopt me and that I would call it my second home.”

Through the years the café has become much more than just a place to eat. Cantrell calls it his home, and the people his family. “Not one drop of the blood in my veins is the same blood as anyone in that town,” he said, “but we are still family.”

In his letter Cantrell touched on things that are pure Haddam and pure Barnes and pure Palmer, the reason why these little towns refuse to go quietly into that long night. “These people are preserving a way of life that is bygone in so many small towns in this world,” he said. “Progress and the 21st century haven’t ruined them. They are genuine and they are proud. I can’t imagine not having the café there. It would break my heart.”

Hopes and dreams on the Great White Way

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.