Friday, July 28, 2006

An intersection of past and present (con't from Steppingstones...)

The inclusion of the shotgun vexed me. I struggled to wake but the dream clawed me back, and like a man drowning I sank to a dark levee with the hum of insects loud in the dusk and a pale trail leading off at my feet. The pack was heavy. I was alone, and more alone than ever, and I felt that aloneness with each step. The levee curved away to the left and I left it there, dropping down a steep bank studded with loose rocks and out onto a grassy strip. Before me a midnight rank of trees.

A sense of dread enveloped me. As I stood there hesitant and afraid I thought of the shotgun nestled in the pack, and suddenly I wanted it in my hands. I wanted its power. Its protection.

True courage is internal, not external. Even as a voice whispered in my ear, I took one step forward, and then another, and slipped between two trees barely visible in the falling darkness. The insectan hum rose to a crescendo. Underneath it lay a silence unknown to man, almost unheard, expectant, like the quiet pause between the beats of a heart, a microcosmic slip in which exists the present and the future, life and death, knowledge and the ultimate question. Darkness swallowed me. I probed the ground with a booted foot before committing to movement. Another step. Another. A tightly woven web settled across my face like a wet mist. Fear jolted me. Where was the spider? Where was the spider?


Most dreams tend to be either nonsensical or include some totemic item. I think by now I’m stuck with a pistol or, if things are really hairy, a riot shotgun. The beauty of the latter is that just about anything within range is erased with one shot, and aiming is only loosely called for. I’m well aware there are exceptions.

Late one night in Las Vegas I stepped outside the guard shack into the sonic boom of a snarling German shepherd. I’m not sure who was more surprised though I can state that whatever traces of sleep I’d been fighting were summarily banished for the short term. Rather than panicking, which was my normal mode, I reached inside the door, grabbed a shotgun, racked a shell into the chamber, put the front bead on the dog’s teeth and squeezed the trigger. The explosion slammed the stock into my shoulder, lifted dirt on all sides of the dog and called down a deathly hush. The shepherd stood there with a stupid expression on its furry face, even as I stood there amazed that not one pellet had penetrated its hide. And at fifteen feet! A double-ought shell holds nine pellets, each the equivalent of a .30 caliber bullet, and all nine managed to miss. The pooch wisely departed before I could repeat the process. To this day I can’t decide whether the dog gods were looking after the stray or if I jerked the trigger and blew an easy shot. Needless to say, the incident insinuated a friction of doubt about of the lethality of a shotgun. And still it crops up in my dreams.

We consist of the accumulation of experience and emotion. The two are commingled, conflated, convoluted and compressed into a singular entity called memory, which is as often unreliable as it is reliable. Dreams are memories without limits, roving a wasteland fragmented with elements of the real and the unreal. Dreams are memories gone mad. And, sometimes, dreams, like memories, are a summons, a revelation, or a steppingstone.

The problem is in determining which is which. Coming in as it did on the heels of the two half-sorted memories and a geocaching expedition, the dream stood out like a guidepost. There was something honest and true about it, something that beckoned to me. Something that said, heed me: I have answers to questions you need to ask.

It always comes down to this: a journey elsewhere, and that first step, even if the step is backwards rather than forward.

Poor Steve, someone should have warned him to dress appropriately. We parked on the west side of Washington Lake and marched into the woods, our GPS units pointing the way, counting down the measurement between us and the treasure we sought. Four hundred feet, then less, but the thick canopy played havoc with the signals. Steve’s shorts left his skin exposed to the hordes of ticks, chiggers and poison oak, and he stepped carefully, altogether unsure of the undertaking. I bulled ahead to a small clearing spilling sunshine into the gloom, where winged amber dragonflies captured my attention. A ruin mysteriously engraved with stars and cats materialized from the thick vegetation. We were close, but the bearings on our GPS units swung crazily as if unmoored. When we were unable to locate the cache, Lori and Steve were eager to depart.

Reluctantly I followed, and soon broke out of the forest into bright sunshine. Between the entering of the woods and the exiting something changed, some internal structure, and I was again a young boy staring out through a bamboo thicket, or monkeying up an elm whose leafy branches held solitude, adventure and an insect that filled me with terror, and with those young eyes I watched the three of us pick off ticks and climb into a car and drive off, leaving me in a limbo of age and place under skies I could never have imagined when the world was of manageable size, and as the car disappeared down a long straight embankment I stood there with the woods before me and a strange new world surrounding me and I knew I would never age beyond this point, that forever and forever I would remain here, not lost and somehow not alone, recalling thickets and trees time had erased, and new marvels as well, amber dragons glinting in the sun, webs silvery in the darkness, and the incantatory drone of insects.

(Conclusion next week)

Note on Morrowville Church story

While making another trip to the Terry Chapel and Mortuary in Waterville a few days ago I remarked to Lori that the old St. Monica's Catholic Church still looked deserted. It stood across the street from the chapel and had been auctioned off several years ago. Some guy from out of state bought it with the intent of using it as a hunting lodge.

The place reminded me of several articles I'd written about the demise of these rural churches, and I thought I ought to share them with my readers. The following story is the first of several such articles.

Rural America is passing away before our eyes.

The church moves on--Morrowville United Methodist Church to close its doors

There was little in Ken Price’s sermon last Sunday at the Morrowville United Methodist Church that would lead a visitor to suspect that the venerable church, over a century old, would soon be just another vacant building on a long dusty street littered with vacant buildings. The opening hymn was sung, the voices of the nine congregants barely audible above the roar of the furnace. The advent wreath was lit. A prayer of thanksgiving was recited. The late December sun filtered through the blinds on the south windows, igniting the dust motes roving the air.

Near the end of his sermon on Psalm 148, as Price expounded on the virtues of praise, he dropped a hint but put it in such a way that the onus wasn’t on what was being lost but what had been found.

“We praise the Lord for our church—for this church,” he said. “We don’t praise God that it’s closing. We praise God for all of the years it was part of this community, and for all of those people who were brought up in this church, and changed in their Christian beliefs and formed into the person they are today.”

Of course, those nine congregants knew it was coming. They knew that the church had but one more Sunday service and then it would be closed for good, except for one final service sometime in the spring, when members of four Washington County United Methodist Churches would converge there for a closing ceremony. Those nine congregants, “the people close to His heart” as Psalms 148 says, would see it through to the end, when the church so close to their hearts would become only a memory of what once was.


“It’s not been an easy decision,” said Reverend Phil Morris.

Morris, the pastor of the four United Methodist Churches making up the Mill Creek Parish—Washington, Haddam, Linn and Morrowville—said that closing the church on January 2, 2005 was a two-part determination, one economic—the high cost of heating the building through the winter months, insurance, upkeep—and the other a steady decline in participation. Sunday attendance averaged between eight and ten people, he said. Compared to the three other churches in the parish, the Morrowville church was by far the smallest. Washington averages 65-70 people, Haddam between 20-25, and Linn 18-24, he said. The date was chosen due to an aversion to shutting down on the Sunday after Christmas.

“The realization was that we can’t continue on, we have to do something,” he said. “It’s difficult to cut ties to a community when you’ve been there so long. The Morrowville church has been there for 118 years. The connection is really deep to the community.”

Overall, the congregation is taking it well, he said. It was tougher on some than others, and then there were the Elliotts. “The Elliotts especially,” he stressed. “They were members of the old Throop Church north of Washington. They’ve already been through one closing already. They know the feeling.”


“My wife and I grew up in a little country church about ten, twelve miles southwest of here in a little community called Throop,” Norman Elliott said. “It used to have a store and a blacksmith shop and a school and a church, a lot of things. Now there’s a marker where it once was.”

When going through some of his parents’ belongings, he came across a report written in 1957 entitled “Regarding the Continuance of the Throop Evangelical United Brethren Church.” It listed population trends of the two townships nearest to the church, Coleman and Strawberry, where most of the parishioners lived.

“There had been a tremendous decrease in population of those two townships that pretty well paralleled the decrease in membership and attendance at that church,” he said. The parallels were similar to that of Morrowville nearly 50 years later.

But what caught his eye was a statement near the end of the report. “’There’s no disgrace in closing a church when you just run out of people,’” he said. After a pause, he added, “That’s essentially what we’ve done.”

That same statement was put to the Morrowville congregation in a series of letters sent to each member. The last letter said that on the 10th of November a decision would be made whether to continue services at the Morrowville United Methodist Church.

“I think people have become accustomed what’s going on with the demographics of the area,” Elliott said. “This is kind of a barometer to go by. In 1968, when Janet and I first got married and started living here, there were 120 students in high school. There are now 30. There’s been a general decline in the population over the last thirty-plus years, as with every county from here to Colorado. It’s just what’s going on in this part of the country.”

Not one person questioned the closing of the church. “It’s probably not a real shock,” Elliott said.
“We’re not closing a church, we’re closing an attendance center,” he added. “The church is the people, not the building.”


“There’s a lot of things missing when there’s not a lot of people in church,” said Mary Sawyer. She tilted her head toward the room, empty now except for the small knot of parishioners congregating at the back. The other churches in the parish have more families and children, and the addition will be welcome, she said.

From the vestibule the entire sanctuary is visible, a one-room affair with a small balcony and belfry up a cramped flight of stairs. Helen Elder, who’s been attending the church since she was six years old—that would have been in the 1930s, she says—pointed to the balcony and said that’s where Sunday School services were once held. They were all boys and one girl, she said. And there—she pointed to the front of the church, near the podium—was where the ladies met, and the men were here, near the back, and the junior high kids were on the platform. Some kids even had Sunday School in the belfry.

“In that little room?” asked Nancy Tice, one of the youngest members. Elder nodded.

“We saw it coming,” said Junior Sawyer, a member since the 1950s. It was just like the rest of the rural experience, he said. “We just have to adjust to it as it weakens.”

After a short visitation, the remaining members of the church filed out into the crisp December morning. The sun shone wanly from a clear blue sky and shadows were long in the street. One by one, they started their vehicles and drove off, leaving the street abandoned all the way to the edge of town.

Inside, sunlight spilled through the blinds, warming the wooden pews worn smooth by the posteriors of generations of worshipers. A banner on the wall read “Morrowville United Methodist Church—1886-1986.” All that remained were the dust motes shining in the still air and the silence. The church was gone. Only the building remained.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Steppingstones to an unrealized past

I will never escape the young boy I was when the world was of manageable size, circumscribed by a regulated grid of streets, alleys and weedy vacant lots within pedal of a bicycle, and with distant views of skies I suspected might never be known held out like the promise of some unimaginable enchantment only vaguely obtainable, like graduating from high school, a first kiss, or becoming a man. In those sun-drenched days everything I am or will be was fixed, as if my experiences, fears, phobias, doubts and dreams both attained and unrequited were poured into a mold like some primordial soup and allowed to harden before being sent out into the world, and that no matter how its external shell changed or where it might drift, the inward structure would forever be unmalleable.

Excavating the inner landscape is the duty of the introvert, a process simultaneously enlightening and accursed. Like some pith-helmeted archaeologist, I routinely inspect, pick, sweep and sort memories buried by time. Beneath that featureless patina are answers to questions I am only faintly aware of asking, or of needing to ask, or completely oblivious of until some relic or piece is unearthed in the rubble. Cosmogonists, with their obsession on astronomically remote objects, are no doubt similar only on a far grander scale. My genesis should be simpler to decipher, though strangely it is not.

Now and then, though, I get a glimpse, a flicker of movement on the periphery of sight more felt than seen, leaving an imprint on the mind like an unprovable suspicion. When after a recent expedition two such incipient images surfaced, I gently sifted through them seeking clues to their importance. Nothing is random. Everything holds meaning, though here there was little other than fragments of memories.

And strange ones at that. In one I’m climbing an elm tree in the front yard of our home on Palomas Street in Albuquerque. The upper reaches of these trees—there were two of them as I recall, tall, stately—were second homes to me and my friends. We could usually be found there swinging like monkeys, or spying in the backyard of a neighbor whose kids were sometimes friends and more often enemies, and with whom we waged a low-level war by hurling sticks and insults over the tall cinderblock wall dividing our properties. It suddenly comes to me that one time the older girl, a wretched thing, kept taunting my brother by jumping in front of him while he bicycled down the street. A miscalculation of the amount of forbearance he possessed earned her a set of tracks down her face when he finally refused to swerve. The damage was impressive. Her howls of pain and outrage compete now with the guttural cucking of a cuckoo outside my window.

The tree is immaterial (I think) other than what could sometimes be found there—a bug that scared me witless. We called them elm beetles, though they weren’t; I now think they were some sort of shield bug in the family Pentatomidae. Seeing them on the rough bark necessitated a wide detour, but finding them on my naked skin was terrifying. That they were harmless didn’t matter. I had a deep-seated phobia about insects of any kind landing on me, and this particular specimen was the most reviled.

Forty-some years later I’m back in the tree with one of those infernal creatures crawling up my arm, and in my haste to rid myself of it I almost tumble out. A fall to earth would inflict more harm than the bug could have, but phobias rarely tolerate reason.

The other memory was of being in a dark, sheltered thicket. At first this confused me until I swept away the accumulation of four decades’ worth of dirt and cobwebs. From my vantage I could glimpse a weeping willow and the rear of a drab abode-style house. I was back on Palomas, hiding in a bamboo stand that was easily three times my height. It was a favorite haunt of mine and might have been the first forest of any kind to shelter me. I’m so far back in time now that I might well be on the verge of discovering what triggered the Big Bang.

Sometimes the introvert doesn’t uncover clues as much as trip over them. And sometimes the clues come in pairs, lying so close together that they must have once been connected somehow. I set them side by side, end to end, corner to corner, but no permutation made sense. I had to keep digging.

What triggered these memories? Earlier we had taken a friend geocaching, searching for useless trinkets using GPS units. Some of the caches we uncovered were in the open, such as at the ghost town of Spence just south of the Nebraska border, at the 6th Principle Meridian monument near Mahaska, and beneath the Highway 36 bridge over the Little Blue River. But others were hidden in the fastness of the woods, a place humans rarely tread, and my wife and a friend refused to follow as I bulled through a green wall of vegetation and disappeared into the green world.

Here, then, was a puzzle. When fitting the pieces together seemed impossible, I put them aside, chalking them up to a pleasant walk down memory lane. And then came the dream.

In it I was preparing for a 24-hour stay in the woods. I stuffed extra water bottles in a backpack and added food, mosquito net, folding chair, camera and insect repellent. My binoculars went on top, and, lastly, a short-barreled shotgun with pistol grip.

I parked by the levee, shrugged into the pack and headed for the river just as the sun slipped below the rim of the world and the moon began brightening.

(Continued next week)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Death of a giant

As they waited, everyone said that if the tree could talk, what stories it would tell.

Actually, the tree was talking. Now and then a pop would come from deep in the bowels of the old cottonwood, a groan of fibers strained to the breaking point, and then it would quiet as if marshalling its strength. A slight breeze fanned the leaves.

The tree had been there for as long as they could remember. Longer.

Sometime in the mid-1800s it sprouted near the banks of the Big Blue River. As it grew a town grew with it, spreading to the south and east and, for a while, to the north. Bridges spanned the river, railroad tracks were laid, and prosperity of sorts came to the town of Blue Rapids. Decades passed. The river took the bridges and the stone buildings on its banks. Fire took more. The river shifted north and the Corps of Engineers threw up a levee to keep it there. The tree kept growing.

In the collective memory of the town, the tree was always there.

A photograph dated Oct. 24, 1913, shows a group of baseball players huddling in conversation while behind them a batter prepares to swing. On the left, the tree anchors the sky. It towers above a line of cars ringing the stadium at Riverside Park. Even then it was old.

A headline in the Blue Rapids Centennial, published in 1970, declared it the “Largest Tree in Kansas.” The accompanying article watered it down with a half-hearted disclaimer, adding that it’s not certain, but “possible.”

Thirty-two years later the Kansas Forest Service arrived to measure it against the record-holder, a 116’ monster in Ozawkie. By that time a portion of the crest had fallen and the forester didn’t have the right tools, but a good estimation put the tree somewhere in the top ten for that species. The base had a circumference of 27’ 3”. It was a big tree.

Now it was dying.

Early in the morning of Friday, July 14, a main bough split off and fell to the ground. A gaping hole exposed a crude platform propped up by wooden posts, a tree house built not on a limb but in a cavity. The missing section threw the rest of the tree out of balance, and another main bough sagged over the fence separating the arena from the park. One limb kissed a power line.

This created headaches for the Marshall County Fair Board and the city, because the fair had started and figure 8 races were scheduled the next day. Directly beneath that hanging bough the pit stop crews would be stationed. The city crew inspected the tree and asked the fair board to find a tree removal company. Fast.

Kurtz Tree Service arrived an hour later. While Terry Kurtz, the owner, and his assistant, Justin Cooper, detailed a plan of attack, their families spread out on the lawn. Kids played in the shade across the road. Their wives hovered around them, sizing up the tree and worrying about their husbands’ safety. Fair board members gathered in conference. The smell of raw wood was strong. Where the bark had stripped off the sinews were exposed, slick with moisture. Singularly or in pairs people walked over and laid their hands on it, as if in benediction.

KP&L was summoned to cut the power. Kurtz spotted a bee swarm near a crook where they had intended on sawing. Someone went to call a beekeeper. Just as KP&L drove up the bough shuddered and bent to the ground in a gentle arc, taking the line and the bees with it.

The tree now leaned to the north. Kurtz chainsawed sections of the fallen bough into manageable pieces, which were then dragged off by a dozer. Once space was cleared around the trunk, men rushed around looking for heavy lengths of chain. They would try to pull the tree down with the dozer.

It was steamy and blazing hot. Bob Lindquist dispensed iced bottles of water.

“I always called it ‘my tree,’” Cooper said. He gulped down the water and wiped sweat from his eyes.

“I used to park my car under it in the derby,” he said. “My dad did, too.” His father, Kenneth Cooper, was in the pit crew in 1972 and 1973 for driver Dave Paxton, who took first place both years. Cooper said his father called it his “good luck tree.” Although, Cooper said, he has driven in demolition derby, he isn’t planning on entering this year. “I never had any luck.” Now he was cutting the tree down.

Someone asked about the tree house. “My dad used to live over there,” Jim Flower, a city worker, said, pointing to a house a hundred yards away. “He used to come over and smoke cigarettes in the tree where his mom couldn’t see him.”

“Did he build the tree house?” someone asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Kenny Feldhausen, a board member, parked the dozer a distance from the northwest side of the tree. Men scrambled to link chains together while Kurtz lifted Cooper in a bucket to drape a chain around the trunk. Everyone drew back as the dozer started up. It backed slowly until the chain was taut.

The tree groaned but remained erect. Kurtz attacked the opposite side of the trunk with a long chainsaw. Wood chips flew in an angry whine. The tree gave a loud crack, shook as if angry, and then tilted to the northwest. Its fall was slow and graceful but it hit with a sustained whoomph that sucked the breath out of everybody there.

It was almost preternaturally quiet. Men, looking dazed, walked to the tree and inspected it. Carpenter ants scurried around; on the opposite side of the fence was a loud drone of bees. The smell of wood and mold was stronger now. The sky looked too open, naked somehow.

“That couldn’t have come down any better,” Kurtz said.

Cooper gathered up his chainsaw. A trickle of blood had dried on his cheek.

Kurtz slapped his hands together and walked over to his family. “That’s all, folks,” he said.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Frank and the afterlife

I was walking to the back room to kiss Lori goodnight when the phone rang. It was a friend of ours, and as they chatted away I stooped and kissed the top of her head. She scribbled a note and handed it to me. It read, “Frank Fisher died Friday night.”

I read the note and set it carefully on the desk, as if it were fragile and might shatter. Her eyes were on me but I couldn’t look back.

There wasn’t a lot to say. I slipped outside and stood looking to the west, still light from the sunset, and thought of how I’d intended on taking Frank a book to read. He always enjoyed my writing, and my companionship, and I thought it would make a welcome diversion for the long hours spent bedridden at the nursing home. Dusk was settling in. The crescent moon took on a luminance that grew with each heartbeat. If I felt anything other than a sense of loss it was anger toward myself, with a touch of revulsion thrown in for good measure. When will I learn? I asked. There was no reply within or without. The silence was answer enough.
Frank Fisher entered my life one afternoon when I worked at a small newspaper in Waterville. I was up to my eyeballs in deadline stress when he walked through the door and announced himself. He was tall and lanky and folded himself into a chair. His grin was infectious. “I hear you like birds,” he said. “I do, too.”

The two of us tested my editor’s patience as we got to know one another. Frank was curious about the Christmas bird counts I’d been arranging and wanted to know how we conducted them. Did we stop by his yard? The ponderosa pines were good habitat for nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers, he said, and he made me promise to drop by next December.

He had seen a cougar south of Barnes on some land he hunted. It was my impression that Frank told everyone he met about the cougar. It crossed the road right in front of him. He got a good look at it, good enough that it didn’t matter that the Parks and Wildlife people denied their existence. “I know what I saw,” he said. I never doubted him.

After that, we ran into each other occasionally and always spent a few minutes talking. Our interests were mostly similar except that his favorite pastime was taking a shotgun to wild turkeys and I preferred watching them. At odd hours Frank would call to ask for help identifying a new bird in his yard. He had a good eye and a talent for description and it was usually pretty easy. Frank was unfailingly polite and thanked me each time. I came to look forward to his calls.

He was a councilman at the time, and I covered his last meeting. After being diagnosed with bone cancer, declining health forced him out of politics. He’d given Waterville 46 years of his life, serving in every capacity possible. When we sat down for an interview, he confided that his favorite career had been that of a crossing guard. It was part of his duties as a law enforcement officer, which admittedly were pretty tame. If he needed backup he’d call home and tell Lonnie. Lonnie would be deputized on the spot and together they’d handle the situation.

Frank and his wife Marjorie had four boys—Dennis, Steven, Terry and Lonnie—but it was Lonnie whom he spoke the most of. Lonnie passed away the year before I met Frank, and the loss was still grievous.

Last January Lori saw Frank in the nursing home. When she told me, I immediately made plans to visit him. Weeks passed without me making a move. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see Frank; I didn’t want to go to the nursing home.

He called one night and left a message. Guilt got the better of me and I called him back. “I’ll be over Friday,” I said.

Frank had changed a lot since I’d quit the newspaper. He was almost a skeleton, but his eyes lit up when I knocked on the door. “Be sure and sign my register,” he said, handing me a notebook.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect his attitude. As an avid outdoorsman who loved nothing more than hunting or fishing, finding himself flat on his back in a small room—a one-way ticket with no hope of escape—must have been nightmarishly restrictive. And yet he always expressed gratitude for the view out the window. His room faced east across an expanse of grass dropping down to Gypsum Street, where a broad pasture beyond ended in a ragged border of trees fronting Juganine Creek. He told me of seeing a turkey once step from the woods and strut across the pasture, his voice wild with a childish delight, though his body was hollowed out, his facial features bony and sharp.

There were three birdfeeders outside, and we’d discuss the various species. “Is that a purple finch?” he’d ask, and I’d say no, it’s a house finch. He’d nod and say, “I get them mixed up.”

For the umpteenth time I’d remind him of the field marks distinguishing the two, and he’d nod and say, “I sure love watching birds.”

I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t let my fear of the nursing home keep me from being the kind of friend I wanted to be. My goal was to visit him once a week. It didn’t happen. My visits were random at best. A copy of my book sat in the living room, waiting for my next visit. Then came the call.

I’m not a big believer in an afterlife, but as I stood there in the fading light I had a vision of Frank and Lonnie relaxing by the side of a lake, the waters lapping gently against a sandy shore. They’re laughing. While they wait for the others, Frank flicks his rod and sends a lure spinning through the air, sunlight refracting off its mirrored surface, and as it sails higher and farther the line peels off the reel with a hiss and their conversation stalls. They watch it, almost breathlessly, and in that silent place with only birdsong and the drone of insects a peace descends like no other peace, a contentment, a serenity, a holiness. The lure hits the water with a quiet splash. Lonnie pats his father on the shoulder. “Nice cast,” Lonnie says. Frank gives him a big grin, a Frank grin, a grin that spreads clear across his face and touches his ears, and as he cranks the handle the bail snaps shut with a solid click and he says, “It’s good to be home.”

Friday, July 07, 2006

The sound of rushing waters

There were unexpected repercussions in the aftermath of a camping trip to South Carolina several years ago. Besides being scarred for life by the inability to find the common eastern towhee—rated as being little more than a trash bird due to its abundance—there was one other event that created ripples that still lap against my shores. If not for a pitiable reaction to what can only be considered a willful act of deprivation, my response would have been comic. As it is, I find myself once more repeating my absurd actions like some primitive man who stepped across the boundaries of time from the Ice Age to modern America, only to find himself dumbfounded, awestruck, and, most of all, delighted in that way known only to children or simpletons.

Obviously this admission creates a suspicion in the mind of the reader about which category the author falls under. In my defense let me say that I would much rather be known as one full of childlike wonder than a jaded, ill-tempered churl. And anyway, what’s so strange about opening and closing the refrigerator?

We had gone in the wake of a minor hurricane, which should have been a clue to what kind of trip it would become. Indeed, it was one of those vacations that linger in the memory not only for the good things that happened, like finding the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, slow food, delicious barbecue in shotgun shacks, sunsets over mosquito-infested swamps where alligators grinned toothy Southern-style greetings, but also in the not-so-good things, like taking off in a violent thunderstorm, hitting an air pocket at 30,000 feet, and having jet troubles that threatened the lives of every miserable, abject, cramped, sardine-like passenger of an airline that deserved to go out of business due to its ineptitude and, eventually, did just that.

Each night we slept in a different area, hoisting our little tent, rolling out our sleeping bags, dousing ourselves in bug juice and plugging in the electric coffee pot (roughing it only goes so far). Food was whatever we picked up at the grocery store or at local restaurants, stored on ice in a Styrofoam container with beer and pop. When the ice melted, we got more.

On our return to Denver, Lori caught me opening and closing the refrigerator. Not once, not twice, but many times, over and over, accompanied each time with a breathless “Woooow.” It was so neat to have cold beverages and food without having to lug around an unwieldy freezer and, even better, to have what amounted to an endless supply to choose from. Modern technology never seemed so fine and perfect, so ideal, something I’m sure that backpackers and other tent campers appreciate as well. Whether they become entranced by it is something for them to admit, or not.

If not for something that happened last week this would have remained merely an amusing anecdote for Lori to share with friends to prove what a goof her husband can be. But after six years of fighting the kitchen drain—as long as we’ve lived in this hundred-year-old house—the battle came to a head when the culprit refused to unclog. So fierce was the engagement that my plunger shattered, my drain snake twisted to a pretzel, an entire industrial-strength bottle of Drano shrugged off, and the P-trap below the sink blown away under my administrations. The kitchen was flooded with toxic waste. Conceding defeat, I called a plumber.

Getting a plumber is not an easy thing to do in rural Kansas. With the median age of pipes in rural homes being 89.4 years, and the average number of plumbing professionals around 1.7 per every 100,000 residents, it’s understandable that plumbers are in high demand. That I found one who was willing to look at my problem was something of a miracle; that he could arrive in less than a week was practically unheard of.

After washing dishes in the bathtub for three days, it was a relief to see Wayne Mitchell of Mitchell Plumbing pull into the drive. In the back of his truck was enough plastic pipe to outfit a high-rise apartment complex. I walked out to greet him but backed off when he yanked out a sawzall. In his eye was a feral gleam peculiar to men with large power tools with razor- sharp blades. After that, I left him alone and retreated to my back office. Sheba hid in her cage.

For a while there was a deep ripping sound, the clunk of falling metal pipes, banging and rustling and clanging, and then Wayne said he was done. He’d replaced the old steel pipe between the sink and the main drain in the basement. It was a beautiful job. It was a work of art.

When he was gone, I ran the faucet for a minute. There was no back up, no pooling. I plugged the sink, filled it up and let it out, watching as the level dropped rapidly until nothing was left. I almost wept with joy.

The next test was the bathroom. I flushed the toilet and listened for the telltale gurgling, guggling and burping that normally accompanied it from the sink and bathtub. Utter silence followed. Apparently the vent he installed took care of the musical pipes. Even the bathroom sink drained better. I filled it and watched it drain, and said in a long breathless drawl, “Woooowwww.”

When Lori got home I dragged her into the kitchen and showed her how fast the kitchen sink emptied. Then I repeated the process in the bathroom.

“But wait!” I told her as she turned to leave. “Listen!” And I flushed the toilet.

In her expression I realized I was back to opening and closing the refrigerator. It was South Carolina all over again.

Don’t get me wrong—she was happy to have the problem fixed. Me, I was dumbfounded, awestruck, and, most of all, delighted.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Note on recent posts, or lack thereof

It may seem like I'm not keeping up with stories lately but it's not altogether my fault. Since it's summertime, the newspaper has temporary staff writing articles, and they all want their say on the op-ed page. My editor, a very forgiving, generous man, let's them do this. That means my column sometimes gets "bumped" into the following week.

I'm including a news article I wrote about Scott Edwards, a fine-art photographer from Wisconsin who had an itch to do something a little different to fire up his creativity: walk 1800 miles to the Grand Canyon. His journey, which can be read on his personal blog at, has made me think about my life, my hopes and dreams, especially now that, like him, I've turned the 50 page and have started into middle age. (And sometimes it feels much more advanced.) Lori just turned 50 as well, and she's feeling the pinch of mortality.

Meeting people like Scott make a journalist's poverty wages worth it. My column should return next week.

Leaving Waterville--almost halfway there

Scott Edwards and his favorite 4x5 camera

Destination with a big hole—photographer walking from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon

On all grand adventures, it’s wise to have a backup plan in case something unforeseen happens. Scott Edwards has such a plan.

Plan A: Walk from Neenah, Wisc., to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Plan B: If injured, lay up until healed, then continue.

It might sound crazy—his daughter certainly thinks so, though his son thinks it’s the coolest thing he’s ever heard of—but he admits to doing crazy things before, like the time he hitchhiked to Mexico, or spent a summer in the Canadian wilderness, or lived in a primitive cabin in Alaska. This time, though, it’s for art, to reconnect to a vision, to be enveloped in a purity that can only be expressed through large format black-and-white photography.

It helps that it also fulfils a boyhood dream.

And that he just turned 50.

And that four of his best friends passed away within the last few years. “It creates an urgency to take inventory of those lingering dreams that I haven’t endeavored, and get them done,” Edwards said.

Besides the boyhood dream to walk from Wisconsin to the coast—didn’t matter which one—Edwards said there were practical matters to consider. As a photographer, with portfolios for sale both online and in several galleries, he was used to driving great distances to such locations as Glacier National Monument and the canyonlands of Utah. Gallery shows, and the collectors who frequent them, want new works, he said, not the same old inventory. New images are a requisite.

He thought of driving to Utah, and of all the potential photographs waiting for him along the route if only he would see them. Which is difficult if not impossible when traveling at 65 miles an hour. And anyway his car was a piece of crap, and it was doubtful it would make it. And since the half-formed idea already had him packing—lightly, very lightly—walking didn’t seem so farfetched. “It’s not about the going, it’s about what’s in between,” he said.

His journey began on April 22. He couldn’t wait to get out of Wisconsin—“The people are different there,” he said—and once he did, he opened up to the journey. Each day he’d walk between 12 and 20 miles, and sleep in city parks. That is, unless people invited them into their homes, which happened several times.

By the third day his feet were trashed. So he bought a colorful jogging stroller, stashed his pack and supplies under a tarp, and found the going much smoother, and with less strain on his feet.

A stress fracture laid him low in Frankfort for three days. With donations from the two banks and the newspaper, he was put up at the Bankers Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street. It was enough to get his foot back in shape.

So far, he said Kansas has been the highlight of the trip.

“Your landscape has a natural rhythm to it,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for in my photos. I like playing with contrast, rough versus smooth, hilly versus flat, and you have that here. I like the feel of it. I like the look of it.”

He said up until now he had only a single photograph of Kansas in his collection, one taken near Montezuma in the southwestern part of the state. “It’s all about the sky out there,” he said. “I love the starkness.”

Edwards’ medium is the black-and-white gelatin silver film using medium and large format cameras. For this trip he brought his favorite, an old Busch Pressman. Each shot requires a tripod and critical exposure, something he says digital photographers rarely need. And with only a few plates of film with him at any time, each shot has to count. “Every shot I assume is going to end up in a frame,” he said.

As he walks, his eyes rove the contours of the land, looking for that intoxicating blend of contrast and light. “The pictures find me,” he said.

“There are certain qualities of light I see, certain shapes I see in nature that remind me of childhood memories,” he said. “So I try to reenact that with the images I shoot. And that’s what first got me started shooting black and white. All my images from my childhood are in black and white, and of light falling on things. I used to spend a lot of time alone when I was a kid, just looking at stuff. I was a very visual kid.”

Being in Kansas gave him the itch to relocate here. In 2002, after a trip to Catherine, a small town outside of Hays, where his great-great-grandfather bought a house and where three generations of his family were raised, he began formulating a plan to move. But now he isn’t sure if that’s the area he wants to live. “Kansas is special,” he said. “Everything makes sense out here.”

The kindness of strangers still amazes him. While on the road between Frankfort and Blue Rapids, a van pulled up in front of him and parked. Before he could practice his speech on why he doesn’t accept rides, a lady approached him and asked if he’d care for some peach cobbler. He would, and very much so, he said. The family—Dick and Joyce Blaske and their son, Max, and daughter, Rosa, all of rural Blue Rapids, spilled from the van, set up lawn chairs, and had an impromptu picnic on the shoulder of the highway.

“I should expect kindness by now,” Edwards said. “But I never, ever do. It just floors me.”

Especially after his stay in Vermillion and Frankfort. In Milo, Iowa, he injured his left foot while walking gravel roads. It turned out to be a stress fracture. By the time he reached Vermillion, he was limping hard.

“My foot hurt so bad to the point of where I was questioning whether or not I’m going to make it through this trip,” he said. “So I thought I’d better rest up.”

It turned out to be a two-and-a-half day stay. But when he went to pay for his meals at the restaurant, he found that others jumped to beat him to the ticket. People would stop by his camp in the park and talk, and once a KDOT crew took their lunch break with him. He eyed up one of their fluorescent T-shirts and asked where he could get one. Walking at dawn and dusk posed visibility problems, and he was afraid someone would run him over. One of the supervisors handed him an orange vest and told him to keep it.

The trend continued at Frankfort. After Connie Musil, editor of the Frankfort Area News, interviewed him, she asked if he preferred to sleep in the open or if he might like a real bed. The paper offered to underwrite a night at the Bankers Inn. Edwards was ecstatic.

Two other nights were donated courtesy of the Vermillion State Bank and the First National Bank in Frankfort—this after he decided to use his charge card to pay for an extra night. “A guy who wants to be honest can’t win in that town,” Edwards said.

In Blue Rapids, fresh-brewed coffee was waiting for him at the park and breakfast was provided by an anonymous donor.

At stops along the way, Edwards updates his personal blog so friends and relatives can track his journey. (It can be found at On his first entry, after explaining several of the reasons for making the trip, he finally summed them up in a neat and tidy package, just as he packed lightly, one set of clothing, his camera, film, sleeping bag, pack, water bottle.

“I am going on a long walk,” he wrote. “I have always believed that the world is my backyard, and there is a great big hole in it about 1800 miles from here. I intend to walk over there and have a lookie.”

When he crossed into Washington County last Monday, a small moving figure on an endless ribbon of asphalt, he was almost halfway there.