Sunday, August 27, 2006

Beyond the edge of the world

Came to fields of standing water, where old slatted barns sink into the past; came to empty grain elevators waiting forlornly beside empty railroad tracks, and crossed and bumped down a gravel road past an abandoned gas station whose sightless eyes forever stare inward; and so came at last to the edge of the world and a little beyond: Oak Hill, Kansas.

The 35 or so residents of this town might be surprised to find that they live on the far side of human reckoning, but such, apparently, is the case. A message posted to a birding listserv for our sister state to the west stated that “I drove to the edge of the world (or so it seemed as this place was right next to Kansas) to see Burchfield State Wildlife Area. It was rather disappointing.”

For the incurious and unenlightened, disappointment always confounds when the world runs out and nothing is left but sky, clouds, wind and the flat earth vanishing into the distance. Their feeble imagination falters in the face of such wanton openness. And so they skulk homeward with their petty dreams burned to ash.

I’ve known the type. For Lori and me to leave Colorado for the eastern slope of Kansas was more than unthinkable—it was an act of insanity. We’d cracked up, wigged out, gone off the deep end. We were nuts. And then we were gone, slipping off under the cover of darkness, bidding all we’d known farewell and a hearty good riddance.

We were not disappointed. Nor were we disappointed in tiny Oak Hill. Past the defunct gas station and beyond a wall of trees the business district opened up—such as it is. First and foremost was the Blackberry Mercantile, owned and operated by Meg Perry, a Kansas native by way of Connecticut and Los Angeles. Her small store, housed in a remodeled 1880s building, is a creative blend of botanical art, vintage linens and handcrafted wares from Kansas artisans. On the corner stood a brick structure where tractor parts and other supplies are available. Considering the plethora of mismatched chairs out front, it’s apparent that sometimes half the town’s population gathers to watch the world go by.

If the town feels spacious, it’s because of what’s missing. Entire blocks are gone, vanished, tumbled from the face of the earth. Residential housing is scattered over a small area dominated by the whitewashed walls of the church. City hall looked like it would hold a dozen people at best, and only if they were skinny. Very few people were about. It was stunningly quiet. Before leaving I snapped a few photographs and then paused at the west entrance to town, where a small sign caught my attention. It read:


I loved that sign. Everything important was included in those brief few words and the rest left out. It made me want to move there. I’m positive the Colorado birder would have been disappointed.

Realizing that much of the rest of the world finds Kansas so otherworldly (off-worldly, beyond-worldly), I did an Internet search for facts about Oak Hill. What I found wasn’t surprising though the factoids were unerringly skewed to a particular set of values.

On real estate Web sites (some with clamorous penchants for bold fonts), I discovered that when compared with other Kansas cities Oak Hill is below the state average in median housing income, median age and population density; significantly below in median housing values, black, Hispanic and foreign-born population, rental properties, college students and those with bachelor’s degrees or higher; and significantly above in unemployment and the age of houses. Nationally, Oak Hill holds a 95% greater chance of tornadoes, equal roughly to the state average. There are more men than women.

Not a pretty picture, especially that last part. There was no grocer, no gas station, no bakery, no liquor store, no bar, no library, no restaurant, no school.

Several days later I couldn’t help myself—I had to call someone who lived there. There’s always another side to a story, and I wanted it. If the cold hard facts were so cruel, what was the upshot? After finding a listing of the mayor and city council members, I started dialing. Councilwoman Mona Reader picked up on the third ring.

So what gives, I asked. If by any worldly measure of success Oak Hill is a failure, if it’s in the exact middle of nowhere, as Meg Perry’s son told her when he visited from Georgia, if it’s beyond the edge of the world, what, if anything, makes Oak Hill special?

Much like the sign, Mona’s laugh held all the important things and none of the rest. In it I surmised that while facts are indisputable, what’s left out is often more telling than what’s included.

“The people make it special,” Mona said. “We’re like a family here. Everyone knows everyone else. We take care of each other.”

At Christmas the whole town comes together to decorate the church and throw a party, and there’s also an autumn festival. The council invites residents to attend their monthly meetings—and people actually come. “It’s fantastic. We have a good time here,” she said.

Nothing she’d said had been included on the Web sites purporting to tell the whole story about Oak Hill. And that confused me for a moment before realizing that the rest of the world doesn’t recognize values that actually count. Like many other rural towns beyond the edge of the world, Oak Hill makes up for its lack of jobs, college students and expensive housing by simply being a home where neighbors are friends and work together for the good of all.

So with a nod toward the real estate sticklers, let me close with this: Oak Hill is a small town, and while we were there it was home to us, too. Visit sometime. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One slightly spoiled rabbit

Life according to Sheba

Doritos, Fritos, Brand X? Doritos. If one thing’s certain, it’s that quality counts. There are reasons why some things cost more than others. Taste, for one. You get what you pay for.

Not that I know about paying for anything. I’m just a rabbit, but I’m a smart rabbit, a very smart rabbit, and I love to eat. The guy who feeds me does a pretty good job of filling my dish: Oxbow Hay premium timothy pellets, Oxbow Hay premium orchard grass, Green Giant carrots, Lays potato chips, Dole bananas, Planters dry-roasted peanuts, organic flax seed, organic broccoli, wild alfalfa, papaya, filtered water. Hey, I can’t complain.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was young I was caged like a prisoner, allowed out only to have my fur combed, and none too gently, I might add. The food was generic, cheap and yucky. There were no rubs, no caresses, no lullabies, no kisses on the nose, and certainly no treats. My friends and I called it the Blue River Gulag. If not for our luxuriant hair—we’re Angoras, you know—we’d have long ago been cut to pieces and fried up like chicken.

Then this guy showed up. In he walks, goofy look on his face as if he’s out shopping but isn’t fully aware of what it is he’s shopping for. Like always when strangers enter the hut, the others crouch down to make themselves less conspicuous. I usually do, too, but not this time. There’s something about this guy that looks—lost. I’m not sure there’s another word for it, at least not in rabbit language. I put my front paws up high on the cage and stare at him with my big brown bunny eyes, looking all inquisitive and cuddly, and innocent, too, and when he sees me he makes a beeline toward me.

Gotcha, I thought.

A girl’s got to play hard to get, so when he reached in to get me I retreated to the back of the cage and made him practically crawl in to get me. Being handled has bad connotations for us rabbits—there’s that comb, you know—so I wasn’t too sure about this until he started rubbing my head. I love being rubbed on the head. He carried me outside and I saw for the first time the world. It was so big it scared me, but he didn’t seem bothered so I tried to relax.

And then he put me back in the cage and left, and the door closed and the others laughed at me and I wondered if maybe I’d played too hard to get.

Weeks went by with the dread routine of being fed and combed and left alone. My thoughts were dark as I recalled his touch, how he cradled me and wrapped his entire hand around my head and stroked back to sooth my ears, and how he whispered to me, how he showed me another world I never knew existed. How he left.

My world was a wire cage in an unheated building. At night the monsters outside sang their eerie songs and I huddled in a corner and prayed for dawn.

One afternoon I heard the door creak open and he was there. My joy was unbounded! I thumped the cage so hard it rattled the foundation. He picked me up and whispered how beautiful I was and as we went out into the world I said goodbye! goodbye! to my friends.

Now, a lot has changed since then. I’m a different rabbit, for one. Who knew I had royalty in me? I’m a Queen and expect to be treated as such. Free run of the place, rubs, snacks, gourmet food—it doesn’t get much better than this. I don’t even have to get combed anymore unless I want to. Well, sort of. Some things never change.

The guy who feeds me is always saying the world outside is going to hell in a handbasket. I’m not sure what that means but he never seems happy when he says it. When he sits next to me on the floor and rubs me he always seems so content, and the other day he said to the girl that if everybody in the world had a rabbit there would be no more wars or fighting. I liked it when he said it. It made me feel more important.

It also got me thinking. What is life? How can we find happiness? What is truly important? From my perspective, it’s fairly easy, but I thought I’d pass along some insights from what I’ve learned so far.

Nothing is real unless it’s first nudged with a nose. Twice.

Everything is better when we’re all together.

Rabbit lives are short. Eat well, eat lots, and don’t worry about your figure.

It’s always time for a snack.

Brand names taste best.

Share and share alike.

Show your appreciation.

A clean cage is nice but let’s not get neurotic about it.

Everybody needs a little exercise but always follow it with a nap.

Standing on your hind legs will get you a treat every time.

Pay attention.

Don’t expect too much, but always be grateful for what you get.

If you’re happy, dance.

Snacks are great, but a rub is better.

Life is beautiful.

I hope this helps. I just heard a potato chip bag open and I’ve got to check it out.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Rosa Blaske gets a free ride

Timeshift on the banks of the Big Blue

Somewhere close by John Fuller is moldering in the ground, and Sarah Keyes as well. In this long grassy meadow grooved deep by the tracks of thousands of heavy wagons and hobnailed boots and hoofed beasts, many weighing over a ton, the story of the opening of the American West was written.

Of course, nobody knows exactly where in this place John Fuller or Sarah Keyes are buried. That, too, is part of the story, and it adds a touch of disconsolation to an already doleful tale. Imagine leaving home and hearth for the great unknown, striking out toward a bright future half a continent away, only to find an unforeseen death and a makeshift marker that soon totters, falls and rots into the ground even as you return to the dirt from whence you were made, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, forever and ever amen. Keyes had little hope of making the journey, so aged and ill was she, but she went anyway, a testament to hope and faith, if not disbelief. Her trail ended on the banks of the Big Blue River on May 29, 1846, and cast a shade of gloom over the entire encampment.

Maybe Fuller’s story is all the more pitiable, for he was in full health, and young, and might have made the crossing to the Oregon Territory if not for a slight miscalculation when pulling his rifle from the wagon. His mistake must have been a fairly common one, for a note attached to a stick planted in the meadow explained that “The mode was the usual one…the muzzle was toward him and went off by itself.”

Undoubtedly there are others planted here in this meadow, ‘49ers like Fuller or those who came before, or after, who journeyed perilously for hundreds of miles only to fall forgotten in this wilderness. Not too far away at another river crossing are a suspected 40 graves with only a few stones to mark their presence. I sometimes wonder if on certain nights, when conditions are just so, one can hear the rustle of homespun fabric and the creak of wooden wheels as the emigrants drop down from the low bluffs and wend their way toward the river. A friend of a friend once swore that he’d seen a ghostly array of ragged and weary conquistadores defiling down a narrow sandy arroyo south of Corrales, New Mexico, the dust of their spectral passing like a silver fog in the light of the full moon. As he crouched terrified behind a juniper, the clank of metal on metal rose to him, and the murmur of voices in a language he did not know.

There are no ghosts here today, or if they are they’re silent, watchful perhaps from the dark treeline where none but shadows gather as the northern horizon darkens to a purple bruise and lightning forks jagged and bright. What we’re waiting for is unseen yet, just past a low hump in the center of the meadow. A mountain man rushes past, his garb a motley assemblage of sweat-stained leather, knee-high boots, colorful headscarf and one very broad knife encased in a fringed leather sheath. In his hands is a tiny digital camera. If nothing else, the camera grounds me to the present even as I prepare for the past.

Time seems to have become more fluid. Old whitehaired Ezra Meeker, or someone much like him, is pontificating behind me in the shade of a gnarled oak, regaling listeners with his exploits along the Oregon Trail—first taken by wagon in 1852, and then in a reversal of directions in 1906 on a self-described mission to ensure the preservation of the trail. Before his death at age 98 the hoary pioneer had navigated the trip by wagon, train, automobile and airplane, which boggles the mind by any standard. Bonneted ladies with long flowing dresses meander through Civil War soldiers in heavy cotton uniforms. With them and around them are people who have witnessed mankind landing on the lunar surface, accompanied in near-real time spacecraft orbiting the outermost planets, and stared agape at the farthest recess of time, the Ultra Deep Field, a densely-packed corner of the universe with an estimated 10,000 galaxies. Which also boggles the mind.

But it’s not the soldiers or the ladies or old Meeker himself I’m here to see. Just over that hump is something that has not set foot here in 150 years, which adjoins me to the era of John Fuller and Sarah Keyes and the nameless others.

We watch the distant line of trees, startlingly green compared to wan dry grass, shorn low now to highlight the deep ruts. The sky is tormented, growing darker, and the first pulse of a breeze brings with it the musty smell of rain. Already the temperature has dropped 20 degrees. Were we back in the mid-1800s the meadow would be a hive of activity, families battening down the wagons, rounding up the oxen, preparing for a blow. As it is, most of the people are gathered near the food wagon, leaving a handful of photographers strung like a net in a loose semi-circle across the base of the meadow.

What we see when it finally crests the hump and appears like a sail on wind-tossed seas is something Fuller and Keyes would have instantly recognized, her through her dying eyes, Fuller with his wide open and unafraid. A covered wagon rolls effortlessly down from the bluffs, pulled by two massive oxen. They move with sure steps that appear almost delicate, graceful despite their bulk, conducted by the drover with his thin baton of whiplash. Three figures moving in concert across a meadow that once hosted thousands of such contrivances before the long slide of history left them in the shadows. And for the named and nameless ones forgotten in this meadow, surely this is what the resurrection will be like, not the archangel splitting the heavens with a trumpet blast but the Lord of Hosts appearing in an old wooden wagon pulled by lumbering horned angels.

Sometimes it seems like a thousand years have passed since the wagons rolled through, and sometimes it seems like they’ve never stopped.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Remembering Dean

A friend of ours, Dean Perkins, of Barnes, Kansas, passed away last week. There have been too many good people dying lately, and his loss is a blow to a great many people. I knew him only a little, but that was enough to make me a lifelong friend to Dean. He was that way, which is why so many people came to his funeral. As it is, he's in a far better place now.

I know his wife, Idana, and his daughter, Melodie, much better, the former through working at the newspaper and the latter because she's my boss at Georgia-Pacific. Both are very special ladies.

As I composed a letter of condolence, a poem came to me. That such a thing could happen is unheard of. Prior to this I had written exactly one poem, and it embarrassed both me and my wife, so I had given up on the craft and stuck to prose. And here was this thing trying to get out of me and at first I fought it and then I relented and let the pen skip over the page and do its duty.

I am not a poet. The iambic pentameter or whatever might be skewed, and if it is, so be it. This is simply what came to me as I remembered a man I faintly knew but who had befriended my wife, and in my book that made him my friend as well. Dean will be missed, but his memory will live on.

For Dean

Death is not final
It is a bridge.

A life is not lost
nor forgotten,
But like a lake’s surface when struck with a stone
Transforms into a watery ripple that sets out on a journey—
Not alone, never alone—
There is a moment of displacement,
a commutation,
a metamorphosis

And in the silence that follows
the waves radiate outward on a path
never before taken
and echo and echo
and echo
on that far shore.

There once was a boy (Conclusion "Steppingstones..."

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
– Ernest Becker

I once dreamed I entered a deserted building and in total darkness found my way to a stairway leading to the second floor. The place was familiar—formerly the Ideal Laundry in the Five Points area of lower downtown Denver, a hollowed shell the length of a city block with boarded-up windows, rusted machinery and strange noises with no discernable origin. There were two sets of stairs, one on the north side, one on the south. I was in the south stairwell. It was silent except for the slight creak of my gun belt and the whispered footfalls on my progress. The revolver was heavy in my hand, the grip slippery from sweat.

I turned at the landing and started up the last flight and saw the silhouette of a man standing at the top. The shape was so indistinct that it seemed more impression than verifiable fact, a darker shade of darkness against a midnight backdrop, and as I studied it wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me there was a pop of light and something slammed me into the wall. I slid into a heap, my pistol and flashlight gone, blood running from my chest in a warm dark stream. The figure took a step down, and another, lingering on each stair as if it had all the time in the world, or relishing what was to come. Never was there anything other than shape, or shadow, until a pistol barrel loomed into focus and centered inches from my face. The maw of the barrel was blacker than the night itself, blacker than the figure, blacker than the shadows in the far corners of the room, and it drew me in like an embrace until a blinding light and explosion rocketed me from bed, my heart hammering in my ribs.

The following evening I was dispatched there after a burglar alarm sounded. Was the dream an omen or merely a nocturnal fabrication? There was no knowing until the night had run its course. I entered the building alone, fast, rushing up the north stairwell with pistol in hand, finger on trigger. Very, very afraid.

There came a time, though, when fear crippled me. An alarm had sounded at a small convenience store in a bad neighborhood. It was a moonless night, the street empty, a few lights glowing in the brick houses lining the street. A dim light in the store illuminated narrow aisles crammed with goods, but there was no indication of forced entry. I couldn’t check the back without walking down a narrow alley and I was not about to do that.

As I slipped the key into the front door a terror fell on me. It was like suffocating, oxygen vacuumed from my lungs until I staggered back, panting, gasping and clawing at my pistol, as if that would do any good. I retreated to the truck and locked the doors. For a long time I glared out at the building until my eyes reddened from the strain, struggling to calm down, wondering what frightened me, knowing with a humiliating certainty that I did not possess the courage to enter that place alone. When at last I drove off it was to the whispered accusations of a part of me that died on that lonely street: Coward, it said. You coward.


We were not finished yet. We turned south out of Washington and followed the needle on our GPS units until they swiveled sharply to the right. Another hundred feet and we parked in a shallow turnoff. Low grassy hills rose to the west and behind us a ribbon of trees shadowed a small stream. Steve and I waded into thigh-deep grass, letting the GPS dictate our path. After a few minutes of searching he held up a small canister. We signed our names on the logbook and returned it to its hiding place.

There was one more. At a picnic area outside of town we walked across a manicured strip of grass and confronted a dark array of trees. Poison ivy grew thick in the understory while webs glistened wetly in the fractured light. A cardinal sang.

For a moment I hesitated. To enter was to face an age-old fear of insects crawling on me—not the elm beetle, certainly, but far worse, a dizzying variety of spiders, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes and, even worse, the unknown. But there was a cache to locate and something powerful and pure luring me on.

I broke through the first rank and dropped down into a small declivity. The others followed. In the woods our GPS units gave wildly varying directions, whether from the cloudcover or the trees or a dearth of satellites. Stumbling over obstacles hidden in the vegetation, we bulled through to a small sluggish stream that blocked our progress and turned back. Steve and Lori headed for the open, saying they’d had enough. I carried on, looking for a path of least resistance.

Bird songs echoed through the stillness. Ticks crawled up my pants. With a rotted branch I fended off spider webs. From the clearing Lori and Steve tracked my moves, nor were they alone. Mourning cloaks and wood nymphs fluttered in the dappled shadows. Orb spiders hung fat and heavy from vast glittering webs. I felt watched, as if my presence in the woods was unwanted. Zeroing in on a fallen tree, I circled it three times until I noticed the edge of a metal canister poking through. Scattering a pile of rotted timber, I pulled out the cache and held it aloft triumphantly, and then cracked the case to get to the logbook. My bare arms were covered with sweat and bug bites and in the steamy closeness my human scent was rank.

All around me rose incantations of indeterminate tongues, melodies and tempos of pure sound echoing as if from beyond the universe. Such a strange and inhuman place these deep woods, and yet so soothing, as if this were a homecoming and I a traveler turning his back on a larger world whose skies he had once known and now repudiated. And why should that be when surrounded by this alien place?

With luck, we find our way in dreams and memories. For I had been there before, not in those woods beside Mill Creek but far away and long ago in a dense bamboo thicket where I alone ventured, and in an airy elm tree where I would scamper as high as I dared and look out on a world more vast than I could imagine, and the memory was like a continuance of a life once lived, as if everything that happened between then and now transpired in the blink of an eye, and the only traces were strange thoughts haunting my sleep.

I was once that boy. A skinny, freckled, red-haired boy who looked out on the world through the parted branches of a thicket or the upper reaches of a tree, and if what he saw troubled him he would retreat deeper into the shadows, or inward, where only he knew the path. He could not have known that fear would forever cling to him like the webs he brushed against, that there would never be a time when he was not afraid, or uncomfortably conscious of an underlying terror all wild creatures know. That he would never age, no matter the lined face staring back in the mirror. How could he? The world was young and so was he, and there were other skies to imagine, and if he could imagine them, then he could imagine a different self entirely.

That other self never materialized. He would forever be the boy looking through the thicket, forever shadowed by a nameless dread, and if occasionally like a sword he wielded a dried length of bamboo, or dreamed of weapons that could never protect him, it was less flights of fancy than fledgling attempts to keep a world he did not trust at bay.

I was still that boy. And these things—the sticky webs draping themselves across exposed flesh like a second skin, the unfelt legs of creatures scribbling beneath my clothes to burrow and feast, the drone of insects like the aggregate of thousands of automobiles faintly heard from a quiet suburban street, the potentialities of poisonous snakes or wasp swarms or infectious mosquitoes—were never really barriers but simply conditions of being. Indispensable, irreducible, prerequisites for the totality of existence, they could be either shunned or enjoined. The choice was mine alone.

I signed the logbook and shoved the cache under a log. Between me and the others was a wild riot of briar tangles, poison oak, mossy trees moldering into the forest floor and gigantic webs glimmering in the shattered sunlight. Through the eyes of a boy who had never aged, I went looking for a way out of the woods.