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.

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