Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Old bike, foggy morning
Throw back the darkness
The front door came unstuck with a loud crack that shattered the night. Peering through the storm door, I looked not for what was there but for what was new, my eyes registering the shadows of the trees cast by the streetlight, the pale rutted swath of the gravel road, the symmetrical slats of the patio railing and the deck planks with their loose nails and fallen leaves glinting like doubloons, and an odd foreign object just this side of the flowering shrub. Something round and white. Something not there the previous morning nor any morning before.
I didn’t open the door but studied the object for a few seconds. It lay midpoint between a storm-splintered elm and a shrub whose identity remains unknown but whose ghostly white blossoms in early summer limn the darkness like miniature galaxies. Its shadow was long and black.
In my right hand I held a small metal tactical flashlight, my thumb resting on the tailcap switch. After the nightmares that had jarred me awake and the sudden mysterious object I wanted something more substantial, something like the Glock. Or the riot shotgun.
The object resolved into a plastic ice cream bucket tipped on its side.
No breeze stirred the leaves nor had there been any during the night; something, therefore, moved the bucket from the side of the house. Some animal that may or may not be out there in the darkness.
Familiarity trains our senses to exclude the normal in favor of the abnormal. Add a healthy dose of paranoia and we become only one step removed from our paleolithic ancestors who were much further down the food chain than us. Experience both conditions and creates an almost preternatural awareness of surroundings; in some careers or situations, it’s what enables you to make it through the day, or night, in one piece. A long homemade pry bar leaning against a door jamb in a midnight alley in the lower section of Denver, an office ceiling tile slightly misaligned, a wet spot on the floor beneath a roof vent on a rainy night, the scruff of a footstep in an empty warehouse—certain irregularities trigger defense mechanisms that any caveman would instantly recognize.
But those things were from another life, pre-Kansan. The night, however, has not lost its menace, nor its terrible beauty.
Since a three a.m. semi-comical run-in with an agitated skunk, I’ve been slow to waltz out unannounced into the early morning on my way to work. The margin of error was so close that time that I suspect a second dispensation of charity will not be forthcoming. There have been other nocturnal surprises as well, the chuff of a doe by the back staircase, the hiss of a possum at my feet (menacingly emphasized with rows of bared teeth), the swift streak of a fox glimpsed on the periphery of my vision, all of them, unfortunately, catching me unawares as if those decades of training had been for nothing.
And now something fresh to enliven the wee hours of the morning.
It’s one thing to step into darkness and wonder what’s sauntering through in the yard or skulking on the side porch by the trash cans, or hidden from view behind the car—a mammal, a mass murderer or, as in the dream, an evil clown with supernatural powers.
It’s quite another thing to step into the night and wonder what’s below you.
When the lights go out anything seems possible, even probable. Imaginations riot at the slightest noise or movement or, as sometimes is the case, upon evidence of an activity that is puzzling as well as troubling. Such as the trench being dug under our front deck.
We discovered it several days ago upon returning from a shopping excursion: a yard-long scrape against the foundation, dirt piled on one side and behind, perhaps six inches deep. Lori stopped and stared at the pit and said she’d thought she heard something scraping at the wall but hadn’t thought much about it. What is it, she asked. I had no idea. Something big.
The next morning I popped the door and found myself hesitating to take that first step onto the deck. It was impossible to see through the floorboards and my flashlight was almost useless in penetrating the narrow spaces between, and I wondered if a skunk’s fetid spray would suffer the same consequences were it to cut loose at an upward pitch. Strange as it seemed to step out onto the deck and move across it unapprised of what might lurk beneath, it was doubly uncomfortable to expose my legs on the stairs. The streetlight only accentuated the gloom under the deck, and on reflection I decided the last thing I wanted to do was to blast it with the flashlight. Instead, I stiffly marched off, my spine tingling as if anticipating an attack.
I sometimes wonder if this sense of danger has its origins in my former life or if it evolves from my nightmares. Perhaps both, a malignant stew simmering on pent-up anxieties, half-forgotten escapades and the twisted scenarios of that other dimension we enter in our sleep. Whatever its genesis, the raw violence of my dreams keeps me forever on edge, and in that no-man’s-land an inescapable bridge to the dark alleys of my past.
But we cannot hide from what awaits us. I opened the storm door and stepped out, my footsteps ringing on the planks. To my left a white shape moved in the shadows and I snapped the flashlight on it, bathing a possum in white fire. It blinked stupidly at me and waddled off past the house. I remembered the look of scorn on the clown’s face when I pulled the trigger, how his head jerked and pink mist painted the air, and suddenly queasy looked down at my feet and listening for movement heard only the mad beating of my heart.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
A really big rock, a really early Christmas present
About 700,000 years ago, give or take a few decades, encroaching glaciers picked up a quartzite boulder somewhere in Iowa, or Minnesota, or South Dakota. Somewhere north of northeast Kansas, at any rate, at least 200 miles north, which is as near as quartzite can be found. The boulder, formed more than two billion years ago during Precambrian times, was reddish in color and extremely hard, and over the next several hundreds of thousands of years moved at a glacial pace toward what is now known as the glaciated region of Kansas.
The ice sheet, in places more than 500 feet thick, came to a stop at a line approximating the path of the Kansas River. As the ice sheets retreated, melting away under a warming sun, the boulder dropped off and came to rest in a field. It settled comfortably into the mud and grass grew up around it and stars wheeled overhead and the sun rose and set and nothing much happened for the next 10,000 years.
Or until Floyd Sorrick found it near the town of Seneca.
Glacial erratics aren’t uncommon in the northeastern part of the state, though elsewhere they’re rarer than hens’ teeth. These red, brownish-red or even purple rocks are striking when they squat solidly in green fields or freckle the crests of low ridges. They come in various sizes and shapes, some big, some small, some rounded and some grooved from being dragged under tons of ice. One large specimen gracing the grounds of the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka weighs 20,800 pounds.
Something about this particular boulder appealed to Sorrick, catching his eye as he drove past and braked and backed up to get another look. It appealed to him so much that he hunted down the property owner and made him an offer.
The boulder was carted to an empty lot at 4th and A Streets in Washington, which by any reckoning was a much faster trip than the one it had already taken. Sorrick planted corn in the field and harvested it in the fall and the years melted away as they always do. Children climbed the smooth stone and leaped off and everything was pretty much the same as it was before except that now more people were admiring the boulder and one of them was Bob Rollman.
He wanted it.
He wanted it like Sorrick had wanted it, single-mindedly, purposefully, obsessively. And Sorrick, when approached, wouldn’t part with it.
This impasse might have been the end of the story, but time has a way of softening things like hearts or pride of ownership, which might be another way of saying that when Jana Rollman, Bob’s wife, ran into Sorrick in the doctor’s office a few weeks ago and told him she’d like to buy the boulder as a surprise Christmas present, the timing was exactly perfect.
“I was caught at the right moment,” Sorrick admitted.
Jana explained that her husband had built a shed in the alley and decided that a rock garden would look nice surrounding it, and nothing would look nicer as a centerpiece than the big red quartzite boulder.
It’s not that Bob’s a rockhound, because he’s not. Rocks are just, well, rocks, but some are more interesting than others. Years ago, so long that he’s forgotten exactly when, he was driving through Smith Center and saw a well-tended home surrounded by boulders of varying sizes. The house itself was gorgeous, the most beautiful house he’d ever seen, but the yard was jaw-droppingly impressive. One massive stone stood like a sentinel, a powerful presence dominating attention, impossible to ignore.
After that, he wanted a really big rock for himself.
But just one.
And only one.
Now that the boulder was hers, Jana was faced with several rocky dilemmas. She had to find a way to relocate the boulder, a matter of only a few blocks, true, but it’s not as if she could just pick it up and carry it; and she had to find a way to hide it from her husband for the next three months.
The latter was quickly given up as a lost cause.
“How do you hide something like that?” she asked. “No way was I going to wrap it up or put a big red ribbon on it.”
So one afternoon in the car while they were driving home from work Jana broke the news: the boulder was his. Instead of a surprise Christmas present, he would get an early Christmas present.
Relocation was deftly handled by Clint Stamm and his heavy-duty SkyTrak. One Saturday morning Stamm wrangled the boulder onto his lift and headed to the Rollmans’ home. On a lark, though, he first ran it over to the scales to see how much it weighed. It was a lot bigger load than he’d expected and wasn’t so surprised to find that it tipped the scales at a little over 7,800 pounds. Almost four tons.
By the time the SkyTrak arrived, Bob had a hole dug and was waiting. Tipping the forks up, the boulder slid easily into the trench.
And so for the third time in its multi-billion-year existence, the quartzite stone settled into the earth at a new location.
“He told me it’s the best Christmas present he ever got,” Jana said.
“I’m happy,” Bob said. “I’m happy.”
Jana’s not saying what she wants for Christmas, and pooh-poohs the notion that something equally sizable might be appropriate. For his part, Bob’s got his thinking cap on but says he’s a last-minute decider, so it could take some time before a decision is made.
After all, there’s still plenty of time till the Yuletide.
Time, in fact, for Bob to decide he needs something under the tree, the boulder having arrived so early.
And that’s something Jana can live with. “Oh, he might get a few things,” she said. “But nothing that big.”
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The last, best apple
For breakfast this morning I had a cup of Dannon vanilla yogurt and two apples. By all accounts it was a disgustingly wholesome meal lacking the most essential element in the food pyramid—chocolate. I don’t normally eat this healthy but I’m trying to kick my sugar intake, a ridiculously ill-timed adventure with Halloween just weeks away. So far I’ve managed to shun Brach’s candy corn, my bane, but my admittedly spineless will is being tested in ways I never imagined. The last time we visited Wally World I picked up a one-pound bag of autumn mix candy corn with the intention of putting it in the grocery cart, an act both simple and complex, and salivant, too, my taste buds rioting in anticipation.
I hadn’t expected guilt to rear its ugly head. You’ve done so good, came a whispered voice. Don’t give up now.
Another voice, darker, laughed. You’ll be worm food soon enough. You deserve it.
The other shoppers stepping around me never could have guessed the ordeal I was undergoing. Practically drooling, I hefted the bag and squeezed one kernel to test for freshness. When it effortlessly flattened, my determination wilted like a blister beetle nailed with Sevin. Perhaps a groan escaped my lips to mark me a tormented soul. It’s entirely probable that parents drew their children back in horror as bloody sweat dotted my brow and my sightless eyes glazed over.
Do it, the voice hissed.
Don’t, said the other.
“What are you doing?” asked Lori, who’d drawn beside me.
“Nothing!” I screamed, hurling the bag as if it were toxic.
Yesterday I had two cups of yogurt and one apple for breakfast, and another apple in the afternoon for a snack. The day before that was much the same.
We’ve been eating a lot of apples lately. They’re as fresh as they come—picked just minutes before from the tree in our yard, out behind the thicket—crisp, juicy and in the early morning surprisingly cold.
I am not, however, a big apple fan. In fact, in order for me to eat an apple two criteria must be met: it must be crunchy and it must be red. Green apples twist my face into pretzels, an altogether disagreeable experience, and soggy apples remind me of a dead pig I had to repeatedly step on at a rendering plant in Denver. That I made the unfortunate mistake of wolfing down a deviled egg shortly thereafter is not lost on me now, an equation of spongy mass meeting palate with the end result seriously putting me off my feed.
These Kansas apples are another matter. They’re ours, grown in our own soil, pesticide- and chemical-free, bountiful, invigoratingly sweet, gifts I am constantly thankful for. And I’d like to say they’re the most exquisite apples I’ve ever tasted, though they’re not. I’ve tasted better.
But only once, and in a place far away.
As rivers go, the St. Vrain never amounted to much, not even after two forks combined near the west end of the small foothills town of Lyons, Colo. It was mostly shallow, flowing fast over colored gravel with little of the town visible behind a screen of narrow-leafed cottonwoods, junipers and a few pines. From the mouth of the narrow canyon upstream for about two miles Trout Unlimited had restructured the river’s habitat, stocked it with wild browns and rainbows, and posted it catch-and-release. It was hardly a pristine river but the trout quickly developed graduate degrees in artificial fly identification.
It was my river. From ice-out to late autumn I fished it for five or six hours a day, three times a week. In spring the trout could only be enticed with tiny gnats, size 20 or smaller, which meant fine tippets and perfect presentation. After runoff they settled down to a steady cycle of hatches, mayflies and caddisflies, with some hellgrammites thrown in for size. My favorite fly was a barbless #14 Adams with white wings, a particular favorite as well to the one-eyed monster rainbow who lived under a fallen tree. When it cut the surface of the pool there was a momentary hiss before the surface exploded, a sound sure to turn the knees to jelly.
In autumn the river dropped. The trout moved deeper into pools or undercut banks or worked the riffles when the hatch was on. I’d park near the gravel pit and make my way upstream, unsure what to expect. One time I encountered a furtive bait fisherman who skulked through the brush ahead of me, and another time I came upon a young girl sunning topless. Mostly I had the river to myself and the dippers who bobbed on rounded boulders before plunging in to fly underwater.
Autumn was my favorite time, with the river settling down to a slow slide toward stillness and the shadows long in the early afternoons, the high ridges of the Indian Peaks dusted with snow. At the end of each season I’d select a flat stone to mark the date and river, a record of another year’s adventures, and the last cast was always special, always anticipated with sorrow and something approaching ecstasy, and then the line was retrieved, the fly hooked in the keeper, and I’d turn and make my way back to the car where a cooler filled with Indian Pale Ale was my bittersweet reward.
One year I walked back a different way, skirting a long heavily-wooded island to scout a tiny creek that moved sluggishly beneath shadows. It ran close to the road so I’d avoided it in the past, but now I found in its quietude an apt finale. Near where it joined the main stream the canopy opened and an errant shaft of sunlight impaled a single red apple hanging above the water. For a moment I was taken aback—an apple, here?—but only for a moment. I swatted the fruit until it dropped into my hand, and that first taste was of all the seasons of the river, a gift I would taste in every apple to follow and a memory to cherish long after the river was dewatered and the wild trout lost, and us lost too, in a place without mountains or trout but, thankfully, not without apples.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Our houses in order
For a little while at least New Mexico was in the air with the fragrance of roasting green chiles. It’s not that I particularly needed more—we’d brought back 24 pounds of frozen Hatch chiles already peeled and chopped to supplement what remained from a shopping spree late last year—but a friend had dropped by asking if could use more, and the chiles looked good and the price was right. After selecting what I wanted we drove to 7R’s Bar and Grill on the town square for cheeseburgers and onion rings, where I kicked myself for not sneaking in some of the chiles to create piquant reminders of the Owl Bar burgers I love so dearly. When I returned home I fired up the charcoal grill and once the coals were glowing placed a dozen chiles on the grate.
As the chiles popped and sizzled, our new neighbor walked over to see what I was doing. He’d never heard of anyone roasting chiles, nor of eating them for that matter. It’s a common reaction, one based solely on geographical and cultural dislocation. Back home, as I tend to consider the Southwest, chile stands were ubiquitous beginning in August, and the little town of Hatch rocketed into a market force far exceeding its diminutive footprint on the southern plains of New Mexico. Just as California’s climate and soil are ideal for growing varietal grapes, the river bottoms of Hatch are justly famous for producing the finest chiles on the planet. These weren’t Hatch but they’d do.
The chiles I’d already roasted were steaming in a deep bowl covered with a plate. “Take a whiff,” I said, lifting the plate to allow the aroma to spill out.
He leaned over and sniffed uncertainly. His brow wrinkled.
“What do you do with them?” he asked.
I explained that I use them in stews, soups, sauces and such dishes as chile rellenos, or chiles stuffed with white cheese, fried in egg batter and smothered under a spicy chile and pork sauce. Sort of a double whammy for chileheads.
“I’ve got plenty already,” I said, “but I’m like a squirrel stocking up for the winter.”
For a moment he looked surprised, as if I’d said something totally outrageous. “Squirrel?” he asked. “Do you eat squirrel?”
No no no no, I assured him. I do not eat squirrels nor any other rodent though I’ve always wanted to try rattlesnake.
“The reason I ask is because I found a fresh-killed squirrel out front last week and took it home and skinned it. It made a nice lunch.”
For a moment that cultural dislocation I usually instigate whipsawed in reverse. Not that I find the idea of snacking on squirrel revolting, for my genealogical ladder harkens back to the old South and relatives not known for their wealth. Whatever meat graced their tables was brought down under their own means; nor were they picky. A sudden thought of the stock market’s collapse made me wonder if before the economy rebounds we might not all be eating things new to our palates. But—roadkill?
A van with a woman and a young girl had driven by, he said, and the squirrel had been clipped by the front tire. He saw it flopping around in the street and on inspection found its head crushed but the body untouched. In other words, a perfect specimen and fresh enough to be considered technically alive, if not lethally addled. Like my relations, he had grown up in Arkansas in a poor family that ate whatever it could kill. And like me, though removed from my ancestral haunts, the foods of home were those we turned to with relish and gusto. If by country you mean an originating geographical location with its customs and cuisines, it’s quite true that you can take a person out of the country but you can’t take the country out of a person.
And all the while the chiles snapped and occasionally whistled when steam built up and jetted from a split seam. Because they must be turned frequently so the skin blisters but the flesh itself doesn’t char, roasting chiles requires almost constant attention. But not so much that I couldn’t occasionally gaze at the depthless skies in search of migrating raptors, or scan the low hills burnished with autumn’s subtle hues of rust and growing dormancy, and seeing in them perhaps something more than the physical, some metaphor for the deepening financial crisis and the dawning of a new world, one whose terrain we neither know nor possess maps for. Plus the really big question of which was worse, when the government tells you not to worry or when it admits the economy’s been flushed down the toilet and they have no idea how to retrieve it.
All that was out there, beyond the horizon but perhaps not far, foreclosings, cities filled with abandoned houses, the new frontier of fledgling ghost towns and failed banks, lost jobs and wrecked lives, the stock market imploding and with it people’s life savings, the witch’s cauldron in full export and the world buying it all. And here in a small town in northeast Kansas monarchs still winged past on their southern migration and a breeze laden with the scent of goldenrod and leaf litter stirred the brittle leaves and passed like an unseen hand through the soybeans, and chiles roasting on glowing coals anchored me to one place seemingly untouched and unfazed by the disasters unfolding elsewhere. The contrast was startling.
I’ve done what I could. Sold our stocks and bonds and invested in something safer, snatched accounts from financial institutions whose ratings plummeted to junk bond status, paid off what few bills we owed, stopped spending except where necessary or when the price was right. Stocked the larder, too, and soon enough I’d be removing the window air conditioners and replacing them with storm windows. Getting our house in order, in other words, and the chiles one more way of preparing for a coming winter whose bleakness we can only guess at.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
The feathered serpents
Early light on the Rio Grande River
The feathered snakes beyond Abo Pass
Since our departure the grass has grown thin and wan, its vibrant hues bled away even as summer passed, and September, too. The apples are still crisp but the tomatoes have slowed their growth and dusk comes earlier, and Orion claims its role in the autumn sky, wedded to the Dog Star. Last light on the hills is a reflection in melancholy. The skies empty of birds.
I can still taste the hot green chiles. They graced every meal, the traditional chile rellenos and enchiladas, layered atop burgers or huevos rancheros, the base ingredient in sauces poured over everything. The very best New Mexico had to offer came not from a Mexican restaurant or generations-old taqueria in an out-of-the-way northern village but from the expert hands of my father, a gringo. His recipe showed the marks of improvisation and experimentation, ingredients crossed off, penciled in or modified. That his was the finest chile verde we tasted shouldn’t be surprising in a place of petroglyphs and ruined mission churches, living pueblos and sacred mountains.
What comes to mind most vividly is the way the October sunlight draped like a golden mantle over the straw-packed adobe walls of San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church in Ranchos de Taos. Contrasting starkly against the cobalt sky, the triple whitewashed crosses and the arced dome centered between the twin bell towers commanded the eye. Off to the side, a long shadowy cross cast against the earthen wall by the early morning sun inched past a doorway as if carried by an invisible penitente. Nor was it difficult to imagine the inlaid stones of the courtyard sprinkled with bright blood off a flayed back. This was my New Mexico, where outlawed religions yet dealt with sin and redemption in methods more akin to the Inquisition, whose reign of terror extended to these very hills. After all, blood and broken bones were the mortar cementing these walls, the foundation of a religion that introduced the Messiah on the tip of a lance. What we blindly call superstition remains the core of a belief system dating back millennia. A side entrance to El Santuario de Chimayó, crowded with discarded crutches, canes and braces left by those healed by the sacred dirt, is mute testimony to the curative powers of something beyond the unyielding dogma of mainstream Christianity.
Chimayó straddles the past and present in something like a balancing act. On the one hand there’s the sanctuary, a disjunct of freshly mudded walls and ancient timbers, and the unassuming shallow bowl of El Posito containing the miraculous sands sought by pilgrims, some of whom walk, crawl or stagger dozens of miles each year to the church during Holy Week. Catering to their earthly needs is a restaurant offering what’s advertised as the best tamales in the state, a claim sadly not substantiated during our visit. El Santuario’s popularity is evident in the numerous parking lots, concrete wheelchair ramps and chainlink fence festooned with hundreds of handmade crucifixes, but somehow its purity is lost in the mix.
The only thing approaching modernity at the San Jose de Gracia Church in Las Trampas, built in 1760 within another tiny Hispanic village on the High Road to Taos, is the cement headstone of Ramon Romero, 1840-1931. Most of the crosses springing from the bare dirt inside the courtyard are wooden, their letters faded to illegibility, the stairway leading from the dirt parking lot a series of weathered timbers interspersed with goatheads and clumps of grass. Without supernatural soil or the artistic tributes of Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams, both of whom introduced the world to Ranchos de Taos—making it the most photographed and painted church in America—renown and fame are as much a crap shoot as that offered in the upscale casinos lining the Rio Grande Valley.
Older still were the mission churches of Abó, Gran Quivira and Quarai. If northern New Mexican architecture were some kind of archeological excavation then were we digging ever deeper. The former was a thriving community when the Spaniards first visited in 1581 and lasted for another hundred years or so. Each mission had its own tale of exploitation and isolation, with an unsteady mingling of worship, creed and contested authority. After initially ignoring the native rituals, the good friars finally burned the sacred kivas and torched the Kachinas, an act that merely drove the Pueblo religion underground. Or aboveground, as the case may be. The final word was left to the Apaches and drought, one determined, the other lethal. The ruins still stand, their sanctified naves home to rock squirrels and bluebirds.
Before reaching Abó, my brother and I turned off on an unmarked dirt road and bounced into a broad grassy valley bordered by flat-topped buttes. After driving about two miles Reece told me to park. At the top of the ridge a pair of feathered serpents engraved in the black basalt stood out like sentinels, each about four feet tall. Coupled with the silence of the valley and the slanting sun, the serpents seemed alive, the gods brought to earth. In all that expanse only the road and the distant railroad tracks were modern; little else had changed in the hundreds of years since a Native American had crouched atop those rocks and hammered out the serpents, a Kokopelli flute figure, stylized birds, humans and other creatures both real and imaginary. The real surprise of New Mexico and the Southwest lies in time’s thin veneer.