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.”

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