Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Boundaries, backroads and backwaters

These towns cling to the loess hills like strangler vines, tucked away into draws and hollows, masked by an impenetrable jungle of trees and vines, the raw exposed hillsides venous with roots. The hardest thing to remember is that this, too, is Kansas, and the lazy drawl of the Missouri River at your back a road of another kind where in 1804 the improbable appearance of white men maneuvering boats upstream bespoke a new unthinkable future. One gets the impression that floods and wars and time’s implacable erosion have touched this place hardly at all, and also that in a century little will be left but the few capillaries of rarely-traveled backroads, the steep-sided hills and shadowed woods, and the eternal, ceaseless river.

Not that there’s much remaining now. Step off the main thoroughfares and you exit civilization as most of us know it, even those of us who live in small rural towns. There’s something different about extreme northeastern Kansas, an aura of another place, the Appalachians, perhaps, or the Ozarks, homes nestled in gullies or tiny cleared meadows, towns fading into forests so thick the languorous air barely stirs, and roads as winding as the perennial streams. Throw in a belted cow or two and the idea of Vermont crops up. Like the innumerable springs and creeks, the roads, mostly gravel but a few paved, take the path of least resistance. Which means slow going—but with scenery this lovely, who’s in a hurry?

We certainly weren’t. We were on a one-night, two-day excursion to Watkins Mill, a 19th century woolen mill, now a Missouri state park, located just a few miles north of Excelsior Springs. It wasn’t all that far, a few hundred miles at best, mostly a chance to get out and see the country and relax after the grueling two-year presidential race. We probably weren’t the only Americans nauseous at having to undergo such withering nonsense, nor who were disheartened by the venomous attacks, outright slander and base pandering that goes into running for high office. Our system of governance is clearly dysfunctional and in need of repair, but if I were asked for a solution—which I most assuredly won’t be—I’d settle for starters on a six-month limit on presidential elections. If it can’t be done in that amount of time, it ain’t worth doing. And if a candidate can’t speak the truth, an old fashioned tar-and-feathering shouldn’t be out of the question. Give us a break already.

The question always arises whether Americans are as stupid as they sometimes act. Maybe elections bring out the worst in people, but each succeeding election I’ve witnessed seems to aggravate a penchant for lemming-like behavior and Chicken Little hysteria. The depth of ignominiousness by politicians and the public alike grows ever deeper. The difference between democracy and mob rule has never been adequately explained to me, or else I slept through that part of civics class. But then school was never the highlight of my life. I much preferred exploring the mesas and foothills around Albuquerque and communing with nature. The writer Daniel Pinkwater said when voting he always pencils in fictional names, possibly the only sane thing to do.

The fecundity of the loess soil and the riotous growth of this area, coupled with the perpendicularity of the terrain and the slow purl of the river, create a sense of ageless finality and decadence at once removed from the power plays of rich men in suits. Armed with our trusty guide, “The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers,” we had a blueprint for what the area contained, the historical sites, the cafes and gift shops, unusual architecture and regional art, and a modicum of route information. The rest was up to us and our Kansas DeLorme Atlas, whose maps were correct most of the time. When they weren’t we relied on common sense and an unfettered appreciation for adventure best summed up by Winnie the Pooh’s excellent descriptive, “expotition.”

There were times, however, when I wished for a compass. On several occasions, after innumerable ninety-degree bends and long graceful curves, I completely lost track of the cardinal points and could no longer tell north from south or east from west. I’m usually pretty good at keeping directions but here I became utterly discombobulated. Nor could I adequately retrace our route on a map. Somewhere north of the town of Highland we ended up on the wrong road, or not the road I wanted, and after some puzzling glances at the trunks of trees—which side does moss grow on?—we dropped down to a broad level area with light fracturing through the trees. And so to the river.

North was White Cloud, a small town perched on vertical lines and above which from an observation point one can see four states. Its claim to fame was Wilbur Chapman, a 10-year-old boy who in the early 1900s sold his prized pig to raise money for a leper colony. The story goes that children throughout the world joined his cause by collecting money in little iron banks shaped like pigs. While nobody’s saying this was how piggy banks started, experts admit uncertainty over its true cosmology. Personally, I like the idea that it began here.

The difficulty for the itinerant photographer and explorer is in trying to capture the essence of a place when time is short. Ideally, several days would be involved in a thorough immersion, capturing the play of light in its infinite forms and angles. In the end I settled for several panoramas of the wide sweep of the river angling to the northwest and tight vignettes of the architecture: a steep white metal staircase leading up a dark brick wall, a stone frieze contrasting with a dented metal awning. The long and short version of White Cloud, Kansas. And then the road took us and we were gone. 


Laurel Johnson said...

The photos were breathtaking and your prose exceptional, as always.
People who think of Kansas as a flat, featureless wasteland have never traveled from central to eastern Kansas or traveled north to south along the Missouri River.
It may not be the Rockies, but it is certainly a mostly unspoiled treasure.

Anonymous said...


You've been tromping in some wonderful country. I recognized that bend in the Missouri River immediately!

I invite you and your readers to pages I made several years ago.

About the Missouri River at Atchison:

Max wrote a wonderful piece, published in FELICIA, about his love of the Missouri at Atchison. It's called "Peaan." He lived there for several years as a boy, just a stone's throw from the river.

About White Cloud, where a dear friend of Max's, Jay McAlister, is buried in the local cemetery:

And the 40th Parallel, just north of White Cloud, where you can see four states:

I suggest a trip to Ft. Leavenworth, if you haven't been there yet. There is a wonderful spot where thousands of wagons climbed the hill after being ferried across the Missouri River to head up the Oregon Trail:

Anonymous said...

If I recall properly, White Cloud was also featured in the early 70's film 'Paper Moon', (starring Ryan O'Neal) a lot of which was filmed in Kansas and also across the river in St. Joseph.
I also drove up to White Cloud with my dad in his grain truck one time. We had to take 2 lanes all the way up to avoid the scales on the bigger highways. I took a hike up the hill into town and it did indeed remind me of Kentucky along the Ohio River.