In late afternoon with Lori gone to work I took the truck down East River Road, my destination the old Hamilton place. I’d tracked down the owner to get permission so the only remaining hurdle was whether the road leading to the remains of the house was passable. Some things in life are open to interpretation while others are without equivocation. The broad muck-fringed puddle submerging the entrance clearly fit the latter category. I’d have to hoof it.
In my mind I held an image from a decades-old memory: the two-story house overlooking the river, the last light reflecting off the waters of the Big Blue warming the stones as if the limestone blocks were lambent. What I got was something else mainly because the lay of the land didn’t match my memory of the same. And memories were rampant as I walked down the muddy road with the late sun in my eyes and a cool humid wind whipping from the south, and clouds building in the west.
If Blue Rapids was my introduction to Kansas and rural culture, the Hamilton place was my introduction to the idea, farfetched as it seemed at the time but also attainable given a host of things primary being a hefty dose of luck, of finding a home on the Great Plains. As much as I liked the town, the old stone house with its narrow cluster of outbuildings perched above the Big Blue River seemed an ideal that might have been far outside my grasp, but time has a way of making the inaccessible accessible. Never say never, they say, as ready an explanation for the physics of chance as you’re likely to get.
I can’t say how we found it or even why. I can’t even say when we first saw it, though Lori tells me it was after our first visit. Somehow it grew on us as the years drifted away and more so after our youngest son did what he did—strange how I still dance around the act—when suddenly the place seemed more refuge than abandoned, windowless wreck. After visiting the property on a return trip, we spoke at length of moving a small trailer into the shadow of the house and restoring it room by room, a daunting process and one no doubt far more expensive than we would ever be able to pay for, disregarding the obvious obstacles and impediments that doomed the idea from the start, if we were to be honest with ourselves. In our fantasy it was enough that the house was still standing, that the view was spectacular, that the solitude and remoteness of the location could salve our tattered hearts.
Years later the house burned down. The fire was intentionally set in the rural equivalent of urban renewal. With the strike of a match, our idyllic fantasy literally went up in smoke. Admittedly the act freed us of our Quixotic quest even as it crushed our dream. Our feelings were assuaged somewhat upon learning that as the owner watched the place crumble the fire spread toward a nearby Quonset hut, and no amount of beating or stomping was able to stop its implacable progress. Within seconds the outbuilding was ablaze, all contents lost, including the owner’s truck and tractor. We liked thinking that the old house was responsible, a last desperate act of vengeance.
With the Hamilton place gone, we turned our attention elsewhere, though for years, even decades, the idea proved slippery. It wasn’t until March 6, 2000, with Y2K hysteria only then winding down, that we drove into Blue Rapids in a 28-foot Ryder truck and made ourselves at home.
Driving to and from Alcove Spring, the famous stop on the Oregon Trail, brought us within hailing distance of the ruins. Not much was visible from the road, a small stand of trees near where the house once stood and a small roofless brick outbuilding. I remembered how it was to stand on the front porch—which actually would have been the back porch, I suppose—and gaze past where the land dipped toward the river and rose again into distant wooded ridges, and how the warm summer breeze felt, and sounded, too, electric with grasshoppers and the soft cooing of mourning doves. Just watching the river roll past would have been enough to sell me on the place, for moving waters speak to our own internal currents.
It was more than that, of course. Inherent within the memory was the idea of Lori and I rebuilding the house block by block, room by room. The kitchen and bathroom first, followed by a bedroom and a common room where we would arrange a pair of padded chairs and rows upon rows of bookcases. Our needs were sparse, understandable as our finances were equal in every measure. For some reason I never considered what we’d do for jobs or money, lost as I was in a bucolic pastoral reverie.
Returning one more time was never not an option, of course. It was only a matter of timing. Having Lori along would have added a deeper dimension but it simply wasn’t to be. I am if nothing else impulsive, and the place called to me as a perfect setting for my Vernal Equinox Project, plus low clouds practically guaranteed a bloody sunset. Which is how I found myself walking the two-track from East River Road to the high spit of land where an empty concrete foundation delineated the boundaries of an unrealized dream.
I’d walked that road once before and a thousand times thereafter, but never alone, and never with the house in ruins and never with the river a thin silver ribbon shimmering in the last light and thousands of snow geese calling overhead. I wondered not for the first time what percentage of a dream must be realized before it’s considered fulfilled. If ours had turned out differently than we’d hoped, if there were the inevitable setbacks and delays, there were also a few quiet successes which, in the final tally, might be the best we can expect. The road was still here, and so were we, and the old place still held an aura of solace, and the river still flowed as it will always flow. Dreams are as ephemeral as lives. Long after Lori and I are dust and these fallen stone blocks are buried beneath unremarked grassy hummocks, that selfsame river will wend to the sea and the bloody sun will rise and fall. It would be wrong to desire anything else.