The road swerved drunken from side to side as if unwilling or unable to maintain a straight trajectory. As much constrained by terrain as the machinations of man though without any apparent purpose for its meandering, its muddy ruts wove a complex pattern of slippage as the road dipped into a low wet area sheeted with ice. On either side trees crowded in, gray and leafless and marching in close ranks both northward and south as if planted by some former civilization now passed with only the remnants of its habitations to mark its time upon the earth, the shattered stone structures crumbling into thickets or jutting like broken teeth from the serrated runnels of plowed fields.
Low gray clouds eclipsed the light. An early twilight and already shadows gathering in the margins. I slowed and stopped and let the engine idle as I studied the uncertain road ahead. I wasn’t sure where I was but knew if I got stuck it would be a long walk back to wherever I’d departed the known world. Nor was the last habitation an option for succor for its assemblage of snarling dogs all of which seemed intent on dismantling the car were it to slow. Which it certainly did not. If the car sank in the muck I’d have to find a new route. Maybe my wife was right; maybe it’s time to join the ranks of cell-phone carriers.
To leave pavement in rural Kansas is to abandon the consoling influences of modernity. Much has been said of wilderness but the wild encompasses us here in the hinterlands. Backroads are wild roads, barely tamed and growing evermore wary of civilization’s intrusion. A few are well maintained, graveled and graded to the proper pitch, but more have been turned loose to fend for themselves. Traversed more by small furtive creatures than vehicles, they melt into the land like scar tissue. In terms of rural planning and transportation corridors, they’re feral.
The road before me was almost primeval. And yet the ice shining dully through the gathering gloom hinted at a firm substrate. I stepped from the car and tested the surface and found it slick but solid beneath. A cold wind blew through me bending the trees in a slow stately dance and raising a long low moan from a rusty windmill. It clanked as the blades orbited around bearings long destroyed and its sound a hammer beating an anvil. Sharp and flat without echo.
Beyond the windmill a gray-shingled roof crooked from its original form and half sheared away thrust through darkling woods. I hadn’t noticed it before but my eyes were drawn to it even as they were drawn to the road at its sodden nadir. The house tipped the scale of caution leaving me no retreat; I climbed into the car and fastened my seatbelt and gunned the engine hoping that mass and motion might overcome gravity and gelid quagmire.
At the base of the slope the front tires slipped from a zigzagging ridge I’d tried to straddle and slid into a trench without foundation of any kind and yawed sideways sickeningly before gaining terra firma. Mud clods shrapnelled the trees and drummed in the wheel wells like scattershot but I was through and climbing a low hill. And there a windowless and forlorn house.
A grassy two-track led through an open fence and petered out a few meters into a yard littered with fallen limbs of which some were sizeable. I parked and watched the place for a moment not knowing what to expect but cautious of hounds or their two-legged counterparts. Decades of excursions into Denver slums engendered a wariness that became as much a part of me as a leg or a lung, nor would I want it any other way. I used to say that I didn’t mind running into bad guys but the last thing I wanted to be was surprised. Dogs were never welcome and difficult to judge except when trying to eat me which made them fair game. Just because I’ve left the metropolis doesn’t mean I should let my guard down. I sometimes joke that in the boonies no one can hear you scream.
The house is why I had come. Not this particular house, but the idea of the house, its reliquary importance to a rapidly fading past. Part documentation, part photographic exploration and all adventure, these scenes of abandonment and rural decay were sad reminders of where prairie people had come and where they were going, the middle place of frontier time, neither here nor there but somewhere between. And the road joined them together.
But the real story wasn’t just recording the ruins of the past, I thought. Ruins are static and uncompromising and reveal themselves without artifice; backroads are mutable, subject to change from moment to moment, often risky and treacherous and always lovely beyond words. Each road differs from our expectations. Backroads in particular follow their own dictates and the contours of a land tamed only in our imagination. They are our creations left to themselves. They are the shadows of unfulfilled destiny.
And some will perish in the next 50 years, their traceries subsumed beneath prairie grasses and thickets of dogwood and plum. That some of them remain in this middle time is something of a miracle. Shouldn’t we be documenting them while they last?
After a short while I eased out of the car and listening heard only the whisper of the wind and the rhythmic clattering of the windmill blades vainly striving against the finite hours. I retrieved the camera and slipped the strap over my shoulder and set out, certain only of the uncertainty of my vision in this wilderness I’ve only begun to explore.