25 September 2006

The World's Largest Prarie Dog

wasn't all that impressive. It was made of chipped concrete and looked like an ill-informed attempt at an art deco prarie dog. The real prarie dogs, that kept popping out of their holes all around us, were much better looking although not nearly so cooperative for photographs. The highlights of Prarie Dog Town, somewhere near Hays, Kansas, were the snakepit - 55 to 60 rattlers that the guy who ran the place startled into rattling for us - and the postcard selection, which was the usual middle of nowhere traditional fare: jackalopes, cowboys herding cattle while riding enormous rabbits, oversized trout and corn and a very fine selection of monstrous prarie dogs. Once I get to my own computer and a scanner, I can post some of the photographic evidence.

The drive, as it always is across the Great Plains, was all about weather. Most people hate driving across the middle of the country because they seem to think it's featureless. I guess they're looking for mountains, or big lakes, or forests or cities or something - so of course they're disappointed. What they fail to take account of is that the weather is the primary geographic feature of the Great Plains. The roiling clouds, the puffy big clouds, the huge expanse of blue sky, lightning, thunder, rain, hail - all of it is every bit as much a part of the terrain as any mountain or river or lake ever is. I love driving through eastern Colorado, Kansas and Missouri. To me it seems as if I'm driving through a landscape that is in constant turmoil, that is undergoing far more change far more rapidly than almost any other I can think of.

We stopped for the night in Salina where I took Colin to the Vientiane Market - a small but surprisingly well stocked Lao-Thai market just about where you'd least expect one. The woman who ran it was Lao - not Hmong - which was unexpected as most of the people from Laos who have come to the U.S. are Hmong - they often fought with the U.S. side during the war, so they got out quick when the other side won. She said that they got customers from all over the area - pretty much any Asian family that needs groceries in Kansas or Western Missouri shows up there from time to time. Other than that, there wasn't much going on in Salina.

Heading east, we stopped in Abilene for breakfast. It was at the northern end of the Chisholm cattle drive trail and I figured it would be a well preserved wild west town. It isn't, not much at least. It's sort of a well preserved 1910 to 1935 town with a whole lot of Dwight David Eisenhower stuff there, since he was from there. Colin attempted to eat a healthy breakfast at the diner we found there - HAH! I know better and opted for eggs and biscuits with gravy. They did, oddly enough, have a bottle of Thai Sriracha hot sauce. They must have got it from the market in Salina. It doesn't really go well with eggs and hash browns, but I felt obligated to drench everything with it on general principle. We also dropped by the most modern, impressive, and largest if you don't count the grain silos, building in town: the Greyhound Hall of Fame. It wasn't open yet so we didn't go in.

We stopped in Mission, Kansas to visit I Love A Mystery bookstore. It has recently moved into new digs and is one of the biggest, most comfortable, really pleasant specialty bookshops either of us have ever been in. They were very pleased to see us - especially Colin as he is one of their current big sellers and their reading groups have been consuming his books. But, they remembered my books from last year and might now order some more. We spent a while in there chatting with Karen, the owner and the other people who work there. I highly recommend it if you are near Kansas City.

Afterwards we dropped by Rainy Day Books, the major independent general interest bookshop in town. It's also a grand place to meet and chat with people and get information on all sorts of things. I gossiped plenty about the book business with one of the managers. It's a nasty business, what more can one sayA?

Then it was off to the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum and Hall of Fame, which is conveniently located in the same building as the National Jazz Museum. I wish I'd had the time to go to both, as from what Colin tells me the jazz museum was excellent. But, I had my priorities, and communing with the spirits of Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell, has long been high on the list. It's a very well done museum, an in depth look at black baseball from a social, cultural and historic perspective. I sat for a while in front of a film loop of the amazing feats of Willie Mays and reminisced with a guy who was maybe ten years older than me, about the times we'd seen Mays play - when I was a kid and he was a teenager.

I'd been looking forward to Stroud's Fried Chicken ("We Choke Our Own Chickens") for lunch, but they've closed down their funky old, roadhouse location and reopened in some distant neighborhood in what used to be a mansion. I was fearful of disappointment, so instead we walked down the block from the museum to the Peachtree soul food restaurant, where I had fried chicken that was nearly as good as Stroud's, along with utterly perfect collards and a dish of okra stewed with tomatoes. So lunch was not at all a disappointment.

Finally it was off to St. Louis where we were greeted by a blinding display of lightning that went off with near strobelight frequency as we drove into town. The rain, luckily was elsewhere. We arrived at Helen Simpson's big, beautiful rambling house near the big, beautiful rambling park in the center of the city. Visiting authors could hardly hope for nicer accomodations - our own guest rooms, comfortable beds, beer and wine in the refrigerator, a Cardinals game on TV and best of all Helen who is funny, smart, charming, welcoming and one of the best people anywhere to talk baseball, mystery books and politics with.

So a good time was had by all, although the turnout at the store was somewhat disappointing: as for strangers, there were three of them - two of them brought their kids so I don't know if I should count them or not; Susan McBride, a good friend, and a good local St. Louis writer, came along with her newish sweetie Ed - they've just bought a house together and seem near disgustingly happy. In any event, we had a nice time, although no one was going to have to call out the riot squad to beat back our legions of crazed fans. It was a mostly skinny crowd too, so it didn't do a whole lot for our pound counting, still, if I count the kids I can pretty safely estimate about 1,015 lbs. Bringing our event total thus far to: 7,910 lbs, just a runway model shy of four tons!

Helen was disappointed as we left after the event and headed north. We were determined to take the remnants of Highway 66 all the way from St. Louis to Chicago. Getting out of town on it proved a problem due to bridge construction, so we had to take the freeway far enough into Illinois to hook up with it later. The old highway is surprisingly well marked, with signs pointing the way to different segments from different decades. Unfortunately a lot of it is frontage road along Interstate 55, so it wasn't exactly as quaint and scenic as we had hoped. Although it did have moments when it veered into small farm towns along the way.

As we approached Springfield we started looking for a motel, hoping for an old-fashioned roadside courtyard place. But none were to be found. We drove into Springfield and still couldn't find any. We finally had to stop and ask at a cocktail lounge where they kept the motels. They were south of town on I-55 and that's where we ended up for the night, drinking too much and shooting bad pool (well, me, Colin was reasonably good) for a long while in a nearby collegiate sports bar that we'd walked to. College kids, even white ones, sure do listen to a lot of hip hop these days. I can't say that I've developed much of a taste for it myself.

We'd had a tough time getting our hotel rooms. They might have been the last two in the area, as the home of Abe Lincoln was hosting the annual Route 66 Car Show and the whole county was loud and proud with highly polished jalopies and classics. I guess no one ever simply trundled down 66 in a regular old car or a beater. The mystique has far outstripped the reality of the thing. I do wonder though, why there doesn't seem to be a highway that actually ran all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast that has the same sort of cache? Maybe it's the song. I was trying to think of all the people I could who have covered it over the years and it's just too many.

Yesterday, Sunday, we continued our slow crawl up toward Chicago, through endless fields of dry brown looking corn and soybeans, past tiny little towns with little to recommend them - although we did come across a giant man holding a giant hot dog not too far past Normal, Illinois. What could be more normal than that? Unfortunately Normal seems a little shy about its name, we were hoping for a lot of pictures of things like the Normal Bakery and the Normal Gun Shop, but most business don't seem to be using it in their name.

We also stopped at the St. Anne Pumpkin Festival, but it seemed as though we missed the parade, which is apparently the highlight. By the time we got there the whole town was reverberating to the torrent of decibels emerging from the town dump where they seemed to be holding a tractor pull or some sort of automotive event. We needed to continue on to Chicago so we didn't stick around to watch.

Driving into Chicago from the south - we took old Highway 1 which turns into Halsted and runs north all the way through the city - Colin was astounded and shocked, and I was somewhat surprised, by the lack of racial mix along the way. For something around 75 blocks we didn't see one person who wasn't black. Not even in other cars. Colin had heard about the defacto segregation that still exists in American cities, but wasn't prepared for how overwhelmingly obvious it can be. I was a bit surprised since Watts and Compton, the black parts of Los Angeles, are also home these days to a lot of Latinos, some Asians and some working class whites as well.

We talked for a little about why that might be - beats me in this day and age - and why the U.S. is so willing to spend billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lives trying to solve both real and imaginary problems overseas when there are still such massive inequities here at home. I figure it's because it's easier psychologically when you can fight an external enemy. Here in the U.S. we are our own enemy and few people, or countries, are much good at constructively fighting themselves.


aajkt said...

I envy you the great American Road Trip. Driving down Indonesian roads is not quite the same. It might be more scenic here, but we have yet to to equal the world's largest prarie dog for kitsh. One of our major toll roads in Java is vying to make the world's largest mudpit, but still have a way to go. Perhaps you might come over here to consult on how to make a profit out that environmental disaster in Sidohardjo. Some consultants have suggested a mud spa, but I think the worlds largest mud wrestling pit would draw greater crowds. Next week I will be on a road trip from Medan to Singkil. Will let you know if there are any great diners along the route, but believe that it will be limited to various types of sate padang. Happy motoring! Cheers from Jakarta. aa

David P. said...

The last couple paragraphs touched base, Eric. I grew up with two black friends in high school. We three were in the Jazz band and bonded over a serious addiction to Blues, Soul and Jazz. From 14 on, I saw a different aspect of my home state that previously I'd been totally ignorant of. The amount of times we were pulled over by police, had ridiculous accusations fired at us, flashlights shone in our eyes, were playfully "tapped" on our chests by batons... was unbelievable. I've had cops say things to me like: "What are you doing with these guys, are you a 'N' lover?"

Entering upscale stores almost never failed to produce a skittery attendant nervously asking if they could be of assistance, and then surrepetitously keeping us in their field of vision. Soccer moms automatically locking their car doors when we'd pull beside them at a stoplight. Plus lots of other crap I've tried to forget.

And my friends and I were not shocking in appearance or attitude in the least. We all wore non-flashy, simple clothes. Neither of my friends liked hip-hop music or it's linguistic slang or garb. They dressed like preppies if anything. Now one is an engineer and the other works in private security. But I've often thought: If I was forced to deal with that kind of scrutiny by myself as much as when I was with them, I'd have long ago lost my mind.

Yes, there is an old-timey atavistic part of the brain that notices and points out when you are the only white dude in a crowd of black dudes. Or yellow dudes, or whatever. It is a survival instinct that hails from that time, so long ago, when our ancestors were sipping from lakes and being stalked by sabre-tooth tigers. But human beings should have evolved past the day to day shallow stereo-typing and petty prejudices that we still wallow in by now. Everyone pre-judges, at some level, but it's up to the more evolved "human" brain to instruct the archaic "lizard" brain to sit down and shut up when not needed.