Tag Archives: kansas

Notes from the carriage-room, #5

We have already explored the carriage-room as a symbol of where old meets new, past meets present, archaic meets modern. It is all that. That is not all it is. It is also where indoor meets outdoor. This is about the outdoors.

It is about a doe and her twin fawns, white spots mostly faded now, watching us as we watched her. If you can believe it, under her gaze, I managed to sneak up to the car, open the door, extract the camera and hand it to my wife to start snapping photos.

It is about a flock of wild turkeys in the soybeans down near the creek, great big things.

It is about a box turtle on the highway as we drove back to the ranch. Those turtles have got to learn not to do that. But it tells you something that they think they will survive that crossing. Evidently it’s not the first time.

It is about a cottontail in the chokecherries, freezing and hoping no one would notice it.

That was a day’s wildlife haul, not counting grackles, vultures, hawks, scissortails and the pigeons we scared up in the middle barn.

It is about the carven inscription of the stonemason who worked on the first barn, dated 1896, who evidently could not spell his own last name. To judge by the status of the barn, that didn’t impact his masonry skill. We are still using it, and he must be over half a century dead. When he chiseled his name and the year in that limestone block, Victoria was Queen of England, there was a country called Austria-Hungary, Teddy Roosevelt had not yet done his thing in the Span-Am War, and the Titanic‘s keel had not yet even been laid down.

It is about the gate my grandfather and I installed in the corral, still standing.

It is about the elm tree that split in the ice storm, which I got partly cleaned up on one visit, and still need to finish up sometime if it’s still here when I show up ready to work.

It is about everything you can’t see from I-70 or the Turnpike. In the words of my Aunt Jaque: “You have to walk the prairie to see what is in the grass.” Our ancestors had to understand the land and its creatures, a matter of life and death for them. No matter what metropolis you live in, that is still inside you, in your wiring. Food does not originate at Whole Foods, Safeway or Wal-Mart. This is where it comes from. To understand it, to touch it, is to touch what is deep inside you, even if you live in Lake Oswego and make your own mayonnaise (and it’s stellar). No matter how urbanized you are, here is where you touch on your sustenance, your very roots as a human woman or man.

In the carriage-room, you can see and feel that.

This is also the final installment from the carriage-room. To those of you who have sat with me here, well, thank you. It has been a pleasure.

Notes from the carriage-room, #4

It has rained all day tonight, conferring muuuud upon the ranch. And welcome, too, all over Kansas. They have had an eastern Washington summer minus the irrigation. No more starscapes; overcast but no chance of serious thunderstorms. This isn’t twister season. Many comments about us bringing rain from Washington to Kansas. I’m willing that we might have done so. I went out to the rain gauge, .33″. Hope it rains all night so we get more.

Reflecting on the many odd juxtapositions of the carriage-room, as Deb watches Dance Moms on a TV sitting six inches below a rack of well-used saddle blankets. Horses came down from the pasture this afternoon and Deb rushed out to see them, like a girl of seven. Deer in the vineyard today, and she zipped out along the muddy driveway to try and photograph them. A little too swiftly, causing the deer to make their “stay the hell away from us, you faecolith” noise. It’s kind of a brief low sputtered moo. I wisecracked to Uncle Mike that they were fed up with paparazzi.

Tonight was Deb’s night to probe Aunt Jaque and Uncle Mike for their knowledge of the cattle industry. They described one time they took exception to a group of cowboys who treated the stock too roughly during loading. Remember, these aren’t their cattle, though it is their property and they don’t have to tolerate behavior they find unbearable. The cowboys weren’t allowed back. Looks like some family principles traverse many generations.

The power just cycled, probably to do with the rainstorm. Common event out here. Kept right on typing. Laptop battery power is a win.

A lamed old part-Dalmatian named Rowdy is having weird dreams on one of the rugs in here. He is the current beneficiary of Aunt Jaque’s Ad Hoc Homeless Animal Shelter, in which any dog or cat who can achieve this sanctuary and doesn’t belong to someone else is granted automatic lifetime employment slaying varmints (cat) or patrolling the premises and barking at everything (dog) or running the barn (cat of great agility and survival skill). I can’t even keep track of ’em all over the years.

I never gave the stone walls of this place a just description. They are limestone, a light creamy color, held together with gray mortar. Kansas limestone comes in several hues, but nearly all of it is found in strata of the same thickness. Most of the rocks are either 4″ or 8″ thick, depending on whether the rocks were quarried with care, or just picked up nearby. They make mosaics that look like state county maps if the state had a bunch of fairly elongated counties. It is routine to spot an ancient seashell in a piece of the wall, a fossil from the days when this was a massive seabed. They contrast oddly with the perfect light beige 1′ square tiles of the floor, a fairly apt metaphor for the room overall. Notice I said all four walls. Some of the interior walls of the house are stone as well.

Limestone construction is not rare in Kansas, and in the 1800s and early 1900s was quite the norm. A good many old churches, civic buildings, and the bulk of Kansas State University are built from limestone. It is an emblem. It means a great many cream-colored buildings, often in very stately and appealing architecture. And they last. Here is a good example, sitting approximately four miles from me.

This one has lasted 126 years, and it shows zero sign of failing. If in 1898 I sat where I sit now, I’d have a big horse-drawn carriage pretty much blocking the TV and harness case.

I could live with blocking the TV.

Notes from the carriage-room, #3

Well, Uncle Mike (my host) is a reader of the blog, so tonight he volunteered the answer to one mystery. What’s in the big cedar chest? No, it’s not tintypes; no, it’s not quilts. It is antique beer signs. Well, we wouldn’t have guessed that. By the way, want to thank all of you who have been joining me in the carriage-room. Glad to have you.

Today’s main activity was first visiting Grandma and Mom, who took us out to lunch. Anyone who has ever seen me knows that’s not a tough sell with me. A bit of shopping in Emporia and a generally quiet afternoon, something we could use after a lot of going and going. Tonight, spaghetti and meatballs kindly provided by cousins Melissa and Adam bringing young cousin Aidan with his interesting gestures and comic manner. A very family evening with folks we so rarely get to see.

In case you think I’m out here in Hayseedville accepting wheat stalks to chew in my teeth, living a Beverly Hillbillies episode, consider this. I’m under-educated in this crowd. Uncle Mike: BS, Civil Engineering. Aunt Jaque: BS, Zoology, Ph.D, Counseling, probably a MA in it as well (I lose track). Mom, BA in Education and Home Economics. Grandma, I forget what it’s in. Melissa, MS in Speech Pathology. Adam, not sure what it’s in, something that makes him a successful IT professional. This is a gifted group, granted, but such a concentration of education isn’t that rare here. My relatives are not here because they lack for options. They’re here because they love it here, because they see in it what I see, and have committed themselves to the land. They’d rather stay here and battle the multiple challenges of Kansas, thus they do. I understand. It often makes me feel like a bit of a lamer, living far away.

So here I sit in the carriage-room, and tonight I spent some time among the saddles and tack, inhaling the weathered leather scent. It is not powerful, but subtle and earthy, solid and reliable. Hard to the touch, a bit dusty but having received good care before and after riding. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy; suitable working gear for cowboying, or cowgirling, if that were necessary. Let me walk you around the outside, so you can get a better feel for all this.

We’re on a thousand acres of land, all but about 70 acres unsuitable for the plow. Let’s dispense with that question right now. Why put cattle here, rather than farm it and feed so many more? You can’t, not without causing serious erosion and environmental damage. You’d wreck not only this land, but you’d harm others. This is prairie grassland, and it is suitable for herd animal grazing, as it was suitable for the buffalo herds. It can pasture roughly one head per four acres without damage–and those who custody it care a great deal about avoiding damage. Irony: the eco-sensitive, good stewardship option here is cattle (or some other livestock, or nothing). We step outside the carriage-room, pulling shut the extra wide Dutch door. Ahead to the left, the guesthouse/mother-in-law apartment, built by my aunt and uncle just so my grandmother could live out here at her birthplace as long as health and safety permitted. Beyond them, three huge stone barns with rusty metal roofs, each about fifty yards long. Well, two have roofs. A twister ran off with one of them, and since three barns were not a desperate need, it wasn’t replaced. Dead ahead, the granary and the vineyard. No grain has been stored in the granary for decades, certainly not in my forty-eight years of life; never mind. It will only cease to be called the granary if it should fall down. Uncle Mike and I saved some snakes in that granary, a story we enjoy recalling.

Moving clockwise, the former vineyard sits forlorn, then the driveway (a place that has less muuuud right now than usual, thanks to a drouth). Then the earthen dam that impounds the pond, with salt licks out for the deer, simply because deer are liked. The pond, of course, circling now around the quarried stone walls. For the same reason there isn’t much muuuud in the driveway (several hundred yards long, between stone fenceposts twined with old ribbon barbed wire some eighty years old), the pond is low. Lowest I’ve ever seen it. The back yard is tranquil and looks out through woods toward the pasture. At night, coyotes howl up the draw. Then the muddy road out toward the pastures (please be sure to shut all gates), the gate my grandfather and I put up, and the corral and barns–a 360-degree walkaround. Welcome to Kansas as I understand it.

A note on muuuud. ‘Mud’ is a substance that washes off with water. The Flint Hills don’t have mud. They have muuuud, which does not wash off with water. It accumulates on your boots like ankle weights, and one had better not track muuuud onto the carpet or else. My family is greatly amused by the way I spell and pronounce it, so I keep doing it.

Someone once told a Flint Hills cowhand that the flint here (it’s the color of a new baseball mitt, medium golden brown) was actually chert. His answer, from William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: “Like hell. I ain’t livin’ in no Chert Hills.” Heat-Moon is a good guy, by the way, and if you like these notes, you’d probably like that book. It is entirely about this county, Chase, one of the poorest and toughest in the state. I approve of its depiction.

Tonight I was reminding Uncle Mike of when only daughter Melissa was a young college-age lady, and I was helping him and Aunt Jaque schlep all their stuff out from Emporia, must be seventeen years ago, and I found a cattle castrator laying around in the barn. Looks about like this. (What, you don’t keep those around your house? How do you manage? A pocket-knife is really cruel. Please be humane–the future steers didn’t ask for this.) I stashed it until Mike showed up and then offhandedly said, “Hey, Mike, I figured out what we can do if we don’t like Melissa’s boyfriends.” “What’s that, John?” I pulled out the castrator and smiled.

He guffawed then, and he guffawed tonight. Adam, Melissa’s husband, did not guffaw at the retelling.

Don’t worry, Adam. If we’d have known you were coming along, we wouldn’t have worried. We had to consider many eventualities. We reckon we lucked out on that. You notice we are just telling the story, not actually waving the thing around at you.

Notes from the carriage-room, #2

This morning dawned a lazy, blissful Kansas morning with strong coffee and no schedule. I write later as my wife ogles Shemar in the carriage-room indoors from another brilliant starscape. (“Yeah, the stars are amazing again. Ho hum. Is there any brisket left?”)

Today Deb decided she would like to visit Topeka (the state capital). Probably the first time that’s ever happened in history, but I was amenable. Naturally, the old Kansas boy missed the turnpike entry and sent us around via small towns named after 1800s women (in which Kansas annually leads the league, just as we are annually last per capita in tourism). Thanks to your ace navigator, it took longer…but it led us to the Combat Air Museum. I only had to emit a small quantity of whines for Deb to accede to a visit. One of the cooler military air museums I’ve seen, with planes crammed into two hangars about as tightly as if someone planned a jigsaw puzzle of maximum aircraft density. For Deb, it was an hour and a half she’d never get back (she later admitted some enjoyment). While going between hangars, we watched a Blackhawk medevac helicopter training flight, with the bird coming in, setting it light on the gear, then climbing again. “So that others may live.”

9/11 today, so most flags at half-mast. Except for one car dealer with about twenty flagpoles around his lot, with the large one at half-mast and the other twenty-odd at full hoist. I guess there are limits to how much work some folks are willing to expend in the area of flag-waving. A traffic detour led to a great moment as we were routed down a side street past a body shop with a marquee advertising PANTLESS DENT REMOVAL. With a pack of grouches behind us, we couldn’t stop for a photo, but we could circle around. Got ‘im. Imagine the service advisor’s world:  “Hey, Fred, we got a client. Drop trou and come on out here!”

Topeka was every bit as underwhelming as I’d expected of a city that basically cowers before Fred Phelps rather than answering his batteries of lawsuits with ten times as much of the same until he begs for mercy. Even the imposing state capital dome was surrounded by scaffolding, which makes sense as it looked like someone should hose it off. Stopped in Emporia to visit with mom and grandma, a pleasant visit. Home for brisket barbecue–and in Kansas, weak barbecue sauce simply will not do.

Now I sit here in the carriage-room, listening to the dog bark in the dark at some imagined threat (probably a skunk, which could have ramifications) in the vineyard. Yes. The ranch had a vineyard in the past, obstinately growing grapes and making wine, until basic health troubles made it just too much. The only good place to set my beer would be on a century-old school desk next to me, which seems like four kinds of sacrilege, so it’s on the floor. I look left at the stairway rails my grandfather cleaned up and refinished, right at a massive cedar chest containing gods only know what (probably quilts or old tintypes…that’s what I’d put in there), ahead at saddle blankets. A massive Dutch door is the exit. The limestone wall behind me seems the most ancient in the house, as is natural; that’s the part that was living quarters when what is now a living room and dining room was where they drove the wagons to load up sheep wool circa 1886.

The grandmother I visited this afternoon was born in 1919. In this house. About thirty feet away from where I sit. In my childhood, the woman who bore her made me apple pie in the same kitchen she had used since she was an intense-eyed young matron (and we have pictures of her on side-saddles), by then ancient and half blind, all the motions by habit of seventy years in the same place. Her sister, very elderly and soon to pass on in the late 1960s, gave me her old 1955 World Book encyclopedia set. By the time I went to kindergarten I had devoured it.

I wonder if Aunt Nell even guessed the impact those would make. She had been a teacher for many years. I suspect she knew exactly what she was doing.

Notes from the carriage-room, #1

Old meets new. Here I sit in the carriage-room of the ranch house. The walls about me are Kansas limestone, neatly quarried out (or in some cases just found laying around and used as is) and built up over a century ago. Across from me is a large case/rack holding saddles, tack, harness, a TV and a pet carrier. Sometimes we see Otis, retired dean of the barn cats (his story told here), now 18 and aging and an indoor cat, but doing well for a slightly lamed, ancient cat and a true prairie survivor. I sit on a plush modern couch, laptop perched on an antique dining room chair tole painted by my mother, glancing up at a harness case which still held side-saddles as late as the 1980s, when it finally occurred to folks that no women were going to ride that way any more and had not for sixty years.

Some places try to be rustic. Some try to be modern. Some are just themselves, modern where they can be, rustic where they should be, new where they need to be, old where old is beautiful or still functional. This is one such place, where past lives alongside present and no one finds it odd. In fact, it’s something to love.

The prairie starscape is a thing to behold, away from light pollution and studded in sapphires with a creamy band dead across the top of the sky. The warm night is alive as the insect and animal life carries on a survival battle.

Welcome to my Kansas.

Saving the snakes with Uncle Mike

Some years back, I was out on Peyton Creek (Flint Hills, Chase County, KS) getting ready to help my Uncle Mike work the vineyard.  It is long tradition for nephews visiting close relatives to be included in all activities, particularly labor.  (Our nephew JD, currently living with us, may harbor misgivings about this hallowed tradition.)  Anyway, you read correctly:  a vineyard in Kansas.  Uncle Mike and Aunt Jaque worked several acres of them for years, along with a friend who came up from Wichita, and got pretty good results considering the myriad dangers and caprices of Kansas agriculture.

The ranch is very traditional.  Nothing’s name ever changes.  The carriage-room, which is now a second TV room, is still called the carriage-room, and the saddles and tack still hang there.  The granary has not stored grain for, gods, it must be over half a century.  Maybe more.  Never mind; the granary it is and remains.  The feel of tradition is as delicious as range-fed Kansas beef, or the apple pies my great-grandmother used to make, nearly blind, in the same kitchen she had used for some 75 years.  And one of our traditions is that we don’t kill something unless we need to.  There is a reason the ranch has diverse wildlife, its own spirit:  if we can, we let it live.

So, the nephew was underneath the tractor attempting some mechanical task as requested by Uncle Mike, futzing with tractor doodads he did not understand, out in front of the granary (now used mainly to store stuff, such as nylon netting once used to try and shield grape vines from avian predation).  I heard Uncle Mike call out to me from the granary:  “John?”

“Yeah, Mike?” Only when I had nephews of my own did it occur to me that my uncle would always enjoy being called by the title of honor, ‘Uncle.’  Wish I’d figured that out a lot sooner.

He asked the magic question.  “How are you with snakes?”

“Pretty good, Mike.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, in that case, come on in here.”

So I rolled out from under the futile futz-fest, got up, and headed in.  Whatever it was, it was going to be interesting.  “Take a look over there,” said my uncle.  There were two very large kingsnakes, both in a bad way.  You know how fish get caught in nets, hooked by their gills and fins? Thus with snakes’ scales.  Both were snarled up in the nylon netting, beyond extricating themselves.  They’d lost a few scales struggling, though not much blood, and we could see that both were constricted where the netting hung them up worst.  Most likely they were dehydrated.  It was a warm spring afternoon, and one doubts they’d have made it through another day, weakened by a desperate struggle for liberty.

The thought of harming them, of course, didn’t cross our minds.  Not only are kingsnakes non-poisonous, they consume great quantities of varmints.  You’d no more kill an owl than a kingsnake.  They’re our friends.  Of course, they can bite if threatened, but like nearly all snakes, they just hope you’ll leave them alone so they can go consume some more varmints.  We hope they’ll do it early and often.

Uncle Mike and I stood there for a few minutes figuring out the best way to save the snakes.  One must respect wildlife’s potential dangers, especially suffering, starved, dehydrated wildlife.  My uncle pulled out his Swiss knife and began to cut the netting.  “John, let’s take them outside.  You hold the snakes, and I’ll cut ’em loose.”  Sounded like a plan, and soon Uncle Mike had the netting apart enough for us to bring them out one by one.

Now came the tricky part.  When I said I was good with snakes, I didn’t mean I was a talented snake wrangler, simply that I didn’t run screaming when I saw one.  I took the first snake gently behind the head, and held up its mid-body so my uncle could begin the really tricky part.  You never saw such delicacy in your life.  Strand by strand, patiently, kindly, he worked the tip of the knife under each strangling wire of nylon.  I watched very closely as he managed it without costing the snake even a bit of blood.  Remember how deeply the nylon was dug into the snake’s scales and flesh; impressive dexterity and gentleness.  I’m still impressed.

It took about five or ten minutes, if I remember correctly; he worked from tail to head.  With about half the snake loose, it began to make sinuous movements in my hands.  Somehow I knew this wasn’t a fight to be free of my grasp, just getting circulation back.  That snake had to be suffering something awful.  When it calmed down, Uncle Mike went back to his work.   Before long the final strand snapped free, the snake wormed around again, and I took it over and released it in the grass.  It wasn’t far to water and food.  That kingsnake was going to make it.

Snake #2 went more quickly, both of us having now had some practice.  It behaved the same, and I let it loose over in the same deep grass.  I can’t know, but it’s fairly safe to guess they lived long, happy serpentine Flint Hills lives.

I wish I remember what, if anything, Uncle Mike and I said afterward.  I’m so gabby I must have said something, but it can’t have been too profound because I forget.  I suspect that Mike and I just smiled, watched the snakes disappear into the grass, and got on with his plans for the grape vines.  What I do know for sure is that it was one of our best moments together.

Thinking about Dixie

I’ve long had a fair bit of affection for the South and its people, which is odd because I doubt I could ever live in the South in comfort except in carefully selected areas, maybe not even then.  It’s nothing by any means common to most Southerners; rather, its vocal minority is simply more vocal than would enable me to live in peace, me being not particularly prone to withstand certain things in silence.  It’s a rough situation for the vast majority, whom I find a diverse, thoughtful, friendly and self-honest bunch.  They are sick of being caught up in broad generalizations, and I completely get that because I’m a Kansas boy.  I get the same sort of crap, and by and large, Southerners seem to deal with those broad generalizations based on minority viewpoints better than I do those about Kansas.  I guess they’ve had long practice.

Thus, there’s more than one reason a son of Kansas roots watching twisters tear the living hell out of Dixie can feel pretty badly for them.  Hang tough, folks.  My condolences for your losses, which are appallingly grave.  You have a lot of good people, a lot of tough people, and you’ll rebuild.