Road Trip 2011, Part One - 'Not in Kansas Anymore' [Published: 3/1/2011]

Early in January, I had the opportunity to take an extended road trip, and did not have to be asked twice. While this excursion was not quite the big road trip I want to one day find myself on (where I slip in and out of the horizon at whim; have nowhere to be at any given time for as long as I can possibly stand), it had a similar flavor, for being an ambitious undertaking if nothing else.

I had two travel companions with me however, and while there are benefits to this, there are necessary concessions: I couldn't go wherever I wanted, when I wanted, couldn't drive when I felt like it (although in truth, arguing about who gets to drive turned out to be not nearly the contention I'd feared, especially once we grew road weary, when it became a matter of who was stuck driving), couldn't listen to the music I wanted, when I wanted (in other words, growl ferociously along with Ministry, weep and warble to the Carpenters or air piano like a mad motherfucker to Liszt as the mood struck me). Little things like that combined with having to share space, having every decision subject to committee, having to endure wildly divergent environmental control preferences, the odd smell nobody was willing to lay claim to, not to mention being saddled with a schedule to keep, tempered the experience a little.

But that's not to say it wasn't a success. To the contrary. The trip couldn't have come at a better time, both in terms of my life (with vacation time built up and, more important, not a damn thing keeping me from going), and the time of year (what better antidote to post-holiday gloom than to get the hell out of Dodge for a while?). It took us nearly 5,000 miles through 14 states in just over a week. Nothing tragic or inconvenient happened, we didn't wind up killing each other, and the drive satiated my restlessness.

For now.

Anticipation is a cornerstone of any positive experience, and for weeks leading up to our departure I found myself MapQuesting tirelessly the route we were to take in an attempt to determine the most efficient use of roadway; to somehow meld the expedience of the Interstate with the preservation of at least some two-lane highway time; to drive through an actual town now and then, hear it breathe, see something along the way other than travel centers the size of small nations looming off the superhighway like the last outposts in someone's dystopian fantasy.

This wasn't an easy task. The Interstate highway system in this country was built specifically for the purpose of getting to and from places as quickly and conveniently as possible, and if you have any kind of schedule to keep, the two lane highways, scenic as they might be, close to this nation's true beating heart as they might run, are agonizingly slow. Someday, on that very big trip I take, I will make hearty use of them, but this time, we had no choice but to depend mostly on the superhighways to afford us our unmentionable haste.

Our destination was Nevada, and in hopes of avoiding winter, we decided we would drive south on 35 through Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, then turn west on Highway 40 through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. We considered going through Colorado - a bit shorter of a route, and I was eager to see the mountains - but our schedule made chancing the Rockies in January an unwise gambit. If there was time, we agreed, and if the weather seemed like it would hold, the plan was to try that route on the way back, when a two-day stint waiting out a mountain snowstorm would not be as big a deal.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but stress over the weather. (In other words, turn into my father.) The three of us were constrained for time and - to a lesser extent - money. The trip had to go off without a hitch; none of us could really afford anything going wrong, being stuck waiting out a blizzard, or worse, I imagined (lying awake at night trying to reconcile my excitement and my anxiety), getting socked in by some Arctic blast before even getting underway. Every flutter in the air, every forecaster's call for even the lightest flurries throughout the holidays got me antsy.

I wanted to take this trip. Needed to.

As it turned out, the weather was perfect for the duration. Bright skies, temperatures above average. The entire way out and the entire way back, with the exception of (indeed) a short stretch through the Rockies, I don't think I saw any precipitation - snow, rain or otherwise - much less the kind of blizzards that a week before we left rendered New York City paralyzed, and a month later brought Chicago and much of the Midwest to a standstill.

What I did see as we drifted town to town and state to state was a fantastically changeable landscape and culture, that which we hear tell of in books and travelogues. It really is true - each state/region has its own thing going on, different from the last - and it's fairly stirring to watch unfold before your eyes. The fact that we co-exist in this country as peacefully as we do for all our various cultures, dialects, predilections and politics, that we create as little dissidence as we do and survive what little pops up, is in my eyes a marvel.

Quick travel through it all lent me another important reassurance, one specific to the age we live in, an age in which it's not hard to start believing we're in the midst of a dystopian fantasy. I sometimes think (fear) that what has begun to comprise the compendium of our times is the worst shit we can post on YouTube: the drunken idiots causing a 2 a.m. melee at Denny's; the locker room beatings of greatly disturbed teenagers; the stupid stunts of greatly bored teenagers; celebrity meltdowns; the loud and wrong; the right and overbearing; the merely obnoxious finding their flatulent voice through technology; the endless, disorienting chatter filling our heads like tiny shards of glass being poured through a hole in the top of our skulls.

But when you're out and about, you see society painted in a softer relief. You realize something else is going on; something that has always been there but can be lost, and/or forgotten, in a world that propels itself at the speed of light through the consumption of sound bites: people are - for the most part - still okay. They comb vigilantly but peaceably through their daily lives just as you do. They're imperfect, to be sure; they have problems, issues that I, as traveler, never see, and, were I made privy, might just make me thankful to be 'traveler.' But I remain convinced, in the way they greet me, the banter we engage in during our brief encounter, that the collection of horrendous memes that go 'viral' on-line is not to be considered a true representation of society, neither a barometer of its hopes and dreams, nor an accurate calibration of its moral compass.

I could be wrong.

I was particularly excited about this trip because I had never driven west before. I'd driven east a lot, and south a fair way, but never any further west of Wisconsin than the North Dakota border. Since we were headed for Nevada, we decided early on that we would take a day to check out California; make it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and that amped up my excitement even more.

I needed this trip.

We drove non-stop to make time, taking turns behind the wheel, and as a result, lamentably, some of the more astonishing landscape rolled past hidden in darkness. All I really saw of New Mexico, for instance, was Albuquerque's dazzling after-dark sprawl carpeting a valley like a spilled jar of gold glitter. Similarly, all that punctured the desert night beyond that was one gigantic Indian casino/truck stop, and (not surprisingly) the periodic roadside golden arches perched atop a hundred and fifty foot pole, easily mistaken for the moon from certain peripheral glances (the golden arches will doubtless be the most visible thing on the moon, should humans ever inhabit it). And perhaps saddest of all, faint silhouettes of mountain bluffs bulging like gigantic thumbs into the starry sky, blotting out the moon as we descended into the Earth at 70 miles an hour, are all I remember of Utah. But there was plenty of daylight driving to go around, from which I drew the impressions I share here now, state by state:


Kansas is the first state on this trip I have never been to before.

"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I mutter to myself as we cross the state line from Missouri.

No other state is so aligned in my mind with the loneliness of the great plains, nor sports quite the same drab sepia-tone existence, as Kansas. It's a distinct possibility much of this has to do with The Wizard of Oz, but perhaps the opposite is true. Maybe The Wizard of Oz was shot in the manner it was because Kansas is how it is. That Dorothy's low-slung reality being dismissed by her kin and harassed by Miss Gulch should carry on in black and white, while her dream of Oz bursts forth in rich colorful bounty might just have as much to do with Kansas as it does the rainbow over which she suddenly finds herself.

Kansas is one of those in-between states. Though it's productive in terms of agriculture and mining, it stands on a line between the more fertile farmland to the north (Iowa, Nebraska), and the oil fields and semi-desert to the south (Oklahoma, Texas). It participates in both, but is known for neither. Its reputation to outsiders centers around being a place where not much happens, but I get the feeling it's more precise to say nothing much has happened in a long time.

And don't be fooled. Its wide, empty spaces keep crazy secrets. Some of the bloodiest encounters of the 'old west' - the lawless pioneer towns, outlaws and Indian wars we associate with it - happened on Kansan soil (the saying, 'get out of Dodge' refers specifically to Fort Dodge, Kansas - now Dodge City). It was a free state with slave state influence, and this resulted in violent conflict in the days and months leading up to the Civil War. It is a conservative state politically (blood red, some would say), and yet seems to have a fairly strong Progressive movement. (Er...maybe I'm thinking of Kansas, the prog rock band.) Its state song is actually 'Home on the Range' and I can't think of anything to say about that. It's perfect.

But so too would be Dust In the Wind, come to think of it.

A last minute decision to avoid tolls gets us veering diagonally through Kansas to pick up Highway 40 further west, and as a result, the Sunflower State is where we get most of our two-lane highway perspective on this trip. Two things I remember about the state that gave us Dorothy and Toto, Senator Bob Dole, Dwight Eisenhower and Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island:

1) The distinctive accent that begins to creep into people's speech as soon as you cross the border. A fainter version is already present in the Show-Me state, but in Kansas it becomes more apparent. It is a shade of the southern accent, but not as drawly; clipped by a stainless steel twang. It's intriguing to walk bleary-eyed into a truck stop outside of Kansas City at sunrise, having driven all night, our last stop several hundred miles earlier in the still-familiar environs of Minnesota (where the faint accent any traveler's going to detect will likely have a dense Scandinavian quality), and hear everyone, from the clerk behind the counter to the waitress bringing us our breakfast to the Bible study participants in the booth behind us, all sporting this modulation. It is the first irrefutable evidence, outside of road signs, that I am truly 'not in Kansas anymore.'

Even though I am.

2) The wind. Man, the wind in Kansas blows. I can see how Dorothy wound up 'behind the moon, beyond the rain', though there is no need for a Wizard of Oz-caliber twister to feel swept away. There is a wall of wind that roars across that open country, with nary a tree, building or even the slightest acclivity in the land to encumber it. It buffets the vehicle you drive like a Sumo full of rage, causes dangerous sway of the big rigs coming up on the left, and is a force to be reckoned with when you step out of your vehicle.

It is this wind, rushing down from the front range of the Rockies with nothing to stop it, that carried millions of tons of dust across millions of acres of American and Canadian prairie in the 1930s. By itself it's intimidating; I can only imagine the terror it incited in people already struggling to cope with isolation when it was accompanied by a sky-high wall of red dust swallowing the sun.

NOTHING THERE TO TELL IT NO - The wind is Kansas blows.

The state of the horizon at any given moment is important, because Kansas is one of those places where the sky and the land tend to become one. It is as flat as people imagine (at least where we drive through; there are people who contend its claim to flatness overall), and all of God's, and Humanity's, creation is visible for miles in every direction. No sooner have you left one town than you can see the next town in the distance (a water tower silhouetted minutely against the wash of sunlight, or a thin white line of buildings, not one of them more than two stories high and easily mistaken for a string of clouds in the very nearby sky) either directly ahead or off to port or starboard along some perpendicular-running county road.

Great swatches of prairie resonate their remoteness in Kansas. They are crisscrossed by fast-moving locomotives, and highways where the only traffic you'll see for miles is big rigs. Wherever they're going and wherever they're coming from, I get the sense it's got little if anything to do with the tiny towns along their route.

Newton, Walton, Meade, Kingman...each town name seems to hearken to a long gone founder, someone who staked claim to some kind of perceived, imagined or hoped-for promise in the days when there were still mostly homesteaders and Native Americans in these parts. Not all the communities are tiny and 'one-horse', though. Newton, for instance, has 17,000 people, twice the size of the town I grew up in. But the wind-swept physical desolation of Kansas engenders a more powerful emotional desolation, and phantoms of by-gone eras - of, indeed, someone's perceived, imagined or hoped-for promise - are everywhere.

Almost invariably, the water tower is the tallest structure in town, no matter its size, the prairie is never far from view, and the railroad still feels like the main drag. The towns seem to be given to the high plains these days, little more than texture to 'central Kansas' or 'west Kansas'. If they belong to anything, it's to a larger statistical 'marketing' area...notably Wichita...and this leads to an unavoidable reality of the modern world: in every one of these towns, no matter its size, no matter how downtrodden or decrepit, there is some kind of familiar corporate entity present. A Pizza Hut, a McDonald's, a K-Mart or Wal-Mart. The argument rages whether this is a good or bad thing, but corporatism tends to dissolve individuality rather than punctuate it, not just in Kansas, but across the country and the world.

Of similar significance, on nearly every street in nearly every town, can be found some strapping freckly teenager, face ringed with acne, protruding Adam's apple heralding his still-ripe teenage awkwardness, sporting Abercrombie and Fitch, or some urban style or attitude: pants hanging off his ass, or a sideways cap, or even just a faux-'gangsta' swagger...something to remind us, just as the corporate logos do, that the isolation here is basically just an illusion. The outside world is not nearly as distant as it was a hundred years ago, or even thirty. That kid gives far less of a crap about his little Kansas hometown than his grandfather did, and unlike granddad at that age, he has options.

We stop overnight in Liberal, not far from the Oklahoma border. Liberal is a nice community, though anything with a bed would have been 'nice' after 22 straight hours on the road. I hardly remember those last miles into town. I feel grungy, and so tired I literally cannot see straight, yet I'm unable to sleep and I turn loopy. I spend the time snapping pictures of the landscape, snapping pictures of my companions, snapping pictures of myself - close-up views of my chin and nostrils - viewing the results and indulging in loud bursts of laughter at the gnarly topography of my face.

I am struck by the demographics of Liberal. Close to 50 percent, and upwards of 70 percent by some estimates of its 20,000 residents, are Hispanic - an ethnic enclave seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. It shows in the labor force, in the restaurants available along its main street, in the bi-lingual signage for everything from gas to food to accommodations. It's a nice shot of diversity in a place I'd have least expected, as well as indicative of the country's changing demographic and future trend, but I wonder what in Liberal, Kansas attracted so much immigration. Agriculture presumably, meat-packing perhaps, or mining...western Kansas is a hotbed for helium and natural gas.

But I'm too exhausted to give it much thought. Tonight, western Kansas becomes best known to me as the place where I sleep for 16 hours straight - no breaks, no dreams, no disoriented lurches from slumber at 4 a.m. I remain dead to the world throughout the evening and overnight. I watch no television in that hotel room as I drift off; I don't join my companions for dinner or unpack or even bother to shower. I barely have the energy to key myself into the room, and when I do, I hit the bed before my luggage hits the floor, the last 22 hours a buzzing neon sign in my head.

I have the presence of mind, at least, to sleep above the covers. Someone in those last delirious miles started talking about bedbugs in motels, and while there was no reason to think the hotel we chose was any cause for concern, I fall asleep as freaked out as I am exhausted.

Come on, if it can happen at Abercrombie and Fitch, it can happen anywhere.


"We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand..."
- Rodgers and Hammerstein

I don't get to see nearly as much of Oklahoma as I'd have liked. Any state that warrants its own Broadway show must have something worth seeing. Though I wonder how many people, even fans of book musicals, remember Oklahoma! I only know it because my parents were in a local theater production of it when I was a kid, and for a while this got me telling my classmates, as-yet unable to wrap my brain around how absurd this was, that I was from Oklahoma, that my parents had adopted me from a dude ranch.

At nine I was a filthy liar.

Alas, our route brings us across only the very tip of the thin stretch that is the panhandle, lasting less than an hour. But in that short time come noticeable changes to land and culture:

The Kansas accent from the day before liquifies, becomes more drawly, more 'southern.' We stop in Guymon, smack dab in the center of the panhandle, and here I experience it first hand, in a smiley girl cashiering behind the counter of a Love's convenience store. I must confess, it is undeniably alluring when spoken by any female, and I wonder if there is a legitimate science to support that assertion (others have made it), or if, swept up in the excitement of being on the road, I'm merely being charmed by an 'other'.

Love's is a funny side note to this trip. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, it's a chain of convenience and travel centers that reportedly has presence in 30 states, though I've never seen one before now. They're the same as countless other chains, but their logo and name suggest something completely different. I've been seeing signs for them throughout Kansas, but until we stop at the one in Guymon, I've been under the impression they are some kind of franchised sex shop, and starting to wonder what freaky shit goes on in west Kansas to warrant one in every single town. The revelation brings out a lot of laughter, and for the rest of the trip, every Love's we spot evokes a burst of puerile something or other from one of us.

The Oklahoma accent becomes evident not only in the Guymon Love's, but on the radio, where I spend a fascinating hour listening to a local auction, in a land where ranching and farming are king.

All the women calling in to bid sound like Reba McEntire. All the men like Toby Keith.

I say this with no disrespect, and all apologies to more seasoned travelers who might roll their eyes at my seeming naivete, but I really got a kick out of the accent. I get a kick out of any first-time experience, and I simply have never heard any southern accent live before. I like coming across certain stereotypes; that is, actually finding something that I expect to be there, something I've always heard or read about actually existing. I don't know what it says about me, exactly, but something doesn't exist, really exist, until I experience or see it for myself.

That's part of what makes traveling so alluring. It's putting together a puzzle of the world, one tiny little piece at a time.

I really needed this trip.

While I'm at it, now's a good time to declare I have no compunction whatsoever seeking out landmarks when I travel. A lot of travelers avoid anything that is too typical, or too touristy. 'Too touristy' makes total sense in terms of any kind of corporatism. If I can eat at Joe Blow's Pizza joint instead of Pizza Hut, hang out at a local coffee shop or diner in lieu of Starbucks, I certainly will. Corporatism, theme parks...more or less anything geared specifically toward what I like to call the 'mini-van driving family of four' is of little interest to me.

That being said, I know people who take this sentiment too far. People who go to Paris and eschew the Eiffel Tower, on principle. Go to New York and eschew the Statue of Liberty. The landmarks are not the end of the story, they are only the beginning. But to avoid them, to avoid anything we remember seeing in a World Book Encyclopedia in third grade simply because familiarity breeds contempt is self-defeating. When I go to Paris for the first time, I'm going to see the Eiffel Tower - first from a breathless distance, and then a breathless climb up the stairs to the top. I hope to one day walk a large portion of the Great Wall of China.  Doesn't matter to me how many people have already flocked to see it, or will in the future, or that 'real' China exists elsewhere.

I'm totally down with 'real' China, but I have to make the Great Wall real first.

The landscape in the Oklahoma panhandle becomes rockier and more jagged, starts to hint at what lies ahead - the lunar landscape of the American southwest - but is still held together by the prairie/farmland that has been dominating the last 400 miles. There are pumpjacks dotting the landscape more numerously now however - those bobbing, horse-like mechanisms that draw oil to the surface - and upon spotting a field of them for the first time (rather than just one or two here and there, which has been happening since Missouri), I think, 'Damn, this is Oklahoma. We're actually getting into oil country."

Such as it is in America, in the 21st century, anyway.

Traveling helps me understand a little better what it must be like for visitors to my hometown, to see the big lake on which I grew up for the first time. I remember working as a cashier in a convenience store years ago, hunched over the register watching tourists pile out of their RV's and listening as they waxed rhapsodic about Lake Superior - its size, its breadth, not at all what they expected from merely surveying it on a map. I would flash them a polite but mostly disinterested smile. It was no big deal to me; I'd seen it all my life. But to them, it was something awe-inspiring...proof they were not in Kansas anymore. Not in their Kansas, anymore.

Something new. Another puzzle piece put in place.

That thin strip of Oklahoma panhandle is also where I see another (sort of) landmark: the tumbleweed.  Can't say it's awe-inspiring, exactly, but it's fascinating.

Why? Because they're so emblematic to these parts it's been easy throughout my life to not really believe they actually exist, outside of cartoons.

Not only do they exist, but they race their way across the wind-swept roadways with abandon, and can in an instant become a hazard to motorists. Several leap out in front of our vehicle as we head toward the Texas border, propelled at race horse speed by the same muscular wind we'd experienced in Kansas the day before. They are suddenly in the center of the roadway as blindly and brainlessly as the deer of the northwoods where I come from. We swerve to avoid them, but aren't quite quick enough with one in particular. When we stop for gas in Guymon, we find the poor thing has been riding in the grill of our car for the last half hour.

We also become in that moment self-conscious about our car - a Ford Taurus we're hoping will remain reliable for another 4000 miles. So far, it's run flawlessly, but it's covered with road salt, a splotchy two-tone white on maroon mess that no other vehicle in our midst is sporting, and gets us realizing that winter is completely gone now. The snow has been absent for a while, but it was still chilly in Missouri and Kansas. Now, teetering on Texas in January, it's nearly 60 degrees. There's not a damn thing wrong with that, nor (and this is what amazes me) is it all that unusual. Everywhere we look, people wander the streets in short sleeve shirts and we are impelled to follow suit. Yet every time we get out of the car, it's with our jackets on, bracing for what we instinctively know January to be.


Like Oklahoma, our time in Texas is short. We cut through the corner of the panhandle on our trek west, and that, of course - in any state but especially Texas - constitutes not even a finished sentence in the entire story.

Texas looms large in most people's imagination, but not more so than in the imaginations of Texans, and I'd like to have met some of them, in other locations, for longer periods of time. It's astonishing to think two Wisconsins would fit inside Texas. It is astonishing to think I'm in Texas.

Two things that I remember about the Lone Star state:

1) Wind farms. There are wind farms in many places, they're by no means unique to Texas; in fact there are several close to where I live. It's an emerging industry that, honestly, if I had $10,000 lying around doing nothing, I just might invest in. But seeing a line of wind turbines on the horizon in Texas strikes me as a bit more significant. Many of these remarkable structures with 130-foot blades are plying their trade on land that doubtless once held promise as an oil field. I know this, because in some spots along our route pumpjacks still share space with them. Wind turbines and pumpjacks working toward the common goal of keeping our nights lit, our society in motion (moving at that speed of light...) - one a monument to the past, the other an emissary from the future.

2) Amarillo, where we stop for lunch.

Amarillo is an indulgence. A spur-of-the-moment decision to veer off course just for the sake of doing it (and because it's lunchtime). This city of 190,000 might not otherwise register on my radar, were it not for the song 'Texas Tornado' by Tracy Lawrence, I worked five years as a country radio deejay, and the first line of that song, having heard it over and over and over on countless 'All Request Friday Nights' - "You called me up from Amarillo/said you were coming to town..." - starts ringing in my ears. I sing it quietly to myself at first, then more loudly, finally with a loud, drawly affectation that annoys my travel companions as we near the self-proclaimed Helium capital of the world.

It's a pretty quiet day in Amarillo. A problem with traveling in January is the lack of anything really going on, especially in an area of the country where there is no snow. Amarillo is bright, warm (ish) and sleepy on the Saturday morning we drive in from the north. But we stroll along the downtown streets for a while, soak in the early afternoon, looking at buildings and in shop windows, then eat lunch at a great Mexican restaurant before turning west toward the American southwest.

I could have milled around a lot longer, sat there and soaked in the Amarillo afternoon, watched Amarilloans going about their day, for as long as there was daylight. Under different circumstances, free of an itinerary, I would have (and will someday, somewhere...). But we have miles to go before we sleep, literally, and the closer we draw to our destination, the more precious time becomes. We have no plans for a stopover now; the idea is to drive continuously, straight to Nevada from here, and we're already getting a late start. After a stop for coffee, we're off to the west on Highway 40.

But I'm glad I got to see Amarillo. Sometimes (not always, but sometimes) it's enough just to say I've been there.

Particularly a place that I don't know I will ever get back to.

I really needed this trip.