Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer in Kansas: The Lower Depths

How did this happen? I forsook those 100-degree days on the Colorado Front Range (elev. 6214) for 110-degree days in the lower altitudes (elev. 3237). 

In short, my retirement was curtailed by the importunings of my previous employers, who have reassigned me to a former reassignment, persuading farmers and ranchers in southwestern Kansas to do what I ask them to do and like it. When they do, it's mainly because they like me as much as they like the idea of having a wind farm in the neighborhood.

Strange to admit that I've left the mountain fastnesses, the trout streams turgid with mid-summer melt, and the fragrant ponderosa slopes for the desert and its cottonwood oases, but I can't say I ain't happy about it. Summer in Kansas is no picnic (more on picnics in a moment), but the lovely montane passes of Colorado are clogged with the usual extravagant toilet barges . . .

"Ten miles an hour - I swear they're barbequeing . . ."

. . . and hefty tourist couples plundering the outlet malls like modern-day pirates. Freedom isn't free, as current wisdom goes.

( . . . and don't forget America's retailers.)

But when I got back to the hotel in Garden City, I found Curtis and the two Jakes, the company's field crew, having dinner in the bar and - handshakes and felicitations all around - it was as though I'd never retired. I've worked with the locals here for over two years, and I've always stayed in Garden City because it's the only city between Wichita and Denver, which even in the day of interstate auto travel is a bit of a yawner (and not counting Dodge City as a real city, which no one does unless for its mediocre state-run "gambling facility" which you may remember more easily as a casino). Garden City has a single hotel with the only decent restaurant in town, and air conditioning that works unfailingly, which you really need to depend on in a Kansas summer.

"Whichever asshole booked me into Liberal is dead."

But I've moved my operating base south to Ulysses, where the desert begins or ends (hard to say), and where the bright lights go off at 9 p.m. 

 Ulysses, ca.1929 and still about the same

Towns in Kansas all have the green highway signs at the city limits, listing elevation (which never changes). The population remains unstable, the steadily perishing old white folks being replaced at an uneven rate by Mexican-Americans (and a few of their relatives who are often just Mexicans simpliciter, but are more than willing to do the nasty work that's available out here). In any case, signs listing elevation rather than population are a more responsible use of municipal funds.

Still, Kansas has its charms, believe it or not. I see and hear things out here I rarely see and hear anywhere else, like the meadowlarks in the mornings, or the mockingbirds and the brown thrashers speaking long conversational arias in the treetops, or scissor-tailed flycatchers on barbed-wire fences hawking bugs in the midday heat . . . 

. . . sandpipers, yellow-legs, killdeers and long-billed curlews stalking tilled fields for grubs and hoppers, eastern and western kingbirds together on fence lines, kestrels diving for meadowlarks that outbulk them, the red-eyed Mississippi kites as thick as crows on utility lines along the roads, a hovering Swainson's hawk at last outdone by fewer than a half-dozen territorial blackbirds, a vulture picking at a dead rattlesnake in someone's driveway, old pickups smoking along dusty county roads carrying a spikey payload of long-horned Watusi cattle skulls, or just parked along the highway, a derelict cell phone ringing on the passenger's seat while the driver has a cold beer at Good Times . . .

So I have a different routine now that I'm in the countryside. There just isn't an eating place left in Ulysses that I'd want to frequent on a regular basis. The best restaurant in town burned down from a grease fire not long after I arrived and the owners decided to leave it, burned and down. It's a metaphor for southwestern Kansas in a way, and I don't like it but I can't fault them for giving up a losing battle.

So I buy a sandwich and park my old Toyota pickup in the local park, where I can watch the herons sail over the lake and the kingbirds harass each other in the cottonwoods. The young Mexicans from town come and play volleyball on the sand - they pull their pickup trucks to the water's edge and tune their radios to the same station. 

 Only in my Mexican dreams

While I sit in the picnic pavilion with my Subway sandwich I can hear them rallying one another, and the music on their truck radios - the lilting, harmonious music of Mexico, pleasant enough on the evening air until, like popular music everwhere, it inevitably turns monotonous. But it sounds like I'm at home in a changing American landscape, where the irrigation wells are drying up, wheat is no longer easy to grow, where everyone will eventually figure out how to get along and find something else to do.

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