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Beyond the Pale - A 'pale' is a fencepost. The English Pale was a boundary in Ireland marking out the part of Ireland under direct English rule circa 1450 (which included Dublin and environs). Those that lived 'beyond the pale', outside of English rule, were considered out of control and uncivilised. You decide...

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kansas - There's no place like home

Home is where the heart is



SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW

You say the word ‘Kansas’ to someone, the reflex response is “there’s no place like home” (generally speaking, however there will be some who ignore your proclamation, mutter ‘weirdo’ under their breath and resume their place in the queue for the bus). Thanks, perhaps in part to the dawn of Technicolor and some catchy ditties, the 1930s movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ planted Kansas in all our psyches for eternity. The place where tornadoes threw houses into parallel universes, witches were good and bad and had a penchant for bicycles and monkeys, and little dogs named Toto saved the day.



Corn!

As we drove into Dorothy country I was excited, I sat back and waited for the road to turn yellow. And in a way it did, we waved goodbye to the sunflowers of Nebraska and hello to the endless fields of all American corn.
Bang smack in the middle

Our first stop was Lebanon, the centre of the contiguous United States. Back in South Dakota (read here) we had made it to the centre of all 50 states. No offense Alaska or Hawaii, but including you in a geographical pinpoint seems a bit askew. Since reading Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods many years ago, finally getting to Lebanon was our “we did it” moment. It wasn’t particularly as I had imagined, we ran over hillocks (did I just make up a word!), picked daisies, and made small chat with some fellow travelers who had also felt the magnetic pull to the centre of this land mass that the yanks (and Dorothy) call home. Róisín got some face time with her first cow. It was warm and fuzzy, peaceful and pretty.

But it was time to move on and see something truly weird.

How do you pull people off the bypass highway and into your small town? Build something big, definitely weird and possibly wonderful (see Car Henge in Nebraska and the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota).

More than a hobby
We came to a screeching halt in the small town of Lucas to pay our respects to its very own Garden of Eden. The work of one man, Dinsmoor, who turned his front and back garden into something that would give the curtain twitching brigade a few things to gab about. A plethora of towering wooden sculptures with messages on greed and societies fallen ways e.g a parody of Jesus on a cross with ‘Jesus’ as ‘Labor’ and the two thieves either side of him as a ‘Lawyer’ and a ‘Banker’. I thought it might have been a recent sculpture inspired by the 2008 financial crash but Dinsmoor started his ‘garden’ at the tender age of 64 in 1904. He stopped his art when he went blind. The prophetic marvel of it all.


"I've been working on the railroad"

Following a dusty railroad track, we arrived in Wilson and parked outside the Midland Railroad Hotel. The tracks literally ran through the heart of this quaint community, alas no longer for passengers, unless you’re on Santa’s naughty list and packin’ some serious quantities of coal. Despite a lack of people trudging their steamer suitcases full of petticoats and whatnot up the granite steps, the solid historic building still held an old world charm. From its original tiling in the foyer to the heavy massive oak doors, with the beautifully inlaid steel locks, you had to heave open and closed.

The manager fell over himself when we arrived, himself and his ten foot wide smile (hence the fall) seemed genuinely delighted to make our acquaintance.

The town itself felt a touch Mary Celeste, there were restaurants and a school, but not a sliver of a sinner anywhere. We knew the village had not been completely abandoned by it’s townfolk as an information screen in front of the school flashed up that a wallet was missing! I was struck by the gentle innocence of it, it wasn’t stolen or lost it was missing -like a puppy. Even the fact this was deemed town-wide broadcastable news amazed me. Imagine if the jumbotron in Times Square New York was repurposed to flash up alerts of ‘missing wallets’… ‘missing drugs/weapons/bodies’ maybe.


Easiest egg hunt ever!

We hopped across the railway tracks to investigate a gigantic blob in a field. A sign informed us that it was the biggest Czech egg in the world! I was not au fait with the significance of eggs in the Czech Republic but the sign went on to explain that at Easter time Czech boys and girls decorate eggs, the more flamboyant and elaborate the better. I guess when you bring that tradition to America it’s got to be flamboyant, elaborate and BIG. It was August, a long time after Easter but this whopper was now a permanent fixture in the gallery of America’s quirky roadside art.


Czech yo'self
The Czech egg wasn’t totally random, the world’s friendliest hotel manager had told us over breakfast that the town of Wilson had been settled by Czech immigrants, pointing to himself as a prime example of 5th generation 100% Czech. “Check please?” I chirped half joking, half serious. A back slap and guffaw later, he left us to explore the town with new eyes. Sure enough, there are signs in Czech, lots of Czech restaurants, even an advert for “Czech Fest” which listed events including ‘Car Smashing’ a ‘Pong Tournament’, ‘Miss Czech Princess Pageant’, ‘Barrel Rides’, and the day finishes with a ‘Polka Mass’. Why on earth would people go to the Coachella festival when they could go to this, I’m not kidding, I was incensed that we would miss it.

It got me thinking that this connection to the old country, whether its manifestation be manufactured or genuine, the connection is real. As much as Europeans like to tease and roll their eyes at Americans, as we say in the old country "it wasn't off the stones they licked it" (to decipher Irish speak that roughly means the apple didn't fall far from the tree).


Yankee Dala Dandy

Speaking of immigrant towns, Dom had got wind of a place called Lindsborg in Kansas that described itself as a “little Sweden”. As we rolled into the postcard perfect town, I decided I would live there at the drop of a clog. Fiberglass models of small Swedish horses called dalas adorned the beautiful tree lined Main St. Big smiley elderly Swedish American ladies popped out from behind doors to goo and gaa at Roisin whose blue eyes and blonde hair fitted right in with her Scandinavian surrounds.

We schlepped into a store to escape the intense 95 degree heat. An elderly bearded man in a Geppetto apron stood in one corner of the store carving wooden horses. His wife manned the shop that sold Swedish treats and her husbands simple yet stunning woodwork. Roisin gawped at him as he blew the sawdust off a little horse he had been working on and handed to her as a gift. To repay his kindness I bought a family set of tiny wooden people wearing hats and scarves which were revealed to great fanfare at Christmas time (this means I put them on the mantelpiece and it took Dom two weeks to notice). As we left the magical shop, I told Roisin she had just met Santa Claus (nothing like messing with a kid’s head, but in truth I genuinely think I’ve found where Santa and Mrs Claus like to Summer).
what kind of slob lives in that mess

We drove around Lindsborg just so I could play imaginary real estate roulette. “I want that house... no, that one!” Kids bikes abandoned on the neat lawn, the sunseat swinging in the Mid West heat, a couple of ice cool lemonades waiting on the large veranda of an elegant house painted white and eggshell blue (equivalent price of a studio apartment in San Francisco), where do I sign up. The American dream, gimme!

Back on the road, we passed a sign for a church called the Bible and Rifle Church…. Jeez, you wouldn’t want to be late for mass!


The cowardly lion
We had been in Kansas for a while but there hadn’t been a sniff of a scarecrow, the whimper of a cowardly lion or the faintest ding of a tinman. To rectify this we motored directly to Wamego to visit the Wizard of Oz museum. Whether you are fan of the movie or not, it's a modern cultural phenomenon. The museum starts with the story of the author of the original book published in 1900 (shame on me for not knowing it started with a book). Apparently L Frank Baum had strong sympathies with feminists so he deliberately portrayed his main characters as strong women. Although some feel his 2nd novel on Oz lampooned feminism and the suffragette movement.


3 taps and your home, beats Uber


The famous 1938 Judy Garland movie differs to the book in parts, perhaps most notably Dorothy’s shoes. In the book they were silver shoes in the movie they are the (now famous) ruby red slippers, the vivacious colour was adopted to maximise the newly available Technicolor.

For those who believe in the books allegories the ‘yellow brick road’ represented the gold standard and the silver shoes the free-silver populist platform to inflate the money supply. Maybe there are no allegories or veiled subtext, maybe he just wrote stories for children.

The museum is short and cute. Some great photo ops with the giant tinman, the wicked witch’s legs poking out from under the house and so on. On your way out, there is a wind tunnel that simulates a tornado with wind getting up to 80mph. I ventured into it with Roisin. I emerged shaken with a wicked witch hairdo, Roisin came out screaming with joy!

Back in the car we drove through the city of Topeka, famous for its link to Brown v Board historical civil rights case. We slide past the infamous high school and stopped to read about the case. The high school had been segregated in the 1950s, some local black families questioned this in the courts, it went as far as the supreme court, the court ruled that the segregation was against the constitution. It was a landmark step in the civil rights movement and happened 3 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to sit in the back of the bus.


Huh?

A little tired, we arrived into our final stop, Kansas City. A bizarre little fact is that half the city is in fact in the state of Missouri, even more bizarrely no Kansan seems to find this remotely bizarre. Everyone we had met in Kansas along the way had told us we HAD to visit the Nelson Museum of Art as soon as we arrived in Kansas City. It was closed, urgh. The next recommendation was the Country Club Plaza. It was essentially an open air mall, stylish shops and flash restaurants spread over a few blocks. It was nice to wander through and stop for a bite. It ended beside a wonderful set of interlinking parkways which was full of joggers and folks out for a stroll in the hazy evening heat.


Get a room!

We were staying in the Westport district which is one of the older parts of town, that’s been hijacked by hipster bars and funky hotels. Our hotel had theme rooms, we were in the "Irish bar" room complete with a bar and stools! If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…

We mooched over to the Power and Light District. It gets a lot of hype and perhaps when in full swing and you're out on the town for a night of loud dinner and throbbing music it's a great spot. Wheeling a stroller through it at night looking for ice cream probably wasn't the best idea. I think my idea of ‘fun’ has changed over the years.

All great roadtrips must come to an end. We had started our trip along the Missouri river in North Dakota (read here) it was only fitting that we crossed over the Missouri one last time on our way to the airport.

Road tripping across the Great Plains was truly majestic, we had driven down the very spine of America and tickled its centre. It’s not every day I stand beneath a 100 foot grasshopper in North Dakota, get some facetime at Mount Rushmore, moments of sombre reflection at Wounded Knee South Dakota, gaze at Nebraska’s sea of sunflowers, barrell along the Pioneer Wagon Trail, and encounter big eggs and big smiles in Kansas. It is a holiday I will never ever forget and will relive it in my head when I'm old and worn.








1 comment:

  1. Great photo of Roisin touching Tin Man's heart,aww. Another Great post, I want to see Lindsborg, sounds like a fairy tale :)

    ReplyDelete