An Expansive Kansas Road Trip in a Concise Time: Everyday Magic, Day 910

You can drive a long way in Kansas and never leave the state, like 340 miles west from my home to western Kansas, and still be a ways from a state border. That’s just what I did to give a Kansas Humanities Council talk on wild weather in poetry, photography and our lives at one of the great community jewels-of-a-library, Pioneer Memorial Library (astonishing array of programs for all ages, and even a coloring night!)

The trip was fueled by coffee, of course, plus, because I’m trying to give up my M&Ma-and-Cheetos road trip habits, an entire box of Nut Thins (don’t judge me), hummus, a perfect Pink Lady apple, and an over-ripe banana. Getting over a cold necessitated a lot of over-the-counter meds and turmeric interspersed with those great Ricola cough drops. Between miles 107 and 200, I believe pretzels were involved while blasting podcasts of “This American Life” or singing loudly to “Now I Have Everything” from Fiddler on the Roof.

The view from my hotel room

I love the open road, and there’s few better ways to experience it than to drive to western Kansas where the locals consider it a little jaunt to go 50 miles, and where the sky widens and deepens all directions. The traffic is often non-existent, and it’s easy to get lost in all that open space, speed, and splendor of sky. I also love western Kansas where my mind relaxes, and the air is brighter, cooler, and often clearer.

The downside of losing track of things is that, instead of remembering to fill my tank in Hays, I got too caught up a podcast about a prison nurse falling in love with an inmate. Just as my caffeine- and cold-medicine-induced panic was about to rise, I saw an exit leading to a clearly abandoned gas station. The sign had been hollowed out from years of wind, and the building’s windows were whitened from the inside to block out viewing. But something told me to take the exit, where I found a red sign that said “Credit Card Pumps.” I pulled out my credit card, and took my chances. When the gas started flowing, I lifted my arms to thank the god of abandoned gas stations.

But then, when a person is lucky, that’s what expansive travel can be. “Ask and it shall be given” came true for me throughout this little jaunt, such as when I realized I desperately needed a bathroom, and lo and behold, a rest stop appeared, which I had never noticed in the 213 times over 30+ years I’ve done this drive before. Or dinner, which can be dicey in rural communities on occasion when the only restaurant open is a gas station that sells stale pizza. I lucked out with one of the best Midwestern official fried chicken dinner (which always includes mashed potatoes, corn, and a roll) at the Welcome Home cafe (dinner also included a superb salad and fruit bar).

Wanting to stretch my legs after filling my belly, I wandered near the restaurant, which was in a kind of antique-mall-meets-strip-mall-meets-car-dealership, and I came up to what we know in Kansas as Wheatus Jesus, the haunting billboard I’ve seen from 75 mph for years but never stood beside. It’s very impressive, and so is the big field nearby at sunset. Right there, for a reason I couldn’t fathom, there was platform overlooking the field, but the steps to it were blocked by big pots of cherry tomatoes in the middle of a sunflower forest. I was going to climb the stairs to the forbidden platform, but my first step in set off some growling creature, so I jumped back just in time to remove a bunch of sticktites.

Now I’m home, the miles behind me, and the quiet of home all around me. Once again I’m glad to be home, but I’m also glad to have gone.

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.

The bed is covered in piles of clothes, the hungry suitcases are chomping at the bit, and I’m eager to clean out the car. There’s something immensely satisfying loading a little car with everything from winter coats (never know — it could be snowing on the top of a mountain we’re exploring) to trail mix. Conversely, unloading that car in 10 days isn’t quite the same, but then it’s wonderful to be with cats and dog, birds and changing leaves, and back in our own bed.

As someone who loves planning, often more than what happens after the planning, I’m looking toward cultivating a vacation mindset as soon as we hit I-70. The funny thing about planning a vacation is that when I think I’m going to go out of my mind unless I take a real break from things, planning is a kind of nirvana wishing ground. Then, in peaceful stretches like this one — right before leaving — I realize that while I’m thrilled to be exploring, I’m fine with being here to catch the monarchs starting to come through and the hummingbirds still at the feeders. Those two so-human impulses — the call of the open road, and the song of home — play simultaneously, two radio stations that sometimes harmonize in the distance.

At the same time, adventure and homecoming are two sides of the same falling leaf. I think of this especially when seeing the full moon rise, which will be tonight, and remembering how a friend once told me if I look at the full moon when he’s looking at the full moon, we’ll be connected in our gazing. So wherever the moon is, there we all are! Home beats in the center of our chests and can surround us, a cloak of shelter, wherever we are.

So it’s off to stuff things into suitcases and podcasts onto the iphone as I slide toward leaving tomorrow, and getting things ready for our housesitter and animals.  Yet just like the title of one of Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous novels, I know we’re also Always Coming Home. I wish everyone joy in travel, and in the landing in your own bed again.

A bunch of hummingbirds is called a charm, a delight and an adornment, and for the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have my view delighted and adorned by a charm of hummingbirds. At this time of September, it’s a teenage charm with the ‘rents having gone south already for their tropical vacation, and the kids, some of whom are still hanging out at my place, partying at the sugar-water hanging kegs like there’s no tomorrow.

After a usual summer of a few Ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging out at the edge of woods and near the feeders, right around early September, they seem to multiply overnight on their way south to winter in southern Mexico and northern Panama. My friend Pam, who sat quietly on our front porch with me yesterday to immerse herself n the buzz-chirp-rush of the birds, told me that the full-grown birds take off first, leaving behind the teens, who are old enough to be on their own without causing too much of a ruckus, and happy as the day is long and the feeders are full.

While the ways of the teen are somewhat mysterious in humans, when it comes to hummingbirds, that mystery deepens because of all we don’t know about them. According to some sites I perused, hummingbirds are too little (weighing about 3 grams, smaller for the teens) to carry radio transmitters, and of course, these birds are difficult to catch, handle, and band, let alone recover the banded ones. It also sounds like we just don’t know a lot about their fall migration, except they are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same feeders around the same time each spring, and the males — the ones with the beautiful ruby-colored throats — don’t linger long after mating. What we do know is hummingbirds beat their wings 53 times a second, they weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 an oz., their hearts beat the fastest of all beings — 1260 beats per minute, they can migrate about 1,500 miles in a season, and they make an outrageous amount of song and sound.

As I write this, these tiny, feisty miracles race-buzz by, then suspend themselves mid-air to stare at me, the dog, the cats — who stare back in amazement but are smart enough not to even try to get closer — before shooting off to the feeder. Sometimes there are a dozen or more zipping diagonally past each other from power line to feeder to high branch on the Osage Orange tree back around.  Sometimes they squeak long dialogues before vanishing into the woods with a flash. Each swirl and angle of their flight, each call and wild rush of their wings charms all of us living this porch (and beyond) life.

Listen to their calls and see them swishing around below in the little video I took, and learn more (and hear various kinds of calls) at this fantastic Audubon site and the Cornell All About Birds site.

Yesterday morning, I walked acrosIMG_1758s the narrow beach into the ocean, dipping my toes into the cold Maine waters until, scared and hesitant, I dropped in and swam like crazy to warm up until the sea carried me with ease.

This morning, I walked to my front porch, put my feet up, and stared into the Osage Orange tree and other things in my view, like my car that got strangely covered with bird poop while I was away. I let the chartreuse padded rocker (found years ago in a small-town Kansas thrift store) carry me into quiet.

In between, there were airports, a very strong cup of iced coffee, a narrow plane seat 30,000 feet off the earth with a view of the Jersey island (Long Beach Island) where I fretted as a teen, and IMG_1813surrealist naps between the captain’s garbled announcements. There was the ride to the Portland Jetway with an old friend/ Goddard student who shared the moving, drastic, and ultimate healing story of losing his home to a fire. There was a lobster roll and very salty potato chips at one airport, and a Philly pretzel at the other. There was the baggage carousel with finally Jerry’s suitcase to grab, the luggage left to me by my dearly-departed friend who still travels with me. There was Ken late at night and the beautiful and car-fumed air of the home airport, then the ride where as usual, I alternated between talking at high speed and staring into the blur of familiar highway sites. Then there was the house waiting for me, complete with cat vomit in the entry way, a very happy dog, my beautiful sons, a clean kitchen counter, and a whole lot of mail.

Balanced precariously on the ledge of these merging views, I recover from close to two weeks away and all the beauty and exhaustion that filled that time. I run to the garden in the morning in my nightgown to graze on tomatoes and consider what to plant for a fall garden. I nap deeply for hours, then find out it was just 10 minutes. I plant a big dinner while watching the many hummingbirds from this porch, then decide yogurt and fruit is best.

The view behind, the view ahead, and the view now hangs mysteriously together when I see a fast orange butterfly reminding me that just yesterday how a bunch of us in the ocean pointed up and laughed when we saw a black butterfly. Motion links us.