Below are the diary entries for September 13, 2012, with the newest entries added at the bottom. Also, check out today’s photos.
From our Holiday Inn room overlooking I-70 we watched a pretty impressive thunderstorm last night. The weather had been beautiful, although on the hot side, all day but toward the evening it began to cloud up and by the time we checked in the rain had started. The trouble with sun in Kansas is that there’s always wind, so you don’t notice that you’re getting a sunburn or something until it’s too late.
I had clearly gotten an overdose of sun, because the back of my legs and my hands and arms were covered in tiny red bumps that I think is polymorphous light eruption: “Polymorphous light eruption is an itchy rash caused by sun exposure in people who have developed a sensitivity to sunlight (photosensitivity). The rash usually appears as red, tiny bumps or slightly raised patches of skin.” This according to the Mayo Clinic. Whatever it was, it looked awful and the itch nearly drove me crazy until I was able to wash in cold water and put some anti-itch stuff on it. Argggh!
Anyway, when we left the hotel this morning it was still raining - a cold, miserable, driving rain, too - and for the first time in I don’t know how long it was chilly enough to wear a jacket! We even turned on the heating in the car, because we were still in shorts and sandals and our feet were cold. By the time we were back at the Eisenhower Museum to finish where we’d left off yesterday, the car had just warmed up nicely.
We finished our tour of the Eisenhower Museum, both of us coming to the conclusion that while it contains interesting stuff, there’s no unity to the story it tells. It jumps around quite a bit and you don’t really see the progression of events. That’s unnecessary, because if anybody’s story is fairly well-known, it’s Ike’s. The museum did, however, pay attention to the role of television in Ike’s 1952 presidential campaign, even if he resented being sold like a box of detergent, as I think he’s quoted in David Halberstam’s book “The Fifties.”
From Abilene we drove to Lucas, where Eric particularly wanted to see the Garden of Eden. For some reason I had got it into my head that it was some kind of rock formation thing, like the Garden of Gods in Colorado, so I was somewhat lukewarm about this endeavor. However, this town of some 450 people managed to put to rest once and for all that there is nothing interesting to see in Kansas!
The town sign is pretty artful, which is a nice chance from the utilitarian green signs the highway department puts up, but the first thing we saw when we drove into town was what is billed as the world’s largest souvenir plate.
We found the Garden of Eden pretty easily and proceeded to take a tour of the home of a Civil War veteran from Ohio who built a “log cabin” out of native lime stone. One of the pieces he used is 17 feet long and must weigh a ton! That particular area of Kansas has a layer of limestone about a foot below the earth and because there were few or no trees in the area, early settlers figured out pretty soon that they could quarry this comparatively soft stone fairly easily and use it for everything you’d normally use wood for. One use that figures prominently in the area is as fence posts. There’s even a scenic drive called the Post Rock drive. We didn’t seek it out for its scenic qualities, but on the way to Lucas from I-70 we stopped at a dam where they had also used limestone and a sign explained the particular qualities of the stone.
Anyway, once inside the faux log cabin we got a tour which explained that S.P. Dinsmore built the cottage and the sculptures as a way to fund his retirement from farming in 1907. His statues are not just statues, but also social and political commentary. Dinsmore was by all accounts a guy who went his own way. For example, he built a mausoleum where he wanted to bury his first wife’s remains (after she died, he remarried at age 80 or thereabouts to a woman who was about a quarter his age!) but town ordinances forbade this. So he buried her in the town cemetery, but one night secretly dug her up and interred her in the mausoleum, where he encased her casket in concrete, so no one could get at it anymore. His second wife complained of being left alone all the time while he was out in the yard working on his concrete sculptures, so he made a little statue of a guy looking into the kitchen window (the kitchen and dining room are in the basement of the house) to make her feel like she had company.
But the statue I like best is the one he left unfinished because he went blind in the last two years before his death. It depicts a worker (labor) being crucified by four money-sucking fellows: a doctor, a preacher, a lawyer and a banker. Pretty incisive commentary for the early 20th century and still relevant today!
The tour guide also urged us to visit the Grassroots Arts Center, and because we like to just go places on a whim, we did. We were not disappointed! The things people can make out of what most of us would consider to be worthless junk. And to our surprise, it included stuff we had come across on our 2007 trip, which was also somewhere in Kansas. It was there that I found the perfect souvenir of our trip: another little monkey.
The last stop on our tour of tiny Lucas was the public restroom that had just opened in June. I don’t remember ever being in a public restroom where you are more interested in the decor than in doing your business and getting out. Due to the town’s quirky nature, the public restroom is shaped like a giant toilet, with the path leading to it an unwinding roll of toilet paper. Inside, the ladies’ and gents restrooms are decorated quite differently. Since nobody else was there, Eric went into the ladies’ room to take pictures while I admired the decor in the men’s room. Extraordinary.
By now it was nearly 2 p.m. and we wanted to get to Hays, to see historic Fort Hays. On the way there, we noticed while some people may not be in Kansas anymore, Waldo is definitely there. So you can stop inquiring as to his whereabouts.
Fort Hays was one of a number of frontier forts established to protect migrants on the Smoky River Trail and travelers on the Butterfield Overland Diepatch stagecoach to Denver. It was home to the 7th Cavalry, General Custer’s outfit that met such an unfortunate fate at Little Big Horn in what is now Montana, and to the Buffalo Soldiers. It even had its very own "Lady with the lamp."
Our idea of a frontier fort is all wrong. I remember having a Playmobil set of a fort and soldiers and horses and stuff, and it definitely included a stockade, complete with towers. For one thing, there usually was no stockade, because there wouldn’t have been enough trees in the area to build one. Also, the wide open spaces of Kansas made it unlikely that anyone, least of all a party of Native American braves on the war path, could sneak up on the fort. And Native Americans weren’t so stupid as to attack a fort when guerilla tactics were far more effective and less dangerous to them: lightning attacks on small parties of settlers or isolated groups of soldiers on a scouting mission etc. By the mid-1880s the Native American population had become so diminished that there was no longer a need for all the forts, so most of them were closed. Some, such as Ft. Riley and Ft. Leavenworth, remain active military installations to this day, though.
After Fort Hays we decided to take the Smoky Hills scenic drive. According to the Kansas Byways website, the “Smoky Hills Trail was established at the Civil War’s end to carry goods and travelers, including bona fide gold diggers, from Fort Leavenworth to Denver. Although it provided the shortest route to Denver, the trail was considered dangerous, and travel often required the protection of troops stationed at nearby Fort Hays.” It was a beautiful drive, even though we didn’t see very many wildflowers. Possibly September is a bit late in the year for that. We did see birds, though. I think it was Thoreau who said that you can’t be truly free unless you can look at a free horizon as much as you want, and he’s right. As much as Maryland is home, we just don’t have that kind of space in Maryland.
Another day filled with unexpected Kansas wonders. We started out where we left off yesterday, in the Eisenhower Museum, where we went through the last part of the D-Day exhibit and then the years after that -- Eisenhower as president and in retirement.
After Abilene, the next stop was going to be the "Garden of Eden" in Lucas. We had no idea, really, of what to expect here; just something that "looked cool" in one of the brochures we got at the welcome center. Well, whatever we expected, that's not what it was... I'm not sure how to describe this. Between the years 1907 and 1932 a retired Civil War veteran, Samuel P. Dinsmoor, built himself a "stone log cabin" and surrounded it with concrete sculptures. He created this as a source of income in his retirement. There is a series of sculptures with biblical motives and another series with socialist motives. It is... different...
At the Garden of Eden, the lady giving us the tour strongly suggested to check out the "Grassroots Art Center" in town. It shows works by various Kansas artists who aren't artists by training but started doing this because they felt they had to. One creates displays (like the Model "T" Ford below) chiseled from solid rock. One creates art works from soda can lids. One created a collage from all kinds of artifacts that people had dropped into a lake in California and were found when the lake was dredged. The center also has examples of the local use of sandstone for building in the back yard, and much, much more.
But wait, there's more! When the town of Lucas found it needd a public toilet, it worked with various artists to create one. In the form of a humongous toilet with raised seat itself, it is covered inside and out with mosaics of all kinds of things. This has to be seen to be believed!
Next stop was the Historic Fort Hays, in Hays, Kansas. This was a fort on the western frontier, mainly to protect against Indians. The museum has two houses that used to house officers with displays of how they looked in the 19th century, as well as a number of other displays.
The last tour for today was to follow the Smoky Valley Scenic Byway, a 60-mile loop off of the I-70 through the Smoky Hill River Valley. As it has been all day, the landscape has just been amazing. And now we made it to Oakley for what probably will be our last night in Kansas...