Corn corn corn corn. I knew the long haul across Kansas would be a challenge. So I started the morning off by being the first one to charge into the over-advertised Meramec Caverns. Truly, they are extensive, and I admit I’ve never seen such an impressive array of different formations. Sometimes the trivia of their use was interesting (Jesse James Hideout story, the Art Linkletter Honeymoon Cave Prank) and at others somewhat embarrassing (Tom Sawyer movie final scene, Lassie sat on this rock). We rushed past the real formations so quickly, the guide turning on and off light switches, that we really never had a chance to enjoy the cave itself. It’s too bad, because if you can battle past the parking lot zip line, the trampoline, fudge factory, gift shop (with all imported items), and cave Jacuzzi (only one of those doesn’t really exist there), the caverns themselves are worth it.

And then? Corn corn corn corn. Hours of grain and train, houses dilapidated and struggling. This place is hard on people—there are many elderly, and none of them age well. Their houses, crippled or abandoned, have worn themselves away, surrounded by the rusting yard junk of generations. In Colorado, I found much the same, but the yard became scrub and dirt.

I stopped at the Tall Grass Prairie Preservation program, but it was closed. I walked the trails anyway, one of the only places where the pulverizing plowblades of the early 20th century never reached. The Dust Bowl (a history I just listened to in The Worst Hard Time) destroyed a 2000-year-old ecosystem which we will never see again, but this small hillock had a sample. I spent the night on a small lake shore where the plains winds brought with them a nighttime thunderstorm. Packed the tent in the rain.

Corn corn corn corn. Diner with old people, Polaroid photographs fading against the wall, and grease melted into the woodwork. The grain train blows past three times in 30 minutes. Rust. Another pickup truck with an American flag propped up in the bed. (What is it raised in defense against?) A gas station rack labeled “Hostess” sits empty.

Is it any wonder that places like Dodge City have all but forgotten what they are about? The pathetic Boot Hill Museum has all of the right ingredients and none of the talent or interest in even shilling tourists for an image of the Old West which never existed.

So it does not surprise me that here lies the Capote-obsession, the Cutter Massacre historied, Holcomb, KS. My last stop in Kansas was the creepiest: Main Street was a wide and dusty emptiness of the sides of buildings and broken homes. No one moved on the street my entire ride through town and back; every house seemed to lie darkly. Surely it was my imagination? I left quickly.

 

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