Awaken pre-dawn, find coffee already made down the road a mile at a truck stop, a mile from our camp, then out east quickly as possible for a drive through the remainder of Colorado. All the absolute prettiness of Colorado is bunched up along its western edge of the map, as far as I could tell, so we made no plans to stop and look at any of the rest of the state, and, I was sure, the same would apply to Kansas. Most of this day about to open up on us as the sun first spilt beams of light across the low hills to our east would be a steady, but easy roll through much flat land. Kansas is not quite what I envisioned it to be, however.
The Flint Hills country I would go back to and re-visit for a longer spell. It is the last natural tall-grass sanctuary in the country, and is not disappointing to view. The grassy hills have sharp rocky outcroppings that cast long purple shadows in the early morning, which I find to be unique and stunning. I had no idea that this vast chunk of space lies here protected by the national park system. I’ve known a few people from Kansas during my life time. I think they also need to be protected by the park system so that their friendly, easy-going demeanor will not be forgotten or trampled upon by the rest of the human race. Kansas just completely took me by surprise. I learned a couple of days later that one of my cousins, a retired veterinarian from Kansas City, owns a cattle ranch out in a remote area of Kansas where he spends much of his spare time.
Our goal this day was to get to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, located in Abilene Kansas, some 350 miles east, so we had no time to stop and tour Hays and Salina. I’ve always kind of considered myself an Eisenhower baby, as he was President when I was young, and I always heard his name bantered around with some sense of honor and respect. We pulled into Abilene, hungry and a little tired from the rhythmic vibrations of the road, and found an eating joint not far from the museum. We ate a late lunch with what appeared to be a room full of Kansas farmers; simple, hungry, hard-working people that made me feel as if I had found some small slice of what is truly American.
I think of all the novels, poems, songs, and movies in our recent culture that explore the definition of America. You could drive back and forth across this country many times, and each trip would be its own poem, its own unique song. Each mile of road can yield a different experience to all of us, and much of what we get from the experience relies not so heavily upon the external circumstances, but on the readiness of our own minds and hearts to perceive, interpret, and appreciate the beauty and the awe of life. When I walked into the Eisenhower compound and looked around at the displays on the museum walls, I received some sense of a bygone era of history. I’m not old enough to recall the ugliness of World War Two, but here in these buildings in Abilene, much of this sense of how America endured a horrifying, world-changing event, is thrust into my face for my consideration.
Kansas is known for the conservative politics, so much different than California. And yet, walk around inside the museum, eat lunch with the local Kansas farmers, reflect on what the country and the culture was like for my parents, for my dad, who served in the Army during that bad war, and I find some sympathy with political views that back home seem awfully strange to me. Maybe it’s just that Eisenhower was the last true Republican. A quote I read in the museum said that Eisenhower was so popular that he would have been elected to a second term even if he were dead.
At any rate, we rambled around inside the Eisenhower buildings, and toured inside his boyhood home for two or three hours during the heat of this late summer afternoon, and came out with a refreshed view of US history. I don’t think I gained any greater sense of patriotism. I learned a little, perhaps, about what the poems and the songs in our culture attempt to convey. During softer, gentler, peaceful times in our history, the culture emits an aura of indolence and narcissism, sassiness and impertinence. With war comes solidarity, sacrifice, and sanctity, and here in Kansas none of this is easily forgotten.
We were tired now, and too far away from our ultimate destination to make the final drive this day. Besides, the roads are lighter with traffic in the morning and I am more awake. A few miles before Junction City we found a highway rest area and pulled in to eat and sleep. The rest area had a large grassy field that led down through a grove of trees to a creek, where we sat in the late afternoon, and listened to the distant hum of big-rig traffic on the interstate. Some might argue that this is a low-life way of seeing America, this bouncing around from campgrounds and parking lots to rest areas on along the roads. More than one person had told me to just fly across the country and forget the hassle of seeing all the little details. I know the country has changed, that we’ve all become more acculturated, more sophisticated, and find more pleasure vacationing in concrete buildings than out among forested meadows, but none of that works very well for me. I laugh when I think that within my life time my dad’s brothers rode box cars from the Missouri Ozarks to Oregon to work in the fruit harvest. That was their song.
We awoke with the customary habit of embracing another early morning sun and knew that today would be the last in our somewhat arduous task of driving from the central California coast to the western edge of Missouri–Independence–to be more precise. We passed through more of eastern Kansas and into the far-reaching, fast-moving border of Hurricane Isaac, which had drenched New Orleans, and now did its best to bring rain to the drought-stricken states directly north of Louisiana. Thunder shook us and lightning blistered and popped surprising bolts of flash as we made our way along a slick, wet, toll-road around the outskirts of Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas. At last, we crossed the Missouri River and felt close to our destination. Tomorrow we’d be attending the family reunion in Independence, but this day we had one more planned stop in mind.
Garmin, our GPS navigation tool, finally proved useful to us in finding our way through this sprawling mix of city and country that surrounds Independence. We stopped once for more fast food, then pulled into the parking lot of the National Trails Frontier Museum, amidst a fierce down pouring of Gulf-of-Mexico rain. Our plan to visit the museum was based on a desire to learn more of how our ancestors had traveled out west to Oregon in1841-42. I would think that such a museum that documented this historical trail would be located at the end of the trail, in Oregon. Independence had been the beginning of several trails, however. The Santa Fe trail, the California, and the Oregon had commenced here. We walked around inside the museum, studied the exhibits, and absorbed as much detail as we could muster up. We had it in mind that we would follow the Oregon trail back to Oregon as closely as possible upon our return home, and we were here to learn about that route, and gain some insight into what we might be seeing after the family reunion.
I had been studying maps and estimating driving times for several days and realized that the route home, if we were to follow the path of our ancestors, would not allow us to view some of the other magnificent scenery these western states might afford us, so we bought a nicely put together book with extensive photographs and descriptions lifted from pioneer journals. We decided that buying the book and studying the details of it would give us the vicarious experience we were looking for, and would free us up to take the driving journey home along our own chosen route.
Independence has the Missouri River running along the edge of town. I learned that in a distant time the Missouri River was the border of America, and that it was against the law for citizens to cross over this river into Indian territory. Civilization and the eventual expansion west had come to a complete stop here. Only after the persuasive writings that came out of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as the flamboyant accounts of the west penned by Washington Irving in his book titled Captain Bonneville, did Americans become curious enough to want to reach beyond the somewhat arbitrary boundary of the river. The early people who would come west met up with one another and organized wagon trains here in independence. This was a big piece of the story we learned when visiting the pioneer museum. There is more, of course, and I may return to dig deeper into the archives of letters and journals that are currently housed in the museum, in an effort to understand more about my ancestors. For this day, however, our attention was spent, and we made a decision to loosely follow the Oregon trail homeward, but deviate from the route when we sat fit.
The afternoon was dark and wet when we left the museum and followed Garmin’s directions to my cousin’s house in Independence, where the reunion, the main goal of our entire trip, would begin in earnest celebration tomorrow. My cousin’s house was built in the 1930s by President Truman’s personal lawyer. It is quite an indulgence in Americana to tour it, let alone to stay in it for several days, and meet with family members who had also come from both near and far to celebrate our common heritage and blood. The house is three stories tall if you can count the full-sized basement, for a total of 7,000 square foot. Many bedrooms and living rooms, with a somewhat hidden passage way where the old lawyer’s live-in servants would amble down the stairs to the main kitchen to cook, and then retreat to their own upstairs refuge. I could fit ten of my houses in this one.
I pulled Rosie up the drive way and dashed through Isaac’s pummeling rain to the front door, where there commenced an endearing welcome ceremony between me, my sister, and our gracious cousins. Gracious, I say, for opening their home to an onslaught of ragged travelers such as myself. In the past few years, though not every year, my cousin has hosted this event. He was so glad to see that we had brought drought-busting rain with us.