The Forward-Thinking Wild West

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 14
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe sun is lowering in the sky as we arrive at the Fort Cody Trading Post. With a cannon and a buffalo in the parking lot and dummy soldiers on the battlements, it takes us a little while to even get into the store. Once inside, there’s a lot more to see. This place is heralded as Nebraska’s largest souvenir and Western gift store, and they’re not kidding.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestInside the store, immediately to my left, I find a bin of candy cigarettes. “Look!” I gasp. “I didn’t think they made these anymore!” I launch myself at the bin. Brent has turned right and found himself an old time peep show machine.

I deliberate between the red and the white packets and decide on a red one. Cigarettes in hand, The Forward-Thinking Wild WestI drag Brent away from the peep show, and we find aisles and aisles of Western hats, sheriff badges, wooden horses, magnets, candy… We wander through the store, playing with everything. I mean everything. Other tourists start following in our wake, sharing their own road stories with us. The Forward-Thinking Wild WestAs Brent rides around on a stick horse, one couple asks us if we found the covered wagon out the back door.

“There’s more?” I ask.

“Yes!” the couple tells us, “You two might want to see it.” They point toward the back of the store.

Brent holsters his horse and we hurry through Jewelry and Toy Guns (a major feat for us) to the magical and nondescript back door. Opening it, we find another world. In the grassy yard, there’s a whole host of Wild West buildings, the covered wagon, a giant Brave, and of course, a Fort Cody jail.The Forward-Thinking Wild West “Nobody mentioned this,” Brent says, and I know he’s referring to his carefully arranged seven-page list of roadside stops.

We look at each other and smile, then set off running in the yard as if we’ve just been allowed out for recess. We pause only to one-up
each other in photos, and of course, we matriculate to the jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Fort Cody jail doesn’t have a guitar and a crumpled hat like the Argo jail in Colorado, and it doesn’t have a mannequin jailer and Wanted posters like the Abilene jail in Kansas—come to think of it, how many Wild West lockups have we seen on this trip? (A few days from now, my 4-year-old nephew will look through my photos and ask, “Why is Aunt Jody always in jail?” I’ll tell him, to my sister’s delight, Because I don’t eat my vegetables.”) The Forward-Thinking Wild WestHere in Nebraska we have our own props: the not-quite-yet-paid-for candy cigarettes and sheriff badges. We just can’t pass up a good jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestFinally back in the store again, we check out the museum area. We find a two-headed calf, which Brent thinks is awesome and I, well, don’t. “It’s heartbreaking,” I say, but Brent refuses to agree. Thankfully, it’s not for sale, and I can’t believe how many times I need to remind him of that. He keeps looking from me to the calf and back again, waiting for that information to change. In times like this, his face can be as telling as a peep show: The movie reel of his mind pops up and look! It’s us, riding down the open road with Two-Head strapped into the passenger seat while I’m relegated to the backseat with a big fat frown, arms crossed…

The Forward-Thinking Wild West
I finally get him away from the calf by luring him toward the glass case filled with moving figurines and a circus-like sign for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Signage and Google tell us that in the late 1800’s, after riding for the Pony Express and serving as a civilian scout to the U.S. Army (for which he won a medal of honor), Buffalo Bill began performing in cowboy shows. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was founded in 1883, and the large company went on tours the United States and then in Great Britain and Europe. The shows depicted cowboy skills, stagecoach robbery reenactments, and sideshows, but after scrutinizing the miniatures and digging through Wikipedia, I realize that’s not all it did.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestIn the mid-1800’s, America’s West had not been safe for man nor beast and everyone was pitted against one another—some for Manifest Destiny, some for survival, some on sheer instinct. And then a mere 40 years after America’s cry for Western Expansion, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was all-inclusive, and for that, ahead of its time. According to Wikipedia, “The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included U.S. and other military, cowboysAmerican Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. TurksGauchosArabsMongols, and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes.” The show included women such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, trick shooter and trick rider Lillian Smith, and Calamity Jane appeared as a storyteller. There was even an appearance by Sitting Bull with 20 of his braves.The Forward-Thinking Wild West

Brent and I marvel at the nearly 20,000 different miniatures, “hand-carved by Ernie and Virginia Palmquist over a 12-year period,” according to signage and the interweb. This stop is totally worth it.

We make our way to the checkout and finally pay for Brent’s two-headed calf magnet, our slightly used sheriff badges, and our open packet of candy cigarettes now with a few missing.The Forward-Thinking Wild West Before leaving North Platte, we stop next door for gas–mostly because Brent spied a green dinosaur outside the station–and we’re back on the road again. This time, we’re tracking down Kool-Aid.

On our way to Hastings, Nebraska, we pass a local truck with a Ghostbusters sticker. The Forward-Thinking Wild West“Look at that,” I point it out to Brent. I take a picture and think about all the people who talked to us in the Trading Post. “I like these people,” I tell him and breathe in deeply. “Nebraska,” I say. Who knew?

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler. 

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 13Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10Segment 9Segment 8Segment 7Segment 6Segment 5Segment 4Segment 3Segment 2Segment 1)

Filling the Big, Open Sky

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 13
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Filling the Big, Open SkyThe Zombie War is on again! We’ve got World War Z in the CD player as we cross into Nebraska, and immediately a flashing road sign warns of organized car searches ahead. We shrug and drive on, and I review the itinerary against my Map App. We’re enjoying the sunny day, heading for a giant ice cream cone, a tire caterpillar, and an alien water tower before we reach a longer stop at a trading post.

We pass a second sign, this time warning that there are drug-sniffing dogs ahead. We have just left Colorado, after all. But when a third flashing sign comes and goes, we get the impression this stop and sniff might eat up our precious daylight. I quickly consult Map App Sally. It’s decision time: Play with the roadside dogs and miss the trading post, or cross two lanes to exit the highway and take our chances on a parallel road Sally found.

“I don’t want to miss the trading post,” Brent says.

I look at him and raise my eyebrows.

“You can’t play with the dogs, Jody,” he says, getting to the heart of the issue. “They’re working.”

“Oh,” I say. Too many days on the open road and life is your own personal adventure, one where you can play with drug-sniffing dogs. “Let’s exit, then,” I say, and we’re about to rely on Sally.

In front of a police cruiser, Brent takes a last-minute exit and we hop onto a paved but dusty road. We immediately pass another cruiser and expect to be stopped. An introvert engineer and a pink-haired writer in a road-hardened Jetta sporting out-of-state plates? We’re clearly up to something. To our surprise, no one actually stops us. We drive on, toward Chappell, Nebraska, feeling off the grid.

The Nebraska landscape is impressively flat, open, and more green than brown right now. It’s so incredibly vast a person could feel small and lost in such open space. Or, one could feel the way we do, that the space serves as a great backdrop to the imagination. It’s a large, sparse canvas, everywhere that you look. A person has room to dream a lot of dreams here.

With my impeccable navigation skills, we somehow pass up the giant ice cream cone and have to retrace our steps back to a T in the road. Left or straight? Left or straight? We’re trying to agree (I think straight; Brent thinks left) when Brent simply looks up. “Oh, there it is,” he says. It’s at the T. In my defense, on the other side of the T is a grain elevator with a giant American flag painted on it. It’s cleverly done; the flag looks as if it’s waving in the wind. We were discussing it and snapping pictures from the car and missed the cone.

Filling the Big, Open SkyNow we see the closest we can get to the ice cream cone is to pull into the driveway of a nearby yellow house. “I’m sure people do this all the time,” I tell Brent. He’s wary and wants to park someplace super far away. “We still need to walk through their yard to get to it,” I point out. He follows my advice for once, and for once it doesn’t burn us. [Yes, I admit that.]

There’s a lady sitting on the porch of the yellow house, surrounded by sleepy cats and dogs. We drive up and she cheerfully welcomes us and asks where we’re from. We chat back and forth and admit we had never been to the Colorado ice cream parlor before it closed and the cone was sent here. Then she explains to Brent how to get the best angle in our photos, because the cone is bigger than it seems.

“No one knew how big it really was because it was on the roof, you see,” she says, clearly accustomed to crazy strangers, “and it wasn’t ‘til they figured out how to get it down and had it on the ground that they saw its true size.”

Filling the Big, Open SkyWe thank her, and park along the side of her house where she tells us. As we walk right up to it, the giant ice cream cone seems to be made of fiberglass, and it’s tied down pretty well with wire cables (which were invented by John Roebling, the founder of the town where I live in Pennsylvania, and builder of a little thing called the Brooklyn Bridge). I gaze up at the ice cream cone, chocolate and vanilla swirl, and my mind plays over the idea that when a business closes, a person probably faces a lot of choices. Putting an ice cream cone in your yard seems a good one. A souvenir. A piece of history. Or maybe: A beacon. Lemonade from lemons.

We take turns posing with it in the side yard and then head on our way, waving as we go. The lady waves back.

Next stop: Tire caterpillar. We’re enjoying our parallel road that Sally found, Route 30, and weigh the pros and cons of staying on it versus returning to I-80. Route 30 is slower going, but we get to see more towns. With our priorities in order, we quickly decide to stay on it. Anyone can say they drove through Nebraska. Brent and I are experiencing it.

Filling the Big, Open SkyMap App Sally leads us half an hour east to Big Springs where there’s a giant truck stop and gas station. The station is so big, it has a second floor with its own trucker lounge complete with TV and showers, and has one hallway devoted to telephone closets. We fuel up, explore, and hunt down snacks, all with no signs of a caterpillar. Finally we admit defeat and ask the checkout fella for some directions.

“Big blue caterpillar?” we ask. “Made out of tires? ‘Bout yay big?” (I’m kidding: We don’t actually say “yay big.” We have no idea how big the yay is.) But we do nod at the cashier to get him to agree with us. He has no idea what we’re talking about, and he kinda stares at us. Brent and I exchange a look, scrutinizing each other’s faces for insanity.

“Oh, there’s a tire place behind here,” the fella finally says. “It might be there.”

Filling the Big, Open SkyWe hightail it outside. At the other end of the gas plaza we find it in front of the doors to the repair shop. I do my best Men in Black re-enactment, offering the alien creature a flower, and the photo shows how well I screwed up my neck muscles panning for gold back in Colorado. My shoulders are practically at my ears (and it’ll take an hour of a therapist named Margie’s handiwork two weeks from now to get my head to turn to the left again).

Next stop, an alien water tower in what must be the windiest place on the planet. I don’t recall any wind during the half hour trek from Big Springs to Ogallala, but maybe I was distracted by the zombie war, or by my repetition of Ogallala, pronouncing it like Oo-De-Lally in Robin Hood. Ogallala!

Filling the Big, Open SkyAnyway, in Ogallala, it’s difficult to stand up straight and I’m pretty sure it’s ten degrees cooler here because of all this wind. There goes my hairdo. The wind thunders over our ears and wipes out all other sound. Brent pantomimes with his camera what I should do in his shot, much like a bossy but mute director. (He’s a perfectionist about his goofy pictures.) I interpret his gestures and strike a pose, keeping my eyes closed against the onslaught of the wind. Strangely, Google offers no explanation as to why this water tower looks like it’s piloted by smiling aliens, or what the people in Ogallala think about it.

Out of the wind and into the car, I start to wonder if this town is full of our kind of people—people who dream about the big, open sky—or if it has its share of pragmatists, too—people like my Dad, who is fond of saying, “No civilization is that clean. If aliens were here, they’d’ve left behind beer cans and cigarette butts.”

“Not in this crazy wind,” I think. “There’d be no evidence at all.”

Onward we go! We’re heading east to a Wild West Trading Post.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Meeting a SkyGrazer

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 12
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Well, now what?

That’s the first question on our minds as we pack up and face the sunny day ahead. Throughout all of this roadtripping, Brent and I had a goal in mind: the Trampled by Turtles concert. Now the concert’s over, we’re leaving Colorado, and we’ve got 1000 miles of road between us and St. Paul. The road ahead is flat, ridiculously flat, though right now, it might as well be all uphill.

“Why didn’t we fly?” I lament. Brent quietly agrees, but then, he picks up our travel-worn itinerary (7 pages of roadside attractions, handwritten, front and back) and carefully turns the pages until he finds today’s suggestions. His face shows that he takes his curiosity very seriously. Consulting and rearranging the list has been a sort of meditative ritual ever since Missouri–when we’d left the itinerary in the car at our first hotel stop and realized it was more of a living, breathing—okay, evolving–thing that we needed to keep close, so Brent had gone out in the middle of the night to get it. Now, seeing the pages and pages of strange roadside fun ahead of us, the wanderlust returns. The concert may be over, but our road trip is just hitting its stride.

IMG_2272After pigging out on hotel waffles, we pack up the Jetta and pop in a Trampled CD. We’re Northeast-bound, with the morning sun on our right. First stop, a meeting with a skygrazer.

Two CDs later, we exit the highway and navigate to a place called Sterling, Colorado, known as The City of Living Trees. We find it quickly, and that surprises us, especially in such an open space. Meeting a SkyGrazerWith a moniker like “Living Trees” we thought we’d find a forest-like area, not this high plains town. But Google assures us we’re in the right place, so I get the Googs to dig a little further and find that Sterling’s cottonwoods have been carved into a variety of creatures by renowned local artist Bradford Rhea. Now we’re getting somewhere! Rhea created the Skygrazers that we’re seeking.

While some of Rhea’s statues have been moved inside, there are a number of them simply dotted around the town. We drive up and down the wide, open, quiet streets of Sterling, looking for trees and creatures and hints of bronze as if we’re on a strange jungle expedition–binoculars included, because Brent has stocked the Jetta.

Sally the Map App is no help at all, directing us to a variety of buildings, none of which has any Skygrazers. We drive straight through town, make two lefts, drive back the way we came on a parallel street, and that’s enough for Brent. “I know where to go,” he says, and zigzags us to an unseen park. I’m sure he’s using The Force to get us here, but he says, “I saw this park on the way in.”

I know I shouldn’t say things like this, but I also know he’ll get a kick out of it, “I didn’t see any park,” I declare.

I can read the amused look on his face that says, “And I let you navigate?” but to his credit he doesn’t say that out loud.

“The Googs distracted me,” I defend to the look on his face. But, The Force has worked; there’s bronze ahead. We’re suddenly nearing The Minuteman and, about a block away, the celebratory Skygrazers.Meeting a SkyGrazer

Now here’s where the Googs earns its money: Their artist, Bradford Rhea, began sculpting dying tree trunks in this community in the 1980s, many of which have now been cast in bronze, and in 1993, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to sculpt a walking stick for President Clinton to present to Pope John Paul II. (The story goes that he carved it in seven days, from the roots of a honey locust tree.)

Truly—this is so America–who knew we’d find extraordinary treasure in such a quiet, unassuming place?

Brent poses with The Minuteman, but I find a quiet reserve when looking at it. I crouch down low, a few feet in front of it, and just look up at it.Meeting a SkyGrazer

The statue of The Skygrazers has an opposite effect. I want to leap, not just anywhere, but up. This statue reaches right into my heart and sums up our trip so far. It’s joyous, ecstatic, and reaching for the stars.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Singing to the Stage

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 11
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This is it! The entire reason for our road trip! The sun is beginning to set in Morrison, Colorado and we’re following a long line of cars into the craggy lower parking lots of the Red Rocks Amphitheater, gearing up to see Trampled by Turtles.

(Warning: I tend to think of music as a deeply personal experience. You’re about to glimpse mine.)

Singing to the Stage

photo courtesy of Brent (my ticket is currently hiding)

Brent and I triple check that we have the tickets—he’s holding them because I’ll lose them for sure—and I bring along a sweater because, yes, it’s warm out now, but when it gets dark and the wind kicks up on the mountainside, I’m going to need it.

I’d love to tell you we power walk the entire way up as some folks in their yoga-concertwear are enviably doing, but we’ve just spent umpteen days in a car, (or three), eating and drinking our way across this great country, so we hike two-thirds of the way up and then stop for a “scenic break” and catch our breath before hitting the rock stairs. Singing to the StageThe opening act has just started, a fella called Shakey Graves who’s playing a cross between blues, country, and rock and roll and seems to be a local favorite when, between songs, he asks how many people had been to a certain Halloween party where he’d played and the crowd goes nuts.

Singing to the StageHearing his scratchy voice as we ascend the final steps to our seats, I’ve convinced myself that this soulful artist is ancient. I’m caught off guard to look to the stage and see he’s in his late twenties. I stand motionless, thinking I’ll let the music swirl around me, but it hits hard and straight to the heart, giving me goose bumps for the entire performance, and the only thought I can think in words is: All is not lost. If someone so young can feel the world like this and interpret it into song, we’re not completely a superficial lot lost to the reality of unreality and taking superficial opinions as fact. No, we might make it after all.

(Later, in Pittsburgh, I’ll tell a plugged-in music-minded friend about Shakey Graves and he’ll chuckle knowingly, then launch into a story of seeing him play in Austin, Texas where Graves is actually from, and how awestruck the music-wisened Austin crowd became when Graves was on stage.)

Singing to the StageWhen the set is over, Brent says, “The best T-shirts and drink prices are at the top of the amphitheater.” His recon report isn’t finished yet. “Also, the shortest bathroom line is near us.” (When Brent left and returned I don’t know. Introverts are stealthy like that.) Together, we head up, up, up, and check it out the tippy top of this place, and of course he’s right about the T-shirts because he’s done enough mental math to fill a spreadsheet. And that’s when, strangely, I spot a figure that looks familiar. (You know how that happens when you’re someplace you’ve never been, a zillion miles from the last familiar sight, and your brain is telling you you know someone?) Then I realize it’s not someone I actually know, but rather a very sweaty Shakey Graves himself, blending with the crowd. As I pass him, I say, “You’re awesome,” and he looks at me and says a quiet, “Thank you,” which has a polite and capable tone of “I worked hard for this moment” behind it.

Singing to the StageT-shirted up and back to our seats again… Well, actually, I got a T-shirt. Brent is holding out for a poster, impractically enough seeing that our peacock feathers from Truckhenge are already bent thanks to sloppy packing that we won’t blame on anyone, and he thinks he’ll get said poster on our way out at the lower level booth because they have the best price. Anyway, I have a cool T-shirt in hand as Elephant Revival takes the stage. Brent tells me about some pathways that take you to other levels in this amphitheater, and I want more than anything to go exploring and take pictures of the views now that the sunlight is taking its exit and the little natural light that’s left is playing tricks with our craggy surroundings. I want to, but I can’t. Elephant Revival has a woman playing a washboard.

I’ve never officially seen a washboard played before, unless you count the Futurama episode when Bender goes on tour with Beck. (It’s a ridiculous comparison I admit, but the writers of that cartoon are gifted.)

“Oh my goodness,” I say to Brent as if he can’t see this. Neither of us can look away. We’re standing on a Colorado mountainside, locked in the sight and sound of the washboard while stage lights shine on red sandstone monoliths, 300-feet high to our right and left, and it suddenly occurs to me that this, mine, is a life painted with its own version of cartoon colors.

Singing to the StageThe five members of Elephant Revival play an astounding fifteen instruments among them, and each of them sings. They introduce their songs with a bit of background as to what they were thinking when they wrote them. Some of the songs are named for animal and nature sounds, and I sit with my eyes closed and marvel that it really does sound as if the birds, elephants, and a babbling brook have gathered to perform here.

Singing to the StageBy the time our flanking red monoliths (named Ship Rock and Creation Rock, but I’m not sure which is which) start taking on a brilliant gold hue thanks to spotlights, the sky is busy turning a striking blue-black, and Trampled by Turtles takes the stage and fills the air with their bluegrass/rock sound. Brent and I have been fortunate enough to live in places where Trampled is played on the radio, and we share a sort of hometown pride to see them headlining here in Colorado. (Hometown pride is a peculiar feeling for this wandering gypsy, but no less fierce a passion despite the vast ground it covers.)

Singing to the StageThe last time Brent and I saw TbT on stage was in Rochester, Minnesota, which is 226 miles south of their origins in Duluth, and at the time, we thought that was far. That concert took place in an indoor concert hall that wrapped their big sound around us, but here in the open amphitheater with the proclaimed “acoustic perfection” of the stony Red Rocks, Trampled by Turtles’ frenetic stage energy is set free.

Singing to the StageWith their individual backgrounds in punk and its influence, the five band members play stringed instruments (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle) with such intensity that I always find myself waiting for the instruments to smoke and then burst into flames. I wait for it, but it never happens. What does happen is a sound that is sometimes thundering, sometimes rolling, and at times even downright haunting. I soak in these songs, waiting patiently for my favorite, “You Wait So Long,” which is possibly their most popular and thus I struggle not to feel bandwagonny–but I can’t help but love a song that tears your heart out and simultaneously reminds you that you’re alive. And there’s something in the quality of the rhythm of “You Wait So Long” that makes me think of Minnesota winter, of accepting the cold and pounding out a life within it, without glory, but with a recognition of the guts it takes.

Singing to the StageBrent and I have driven through four incredible states to get here, and tomorrow we’ll begin our return journey (taking a different path, of course). But right now on this mountain we’re living in the moment, soaking in the Colorado night, and singing to the stage.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

The Dreams of Men

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 10
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

The Dreams of MenWe’ve made it to Colorado! For the first time in this road trip, we have no plans until the Trampled by Turtles concert at Red Rocks, around sunset. With a whole day ahead of us in one state, we breakfast at the hotel and decide to grab a stack of tourist brochures from the lobby. We spread the brochures around our room and look for things that jump out at us: Panning for gold, riding a train, touring a mine, and visiting a brewery. Brent estimates the timing with multiple events only offered certain times a day and computes that if we leave approximately right this minute, we can do a mine tour, pan for gold, and forego the brewery but make it to a train that has a bar car–all before the concert. We look at each other for a split second in agreement of the plan, and go running for the door.

We set map-app Sally to the address of the mine, and head west out of Denver into the sunny, blue-skied day.

“It was weird,” I tell Brent, “When we drove in last night, I don’t remember going up in elevation. I thought we’d be climbing up and up, but it seemed pretty flat.” Brent agrees.

We drive along a mountainside and the highway takes us through a pass and suddenly the view before us is all downhill–downmountain, I should say—for two miles according to a sign, until we reach the valley. We look at each other from “up here” and smile.

It’s an amazing thing to ride aloft in the mountains one moment, and then find yourself looking up at those peaks from the valley floor only a few minutes later. I think about the people of Denver and how they could feel awe or triumph simply based on where they happen to stand at any given moment.

The Dreams of MenAt the bottom of the valley we meander through the mountains for about half an hour until we reach a place called Idaho Springs and find the Argo Gold Mine and Mill. The mill was built at the entrance of the Argo Tunnel, which built between 1893 and 1910 to provide water drainage, ventilation, and transportation of the gold-bearing ore from the many mines it intersected.

The Dreams of MenAt the mine, we’re allowed to touch the mining equipment before watching a presentation and taking a short bus ride to a mine entrance up the mountainside for a tour. The Dreams of MenIt’s warm under the Colorado sun, but we’re in jeans, having learned a year ago on a mine tour in Pennsylvania to bundle up for such an occasion. We’re not disappointed; the mine is chilly. Exiting the mouth of the mine, we return our hard hats and keep our eyes peeled for bears. (Our group has been warned not to feed the bears or to take selfies, as if we’d be that dumb.) The Dreams of MenInstead, I take pictures of Brent hopping in and out of an abandoned mine car that was next to a sign clearly stating not to touch it.

The Dreams of MenWe self-tour the interior of the mill from the top down, and marvel at the way this building was not much protection from the elements. Back out in the sunshine at the bottom level, we’re taught how to pan for gold and allowed to practice for as long as we want. I don’t mind telling you, I’m pretty good at it.The Dreams of Men

When we turn in our pans and head back inside the gift shop, a group waiting there for the next tour asks us, “So, how’d you do?The Dreams of Men

“We made enough for retirement,” says Brent triumphantly.

“Or to get an ice cream cone!” I say with the same exuberance.

The Dreams of MenWe wander around the shop and spend a little time in the jail, for which we get strange looks but once we’re liberated, those same folks with the looks hop in to do the same thing. We’re just trendsetters, that’s all.

Next stop, a mountainside train with a bar car–or as we’re dubbing it, The Drinky Train.

The Dreams of MenThe Dreams of MenThe Georgetown Loop Railroad weaves its way along the mountainside through trees and dirt trails, and has great views of the Rockies and the valley. Our tickets are for the bar car, which is in the caboose, so we alternate sitting at our table beside the picture window and visiting the platform outside the caboose to feel the wind in our hair.The Dreams of Men

It feels as if a whimsical kid set this train up in the most imaginative place possible, along the steep mountainside with deep green trees, the smell of pine, the sound of water rushing over the rocks below, and the chug-chug of this brightly colored rail, just to spend the afternoon lost in railroad adventures. The Dreams of MenAnd even though we know it’s not child’s play but the dreams of men that tamed this wild place, we’re glad to be the mini Weebles on such a train.

Back on solid ground, we head into Georgetown, which looks like an Old West town with wooden storefronts held up by stilts from behind—except that it’s real—and look for sustenance before the Trampled by Turtles concert.

The Dreams of Men

A dress I wanted to buy in Georgetown but the shop was closed for the day. I’m a Medium. (Okay, Large.)

We find the best Mexican food this side of the Rio Grande at a restaurant called Lucha Cantina. We sit on the upper perimeter above the bar and watch football when Brent’s eyes suddenly go wide. “Your burrito is as big as your head!” he laughs and laughs as it’s put down in front of me. He’s kinda right. The Dreams of MenAnd it’s so delicious that I eat nearly the entire thing. (I’ll spend the next hour telling him I want a nap, and also that it was well worth it.)

Spoiler alert: I don’t get the nap. Instead, we roll ourselves back to the car and head to Red Rocks to see Trampled by Turtles light up the night.The Dreams of Men

~
Jody Brown is the author of , and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Kansas, The Coolest State Since…

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 9
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’re closing in on Colorado, but still have some unfinished business here in Kansas. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Since we spent so much time at Truckhenge (and it was awesomely worth it!!) we need to cut some of the fat from our roadside stops. It’s tough—Kansas is so incredibly cool. I realize you don’t believe me, so let’s take a look: Eating among dinosaurs at the T-Rex Café, attempting to break in to a roadside teepee, the life-altering experience that is Truckhenge, and coming up on the docket, a fake town-within-a-town, smurfing out with naturally formed rocks that look like giant mushrooms, and the world’s largest Czech egg—which Brent insists we can’t cut from the trip—all before we hit Colorado, and it’s late afternoon as it is.

In the end, the weather makes our decision for us. We’re heading west. Twelve miles straight north of where we are is a Wizard of Oz museum, which we think is closed at this hour, but we’re not sure. That’s when it starts raining. And I mean: build-an-ark raining. In the flat and wide Kansas terrain, we feel as though we can see the entire globe around us. We see the storm system coming and it looks like it’ll bypass us. My Weather App says it’s no big deal at our location; that really it’s heading north. But the Weather App lies.

Undaunted, I relay the lies to Brent as he concentrates on finding the road and keeping the Jetta on it. “So!” he calls out, “It’ll just be a quick sprinkle?” The windshield wipers are on their highest setting, we can’t see, and it’s hard to hear each other.

“Right!” I yell back from the passenger seat as I look for funnel clouds. “Just a sprinkle!”

“Okay then!” he shouts back.

If we go north toward Oz, we’ll drive through this the entire way. If we continue west, the thin band of this system should be behind us soon. So here we are in Kansas, and we decide to skip Dorothy. True story.

Kansas, the Coolest State Since...Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We trudge on, and make it out of the deluge with our lives, barely. It’s suddenly sunny and ridiculously hot outside as we arrive in Abilene–which is my idea to visit because of the Waylon Jennings song. I try singing the “Abilene” song for Brent but that doesn’t work well because I don’t know most of the words. Also, I can’t sing.

“Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen…”

Brent makes a face and says he doesn’t know that song. So I hit up The Googs as we navigate toward an entire street the town has built Old West style. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...I play the Jennings version of the song for Brent, and as I Google some more, I learn that it was written by folksinger Bob Gibson (did you know that Gibson wrote songs with Shel Silverstein?), and also this little tidbit: Gibson claimed he wrote “Abilene” for Abilene, Texas.

“Oh, wrong Abilene,” I tell Brent.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Kansas, the Coolest State Since...Well, we’re here anyway, so we explore the fun Old West town-with-a-town, checking out the saloon, the jail, the schoolhouse, and the train–which is named Enterprise, probably no relation, but we Trekkies take is as a sign. We’re the only ones in the little town—well, us, and a bunny that Brent keeps trying to capture in a selfie.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Mushroom Rocks is next—a state park with not a soul around. The air is thick with heat and the grass is scorched and looks like hay, and it’s knee-deep and hip-high in some places as we make our way on foot to these crazy rocks. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Google introduces me to a Kansas University website that tells us the rocks “are made of sandstone from the Dakota Formation, deposited along the edge of a Cretaceous sea about 100 million years ago. Over time, circulating water deposited a limy cement between the sand grains, creating harder bodies of sandstone called concretions… The softer sandstone of the stem has eroded more rapidly, creating the mushroom-shaped rock.”

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We look around in awe of these wide hillsides that shrink our horizon to a stone’s throw in all directions against the blue sky and imagine the hills are waves on the sea. And then, well, what do you do with 100-million-year-old cretaceous deposits? Brent and I climb on them. And climb, and climb, and climb.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...We hit the dirt road again, and take some amazing mid-Kansas photos from the middle of the road when Sally the Map App gets us horribly lost, and we feel as though we’re the only humans in this great, golden sun-filled territory. Kansas, The Coolest State Since...Eventually, and with Brent’s innate (and bizarre) sense of direction, we manage to reach a town called Wilson just as the sun is setting. We drive along the edge of town until we find a 25-foot egg structure.

Wilson is a town of about 800 residents, and calls itself the Czech capital of Kansas. (“These are my people,” I proudly claim to Brent of my heritage and look around as if entering a long-lost family home.) The story goes that the town reached out to Hess Services, Inc. in Hays, Kansas, to build this fiberglass egg as a tourism boost for Wilson. (Hess Services, Inc. built it for cost. Imagine!) Kansas, The Coolest State Since...And just this summer the egg received its final coat of paint, giving it its Czechoslovakian design. Perhaps for those painting purposes, the egg is on a giant horizontal spindle. A nearby sign says not to turn the egg. Technically, we only managed to wiggle it a little before I found the sign. Instead, we take pictures of ourselves with the egg, and venture out to look at the old and ornate buildings of Wilson, which are lighted with a rose hue from the lowering sun. We’re hungry, and find a place called Grandma’s Soda Shop where we join the local teenagers for some pizza before hitting the road again. Next stop: Colorado!

With full bellies and a full drive ahead, we force ourselves back in the car. As we pass the last of the Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk billboards in Kansas, we settle in for our more than 5-hour night drive (seriously, how much time did we spend at Truckhenge??), and we do what any nighttime road travelers would: We listen to World War Z on CD. Nothin’ like zombie survival stories to keep the mind sharp.

Kansas, The Coolest State Since...The thing about the road to Colorado (I-70 W) is that it’s straight as a pin, for hours and hours. And hours. The other thing about it is that there are no lights along the road, and thus, no need for lighted billboards. It’s just a solid dark, all around you, which is interesting in its peculiarity. Imagine such a place untouched by the need for constant visual stimulation. We drive, fast, and I’m building up terror in my mind that random wildlife will step in front of us on the road and we’ll never see them until too late. I try, but I can’t see if there’s a fence between the road and the open country because it’s just so dark. I’m also building up intense curiosity at what else is out there in that warm blanket of the darkness when a random thought occurs to me and I suddenly giggle.

“What?” Brent asks.

“Nothing. You won’t like it,” I say. He waits, patiently and quietly, which is his way. “Okay,” I say. “I just thought: Kansas is the best state since sliced bread.” No reaction from Brent, and that’s also his way. “Come on, it’s funny!” I say. “Try it: This is the best gas station popcorn since sliced bread. This is the best bottle of flat ginger ale since sliced bread.” Brent stays silent. “That’s funny, and you know it,” I tell him.

Miles and miles later, as the zombie war gets more intense and we cross the border into Colorado, Brent says, “I like your sliced bread line. I may borrow that.”

I knew it.~

(For more awesome America Stories from the Road, click: Segment 8,  Segment 7Segment 6Segment 5Segment 4Segment 3Segment 2Segment 1)

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Truckhenge

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 8
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Brent and I are in Kansas, heading west, as I scroll through our itinerary of roadside attractions. We’ve been adding stops as we go and occasionally ruling out other stops, but when Brent suddenly asks, “What’s next?” I tell him it’s a place called Truckhenge. “We’re definitely going there,” he says, with a weird smile on his face.

I plug the coordinates into my map app, which I’ve named Sally—don’t ask why—but she’s busy yelling at me, as usual, that we’re doing something wrong, or that there is no such location. “Oh, yes there is,” Brent says. I ask him what Truckhenge is, and he says, “I don’t know. But it’s there.”

TruckhengeIt’s about a half hour drive from Lawrence to just outside Topeka, under a blue sky and rising August temperature. We navigate our way to a dirt road that turns sharply to the right and leads us to a Quonset building tucked behind the treeline. The place is silent. Brent stops the car and we look at each other. We suddenly realize we have no idea what we’re doing.

So, Brent gets out, and I stay put, hanging out the car window and lazily saying things like, “Is there a doorbell? Knock again. Try the handle. Do you see anyone inside?” After each quip, Brent shoots me a knock-it-off look. He gets back in the car. We sit and stare at the building. There’s a fading phone number painted on the garage door. I call it and a man answers. “Hi,” I say. “We’re at Truckhenge…”

“I’ll be right down,” the man says.

Moments later, the owner, Ron Lessman, walks out with a dog or two in tow. He introduces himself and begins talking, and man, he talks fast. In the first two minutes, we learn his name, that he built this Quonset house, and that he put gargoyles on it to keep the County away. We share a laugh and he explains his philosophy on life, which is all about common sense and is not so keen on bureaucratic rules. But just when I think he’s anti-establishment, he tells a quick story about the local police force and mentions the officers with respect and by name–because he knows them all by name–and his story is about appreciation for their quick thinking on a matter at his property and the work they do. Somewhere in the fast and funny story, he begins to mention the wood carvings around the property that he’s made himself, the art of the Quonset house, he casually points out an old boxcar to our left that he says is full of bones, and he makes mention of a pond beyond the trees.

To myself, I think: Bones? Human?

Ron is a wiry, tan man with long, graying beard, a bandana on his head, and he’s wearing a red t-shirt that bears the words Truck You. “We’re just trying to have fun here,” he says. “Would you like to come in the house?”

“Sure,” we say happily and immediately. We follow Ron and I make eye contact with Brent. I widen my eyes to ask him silently, “Think we’re gonna die?” He mirrors my look and I read him saying, “Not sure. Let’s find out.”

I take a final look around the front of the building, the trees, the blue sky, and the boxcar, thinking we’ve dropped in to a strange new land. “Kansas,” I think to myself and I think about life, death, and journeys, all in the blink of an eye. As we follow Ron, he tells us that William Shatner was at Truckhenge just a few weeks ago. It’s apt because right at this moment, I can’t help but picture the characters from Star Trek beaming in with their recorders (by the way, Brent owns one of those recorders) to learn about a new place with a sense of adventure and a sense of “anything can happen.” This sentiment is precisely why, wordlessly, we knew we’d go inside, because anything can happen, anywhere, anytime, so we can get back in the car and drive away or we can boldly go forward. We choose forward, knowing we rejected outright any other choice. (Don’t try this at home, kids. Don’t risk everything unless you’re willing to lose it all.)

TruckhengeInside the Quonset house, Ron shows us more of his art—it’s on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, painted on the floor, and I’m drawn to the reverse side of the smiley face window he’s made from wine bottles. The house is spacious, and everything in it, and of it, has been repurposed. Pieces from cars and boats have been rebuilt into a staircase with a chest of drawers and signage made into railings. As sunlight streams in from windows on the second floor, fencing creates hallways, fruit hangs from a coat hanger, a series of boarded up windows serves as shelving. Everywhere you look is art in progress, and objects reimagined to new purposes. It’s nothing short of astounding. Brent and I realize we’re safe as kittens, and just as curious.

Ron shows us his art, lets us take pictures, and takes us through the back of the house to the expansive farmland that is dotted with his wood carvings—each with its own character story—areas for bands to play, boats, bottles and cement, the pond beyond the trees, and the word Truckhenge spelled out on the ground with bricks to be visible from planes above. TruckhengeAlong the way, Ron tells us about his struggles with bureaucracy, he tells us about the many bones they found in the large pond that experts from the university have deemed to be camel bones (they mystery deepens), and he tells us of the great concerts that go on at this property.

TruckhengeWe stop at the trucks at the corner of the farm. The County said because of the flood plain, Ron had to “pick up” the trucks. So Ron had them raised off the ground onto girders of concrete and the County conceded that the trucks were no longer a mobile threat. Thus, Truckhenge was born.

TruckhengeWe round the corner, listening to Ron’s stories and sharing some of our own—where we’re going and how far we’ve come. At this point, we know we’ll never make it to Colorado before dark, but we can’t help ourselves from exploring more with Ron. The temperature continues to climb as we make our way back around to the boxcar of bones. Ron invites us in, and we happily follow. The boxcar is in bad shape, but you can still move around in it, carefully, and we find that Ron has separated and sorted the various animal bones he’s found in the pond.

We suddenly hear the ring of a telephone and the sound is so foreign to us. Outside the boxcar, we see a small group of people walking the property as if they live there. We have no idea where they’ve come from or how long they’ve been there, out of sight, but Ron and his dogs are completely at ease with their presence, so we are, too.

Back inside the house, Ron invites us to sign the guestbook, and we do. Brent turns a page in the book and shows me what he finds: William Shatner’s signature. Brent gets a Truck You t-shirt, and Ron gives me a peacock feather. He hugs us goodbye.Truckhenge

The heat of the day has caused my Missouri bug bites to flare up in fiery itch, so once back inside the car I scratch and scratch as we drive down the road. For an hour, all we say to each other is, “I… I…” and shake our heads. We are forever different and there are no words anymore. Truckhenge is an experience that you have to have for yourself, because you’ll enter as one thing and emerge as something completely changed.

Eventually this day we will reach the Mushroom Rocks State Park, where we’ll wander around saying things like, “We’re just trying to have fun here,” and, “Well, Ron says…”

Until then, we drive in quiet awe of what just happened toward a town that’s not real.

Our deepest thanks go to Ron Lessman for inviting us in.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Time Before Time

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 7
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Time Before TimeBrent and I arrive at Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City at 11 a.m., ready for some breakfast beer, rather than bypass the brewery altogether due to timing because there’s no concept of time when you’re on a road trip, anyway. Okay, there is, but we stopped living by time a couple states ago.

Time Before TimeIn the Boulevard tasting room, we share a flight of mini beers of our choice, deciding the Black Pale Ale (my choice) and the Farmhouse Ale (Brent’s) to be the best, and then we hit the gift shop for t-shirts and magnets and how-do-I-look-in-this-hat time.

When we get back in the car, we cross from Kansas City, Missouri into Kansas City, Kansas, and drive west toward lunch with dinosaurs—truly, a restaurant in the suburbs dedicated to giant food portions and animatronic dinosaurs. Time Before Time(For you Mall of America Minnesotans out there, think Rainforest Café but with dinosaurs and an erupting volcano.) We feast, take pictures of ourselves hanging in prehistoria (mostly of Brent trying to get eaten by every dinosaur we approach–you can imagine the people who came today merely to eat lunch are glad to get out of our way), Time Before Timeand stealthily follow the dino footprints through the T-Rex Café gift shop trying to sneak up on each other. I’m not super sneaky at this point—I nicked my foot with the glass door on the way in and have developed a bit of a limp. Time Before TimeRemembering the O’Malley’s girls in Weston who gave me a napkin of gin to rub on my numerous bug bite welts, I tell Brent that I need some emergency gin for my toe. He laughs at me. There’s no gin in the gift shop, so I opt instead for a dinosaur backpack for my nephew.

Back on the road again, we head toward a giant teepee (isn’t everyone who’s on the road these days??), and we find it—though we have no idea why it’s here. Time Before TimeA side door along the fence has a sign with a phone number on it should we want to rent it out—that door is locked. The front door to the teepee itself has a curtain pulled across it so you can’t see in too well. Clearly they don’t want people looking in, so we approach the teepee and try. The best we can see is a case of Pepsi on the floor a few inches from the front door. We back away to discuss getting in to this teepee.

Time Before TimeMeanwhile, cars stop and gawk at the teepee as they turn around in its dirt parking lot, and Brent and I stand there goading each other to try the door. We’re the only ones standing there—no one else even gets out of their cars.

“Just open the door,” I tell Brent.

“You do it,” he says. “I think someone lives there.”

“That’s why you should do it,” I say. Minutes of reasons and excuses later, a plan is set as to how to apologize if we walk in on someone’s living room. It’s my plan, set for Brent to act out, but somehow the plan gets twisted and now I have to do it. I set my face and start marching toward the front door of the teepee. Halfway there, I turn around and stick my tongue out at Brent, but he’s cued and ready with his camera phone to get the footage of my awkward apology. Great. YouTube and a police station, here I come.

I continue to the glass door that looks like it belongs on a gas station rather than a teepee, slowly reach out my hand, grasp the metal handle, and pull. It’s locked. Brent laughs.

Thus, we take more pictures and hop back in the car. “Who locks a teepee?” I ask as we head back onto the road toward our next adventure.

We laugh and realize we’re both starting to like Kansas. And we’re only just getting started. Where we’re headed next, we’ll be invited inside. And we won’t emerge the same again.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Mid-America Sea Change

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 6
(Click here for Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

It’s late when we leave O’Malley’s Pub, and Brent has found us a hotel that’s just north of Kansas City. We consider, for a split second, hitting up some Kansas City nightlife before turning in. I consult the Googs and the first thing that pops up is Applebee’s. For nightlife?? I scroll down and I find Boulevard. Boulevard! But, it’s been an awesome day that started in St. Paul, meandered by a giant gnome in Iowa, a haunted phone booth, Mother Mary in a tree, sliced bread in Missouri, a giant ball of string, and a triple underground pub and brewery. The truth is, we’re a little tired. But Boulevard’s tasting room opens at 11 a.m. Hmm…

“Breakfast beer?” I ask Brent. He makes a face. Then his face becomes unreadable and serene–which means he’s thinking. “We’ll be on the road by then and long past Boulevard. No breakfast beer.” Bummer. Perhaps it would have been weird, anyway.Mid-America Sea Change

We head out from O’Malley’s and drive down the center of Weston so we can get one last view of the historic businesses and streetlights along the river. We’re the only ones around, so Brent stops in the middle of the street and we just take it in.

It’s a 40-minute drive to the hotel, all in the pitch darkness. (At least, what I know to this point as pitch darkness. I’m about to get schooled in that, but today is not the day.) I study our list of roadside attractions with the handy dandy use of my flashlight app, but it seems that finding a Bonnie and Clyde marker in the dark is the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack, blindfolded.

By the time we reach the hotel, we’re pretty much wiped out for the day.

In the morning, Brent drives us from our hotel parking lot to another lot across the street.

“What are we doing?” I ask.

“Look for the marker,” he says.

“Bonnie and Clyde?” I ask, and get excited about it. We’d ruled it out, miles ago. But in the corner of this parking lot across the street from the random hotel Brent happened to book while I got bug-eaten on O’Malley’s patio was the veritable haystack needle.

“How did you know this was here?” I ask.

“I recognized the name of the street over there, when we got in last night,” he says.

I look to where he’s pointing. “Ambassador?” I ask, and then it hits me. “Oh, you’re right.” (His memory astounds me. Maybe this is how brains work when they’re not absorbing the world, sponge-like—okay, hoarder-like–and working to sort it all out into writing. He doesn’t leave his house in wrinkled clothes with a pen stuck in his hair, trying to remember, not what day today is, but rather what we call the days of the week. Incidentally, I’m calling today William.)

Mid-America Sea ChangeBack to the parking lot: This is the scene of a Bonnie and Clyde shootout. (“A” shootout, not “the.” That one’s in Louisiana. From here, they got away.) We are standing at the former site of the Red Crown Tavern and Tourist Cabins where in 1933, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang rented two cabins, were surrounded by lawmen, a shootout erupted, and Bonnie and Clyde escaped–but not without consequences. Clyde’s brother Buck was fatally wounded, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, sustained an injury that blinded her and she was caught.

This happened at a time when, during America’s Great Depression, many were stealing to survive. At first glance, that sounds kinda cool. We’re all in love with the thought of being renegades, thanks to the X Ambassadors song. (The Styx song, “Renegade,” shows the more sinister side.) The truth is, a renegade is a traitor. Not just a person with a rebellious spirit, but rather a turncoat, a deserter. That’s a different tale, indeed.

The stories, true and legend, of Bonnie and Clyde are fascinating, yet, everywhere that they went they lived on the run, sustained injuries, withstood the deaths of family, and stole–mainly from Mom-and-Pop shops.

Law enforcement doesn’t buy in to the fascination and lore of outlaw crime. They outright hunted Bonnie and Clyde and ultimately caught them in a hail of gunfire in Louisiana. This plaque is a testament to that manhunt, as it says on the bottom, “In tribute to the lawmen.”

“Indeed,” I think.

“I’ve been thinking,” Brent says and I look at him. “Breakfast beer,” he says. “We’ve come this far.”

I smile. We hop in the car and head toward Boulevard Brewing Company at 10:30 in the morning on William, realizing suddenly that this isn’t weird at all.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

America Underground

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 5

(Click here for Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

It’s getting dark in western Missouri, and I’m hitting The Googs to check out the place Brent thinks we should stop for dinner. We are headed toward a giant ball of string, and, feeling very Griswold, we’re singing “Holiday Road” in the car. Google tells me the pub is no ordinary pub—it’s got three levels, and they’re all underground. Seriously?!? I tell Brent to “Punch it, Chewie,” and he insists he’s not Chewie; he’s the Captain. I roll my eyes. Yeah, Captain my—Assuming that we continue this pace, we’ll arrive before closing time, but only just.

The sun is setting over Weston, Missouri as we arrive in the river town, and it isn’t just the coppery sunlight that makes this town beautiful. Picturesque storefronts greet us and most of the town has been designated as a historical district. We find our way easily to the Weston Brewing Company and food takes precedence over the string ball, which is around here somewhere.

Inside, we settle in to eat by lamplight but soon the noise of the neighboring party is too much for introverted Brent, so we ask if we can move outside onto the patio. It’s a quiet Missouri summer night and we’re happy to be in the fresh air—so far. We decide we’re close enough to the border to get a hotel in Kansas. Brent books someplace from his phone—yes, it’s 9 p.m. and we’re only now booking a place to stay for the night. And we can, because life is good like that. Kansas it is. In the meantime, Brent goes wandering around the grounds looking for the string ball, and he’s gone long enough that I know he found it and can’t drag himself away. I find him and the giant ball on the back of the patio, under the roof, but with no lighting there.

America UndergroundIn the dark, we find out that this was once the world’s largest ball of string, collected by one man, Weston’s own Finley Stephens, and that it weighs 3,000 pounds. Brent and I take turns pretending we’re Atlas, which puts us up close and personal with this ball, and I can tell you that the string is soft to the touch.

We take pictures and giggle like little kids and eventually get back to our table in time to eat. The food is exceptional—but we’re attracting attention. Not from people, mind you, because the locals don’t seem to mind us or our antics at all. No, we have a line of ants marching toward my plate but I don’t pay them much attention because my legs are under attack by mosquitos. These aren’t just any mosquitos—they’re invisible beasts whose poison feels like fire injections. Now we know why most patrons are sitting inside.

America UndergroundI scratch and scratch and finish my last few bites as fast as I can, trying to cover my legs with my napkin and eyeing the gold-lighted doorway of O’Malley’s pub next door as my salvation. We pay the check and I sprint toward that door yelling, “Run for it!” to Brent. Inside, we shut the door tight behind us and look around. We seem to be in a waiting room of sorts. I think, “Salvation has a waiting room?” but have no time to ponder it because Brent finds a staircase. The only way to go is down, and yes, that’s ominous, so down we go.

America UndergroundAt the bottom of the stairs, we find dark pathway to the left that is roped off, and a tunnel to the right. We take the tunnel and find it opens into an amazing cellar bar room with vaulted ceiling and Irish placards haphazardly placed on circular walls. In a small hallway area to the back of the room is the bar. We get pints of beer that were made on the premises, and chat with the bartenders–two girls who are about to embark on a vacation together the next day. They’re excited and chatty, and let it slip that there are two more pub levels below where we’re standing that are closed tonight. We’re so far underground already that it doesn’t seem possible that there are two levels further down.

“Can we see them?” I blurt out without thinking to be polite.

“Sure!” they tell us, and Brent and I just look wide-eyed at each other.

America UndergroundWe are led back out through the tunnel and through the dark passage that was roped off. We head down a dark slope in a room where oak tanks used to be stored, according to our guide. We enter a second, smaller bar area, and keep going until it opens up to a giant cellar. We are standing at the cellar’s ceiling, looking down on a narrow stage to our right and plenty of wooden seating to the left. The bartender explains that this is one of the very first lager breweries in the U.S., that these cellars were dug by a German brewer in the 1800’s to store the lager, using ice from the river to keep the temperature down. I’m so astonished by the simple grandeur of the place that I don’t hear the connection between the Weston Brewing Company and the Irish O’Malley’s, but this pub is a true find.America Underground

Back in the upper bar, I continue scratching my legs and the bartenders tell me they heard a trick using gin. They give me a gin-soaked napkin and tell me to rub that on my legs. I’m in desperate shape; I do it, and it provides a good bit of relief. “We need to make sure we are stocked up on gin,” I tell Brent as the girls explain that the mosquitos in Missouri are unrealistically bad and always have been.

“In the summer, we run from our cars to the buildings. No one walks if you’re wearing shorts,” we’re told.

The girls ask where we’re headed and we tell them ultimately Colorado, via Kansas. They’ve driven it many times and tell us, “For two-thirds of the way, all you see is fields.”

“What happens after that?” I ask.

“Then you’ll start to see some cows.”

Brent and I laugh. We’re not worried about this. We’ll find a way to make it fascinating, because you never know when you’re going to stumble into salvation, only to find lore, history, relief, and a damn good pint. We’ll find what Kansas needs us to find.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.