Monday, May 17, 2010

First Big Trip of the Year: part one

This trip is five days along, and it's only now that I have enough to write about. The trip through Texas was uneventful, except for a brief thunderstorm near Mineral Wells that was presaged by a brilliant flash of lightning, giving me just enough time to raise the top on the car before the rain hit. Oklahoma was similarly uneventful; after a rainy night in Chickasha, I was lucky enough to catch a break in the weather just at the right moment to get a picture at Grand Saline State Park, where red rocks and water combined with blue sky and high clouds to give a quality to the light not unlike what I've seen in old paintings of Venice ... without the grand buildings, naturally, but with temples of a different sort.

After that it was rain, rain, rain. I wandered around central Kansas, visiting counties that have no attraction save the space they take up on the map, and no evident economy save agriculture. After another rainy night in Wichita -- a larger city than I'd like to have gone to, but the only one I could find a hotel in -- I set off early in the morning. Breakfast at my hotel wasn't offered until 7am, but I wanted to get on the road, so I skipped that and figured to stop at the first diner or café I came to in the small towns that dotted the route ahead.

Alas, the highways don't go through the small towns anymore. They've all gotten bypassed, and there isn't enough traffic on the backroads, even in Kansas, to draw a town business out to the new road. After an hour or more, I finally got off the highway and went a few miles to a town in search of breakfast.

The business district was deserted on a Saturday morning, so I wandered the streets of the town until I saw a gas station sign lit up in the distance. I figured I'd settle for coffee and nothing else. Pulled up and parked on the street across from the station, then realized I was stopped in front of a tavern called The Spot, which was open. So I had breakfast in a booth in the bar -- actually, very good Johnny cakes, and pretty damn good coffee, though the bartender-slash-waiter could use some instruction on things like bringing coffee drinkers cream and sugar and a spoon. I exchanged pleasantries with one of the two early-morning drunks at the bar, then wolfed down my corn cakes and left, only four dollars lighter.

Another rainy trip through counties that serve only to keep the left and right coasts well separated, then a brief stop in Atchison. Though the town is littered with enough historic sights to fill a four-page brochure, and I drove by several, none induced me to drag the camera out of the trunk. I saw the unimpressive home where Amelia Earhart was born; the monument commemorating Lewis and Clark's first visit to the area (and briefly mentioning their return visit), and tried to find the place where they'd set up camp on a certain date, but after driving throught several miles of nuthin' I decided I was on the wrong road, and wasn't sufficiently interested in the site to try another. Instead I headed off to Kansas City, where, yes, everything is up to date, including a monstrously complicated freeway system, made worse by the traffic jam created by a huge rock concert being given near downtown. I don't know who was playing, but considering how many people were jamming the freeways on a cold, rainy afternoon for an outdoor concert, I figure that John Lennon and George Harrison were resurrected for a Beatles reunion, with Matchbox 20 and Bob Dylan as the opening acts.

And here I sit. My host here is David, whom I first met in San Antonio when he came down for some spelunker-related conference last year. He's a geologist who tests food for a living. Don't ask me to explain that. He lives in a 100-year-old Craftsman-style house that is on its way to being exquisitely renovated. I've spent a good part of the weekend sitting on his back deck, admiring the pond that a friend installed a few years ago. It's like what I wanted for my own back yard, but on a much grander scale.
Saturday night I went to the Wizards-Fire soccer match in Kansas City, Kansas. It was cold and rainy, and the overpriced seat I bought was behind the end line -- it should have been on the sideline -- facing into the drizzle. I was so close to the field that when the first goal was scored right in front of me, I couldn't see it because the advertising hoardings facing the field blocked my view. At that point I decided the game was best watched from the main concourse of this peculiar little baseball stadium, pressed into service for MLS by laying a soccer pitch across the outfield.
As a spectator sport it was pretty good: I got to see Brian McBride, formerly one of the brightest stars of the US National Team, score a beautiful goal shortly after his introduction at half-time; and the game ended 2:2, the tying goal being scored just in the nick of time for the home team to salvage a draw. But as a soccer match it was disappointing. After a dozen years of professional soccer in this country, I tend to expect better-quality play.
Driving back to David's after the match was an experience, in the dark and rain with my contact lenses in. (I can't see all that well with them, but didn't want to be wearing glasses in the rain; I'd expected David to be driving when I put them in, but given the weather and a better offer, he decided not to go with.) A persistent glitch in my archaic Jaguar navigation program put me going the wrong way down a one-way street, then caused me to make a wrong turn at the first intersection. A freeway lane that exited without the usual "exit only" warning, combined with heavy traffic in the through lanes, put me on city streets, with no re-entry available at that point. But I made it back to the house, and now that I've seen the streets in the daytime realize that they aren't the pig's breakfast they seem in the rainy night.
Sunday, after a lazy morning lounging around the house reading what passes for a newspaper in these parts, we trucked on over to the Nelson-Atkins Museum for a look at a Venetian glass exhibit. That was disappointingly small, but the rest of the museum more than made up for it. It's a grand deco pile attached to an unfortunate modern addition and set in vast lawns dotted with sculpture, most of which was interesting: a copy of Rodin's Thinker, the third such that I've seen; a number of Henry Moore sculptures -- easily the best sculptor of the past hundred years -- and a few that are whimsical, like Claes Oldenburg's badminton shuttlecocks and an assembly of headless people similar to one I saw in the Dallas Sculpture Garden a few years ago. Plus your usual assortment of postmodern crap, the kind that makes one snort and giggle about what people with too much money will pay for. Inside the museum, in addition to the glass and several other temporary exhibits, some worth more than a cursory look, is a huge collection of Old Masters, which I love seeing, and Impressionists, which I regard as the last gasp of real art before the secular-humanist mantra of unpleasant Realism, ironic Pop Art, and boring Modernism put an end to the value of real talent, and made entertainment and "Meaning" (necessarily, in quotes) the two touchstones of the plastic arts.
We grabbed lunch at a Thai restaurant nearby, and I can honestly say it was the best Thai food I've ever had anywhere, even though they didn't offer pad wun sen.
Today, David is off at work, and I'm cooking dinner. This morning I went for coffee at a local place, and ended up with a breakfast of Farmboy Benedict -- eggs, scrambled with onion and pepper and served over biscuits and gravy. Fattening as hell, no doubt, but for what it was, it was very well done. Then a trip to the supermarket for the fixin's for tonight's dinner. Took that home, then headed off to see the sights of Kansas City. Stopped first at The Plaza, a ritzy area not far from the house, for a look at the fountain and the unexplained statue of Massasoit; then on 39th street to take some pictures for a friend of mine back home, who said that was his old stompin' grounds back when he was young and living here. Didn't look like much, and was not the kind of neighbourhood that I'd want to get out of the car in. (Later, when I went to write him about it, I realized he'd said 35th Street, not 39th, so I had to make another run.) Then to the Liberty Memorial and National World War I museum, which, in the great tradition of my travels, was closed on Mondays.
After that, I headed downtown to see the Steamboat Arabia museum, which my host told me was not to be missed. He was right: this is a very well-done small private museum displaying artifacts relating to the salvage of a small riverboat that sank in the 1850s, and, after the river changed course, the wreck was discovered in a field on the Kansas side. Two local families salvaged tons of trade goods and foodstuffs destined originally for settlements along the river in Iowa, and have much of it displayed in well-conceived exhibits that illustrate frontier life in ways that other exhibits, like preserved and reconstructed individual homes, can't convey.
Unfortunately, they didn't locate the 400 barrels of Kentucky whiskey that were the prime objective of numerous treasure hunts. They had been stored on deck, and were washed away when the boat went down. But there was gin, and champagne, and cognac, all still drinkable, and pickles that were as fresh as the day they went down. And, of course, jewelry and tools and ceramics and clothes.
Tonight the clouds have finally parted, and I should have an excellent day for driving across Missouri tomorrow. We dined al fresco on salsiccia con i peperoni over capellini, with salad and zuppe chin' al fiesole, as the clear sky faded into starry, inky black beyond the trees.

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