day three: Colorado, Kansas, Missouri

08Jun11

Distance traveled: 616 miles (991 kilometers)

Route: Boulder to I-70 in Denver, then I-70, all the way across.

The last time I took the I-70 route across Kansas, I was 21 and in the middle of a solo cross-country motorcycle trip.  I was riding on a 1970s vintage Suzuki GS400, which if you know anything about motorcycles was a pretty insane thing to do.  The bike was way too small for true long-distance touring, though in the end I did end up taking it all the way from California to Maine and back, thoroughly exhausting the engine in the process.  The bike was so small, and it was such an impressive feat to haul that thing across the country, that at one point as I made my way through the Midwest I ended up traveling with two Harley riders — “Lizard” and “Roach” — who were so enthused that I had ridden such a little bike so far that they decided to drop the whole anti-Japanese bike thing and adopt me for the day.

I didn’t have as much luck riding the GS400 through Kansas.  About a third of the way across the state I ran into a huge thunderstorm and torrents of rain.  I had rain gear in my backpack, which kept me a little bit dry, but it was still daunting to make my way through such a downpour.  Then they cylinder on the right side of the bike stopped firing, which left me with exactly one cylinder to pull the bike along.  I ended up riding almost the whole way across Kansas going about 45 mph with the engine riding somewhere around 7,000 rpm.  Luckily, I didn’t have to expend extra energy paying attention to where I was going: there’s only one direction to go in Kansas, and that’s straight.  Eventually I ended up in Salina, where the fine gentlemen at the garage pointed out that my plug wire was shot and, in the wet, was shorting out against the cylinder head.  They didn’t have any spare plug wires lying around, but there was an easy fix available.  There’s nothing like a little black electrical tape to keep the electricity in your plug wires in line.

My most recent trip across Kansas didn’t have an auspicious beginning.  Driving into Denver from Boulder, the very first thing that I hit when merging onto Interstate 70 was an unmoving wall of bumper-to-bumper traffic.  An hour later I passed several fire trucks surrounding the engine bay of a large diesel semi truck that had decided to catch itself on fire.  Once past this obstruction the traffic thinned out and quickly got back to what it does best in this part of the world — traveling rapidly across vast flatnesses.

Kansas is a strange state to drive across, the landscape so flat that it’s already its own kind of Oz.  The way the Emerald City rises up out of nowhere in Baum’s books finds its analogue in the grain silos that rise up out of the fields as if they were the long-abandoned castles of some forgotten people that continue to be remembered only through their monuments.  The silos are so out of place, such a loud rejoinder to flatness, that they look more as if they have simply landed there after crossing stellar distances than they do the fitting extension of the farming industry that forms the groundwork of the state.  Erich von Däniken would have had a field day with these, if their history weren’t already so clearly available.
As you drive through Kansas, the scale of the wheat farming that forms the core of the state’s economy becomes almost overwhelming.  Mile after mile of golden fields pass by on either side, and off in the distance you can just see glimpses of the network of railroads that are in place to transport the grain from the silos where it’s stored out to the assembly lines where it will be transformed into bread and cereal.  In a way, it’s tempting to see the grain silos not as storage places for grain, but rather as giant vacuum pumps that are sucking the grain out of Kansas and depositing it in the bottomless pit of urban appetite.  And the grain is beautiful too — golden fields that run on endlessly toward a horizon that is so flat that’s almost sublime.
In an essay that he wrote for Harper’s about growing up in Illinois (“Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern boyhood,” 1991) David Foster Wallace talked about the way that the Illinois landscape shaped his thinking as he was growing up.  According to Wallace, the flatness of the landscape resulted in a kind of Euclidean mindset in which fields became grids and wind patterns became force vectors.  It’s easy to see why he became enamored with mathematics after this, before ultimately deciding that writing was where he wanted to invest his energies.  One thing he didn’t write about in his essay for Harper’s (probably because he was writing about Illinois, and not Kansas) is the vast amount of Jesus billboards that line I-70, punctuated by the occasional sign for an “Adult Superstore — next exit!”  At first I dropped into that stereotypical mindset that tends to view the coincidence of adult superstores and fundamentalist Christianity as a pairing that shows the classic psychosocial relationship between sexual self-repression and the ‘return of the repressed’ in the form of the big box adult store.  But thinking about it more, I realized that this was just lazy thinking at work: in a city like San Francisco, where fundamentalist Christianity is at a pretty low boil — there are way more sex shops per capita than in Kansas.  In fact, the presence of big box desire in Kansas just reveals what everybody already knows — sex is everywhere, whether it be in the pagan paradise of the San Francisco Bay Area, or amid the fundamentalist billboards of I-70.


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