“On Saturdays the little boys catch snakes and hang them over the infidel Chester Bedell’s headstone. On Sundays the visitors see the snakes and kneel and cry ‘Praise the Lord’.”
One day last September, I parked somewhere along Sharpes Creek Road east of what is left of the town of Bazaar. I knew that after I had climbed the barbed wire fence I was entering private land. My problem is, I “grew up” hiking in the high desert of New Mexico where practically all land is owned by the Federal government and thus property “of the people,” and I could go anywhere I wanted on hundreds of thousands of acres. In Kansas the land isn’t owned by the people but by individuals, land trusts, cattle companies. So far I haven’t stumbled onto a sign saying “Trespassers will be shot,” and I climbed quite a few fences without anyone noticing let alone being bothered by my presence. I continue hiking left and right and where the wind blows me, mostly in areas where there are 360 degree views of tallgrass prairie, and once in a while along one of the many watersheds that crisscross the Flint Hills.
On that particular day, I may have trespassed on Ed Bass’s land (Edward is one of the Bass brothers from Texas, landowners with millions of acres in their name, big-time cattle ranchers, famous all over the Midwest). I don’t really know. One Walter Jones also owns property in that area, as does the Frank Witherspoon Trust. Who else. I do know I hiked away from the sun and on my trek came up to two creeks with some slowly running water. Later, studying the Chase County plat at home, I guessed I had either forded the Norton Creek or reached the Bloody Creek, or maybe the Little Bloody Creek. The tallgrass prairie is a confusing place; while in the desert of New Mexico there are abundant recognizable shapes of mesas or buttes to use as a beacon, one can easily get lost on this prairie of mine which lacks any distinguishing shapes. The grasses stretch, all hills look the same, all curving watersheds are similarly lined by the same sort of trees and brush.
I had hiked for two hours and climbed a few fences when I noticed something in a distant tree line. I don’t know what I saw, but there was definitely something that had attracted my eye and was now inviting me to come and inspect. I slid down a muddy bank, cleaned my boots in the clear stream, and pushed away a network of cottonwood or cedar branches. Leaning against the high bank stood the rock and brick wall of what must have been a fairly tall building. Many stones had fallen inward; window frames, most of their panes gone, were lying crushed by what was left of a roof, just a broken frame still partly covered by boards, tin and shingles. I guess it was the sun on one of the glass shards that had caught my eye.
In fifteen years of hiking the American West, I found only three snakes in my path, two rattlers and one garter snake, so I am not afraid of looking under a rock. I was just curious to see what was holding the roof fragments up, what was left under them, and it appeared to be no big job to lift a piece here and there. I grabbed a handy piece of frame and pushed it away from me while pulling it higher. It moved two feet before the going was slowed, and eventually the frame got stuck. I had lost interest already. But before I turned away, I noticed what seemed to be the corner of a steel table. So, I looked a little closer. It was indeed a table, and it was in good shape too. I saw the wood rollers of an old office chair and I saw remnants of books and papers on the broken, earth-covered floor.
Of course I decided I wanted to see more. I started pulling and shoving again and set all sorts of debris tumbling down. The frame moved another foot. I walked to the north end of the wall and did some more pushing and lifting until almost half of the roof and its frame angled away from the bricks. Crazy, I was looking at a smooth table top covered with books or what was left of them. A tin can, a metal box, an old watch on a chain, no numerals, its glass broken. Torn sheets of paper. The seat of the chair was gone, a wooden backrest was lying under the table half against one of two muddy, old black boots. A rusty axe. Parts of a cabinet. A Jerry can. Remains of old cloth – curtains? clothing? blankets? There wasn’t much of real interest. Only the books and the papers.
The line I quoted in the beginning of this Ozgoodie is from pieces of paper found on that table. The words were written with the help of an old typewriter, you know the ones, with the o’s and the e’s filled up with dirt. There were more lines, or poems, or parts of letters. But after trying to prey them loose and failing to do so, with the paper falling apart in my hands, or keeping stuck to other sheets which contents remained hidden, I was able to find just a few that were readable. One of the sheets read: “Who is this woman with words dangling from the ends of her hair? Leaping out from her eyes? Dripping from her breasts? Seeping from her hands? Her left foot, a question mark. Her right foot, an exclamation. Her body a dictionary dying to define life, growth, a yearning.” The rest of the page was torn or destroyed by moisture. Later, I found another piece that read: “She is a woman singing to her death, love’s lost beauty always found at the edge of silence,” and I decided that these lines were connected with the first ones. The cottage must have been home or retreat to a well-educated woman. Or to a man very much in love with a lovable woman.
“They made her of the softest clay and dried her under the rays of the sun. With the blood of a tender calf her name was written on the bark of a tree older than she.”
I found more “poetry” or well-written prose, or rather, just fragments, a few lines that had survived the times and the elements. The fallen roof, alas, hadn’t protected all. The books I found were in no good shape. Some covers had disappeared, pages were sticking together. I found a glued-together copy of three short novels by Dostoevsky, I don’t know which ones, but I do know they were copyrighted in 1960 by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. This told me that the cottage must have been occupied by someone until after that year. The names of a Mr. Golyadkin and one Petrushka I could decipher, as well as a Rutenspich or –spach or something like this because the print ink had faded. I am sure I also held three books by Marcel Proust, ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, the books one single mass of dark cover carton and thin paper published by Random House, because I could read the name on one cover. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past…” When I tried to open one book and my fingers touched the open page, the print just came off.
More titles. ‘Strangers and Brothers’ by C.P. Snow. ‘The Light and the Dark’, same author. About academic life in Cambridge, or was it Oxford? They must be from the 1930s. A few pages from the days of the “Dust Bowl” written by, as I first thought, Ernest Hemingway because of the efficient use of language and the penciled in scribbles in the margin, “E didnt get it.” Later, I guessed the words might have been written by John Dos Passos until a well-read friend advised me the author must have been Ernie Pyle. Pyle didn’t just write about World War II, he was a well-established roving correspondent widely published already in the 1930s. “His so-called travel dispatches,” my friend said, “survived the times.” I found a few pages I could easily read, including the second paragraph I quoted above, and the subject was Kansas:
“Manhattan, Kansas. I am a traveler with above-average tolerance (…) but something happened when we came (…) into Kansas. I got sore at everything. I’m not sure just what caused it. Nothing big happened. Our crossing of Kansas was simply a crossing filled with little furies. It was the dust blowing, for the wind was an almighty one. But then people began to get on my nerves (…) I am against high speed. The speedometer needle on my car has never touched sixty. But I say that when a local citizen, all alone, with one elbow on the window and his chin in his hand, takes a half-mile-long blind turn at the infuriating rate of five miles an hour, he should go to jail as quickly as if he’d been doing eighty.”
There was more that I could read. About land that “gives me the shivers, and I feel a strangeness and unwelcomeness among the people there I’ve never felt anyplace else in the world. Maybe the feeling is wholly within me and not in the people at all. And if that should be it, I am sorry. But I do feel it, and I can’t help it.” How different are my own experiences … Other pages had to do with the dust bowl’s ravages. Alas, I couldn’t write everything down. I had my camera with me and took a shot of the interior, then began to capture words I found on pieces of paper. The battery was low; as so often, my camera failed at a most important occasion.
I also found a stack of photo portraits. Scenes from rural America interlaced by a few cityscapes, but always with men and women in the foreground. People dressed in 1940s and 1950s apparel. I didn’t see any cars, no modern buildings, just faces or faded faces. I grew more excited every minute, but when I noticed the sun was low already, and knowing I had at least two hours to go before I would be back at my Suzuki, I regretfully had to decide to hike back and leave whatever else there was for discovery sometime later. I did not take anything from the site. Since having lived in Indian Country, it is ingrained in my brain never to take away what you find; any anthropologist wants to study findings in situ and undisturbed. So, I worked my way back empty handed but for the few notes and one or two pictures. I came out far south of my vehicle, had to hike another mile or so north. The evening I spent making notes of what I had discovered. I was eager to return to the site, but then the weather changed. The wet cold kept me home for a couple of days.
“I spy my victims. Through a dirty window I see two nude bodies trying to escape into each other. I laugh and call from a nearby tree. ‘Buddy? Who is this woman? Not your wife, eh? You don’t taste your wife like that. Let me see – the whole village wants to see. Wants to watch.’ And I laugh again.”
I never found the ruins again. I tried, oh yes. More than once, I left my SUV where I thought I had left it the first time and walked east, into the rising sun. I wandered around, followed creeks I thought I recognized. I must have checked out each and every watershed in the area. No luck. I tried from the opposite direction, going west from Bloody Creek Road. No luck. Funny. In New Mexico, in Chaco Canyon, friends of mine once climbed up on Fajada Butte to see the sun dials and the petroglyphs. They discovered extraordinary ones and photographed them. These were the days before digital, so they had to have their films developed. None of their photos showed the old sign language they had taken pictures of. They started calling each other and everyone had the same story: negative, no petroglyphs. A couple of them went back to Chaco Canyon a few weeks later and climbed Fajada Butte once again. They were able to find the site they had discovered earlier, but this time could not detect any pictures cut into the mesa’s wall. Anasazi magic?
But I am sure that, if, one of these days, I will find the building again, I will also find the books and the papers safely protected by the roof I had so carefully pushed back to cover them. Someday, I will manage to return and discover more about the man or the woman who lived there, read there, wrote there, and, out in the middle of nowhere, must not have done much else other than … enough.
“Words are like mares: treat them gentle–with a loose rein–if you want them to behave.”
Matfield Green, KS, April 2012