I had only traversed the western part of the state one time before and that was my bus trip to Topeka from Colorado Springs when I was 16. At that time I didn't pay too much attention to the scenery, what there was of it. So I was going to traverse it this time alone, hitch-hiking the 600 or 700 miles from Topeka to Colorado Springs to visit my Aunt & Uncle.
My plan was to start super early, but of course that went to pot as I over slept and had not really planned what to take with me. So, I spent the morning screwing around packing what I thought I would need to make the journey...shouldn't be too much, not like I was going cross country or anything. It was 1974 and it was not an uncommon thing to see kids hitch-hiking all over the place, the world didn't seem to be as dangerous a place as it is now. I grabbed a ride from my roommate who dropped me off at the on ramp to I-70 West and I stuck out my thumb. It was destined to be a weird and exhausting trip.
Everyone knows Kansas is flat, flatter than flat, the home of Dorothy and Toto. Let me tell you, its flatter, but after you spend some time out there, by the side of the road, way the fuck out there, it has a grandeur, a feeling you get that America is a huge place and you are in the middle of it and living, really living and experiencing something few folks do or would even care to do for that matter. So, I kicked some cans around, looked at the makeup of the guardrail, sang a song half out loud and half in my head and waited for that first ride.
The day wasn't getting any younger and the way I was getting passed by you'd think I had cheeze doodles sticking out of my nostrils or something. I gave my most pathetic pleading face and soon a VW mini bus pulled over. The side door slid open and I tossed my pack in and climbed aboard. I was pretty happy by what I smelled, the inside reeked of freshly smoked joints and I was absolutely in the mood. 3 guys and 2 girls were in the bus. "Hey, thanks for picking me up, how far you goin?" The driver, a solemn looking guy with long dark hair and a headband, round rim glasses and a 3 day old stubble said, "We're goin' down to Wichita to catch the ZZ Top show tonight...goin out as far as Salina". That was a nice start to the trip, Salina was a nice little chunk to get under my belt. I sat back with my new friends and swapped stories, smoked some stuff along with some cigarettes and drank some beers. I looked out the window as we traveled along and took in the beauty of extreme eastern Kansas, it would still be awhile before the flat lands really started in earnest.
Sometime around 3PM or so I stumbled out of the van where the interstate that goes to Wichita intersects with I-70. Off went the van on down the line looking for all the world like a Cheech & Chong movie. To be sure, I was feeling alright but was getting a bit concerned about the time. Night out on the prairie is no time to be hitching so I figured I better formulate some sort of plan. The towns become fewer and farther apart as well out here and are not nestled along the highway neither. I stuck out my thumb and scanned the shoulder for the usual items left lying around after being thrown out from moving cars. Someone had actually taken the time to pull over and empty their ashtray on the ground as there was a huge pile of butts and burned matches. When you are going down the road you don't see this stuff, it looks fairly clean, but get out and hang out on the side of an interstate and you can find all sorts of shit lying around. Besides the pyramid of butts there was a left foot sneaker...someone was hopping around on their right foot apparently, a headless doll that was either decapitated went it hit the road or had been tortured before being flung out, an old "Dekalb" (pronounced De Cob) baseball hat replete with the flying corn cob on the front. I actually thought about keeping this but no amount of washing could get the greasy crap that was on the inside clean. I sat on a guardrail, lit a cigarette and took a breather.
The traffic was getting a bit more sparse, oh there was lots of it, but mainly it was long haul truckers and folks in a hurry to get somewhere and few were coming up the ramp onto the highway which is where I was. Hitchhiking was then and still is illegal. Some cops don't care too much as long as you don't look like a serial killer or look like you hadn't bathed for a few months. Still in all, it was a much better idea to stay on the ramp rather than the highway itself...of course, I would slowly make my way up the ramp so that folks whizzing by had a shot of seeing me. So here I sat smoking, thumb out, checking out trash and still thinking about the time. Great! A Chrysler Valiant pulled over up the road and backed up to meet me. It was a middle class family heading home from Kansas City. I was really happy to finally climb aboard and thanked the man and woman in the front. Their little girl was in the back coloring in a coloring book and trying to pass the time best as she could. They were headed for Russell, the home of Senator Bob Dole, it was smack dab in the middle of the state. We cruised along making pleasant small talk, they offered me some sandwiches which I gratefully accepted as I had barely eaten all day. I helped the little girl with her coloring and enjoyed my ride.
The countryside was now becoming quintessential Kansas and there is little to see except the few billboards and attractions that can wow the tourists in this God forsaken hinterland.
Then there's "The Worlds Largest Ball of Twine":
Now THAT'S something a town can sink its civic pride teeth into! And of course there is the world famous "Geographic center of the continental United States":
So you now have the slimest of ideas how crazed one can become out here unless you have plied yourself with copious amounts of weed and whatever else you can lay your hands on.
Anyway, we arrived in Russell as dusk was beginning to set in and I had a choice to make. Either find a local hotel to shack up in which I really couldn't spare the dough to do, or keep on pushing and maybe luck out and get someone driving straight through to Denver or something. It was worth a shot. I edged up the ramp and saw some ominous looking clouds way off to the west. The problem is, out here you can see a long, long ways and the wind coming down off the Rockies can push a system across the plains pretty quickly as this one was kind of looking like. It had a good sized thunderhead and you could see the lightening blazing away within the clouds. I was praying like mad for a ride but was getting passed by with frightening regularity. The first drops of rain spattered upon my hat and I could smell that rain smell that comes on a hot summer evening. It would be pouring soon enough and I sprinted to the overpass just up ahead.
Underneath an overpass it is relatively dry but loud as the cars and trucks reverberate throughout the structure. From the shoulder a concrete slab gently moves up and away from the road ending just under the above road. At that point there is a flat space, about as wide as your body and running the length of the underpass. It was here I scrambled up to as the rain came down in buckets, the lightening was striking all around and it became dark as ink. It was no good being by the road below as you would not be seen until it was too late to pull over and besides you got as wet from the passing vehicles down there as you would standing outside. I had talked to guys who had spent a night under one of these things but I never had and it seriously looked like it would be my only choice this night. I had a small flashlight, clicked it on and surveyed the situation...just crushed rock dust and little else, a bit of pigeon shit here and there as they loved nesting under these things but I didn't see any nests in the eaves. There was little else to do but wait it out and maybe, against all odds, even snooze a bit, though the thought of slipping off and rolling down to be crushed by a semi kept me pretty much awake. I had a tiny propane burner which I got out and brewed some instant coffee in a tin can with a bail wire that I carried.
I slid down the concrete slab and started walking up the road, it was still early but the traffic was becoming brisk. The sun was out and it was cool and breezy this early in the day, I settled next to a guard rail and again began my journey. Lighting a cigarette I stuck out my thumb and hoped for a little better luck today, the sky was clear and blue with big, billowy clouds floating as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, behind me, was a grove of trees where the town of Russell stood. Here and there a combine was rolling through the wheat starting the harvest. Across the highway stood an old barn that had been long since abandoned, a much better place to have spent the night if I could have seen the damn thing, I thought. Weathered and half falling down, I could just make out a "Red Man Chewing Tobacco" sign that had been painted on the side, behind the building were miles and miles of wheat, as far as the eye could see. Breadbasket of the world, indeed.
A Pontiac convertible screeched to a halt and backed up along the shoulder. Two servicemen were in the car, probably coming from Ft. Riley, motioned to me to hop in the back. I climbed in and off we flew. Luckily I had attached a "Stampede Cord" to my hat or it would have flown off as we roared down the road. The wind felt great and I took off my jean jacket and stripped my shirt, put on a t-shirt and laid my jacket and shirt out to dry on the seat. The two servicemen were not much older than me, the blonde guy driving, Don, asked if I was hungry. His partner, Nick, handed me a thermos filled with coffee when I nodded in the affirmative. Nick also handed me a sack filled with fried chicken that they had either made or had acquired along the road. Each piece was wrapped in wax paper and I hungrily dived in to a thick, meaty breast. Things were going my way for a change.
Don and Nick were headed for Garden City so they could give me a ride as far as Oakley. Named after Annie Oakley, my map showed this was where the road, after having run straight as an arrow for hundreds of miles, turned slightly to the north west, then straightened out to head west once again on into Colorado. I had seen the few signs here and there for the wild attractions in this part of the world but the sign I now saw piqued my interest. Hand painted red boards nailed cross ways to two posts sported a hand painted sign, "See the Worlds Largest Prairie Dog 175 miles". What the hell was a Prairie Dog? I had heard of them, never really saw one before, I didn't think they were really much larger than a beaver or raccoon...how big could the one up the road be? 50 lbs? 150 lbs? A man eating Prairie Dog? Could there be such a thing? I imagined a group of farmers armed with shotguns and their hunting dogs going after this scourge of western Kansas, determined to bring it down before it killed another cow, or, heaven forbid, killed and devoured Grandma Mamie of Scott City! They captured it alive as it fed on a coyote carcass and delivered it up to this place up the road to be viewed in awe by tourists far and wide. It was Shamu the Killer Whale of Prairie Dogs, something anyone within 100 miles had to stop and see.
The day passed by pleasantly, Don & Nick played some nice tunes on their 8 track player and they even conjured up a joint at one point. I was feeling mellow and quite satisfied that I'd make into Colorado by late afternoon. I felt a shake on my knee and slowly came awake. Nick was shaking me, "Dude we're turning off in a bit". I started to gather my things and prepare once again to thumb my way west. We were fast approaching Oakley, Kansas.
"Guys? You ever been to Prairie Dog Town ?" "Not in this lifetime anyway"Don said....he pulled over and I climbed out, "Nice to meet you, thanks for the ride and stuff." "Take care, man" , Nick yelled as they spun gravel and headed down the exit southbound. There it was, right across the highway, the entrance to the promised land where the riches of western Kansas were to be found. I sat on the guard rail yet again and lit yet another cigarette. There are some things not to be rushed but to be savored. I crushed out my cigarette butt and looked up and down the highway, there was not a car in sight so I strolled across I-70 and into the parking lot of Prairie Dog Town. A high stockade surrounded and hid the valuable commodities contained within, God forbid anyone should get a free peek. I went to the ramshackle booth to buy a ticket..no one was around, the whole was place eerily silent. A car pulled into the nearly empty lot with Minnesota plates and a family piled out. I was feeling a little self conscience standing there like a rube, but put on a smile and welcomed them to my lonely vigil. At last an elderly lady came ambling over exclaiming that she was sorry for the hold up. "Sorry, sorry, got some pies in the stove and just took em out to cool...now then, that's $1 for adults and $.50 for the kids." I paid my buck and wandered in, the gravel crunching underfoot as I walked. I heard behind me the old lady talking to the Minnesota folks, "Ever thing is plainly signed, some o the animals you can feed, its safe...jes put a nickel in the bucket and take a handful of feed that's in the big feed bag". The big trees presented a most welcome bit of shade and the breeze blew through the leaves and almost lulled me into a trance, but I was on a mission...where the hell could it be? I approached another large stockade and peeked around the corner...and there she was, in all her glory and majesty, something for the ages.
Best buck I ever spent.