circling the center

Two days ago I left Alma heading east, passing through Republican City, Naponee, Franklin (“Home of the Good Life”), before stopping briefly in Lebanon. Lebanon was determined by the U.S. Geleological Survey (“We’ve got Too Much Time on our Hands!”) to be where the lower 48 states would balance if the entire country were composed of plywood. Lebanon was proud of this fact, though not too clear on specifics. For example, does the plywood curve like the Earth, or does it lie flat like a paper map? And if it’s flat, what projection is used? Mercator? (It makes a *big* difference!)

Downtown Lebanon, like many of the towns in north-central Kansas, is mostly shut down. The stores are closed, some optimistically marked ‘For Lease!’, and the streets are empty. One storefront marked “Susie’s Beauty Emporium” featured a 10′ by 20′ map of the United States, with about 20 panels that would flip around to reveal something. Since Susie’s was no longer, the sign was frozen, some panels showing the map, some showing data, and some in mid-flip. The point of the map wasn’t clear to me because the panels didn’t correspond to recognizable landmarks and the data consisted of Japanese Hiragana script and large numbers. (A panel between Texas and Oklahoma proclaimed something in Japanese and the number 12,000.) Below the map of the U.S. was a very shabby map of Japan, with no data at all. It was all very mysterious. If anyone were on Main Street, I would have asked them about it, but no one was.

Near Portis, I passed a mile-long freight train that had tumbled onto its side. Cars lay tumbled on their sides along the track, one sometimes laying on top of another. It looked like it had been there for weeks, a clean-up project being postponed.

Near Osborne is the geodetic center of the United States. When surveyors started mapping the U.S., they apparently needed a reference point from which all other measurements would be made. It exists in a pasture southwest of Osborne, a small bronze disk in a cow field. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico all use this point of reference. (If you’re a surveyor, you probably appreciate this.)

I was driving along, thinking about how quirky Americans were, and that got me to thinking about the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. I knew it was somewhere in the Midwest, but I didn’t really know where. I was thinking I’d look it up on the Internet, when I passed a sign saying “Entering Cawker City, Home of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine”.

Improbable things like this happen to me on a regular basis.

I stopped and admired this monstrosity. About 20′ in diameter, composed entirely of brown baling twine, wrapped around and around. It was started in 1953, and was probably a true ball at some point. Now it was more of a dome, the bottom flattened under its weight. I can see what caused some farmer to start collecting used twine in a ball, but at what point did it get out of hand?

A single mom and her two kids were there, photographing themselves in front of the ball as part of their ‘Tacky Tour 2002’ from Pennsylvania to Denver. They’d spent the last year doing research on ‘‘, and had a long list of weird and interesting Americana to visit.

I spent the night in Beloit (“Vision with Values”), which has two Chinese restaurants, though one of them is ‘American/Chinese’. The food was indeed Chinese, though not even close to San Francisco standards. As San Franciscans, we’re spoiled by the richness of our culinary culture.

Yesterday I photographed a one-room schoolhouse in Victor, Kansas. The only things left in Victor were the schoolhouse and an abandoned farm. The schoolhouse was rapidly falling down. Shingles were missing from the roof, the ceiling was coming down, and plaster was peeling from the walls. Inside were a few high-back chairs, a table, and an iron hospital bed. There was also, strangely, a ’70’s era record collection in a wooden crate.

I had the urge for some greasy truck-stop food, so I headed south to the interstate, U.S. 70. I stopped at a Country Kitchen and had the buffet, which included fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and country-style gravy. Yum!

A guy in the next booth was wearing a large wooden cross around his neck on a string. Really large… this thing was 1′ wide by 2′ long. On his head he had a cap that said “Heaven is Real! Do you have Reservations?” He and another guy were loudly talking about the strippers at the men’s club downtown.

Last night I hung out in Manhattan, Kansas (“The Little Apple”). It’s a college town, and probably the first place I’ve been in Kansas where I could live. I hung out in Aggieville having a burrito and beer before catching “Bad Company” at the Seth Child Cinema. (It wasn’t bad.)

My brother Donald spent a few years of his life here at nearby Fort Riley as part of his basic training with the Army. He’d spoken about Manhattan, not very positively, and I didn’t have a picture in my mind. Now I do.. it’s a nice town, not too small, with tree-lined streets and a mall. The Kansas Wildcats logo and their particularly bold shade of purple are everywhere.
Even though I wouldn’t know the Wildcats from the Sabercats, this is probably the first place I’ve been in Kansas where I could settle.

Last night I camped at the Tuttle Creek state park, just north of Manhattan. At around 3:30 am, lightning started striking around me. There was no storm, no wind, just great the-gods-must-be-angry bolts of lightning. Each would be followed almost immediately by the loudest thunder I’d ever heard, a deep explosion that I felt pass deeply through me in waves. I stood outside my camper for a while watching the bolts cross the sky and feeling the sound. Nothing I’ll see on the 4th of July could compete.

This morning I thought I heard thunder in the distance, but then I realized that it’s mortar practice at Fort Riley.


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