When I opened my motel room door Wednesday morning to cart my first load of overnight necessities back to the car, I was buffeted by a chilly gale force wind, blowing steadily from the south(!). It was actually shocking how cold and gusty it was, even considering I was in Kansas. I could hardly hold the car door open to keep it from crushing my leg when I got in, for crying out loud!
Nevertheless, I had a long list of places to visit, so I hopped to it and hit the road. I mapped my route so as to hit as many little towns as possible on my way toward Lucas, traversing long stretches of straight ahead highway that neatly bisected the rolling prairie. On both sides of the road, as far as the eye could see, lay a dun brown cloak of winter-dead vegetation, with a hint of bright spring green petticoat just beginning to appear at the margins.
As lunch time rolled around, I started scanning each little town I passed through for just the right place to sample some of this famous "skillet fried" chicken I'd been reading about. I chose Diane's Diner in Great Bend, Kansas and felt courage in my conviction when I walked in and it was packed with locals even though it was barely 11:30. When I saw a pan full of golden fried chicken on the lunch buffet, my heart leapt with flour dredged deep fried joy.
I restrained myself and paused before falling on the fried chicken like a starving wolf - the place actually had a substantial salad bar and I've pretty much always got a hankering for a salad. I grabbed a plate, mounded it with some respectable salad greens and then...um....aren't there supposed to be some other vegetables on the salad bar? Out of what surely must have been about 20 options for augmenting your lettuce, I could find only one other vegetable in evidence: pickled okra. There were about 6 or 8 different kinds of macaroni salad and slaw, a vat of something that looked like cool whip with Oreo crumbs stirred in, and numerous wholesome dairy selections, but I couldn't detect a single other vegetable excepting those already slathered in mayonnaise. I sat down with my salad style creation and watched Fox News as they debated the merit of setting fire to the BP oil spill currently dirtying the Gulf. I think I made the trio of good old ball cap wearing farm boys sitting at a table near me a bit nervous when I talked back to the t.v.: "They need to quit debating it and just go ahead and set that thing on fire! Can you imagine how cool that would look?!" No response, just nervous stares.
There were plenty of tasty luncheon items to choose from on the buffet, and I even pushed a few spoonfuls of other buffet items to the back of my plate in small heaps beside the chicken. But in the end, why? The chicken was so good, so perfectly delicious that I barely touched anything else lest it subtract from the space available in my stomach for fried chicken intake. Two wings and a thigh later, I daubed the last traces of chicken fat and salt and caramelized flour from my trembling lips and pronounced Kansas's bragging rights to the best skillet fried chicken on earth legitimately earned.
After lunch it was only a short drive to Lucas, home of one of my favorite folk art environments called the "Garden of Eden" which was built by the inimitable Samuel P. Dinsmoor beginning in 1905. I had made a visit to the Garden of Eden many years ago and fallen in love with it, but I was eager to return and see it again. For me, it has special relevance because it's one of the earliest examples I've run across of someone with both roadside attraction mania and a talent with sculptural concrete. Dinsmoor actually set out to make a destination that people would come to visit when they stepped off the train in Lucas and even installed costly and exotic electric lights in the elaborate network of concrete figures high above the house so that travellers would be attracted to the place like moths to a flame.
One of the other things I really admire about Dinsmoor's place is his creative use of postrock limestone. Postrock limestone was used widely in the area to compensate for the dearth of native wood or other suitable building materials. It was quarried in brick, post or log shaped pieces and was used for fence posts and just about every manner of masonry. Dinsmoor had special long log shapes cut and then assembled them in the exact same fashion as a log house, even dovetailing the ends of the "logs" to provide an optimal fit. He also used the postrock log technique to make the enormous crypt that sits just behind the house where both he and his wife are buried (left). Dinsmoor's coffin has a glass window on top where you can peer through and observe his mouldering yet still identifiable remains. A handmade jug sits at the foot of the coffin since Dinsmoor wasn't sure whether he was going to heaven or hell when he died and he had heard people in hell couldn't have water, so he wanted to arrive prepared. There's plenty more to the fascinating story of his life and work, but I've got lots more to relate about the day so I'll leave it at that.
Literally, right next door to Dinsmoor's place, sits the home of artist Erika Nelson - creator of a wonderful art car called "The World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things" (http://www.worldslargestthings.com/). I had met Erika many years ago at the Houston Art Car Parade and had liked her immediately, so when I knew I was going to be in Lucas I e-mailed her to see if we could meet, but unfortunately she was out of town and had to decline. Happily, her fabulous vehicle was parked in the backyard and a sign on the front door encouraged visitors to feel free to go back and take a look. The bus's windows are filled with tiny replicas of roadside items such as a ball of twine, Paul Bunyan and even Carhenge! I was sorry to miss Erika, but happy to see her delightful museum on wheels.
Another place right down the road is the former home of Florence Deeble, an admirer of Samuel Dinsmoor's work who took a notion to do her own concrete modeling beginning in the 1950s. Florence made concrete "postcards" of various places she had visited (that's Mount Rushmore on the left) to decorate her garden. A contemporary artist by the name of Mri-Pilar has also installed some of her work in both the garden and the first floor of the home (which was unfortunately closed the day I visited).
I tend to forget, living in temperate Texas as I do, that a lot of places north of Dallas observe winter hours or are closed until May. A new place that's sprung up since I last visited, The Grassroots Arts Center, was also closed so clearly I'll need to make another trip to Lucas soon and maybe even get to visit with Erika to boot!
After one last quick stop at a tiny butcher store that has been making the same Czech-style ring bologna since 1922, I resumed my journey north to visit what surely must be one of the most iconic roadside attractions ever: the world's largest ball of twine. How many times have you hard roadside attractions characterized by the phrase "giant ball of twine"? And there it sits in Cawker City, Kansas! I had to chuckle to myself as I drove miles and miles out into the barren prairie, deep into the recesses of nowhere. "They got me!" I thought to myself, "They totally got me. I am driving 70 miles out of my way to see a giant ball of sisal twine!" Cawker City's notion of becoming a destination had succeeded, at least in part.
The twine ball rests proudly in the middle of town in its own fancy pavilion. It's 40+ foot diameter is surely impressive, especially so to small birds that frequent the top of the ball to try and harvest bits of loose fiber for their nests. Across the street sits a large gift shop filled with twine souvenirs and a twine trail painted on the sidewalk snakes through the tiny downtown area, leading you past special paintings that a local artist has applied to various surfaces. emulating famous artworks with a ball of twine added. They are definitely all about twine in Cawker City.
As I headed out of town, I mused to myself that perhaps I should have tiny emblems (in this case, a tiny ball of twine) painted on the side of my car, much like the flying aces of WWII, to commemorate their kills. I decided a good compromise was the state magnets I'm so fond of adding to the car as I drive along. I should have about 13 or 14 them amassed on the car's flank by the end of this trip.
Cawker City ended up being where I took an enormous left turn and began my journey westward toward Utah. I drove on small highways the rest of the afternoon as long as the light held, pausing by the side of the road to enjoy the last rays of light in the frigid wind before stopping in Colby for the night. What a wonderfully full day of enjoying the time I have here on earth!