Toto, are we in Kansas? Part One — continued:
After overnighting at a Holiday Inn in LaJunta, CO, we decided to pay a visit to Dodge City, KS and dawdle a day doing something totally out of character for us – cheezy tourist stuff.
I had been engaging in the antiquated (and quite fun) ritual of sending postcards to friends and family throughout the trip and I couldn’t wait to send them one saying we were “getting out of Dodge”. But we were several hours away, so after glancing at our map and some hotel brochures, we saw Garden City’s picturesque historic district as a great place to stop for lunch before continuing on toward the “OK Corral”.
What a travesty! And a fine example of how hard our troubled economy has hit some places in our grand Nation. Empty stores, abandoned buildings, and general decay lined the historic downtown section. We couldn’t find a coffee shop let alone a place to stop for lunch. Even the Windsor Hotel, touted as the “Waldorf of the Prairies” in the bright, shiny pages of our tourist brochure, lay vacant with boarded up windows.
We drove around the block, and tried using our GPS to find any suitable place to get a bite of lunch, which took us into seedy neighborhoods and industrial-type thoroughfares only to find place after place shut down or closed. Before long, we noticed that our gas gauge was reading just about at half tank when we passed the only gas station we had seen in the last hour; but I refused to allow my husband to stop.
Two men with every appearance of your garden variety THUG were lounging against the two rusty gas pumps in front of a nondescript office with peeling paint…um, yeah. I don’t think so. And Doug ultimately agreed that surely there must be another gas station somewhere on our way out of town, because it was at this point we decided to not gamble going so far out of our way to see Dodge City when it may end up being in the same sorry condition as Garden City.
Finally we came upon a strip mall with chain franchises you can find everywhere in America and over lunch, we decided that it was time to go home via the shortest route, which meant heading back to I-70, speed be damned, the other traffic would just have to deal – after all, that’s what the passing lane is for, right?
We planned to take county road KS-156 and gently work our way northeast to the town of Great Bend where we would search for a motel before continuing on to I-70 the following day.
We were perhaps 5 miles out of town when I realized we hadn’t seen another gas station. Our gauge was reading just below a half tank, but neither one of us relished the thought of back-tracking. Our map showed the nearest small town was about 30 miles ahead so we decided to keep going, confident that we had enough gas to get us to the next station.
Only there wasn’t one.
Nor was there a gas station at the next town…or the next.
Each town we passed showed signs of economic downturn. No stores, no services. Just grain silos and dozens of mounded train cars, filled to capacity with grain. Then miles upon miles of flat, open land as far as the eye could see, in every direction, of yellow-ripened wheat against a brilliant blue sky. Occasionally we passed huge harvesters that were so far in the distance their size was reduced to the appearance of tiny matchbox cars.
It was beautiful, isolated, and so unexpected.
In a prior cross-country trip, I had only seen Kansas from the Interstate – a very boring stretch of road. I had no idea that such stark beauty lay within its heart. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there. Tiny farms, far along the horizon would occasionally surface like an island in a sea of golden waves. Other than a tree here or there around a lonely farmhouse, there was no respite from the hot, glaring sun overhead. It was hard to imagine a tornado being birthed from such an auspicious blue sky where pufts of cloud drifted across the gentle summer breeze.
I wish I had a better picture, but we were too busy worrying about our gas gauge to stop. It was now reading the very big, red-lettered “E”. That would be E.T.’s brother EM, you know – as in EMPTY. And there would be no “phoning home”, or roadside assistance in our case.
To Doug’s credit, he didn’t once blame me for our predicament. If only I had allowed him to brave past thugs and hooligans, to risk life and limb for a few gallons of precious gas…sigh.
It was on a stretch of road that looked much like this one, except it had a slight hill, when the Honey Badger began to cough and spit.
Doug pumped her pedal and stroked the dash pleading, “Come on baby, just a few more miles.” According to our GPS, we were only 5 short miles away from the next town where SURELY, this time, there must be a gas station.
Honey Badger did her best. She continued to belch until her engine finally quit, but Doug coaxed her back to life just in time for me to notice a lone ranch-style house, not exceedingly far from the road. I pointed to it and said, “Hey look – maybe we could buy some gas from whoever lives there.”
To my surprise, rather than coast Honey Badger to the side of the road, Doug yanked her onto the long, dirt driveway. Honey Badger lurched forward, choking on gas fumes while Doug continued to work her pedal. As the front door slowly came into focus; it dawned on us. We had arrived at the house of the dude from ‘The Chainsaw Massacre’.
Then with one, big, despairing shudder; our engine died.
Shutters hung from broken hinges off a clapboard frame with so many curls of peeling paint, it looked like it could have been stucco. Abandoned, rusty cars littered the yard, some of which sat upon stacks of cinderblock in lieu of tires with tall brown weeds sprouting from busted windshield frames. And there wasn’t a sound, except for the settling noises of Honey Badger’s stressed engine. No passing traffic, no birds, and we were about 100 yards from the road behind a clump of straggly trees.
In unison we leaned forward, taking in the full view before settling back into our seats. I expected to hear flies buzzing or the cawing sound of a sentient crow, but all appeared preternaturally quiet.
Then Doug said, “Go knock on the door.” I turned to him and sputtered, “Uh huh – YOU go knock on the door, I’ve seen that movie, it doesn’t end good for the stranded couple.”
I have to give the man credit again, because he did just that. I was ever so thankful that no one answered the door.
So we appealed to the Honey Badger one last time, who must have decided that SHE didn’t want to stay at such a scary house either because Doug didn’t have to sweet talk her for long. She started right up and chugged us back to the county road before coming to a final stuttering stop at the side of the road.
We all breathed a sigh of relief until the silence of complete and utter isolation set in. To make matters worse, it was late in the day, approaching near 6pm in the evening.
It would be dark soon.
To be continued…