En route from NYC to Hutchinson, Kansas, I watch some V for Vendetta, smoke my pipe by the Mississippi, and even manage a strangely configured couple hours’ sleep. During my rest the conductor passes by with her radio on so I can hear the drivers talking to one another, putting a big ol’ smile on my sleepy face.
And now I’m in Kansas at 4 am, in the station that’s open but deserted except for the classic rock station blasting, a fellow sleeping it off in a nook, and me. I pick up the local paper and read about the dismal performance of the local high school volleyball team. I doze until 5:30 when the nearby donut shop opens, premier spot for gathering local gossip.
It was a slow day at the state fair yesterday, Dude just napped in his booth all day. Except for when Donut Shop Gal (DSG) was there – it was the first time her and new Boyfriend’s kids were hanging out. Boyfriend ignored Dude though, and Dude’s not too happy about that, but DSG leans in and says Dude knows why…it’s because Boyfriend knows DSG wore her special cute shorts for Dude. Things are getting tense when DSG’s former father-in-law shows up, to whom she says, “I thought you were dead!” and she shifts to resenting his disinterest in his grandkids by giving him a full gymnastics update. By the way, this place has donut styles I’ve never seen in my life (pine knots!), and the coffee is actually better than back at the station where I get a cup just to chat with the cute hippie-ish lady who runs the shop. She has a certain shame in being from here compared to California – “This must seem pretty boring to you” – but I assure her I’m loving it so far.
The Guns’N Ammoshop next to the Catholic bookstore provides an irresistible sunrise photo shoot. Good morning, speed-walking ladies!
The two sets of train tracks extend toward forever east and west. Kicking around the abandoned track I’m pulling a spike out when suddenly a freighter is roaring by and I’m waving to the engineer, ton after ton of grain blurring by until it’s swallowed up in an instant.
I get picked up by my dear friend Fly (who got that name the same time Dirt got his and I took on Sky), her husband, and two year old tyke (10.9 lbs at birth, he’s the size of many 4 year olds) who calls me Tio right off the bat. He also calls beer Daddy Juice, wine Mommy Juice, and unfortunately there isn’t time for him to see that whiskey is Tio Juice.
We head out to their compound and the full plainery is on. It’s big sky country here too, but of a far different kind than Montana. No hint of high mountains or deep valleys, no glacier even considered cruising by here. It lays out and offers itself utterly to sky, it moves in waves of magnitude beyond perception, swallowing small steps. While out on a run, the fields of sorghum stretching on either side and not a human or bit of motion in sight, I wasn’t sure I was actually moving at all.
Husband Mike is a working member of a cement silo building family. While living in a converted silo, they poured their current home, a comfort in tornado country and in its green efficiency. Outside the cement wall is the buffalo herd, two male and three female. We approach them in the truck and I’m warned about how dangerous these ancient, horned, one ton-apiece animals are. I’m convinced.
Nonetheless, I feel the need to approach these massive, mythological beasts on foot. The next day I go with camera and the two dogs leaping through the grass – Glen, the meth-lab rescue pitbull, and Tracy, another rescue and clever girl. I go slowly and with gratitude gathering into awe. The buffalo watch me crouch at distance and zoom in for photos.
Eric, the up and coming bull, watches closely, tail switching but not yet staying raised, which is the sign of imminent charge and a grisly end. Drawing closer I press against the wall of their presence, implacable, and it presses against me. My heart beats faster, I call the dogs in closer, I snap more pictures.
Eric sits down with what I would romanticize as grudging acceptance but is probably simply indifference. I move closer, slowly, hands open. The light is gentling down toward horizon, down through almost thunderheads, all is white and pale blue and at ease.
My goal is to reach the sunflowers, 5 yards from me, 30 yards from the herd. There is history here, the buffalo remember. They were made for this place. They turn into the weather, facing 115 degrees and -15 with the same aplomb. They were hunted by plains people and thrived, one massive herd. Then they were slaughtered by alien invaders shooting guns from trains, for sport and politics, and were nearly extincted. They remember.
Heart pounding, dogs at heel, camera ready, steps slow I’m almost there and the alpha bull, who had only been horns in the grass as he sat, rolls onto his back, legs kicking up. I saw this yesterday, at first thinking it was a prairie bath but learning it’s how they come to standing.
The bull rocks again and I freeze.
Suddenly he’s up, facing me, his tail is standing straight and I know this is it. I walk backward, a couple last shots, my hands cupped in gratitude. The bull takes a step toward me, I keep moving until the moment is lost in space.
Now it’s time for guns!
Before I left on this trip I had never fired a gun in my life, though long wanted to out of manly and apocalyptic ambition. Someday it might be upon me, as man of the house, bunker, or wandering band, to hunt food or defend clan from roving gangs of desperate men, or zombies.
The first chance in my life to shoot presented itself years ago on the morning I was to conduct my first wedding, and baptism. My friend’s husband, and VP of the Palm Springs Gun Club, was ready to whisk me out to the range for some pistol practice before the ceremony. At that time, holding those snub-nosed snarling mechanisms of murder, seemed too antithetical to laying hands on in blessing, so I backed out.
To some degree, I still feel that way about pistols. By the family’s swimming hole I fire a Glock, a .22 pistol, and a .44 and it just wasn’t totally fun – can’t tell where the hell my shots are going, just know they sure aren’t hitting the bucket floating on the lake. The kick of the .44 is cool though.
But when it comes to the barrel of ki extension I found with the rifle in Montana, it’s a whole other story. Add to that list of great ki extension, and pure kickass, the shotgun.
Pistols laid down with the Buds, it’s time to bring out the single-barrel 12 gauge. Mike loads it up, hands it to me, then takes up the skeet thrower – it’s kinda like a chuckit, but rather than bringing the skeet back, I’m going to blow them to bits.
Mike takes the pressure off by saying his work buddies didn’t hit one out of a few hundred. I say Pull and the first skeet explodes. Turns out I’m good with a shotgun, which is good because it’ll definitely be my weapon of choice in the Zombiepocalypse.
The light getting low, we pack up the empty shells and disks I didn’t blow the bejesus of out of, or miss entirely as they fell in the water (don’t worry, they’re made out of wheat) and stash ’em in the barn. We’re going to walk back to the house but the buffalo have come down and are in our way, so we call Fly and she fetches us in the truck.
We head in for an evening of pasta made by an Italian (Fly) and watching Extras, a show painfully accurate in depicting the pathetic existence of ‘background actors’, aka human props, that I know too well. I get to have a couple hours’ nap, with Glen snoring beside me (don’t say anything, he’s not supposed to be up here) before leaving in the middle of the night to meet up with the inexorable going on.
Plains of sage and barbed wire, cows and long lines of track and power. Sunflowers star among the greens and browns. Driving through it in the middle of the night on my way back to rendezvous with my train, I feel an absolute terror in the vastness. I think of those people long ago winding slowly through this country, nearly naked to the elements, no skein of modernity to anesthetize them. Feet, wheels, hooves all on one ground, heat to heat, freezing to freezing in armor, hide, canvas. It’s an awe-full thing to comprehend, the wind and dark and unending space where movement is imperceptible but you might vanish in an instant. If I’m going to be snatched into the Nothing, I might as well enjoy myself, so I turn the stereo up and savor the high-speed handling of a Lexus.
I’m alone at the station, 3:30 am. The Lexus cooling, scattered cars cruising by, my bags leaning against the spliced VW bug. I wander and stretch, I call USARAIL (not to be confused with RAILUSA, which is a sex line) to learn the train’s on time. I stand on the track and see a new light a long ways off, hear a soft wail. It winks not seeming to move, just growing brighter. The wail intensifies as well, mournful call turning to warning. A distant crossing gate clangs down but still, no perception of motion. A car races across the crossing on this block, jangs over the tracks, revs off and suddenly the horn is piercing, all the gates around me chiming and falling, the lights blending and the huge fury is upon me, barreling through the station, alpha and indifferent in smoking engine.
Did they notice me?
Slowing, a door opens and the conductor hops out.
My ride’s here.
All photos by Noel Tendick