I had been to Ulysses, Kansas once before, briefly.
Mike and I were driving back to Texas from New York in the summer of 1998. I had bought a used truck in Long Island for a thousand dollars, put my worldly possessions in the back and we drove the 2,200 miles to El Paso. One of the funnest times in my life. Carefree, leaving New York City behind, and coming back home. Didn’t know for sure what I’d be doing, but it was a chance to start again. We stopped in Ulysses on that trip, bought food and gas, mailed a postcard to our friend James and drove across the rest of Kansas and most of Colorado that day, stopping to see Lisa in Durango for a few days before we headed south. We were young, happy and excited to be alive. At least that’s how I remember it.
Here I was 20 years later, rolling back in. Happy to be off the road after a day of driving two lane roads smothered in fog. I had pulled off a few times to take a break or get a cup of coffee along the way. The last place was Montezuma. I toured a museum endowed by a couple from Montezuma who’d traveled the world and left all of their collected keepsakes, photographs, and discoveries to the town. The woman who guided me through the collection strongly suggested that I stop at Coffee Connection on my way out of town, said it was better than Starbucks. I did and though they were winding down for the day they made a fresh pot. 100% of their proceeds support mission work around the world.
After another hour, I pulled into Ulysses, drove around for a little while, looked up hotels and settled on one at the edge of town next to a small restaurant and bar. Brought my stuff in, called home, watched Newshour, relaxed after a long day of driving and then got up and went to eat.
The rule in El Paso is that you don’t eat Mexican food outside of El Paso. But glad I made an exception. Alejandro’s was excellent. Carne asada tacos.
I drove back to the hotel, passing the First Baptist church where kids were throwing snow and slush at each other in the light of the headlamps of their parent’s car. Made me think of our kids, and I missed them. Added to the low altitude I was experiencing. Maybe I’d been hoping for some kind of connection that day and hadn’t found it. All the conversations had been pleasant, everyone was kind, but there hadn’t been anything more than that. The waiters at Alejandro’s were nice but they were finishing their shift, they wanted to eat their dinner after having served everyone else all night and close up.
I called Amy. Kids were in the car, she was a little distracted, we didn’t connect either. Maybe you could meet people at a bar she said as we hung up.
I pulled into the bar next to the hotel and started to feel self conscious. They aren’t going to want some stranger from out of town at their place. I walked in and took a seat at the bar, said a quick, probably nervous, hello to everyone and ordered a beer. Pro forma acknowledgement from the three or four guys who were already there.
I focused on the college basketball game, thinking I’ll finish this beer and then get out of here. I told myself at least I tried.
And then two seats down to my right the guy says do people ever tell you that you look like Beto O’Rourke?
I said yes, all the time.
The guy next to him says who the hell is Beto O’Rourke?
First guy says oh he ran against Ted Cruz in Texas, and goes on to talk about Beto O’Rourke and I’m worried that it’s going to get weird and so I say sorry I meant to say that I am Beto O’Rourke.
No shit! Laughter.
And the guy to my left says oh I wish my uncle was here, he’s one of the four Democrats in Ulysses.
The guys at the bar wanted to talk about the Senate race a little. About what I was going to do next. I asked them questions about the town. About their lives. Learned that in order to escape its debts in 1909 the town of Ulysses pulled up and moved, moved the houses, the barns, the bank to a new site. Reincorporated and started anew. Learned about how the Ulysses Tigers had done in football and basketball this year. We talked about music, life, kids. Walt told me he plays in a blues band called Keefer Madness. It’s on my list to check out. Kevin shared with me what it was like to raise his kids in Ulysses, about a vintage car he’d fixed up for one of his daughters.
The table behind us got into the conversation. Met the owner of the bar who is also the wife of the newly elected state rep for the area. Also met JR who is 6’8” and has a great big beard, runs a windshield repair shop. He said “I won’t remember who you are tomorrow but you’ll never forget me!” He was right. Matt, who was on the Centennial Commission and had told me the story about Ulysses giving the slip to its creditors, insisted that I see the history museum and I told him I would.
As I was leaving a guy named Robert came and greeted me as his tocayo and told me that he’d followed the race from Kansas and was proud of me.
It was all just what I needed. Spending time with good people, talking, listening, laughing. Making a connection.
I got up in the morning to find the fog had fully lifted. Ran a couple of miles, down Oklahoma street where two men were picking up parts that had spilled out of the back of their truck. Others were pulling over to help them.
Took a left on Nebraska and ran through a neighborhood of neatly kept homes, then back up towards the main street, a giant grain elevator dominating the sky.
Wrote for a little while at the hotel and then drove over to the history museum. One of the best I’ve ever seen. Matt calls it the Eighth Wonder of Kansas. I was the only person in there with the exception of the staff and someone cleaning the carpets in the back.
I learned about the prairie and the buffalo and the people who lived there before European settlers arrived. Saw replicas of the sod houses of the first townspeople of Ulysses. Read about the big cattle drives brought to an end by barbed wire, the farms that grew in their place. Mechanized farming, in the words of the museum exhibit, “converted the High Plains into one gigantic wheat field by 1930.” Drought and overuse of the land stripped the top soil and then prolonged winds picked up the dust into massive black roller clouds that devastated communities like Ulysses. Families cleaned their homes with shovels instead of brooms. The water was fouled, the air was sometimes unbreathable. The farmers were left with nothing, nothing to grow, nothing to eat, nothing to offer for the next generation.
Read about the Grant County Bachelors’ Club, young men in Ulysses who advertised for brides in the early 1900s. The story got picked up by the AP and letters flooded in from all over the country. Bess Graves from Missouri wrote:
This is a very fair picture of myself. Weigh 98 pds, tall and slender. A fine cook and dish-washer, can do any kind of work on or off a farm. Have a happy and sunny disposition when the day is dark. Hoping I can be your Valentine.
Is Tinder the 2019 version of Bess’ letter? I tried to imagine what it would be like to offer yourself to someone you’d never met or even seen as Bess did back in 1907, and couldn’t.
I began to read another letter when I heard a big loud voice booming out
“BETO! What are you doing here!?!”
I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. God?
The voice continued,
“Beto! Tocayo! Is that you?”
And around the corner came Robert, the guy I’d met on the way out of the bar last night. We laughed and hugged and I told him he’d scared the crap out of me. Turns out he works for the company that’s cleaning the museum’s floors. Heard me talking to the museum staff earlier and recognized my voice.
He told me he was about to take his break to go have lunch with his daughter, asked if I’d join him.
I finished walking through the exhibit and met him at Alejandro’s. Robert’s daugher Cynthia was there with her husband Mark and their son Tre. I asked them to tell me about their lives and the town.
Mark told me that people in Ulysses might not be incredibly wealthy, but they did well. “We have a good life, good jobs. It’s a good community.”
Mark is a manager at an oilfield in Garden City. He’s grateful for the opportunity, enjoys the work but is concerned about what oil prices are doing right now and how that will affect the company and whether it will force them to lay people off. His wife works as a field administrator for another oil company in Ulysses. Their son Tre is studying to be a surgical tech at Fort Hays State.
I asked Tre what he thought about what’s going on in the country. “There’s a lot of hatred out there now” he told me. His dad added that “instead of concentrating on the wall we should be concentrating on our economy.”
I told them I was a little surprised to see such a strong Mexican American community in southwest Kansas. Mark told me that his family was originally from Texas, living in Laredo, Waco, Hereford, Brownfield. The generations before his were migrant farm workers following the jobs. That’s how they got to Ulysses. Robert had a similar story about his family, starting out in Beeville in Texas, moving to Oklahoma until finally reaching Kansas. Field work, meat packing, feed lots. Robert came to Ulysses at 11 years old, and after high school he got a job in 1973 at the Carbon Black plant where he worked until retiring. But not really retiring, since he now works at the carpet cleaning company.
I told him I was grateful that he asked me to lunch, and introduced me to his family. I was honored that he took the time to tell me his story. I asked Tre to keep in touch, let me know what he does after he graduates. Interested to see whether he moves back to Ulysses.
We said our goodbyes, wished each other luck and I got in the truck and headed west.