This is part two. If you want to start at the beginning click here, 100 Pictures of Kansas
We left early the next morning from Topeka. We had backtracked there to spend the night, a decision driven by the lack of motels on the routes we had chosen. If you’re accustomed to interstate travel and the big chain motel experience, be prepared for something different when you come this way. Small towns are… small. Many have no places to stay, and sometimes no place to eat. You learn quickly to look ahead, thinking about lunchtime and where you might want to stay for the night. But at eleven on Monday morning, we weren’t thinking about lunch yet, just stopping to make a few pictures of Eskridge.
The first thing I saw when we got out of the car was these three women sitting on a bench. “Good morning,” I said, “I’m guessing from the tee shirts you’re all connected in some way,” and sure enough, they were. They were the staff of Big Bertha’s Diner, the restaurant right next door.
I made a few pictures of them sitting together in the morning sunshine, then asked if I could get some pie and coffee. Well, sometimes you hit the jackpot because a few minutes later we were sitting inside the diner and I was eating the best Gooseberry pie I’ve ever tasted. So good that I said, “I wish this were the end of my trip, not the beginning because I’d buy a pie and take it home”
“Well, we can ship it if you like,” Becky said, and then we talked about what that would take. Turned out, she didn’t regularly ship pies anywhere and had no idea what it might cost, but that wasn’t going to be a problem because “I’m just not going to charge you for shipping.” Who are these people? I gave up arguing after a while, grateful for the gift, but I want you to know the pie that showed up in
L.A. a few weeks later was every bit as good as the one we ate that morning, and even more precious because it was proof it hadn’t all been a dream.
After coffee, we wandered down to the end of the block, where we came to the law offices of father and son Charles and John Waugh.
When we waved at them through the window, they invited inside to explore the building, which was originally built as a bank by John’s Great Grandfather. The interior is unchanged from its banking days, and the accumulation of the years is everywhere. Charles walked us behind the teller windows showing us around the place, and then he told us a story. “Y’ see that button down on the floor by the tellers’ window? Well, in the thirties, there were a lot of bank robberies around here,
so the federal government sent us three US military rifles. We had one behind the counter here, and then the other two we put over there across the street where two gas stations used to be. Lemme tell you if the clerk stepped on that button you didn’t want to be the next person walking through the front door…
OK, before we go on too much further, I want you to know this is a story about Kansas that isn’t going to talk a lot about some things. For instance, part of the reason these towns hold onto the past so much is that they are slowly growing empty. The young folks leave for the cities, and the folks that stay behind make their lives the best they can with what’s left behind.
Without growth, the chain stores and franchises don’t show up, so living here means driving for miles to get things most people take for granted. On this trip, I made the decision early on to stay out of the bigger cities, the ones of five thousand and more because I saw they were
covered over with late twentieth-century “improvements” like Aluminium siding and restaurants whose names I already knew. The story I wanted to tell you is about what you can see when you look at the places people normally pass by. I loved the people I met here and the places I saw too, but there are other and different stories to tell about life in Kansas. Not today, though.
The first Kansas town I fell in love with was Windom, and I fell in love with it before I ever left home. The way I’d plotted our journey was by first picking scenic two-lane roads to drive, then using Google Maps to follow those roads at high magnification, scrolling along in satellite view, looking down on
them like looking out from the window of a small plane flying low and slow. Every time I came to a place with a name, I’d Google that name and add “post office.” If there was a post office in town, I knew it was still alive and worth seeing. And so doing that, I came to Windom. Google dropped me down in the middle
of the road and let me 360 my way around Main St. looking at the grain silos and the sheds and the houses of the town. Windom looked stark and small. It looked like it could be lonely to live there, but it was unbelievably real. There wasn’t a bit of pretense to it. I knew right away I would have to go there and make my own pictures of it.
We came to Windom right about sundown. I had stared at the Google pictures so many times I knew exactly where I wanted to go, first to the post office, then down the street to the silos and then to the houses and stores along the road. It was quiet in the late afternoon. I walked slowly through town, making pictures as I went. For a half an hour, I wandered alone, no one ever opening their door to ask what I was doing or say “hello.” Every once in awhile, someone would drive by headed for home, but they’d just glance at me, maybe nod, then keep on going.
Sometimes everything comes together, and then you become one with the landscape, not trying to impose your will on it but just happy that it reveals itself and lets you take its picture. That’s what happened for me in Windom on this afternoon. I never met anybody, and never saw a soul except a boy crossing the street on his way home after school. It was a perfect little movie on a perfect little day. Kansas.
Ready for the next installment? 100 Pictures of Kansas-Part Three
For more pictures of Kansas here’s a link to all the towns and roads and people I photographed on the trip — Kansas, Roads Less Traveled, Towns Passed By