All the next morning, I shot motorcycles. MV Agustas, Laverdas, BMWs, Vincents, Rickmans, and more. It was vintage bike heaven, each one more perfect than the last. But Dale wasn’t finished teaching us about farming. When I’d had my fill of metal, he said, “C’mon, I want to take you out to the fields.” So back we went into the pickup and headed out to where Dale’s grandsons were harvesting the Soybean crop.
These are huge machines these combines as are their attendant trailers. Even against the scale of earth and sky, they are giants. I watched one come my way from across a field growing larger and louder as it approached. This was not a train, restrained by its tracks. As much as I believed the driver knew I was there and would turn aside in time, an image of my old legs trying to run away grew in me until I felt moved to step aside. As I did, the combine roared past, all dust, and fury. I had a tiny taste of what a windstorm or a tornado might be like out here, and a tiny taste was enough.
The drivers of these machines were young men whose youth belied their considerable skill at operating half-million-dollar machines. Climbing up the ladder to the operator’s cabin, I rode with them across the fields. Not only was the combine cutting the crops and spreading the chaff behind; it was also measuring the yield and the moisture content yard by yard so that planting the next crop could be optimized later.
Beyond all the science though, was the E-ticket ride. Sitting high up above the fields protected from the noise and the dirt I watched as an entire field disappeared under the threshing bar, the grain disappearing under the machine then reappearing at the top, pouring into the big hopper on the back. It was amazing. When the hopper was near to full, another giant machine roared alongside, this one with a large trailer close behind. The combine swung its grain offloading pipe over to the side, and as I watched, the trailer closed the gap between them. Then without ever cutting speed or quitting the harvest, the combine poured its rich stream of grain into the trailer. Imagine two giant lumbering airplanes refueling in midair, with one pilot busy following the field and the other keeping speed and distance just perfect to catch the harvest in its hopper. It was inspiring to watch and more than a little fun.
When we’d had our rides in the green monsters with their twenty-four-foot maws and learned something of what skilled operators running sophisticated harvesters do, it was time to go to see one last thing, the most intact Pony Express Station still in existence. We roared us down the dirt roads with Dale again, and soon Hollenberg Station came into view.
The Pony Express only lasted for a couple of years, 1860–61, but while it did, it built or leased an extensive network of waystations to supply fresh horses and food for the riders. Most of the stations fell into disuse and disappeared soon after the Pony Express business collapsed, but a few like Hollenberg Station escaped that fate. Today Hollenberg is the best-preserved example of what a Pony Express rider would have been looking forward to as he raced along the trail.
As it turned out, Hollenberg Station was already closed for the season, but that only made it better. We walked around the outside of the building peering in the windows like we had come to visit neighbors and hadn’t found them at home. We were alone here, and that seemed right. This hadn’t been a place filled with visitors when it was working. It was then a lonely place far out on the prairie where quick business was done, and then there was only the sound of a horses’ hooves fading out in the distance, and after that, there was only the sound of the wind. The wind was there for us too. Standing in the ever blowing breeze, warmed by the late afternoon light, it was easy to imagine watching a rider gallop into the distance. I did that, then stood a few minutes more, taking in the awesome simplicity of the land.
I’ve come to the end here. The next day we headed for Kansas City and home. There was a perfect Hot Beef sandwich smothered in rich brown gravy, and I made a couple of nice pictures at the train yard in Atchison, but I had absorbed enough, and it was time to go home and let it marinate.
Kansas calls me as I write. I saw beauty and friendliness and found complicated questions to think about, but there was so much more I never got to. Back in LA, working on the pictures and stories, I turned to the internet for answers and soon ran into William Least Heat-Moon. He had written PrairyErth, a book about this part of Kansas. I ordered a copy, opened it, and gobsmacked, fell into his writing. Thank god I hadn’t known about this book, or I would never have written what you are reading now. This is my experiences of a week, a sincere and honest attempt to recount what I experienced, but PrairyErth is a deep dive into all the feelings Kansas raised in me. If you would know more, PrairyErth is the place to look next.
There were also internet places I found as I researched my tale, filled with pictures and stories that fascinated. Here are a few of them,
Images of Kansas Towns and Cities (Town Specific)
IMAGES OF KANSAS TOWNS AND CITIES MS 92–27 New search | Contact us | Special Collections home page Wilson, Ellsworth…
The Volland Store; Volland
Here’s a fine essay about the prairies; Prairies
And a wonderful website with tons of data on every little town you can imagine. Here are the stats on Windom Kansas where this story began; Liveability
The roads of Kansas are special too. Here’s a link to a place you can learn more about them; KsDot
I loved Big Bertha’s Diner, and you should send them some love too. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by for some lunch and maybe a piece of pie. Next time I’m there I know I will. Big Bertha’s Diner FB page
Finally, If you want to see all my pictures of Kansas here’s a link to the towns and roads and people I shot on the trip; Kansas, Roads Less Traveled, Towns Passed By