Destination Kansas! (Part 3)

Part 3: The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.

 

The next morning, after five days in Kansas, we met friends Woz and Delwen on the steps of the Kansas State Capitol. We toured the impressive building, with its polished marble walls, gilded columns, and colorful frescoes under an ornate dome. I’m not going to say the capital was trying to compensate for anything—but, oh crap, now I’ve done it.

I became particularly engaged by huge murals in the central hall. Painted by John Steuart Curry in 1940-41, they depicted Kansas history in a highly romantic manner. All the men had impressive deltoids and heroic postures. The women had slender waists and legs. The children were blond. The land was rugged and surprisingly colorful. The steam engines smoke-free and shiny. And the natives either fiercely hostile or docilely tamed.

Before showing us the signature attraction, Truckhenge, artist and owner Ron gave us the grand tour of Lessman Farm and Catfish Pond. Inside his home, a renovated aluminum hangar, Ron shared his rock collection and carvings. Countless floor, wall, and blanket murals depicted impressionistic human forms, female nudes, and other artworks by Ron.

About his many wood figurines carved from downed trees, Ron explained, “My bears look like pigs, my pigs look like dogs.” His collection included beer bottle walls, beer bottle trees, beer bottle towers. “We like to have a little fun around here,” he said.

We walked the grounds, which doubled as a concert and event venue. A newer piece was Boathenge, which included six motor boats elevated at 45º angles and covered in graffiti. Woz climbed aboard a vessel and spray-painted his name.

Finally, we arrived at the most famous installation. Over the years, Ron had plenty of run-ins with Shawnee County officials. They considered Truckhenge to be a public hazard should flooding carry the trucks downstream. In his defense, Ron pointed out that each vehicle was anchored by 21 tons of concrete. He described once digging a trench with a backhoe around inspector vehicles in protest.

In the mid-1990s, the county told him to pick up the many old trucks on his property. So, Ron elevated them in two parallel lines, taking inspiration from Carhenge in Nebraska. For his creative efforts, Truckhenge was designated a Kaw Regional Art Park by the Association for Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation in 2006.

“My wife says the art has matured,” joked Ron. “But the artist hasn’t.”

Our next stop at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, in Abilene, offered a welcome break from driving through rain. Approaching, my wife noticed a racing dog statue and blurted, “I thought this was about the buses!” I imagined a depression-era Supercoach on rotating pedestal. Perhaps a 1970s Americruiser with a gold medallion strung across its grill?

A museum host greeted us somewhat warily, eyeing my camera, perhaps feeling us out as animal activists. She introduced us to her two tail-wagging greyhounds, making a point to explain how happy they are. A house-made documentary featured an owner crating her greyhound to prevent injury. “That’s their security,” she said. “They would rather be in that cage than in a field.” The four of us glanced at each other. This defied everything we’d ever learned about dogs.

I strolled through the Hall of Fame, where the greats—like Lucky Pilot, Rooster Cogburn, and Kunta Kinte—are immortalized. Of note was Miss Whirl, with her “amazing ability to foresee and avoid trouble on the track.” Her $108,000 career earnings were a record for over a decade. She made the All-America team three times and was team captain twice—she would have been captain a third time if not for losing the vote to fellow hall of famer, Westy Whizzer.

My wife skimmed through a copy of Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies, which offered suggestions for managing the many injuries of retired racing dogs. Meanwhile, I noticed a disturbing drawing, possibly the work of some greyhound-obsessed mad scientist. On the left, a standing human skeleton. On top, a greyhound skeleton on all fours. On the right, a greyhound skeleton standing on hind legs. And on bottom, a human skeleton on hands and knees. I gathered the others. Woz suggested departing before this maniacal plan, to flip the human-dog hierarchy, came to fruition.

After watching a refurbished steam engine transit the town, we drove a rainy two blocks to the Museum of Independent Telephony to examine a collection of old telephones and exhibits about non-Bell telephone companies. At the welcome desk, a friendly woman in her 80s described how Cleeson Laverne Brown started a company here in Abilene that later became Sprint.

“I’m actually a distant cousin of Brown,” she said. “But most don’t believe me.”

I looked at her sagging eyes. “I believe you,” I said. She shrugged and bid me goodbye. Her shift was over. Outside, she climbed into a black Mustang convertible and peeled out of the gravel parking lot.

Nicknamed the Smithalo, a 60-ton concrete buffalo rises from a hilltop near Longford. Built by Ray Smith, it’s supposedly visible from ten miles, but after only a half mile the clay road turned to slop. Woz’s tires began to spin. Retreating to the highway, our two vehicles dripped with mud, and we realized all remaining destinations must be accessible by pavement.

On I-70, we passed a road sign: “If you die today, where will you spend eternity?” My wife shrugged off the easy question. “Kansas.”

Created by artist Erika Nelson, we find the World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate to be a painted satellite dish that’s hole-pocked and faded from a recent hailstorm. The plate features local attractions around the town of Lucas, the Grassroots Art Capitol: Wilson Lake, the clearest in Kansas; Florence Deeble’s Backyard Mount Rushmore; and the Garden of Eden, a concrete sculpture garden resembling an MC Esher painting. We decide to visit the latter site.

Created by S.P. Dinsmoor during the early 20th century, it depicted a highly impressionistic biblical and political history of the world. Next door, we stumbled across another outdoor attraction, the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Truth in advertising, these glass-encased miniatures even included a two-inch miniature of old friend, Big Brutus.

Arriving to our next stop at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, we found a crowd of fellow quirk-seeking pilgrims. A young couple was taking a break after a year of grad school. A road-tripping family. And four guys from Ohio who carried with them a porky statuette named Mr. Pigsley. Woz took their photo with porcelain mascot in front of the town’s centerpiece.

Started in 1953, creator Franke Stoeber coiled 1.6 million feet of sisal twine into a sphere 11-feet wide, before his death in 1972. Since then, the town has added to the ball with a twine-a-thon every August. In recent years, estimates indicated 7.8 million feet sum to a diameter of 13 feet and weigh about 20,000 pounds.

My wife and Delwen seemed unimpressed. Raggedy, my wife noted. An odor of mildew. Being out of round, it’s more of a twine gumdrop than a perfect circle. Delwen was disappointed by the shelter over top. Seemed like cheating. Apparently, when put together, the two ladies were the world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine.

Driving north, we passed collapsed barns and saw more old cemeteries than people. At the end of an empty road, on a slight hillock, there was a landscaped campus with a picnic shelter and play structures. From a flagstone, with marker plaque, rose the American and Kansan flags. A family was lunching, while two boys frolicked through the grass. We’d reached the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States.

We wandered past a small chapel to an abandoned motel, windows painted gray. We pondered its original purpose. A presidential retreat? A contiguous cult center? A domestic listening station, to catch the tenor, literally, of middle America?

The Ohio guys arrived, having suffered a minor calamity. While buckling Mr. Pigsley into their SUV, he fell to the pavement, breaking off an ear. They laughed while delicately setting the maimed Pigsley on a bench.

“I can fix this,” I said, returning to my truck for double-sided duct tape. I reattached his porcelain ear with medical precision.

“I didn’t even know double-sided duct-tape exists,” said one thankful Ohioan. “I’ll have to pick some up.”

Meanwhile, Woz was feeling playful. While we chatted, he wandered over to an old steel rocking horse atop a coil spring. He turned his ballcap backwards and hopped on, swinging forward and back, trying to touch the hat bill to the pavement. The nearby boys stared, enthralled. After Woz tumbled off, the boys stepped forward and mimicked the action.

The Ohio guys explained their next stop was in Nebraska. Delwen wondered aloud what that state looked like. “Like this,” said one fella, gesturing at the horizon.

At the very center of our country, our week in Kansas felt slightly symbolic. Like we were no longer explorers in a strange land, but citizens in a familiar one. Our trip wasn’t over quite yet. We had another day with a Czech egg. A giant easel. Impassable roads which would deny us access to the chalk formations at Castle Rock and the dugout hole where the killer of John Wilkes Booth lived. Still, this central point felt like a finale.

We all dispersed. The Ohio guys, with porcelain pig went north, continuing their kitschy pilgrimage toward the original Wal-Drug. The family with young boys went east toward home. I put the truck in gear, finally realizing what a week-long vacation in Kansas felt like. Holding my breath underwater. A fun thing to do, and not just for novelty reasons. I was ready to surface, move on to something else. But happy I’d done it, aware I’ll probably do it again someday.

We returned to I-70. Drove west at 80 mph toward Colorado and the setting sun.