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September 6 1998, Sunday

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ittle Hannah, Shelly's daughter, showed up bright and early at 7:30 Central Daylight Time in the nest on Shelly's living room floor where Kim and I had slept. She was eager to resume play with all the intensity we'd left off with last night. Kim and I would have liked to get a little more sleep, but that was completely impossible. So we got up, Kim fixed Hannah some toast, and we went outside in the back of the house under the cottonwoods. Hannah fetched a huge bright orange bottle of bubbles and proceeded to blow them into the partly-cloudy Kansas sky. Back in the house, Kim and I made several attempts to return to sleep, but Hannah kept coming up with new games to play and (for example) wouldn't stand for Kim's attempt to change "Hide and Seek" to "Hide and Sleep." Then when Kim suggested that Hannah read her favourite books, she went and got an armload of books, dumping them in a pile and expecting us to read them.

Eventually Shelly got up and was witness to some of these things. When Hannah's exuberant excess got to be too much and she snatched a book away from me and later dropped it on me, Shelly ordered a "time out" in the Easy Boy™, a punishment which Hannah faced with unexpected dread. But she obeyed, quieting down enormous and choosing to watch the television instead.


decided to figure out a way to make Kim's laptop computer (a CTX EZbook) function under Volvo power. It has no batteries of its own, so to do any typing while Kim drives, I'm going to have to get juice from the Volvo's cigarette lighter to the laptop's power input jack. It's not a normal jack though; it's some sort of proprietary thing remotely resembling the typical standard .25 inch 9 volt double cylinder power jack. But it wasn't the same size as a cigarette adapter apparatus I found among the salvaged items in the Dodge Dart; the interior cylindrical hollow had to be slightly enlarged. I've done this sort of operation before and know it can be done with a powerdrill. I asked Shelly is she had such a thing and she did, so making the modification was not difficult. Shelly also had a multi-meter, and I used it to determine the necessary polarities and voltages. This is where I ran into difficulties. The Volvo, like most cars, delivers 12 volts on its electrical system, but the laptop needs 20 volts. When I tried out the laptop on the Volvo, it booted up to a certain point and then went automatically into sleep mode, believing it was working from depleted batteries. I tried disabling Windows 95's automatic power conservation mechanisms, but that wasn't enough. I also had to disable power management taking place at the BIOS level. Then it worked fine, except the screen was kind of dim.

Kim and I packed up the car, Hannah snapped a few pictures using a digital camera, and then climbed in the little backseat nest I'd prepared for Sophie, pretending to be a dog. "Get out of there, Hannah!" said Shelly in exasperation. "My name is Gabi and I'm a dog!" said Hannah, and only when she was addressed correctly would she come out.

Kim and I said our goodbyes and hit the road yet again.


he countryside visible from I-70 just west of Lawrence, Kansas isn't all that different from much of Missouri, or even (on a superficial level) from the Piedmont west of Richmond, Virginia. There are tracts of woods, rolling hills, clusters of houses, McDonalds, etc. But with a little scrutiny you can see the things that make this land distinctly western. All the really big trees are cottonwoods, not oaks, not maples. None of the trees grow tall, straight or very close to one another. Most of the vegetation under the trees consists of scrubby yellowing bushes and grass. Strangest of all in these subtle Westernish differences are the rock outcrops. The rock here lies incredibly flat, but unlike in south eastern Ohio, it's extremely hard, sticking out in obdurate little shelves just a few inches beneath the soil level at the hilltops in roadcuts.

  was famished and craving coffee when we stopped in the town of Emporia, Kansas to take advantage of a rare opportunity to get off the interstate and get provisions. We bought burgers and such at the A&W All American Food franchise integrated within the Texaco Foodmart. Kim was impressed with the professionalism, cohesiveness and friendly attitudes of the teenagers staffing the place.


outhwest of Emporia on I-35, the Cottonwoods, Osage Oranges and other plains trees suddenly drop away completely, leaving vast tracts of treeless rolling hills as far as the eye can see (and from the tops of some of the hills we could see far enough for swaths of the plain to assume the pale blueness of distant unreachable mountains). For me this was a completely alien vision. I've heard of this sort of territory, but it was always a concept conveyed in text or movies, and as such I'd filed it away with pictures of the surface of Mars, Icelandic glaciers and other vistas one doesn't see in the northeast United States.

The plains in this area appear to be used mostly for cattle grazing. We even passed a coyote dead and rotting on the side of the highway.

A Kansas rest stop on I-335 south. Note that it is located on the median strip between northbound and southbound lanes. There's not enough traffic on this stretch of western interstate to justify two different rest areas for the different directions of traffic flow.

We stopped for coffee at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks on the eastern fringe of Wichita. Inside, of course, surrounded by best sellers and tasteful posters, we had the feeling we could be anywhere within the vast, uniform commercial American state of mind. But it had come unsettlingly abruptly, almost like waking suddenly from a wondrous dream. A few minutes before, you see, we'd been a solitary iron covered wagon racing across the rolling understated vastness of the Great Plains.


e took US-54 west from Witchita, leaving the rangeland behind and entering a region of crop agriculture. The fields grew progressively larger as we continued west and the land grew increasingly flat, until the trunks of distant trees were concealed not by intervening hills but by the very curvature of the Earth itself. It's a different kind of flatness from the kind I remember from northern Ohio, which has the appearance of recently-drained mudflats. Here the terrain has a Cezzannesque structure underlying it, the sort you'd expect in the middle of a continent.

Every so often we passed a grain elevator, which would start as a point on the horizon and then swell gradually to its full size only to be replaced immediately by another swelling in the distance. The principle crop here appears to be wheat, and some of it is grown with the help of irrigation. There are also a some oil wells.


drank lots of coffee throughout the long Kansan leg of today's drive, using it to fuel my writing. At a certain point I had to piss, so I did it in a big 20 ounce styrofoam cup. Kim was worried that it would all blow into the car when I tossed it out the window, but I was careful. Just then I saw my first genuine butte. We were about 15 miles northeast of Liberal, Kansas, which lies on the border with Oklahoma.

Oklahoma's panhandle was pretty much the way I expected it to be: dusty, flat, and its communities featured plenty of twisted metal and pealing paint.


n US-54, the Texas border coincides with a particularly tall concrete grain elevator and a wide two lane asphalt roadbed well-suited to high speed driving. Happily, the speed limit went from 65 to 70 mph. I've heard lots of bad stories about driving through Texas, and I didn't want this 96 mile leg of the trip to take too long.

I hadn't expected northwest Texas to be as intensively agricultural as I found it. Rows of crops (wheat and some kind of red-headed field grain) stretched all the way to the distant horizon, much of it receiving water from long insectile irrigation rigs.

When we stopped for gas in the small Texas town of Dalhart, we found the local fire department jubilantly staffing the main intersection, rubber fireman boots in their hands, collecting donations from motorists. A very loud sound system was blaring various tunes: "The Hokey-Pokey," "Pour Some Sugar on Me" (Def Leppard), and classic Metallica. The air was nasty with the smell of cow manure.

At this point I took the wheel and drove the rest of today's drive. Heading out of Dalhart, we encountered a vast cloud of tan-coloured dust. As we passed further on, we found it was all blowing out of an enormous cattle fattening operation called (appropriately enough) XIT Feeding. Acres and acres of cows crowded into small corrals were milling around in the dust fattening themselves at troughs so they'd be ready for their executions. Their excrement, and the excrement of the many who'd come before, had dried, been ground to a fine powder and was blowing away as their bored pacing stirred it into the air. This dust is what had given Dalhart downwind its characteristic fragrance.


urther west, the countryside was almost completely devoid of any signs of human life. The occasional towns we'd passed from Wichita to Dalhart all but dried up, leaving scrubby grassland populated by beef cows. The overall form of the land was still very flat, but occasionally we'd pass through wide, shallow hollows in this flatness and the view across was spectacular. The only trees grew in the moisture of the road ditch or in the bottom of river valleys, though most of the rivers were dry.

We saw our first mesa to the west just before crossing into New Mexico and the Mountain Time Zone. The sun had set and darkness fell upon us quickly.


e returned to a form of civilization at the town of Tucumcari (which I know only from that one Little Feat song that I don't especially like). We were hoping to call it quits for the night, but the Best Western hotel we sought in Tucumcari could not be found. The town was unexpectedly large but also creepy and desolate, so we thought we'd try our luck on the next town to the west, Santa Rosa.

I-40 in New Mexico has a 75 mph speed limit, but the roadbed is rough and irregular and I mostly kept to around 70 mph. Virtually the only other traffic was large semi trucks. In the moonlit darkness, I could see large landforms as we passed them and I wished it was daytime.


he Best Western in Santa Rosa featured a swimming pool full of noisy kids. Kim and I kept to our room, #128, except to walk Sophie. Though the parking lot looked like it could be almost anywhere in America, all you had to do was go around the back of the building to get a little dose of New Mexico up close & personal. Kim was worried about scorpions and wouldn't let me take Sophie among the shrubby junipers, fan grass and cacti behind the motel.

We watched some cable teevee and I had a vodkatea and smoked some pot with Kim. She went on to drink four beers, eat a valium and watch a rerun of Seinfeld while I lay sleeping.

one year ago
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