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To the Extremes

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I’ve spent nearly my entire life living in two places. The first half on the great plains of Western Kansas, and the second half in the rain soaked forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Two extremes. For someone like me who has always seen themselves as existing in the middle, these two opposing environments seem ironic. One so wide open and big, contrasting with another that forces you to withdraw into your home and your mind during the long months of dark, rainy days. Certainly, at this point in my life these differences must have had an permanent effect on who I’ve become, postal codes forever stamped onto my character. Here’s my view of those extremes.

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My childhood home is located on a gentle rise on the flat landscape of western Kansas. It’s a borderland where the prairie grasses thin out and the high desert begins. Prickly pear cactus, devil’s claws and echanacea grow wild there, as do the spiky yukka plants with seed pods that rattle like snakes in September.

A great big, blue sky curves around you in every direction, touching the very same ground you stand upon. There’s something magical about that. Standing above the horizon gives you the feeling of being a giant and an ant at the same time.

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If it’s a windy day two of the most fundamental laws of physics are your constant companionsspeed and force. When you’re in Kansas you lean into the wind, hear its rhythm, smell its strong scents, and watch as it defies gravity to carry leaves away from trees horizontally, rather than vertically. The wind is amazing in Kansas, and when there’s a break in its velocity you notice it.

But there’s some benefits to that wind. Feeling that power blasting you in the face is energizing. It’s invigorating, it’s life affirming. And you know you can count on it, just as you can count on the sun burning up the ground beneath your feet.

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Twenty years ago, on my first solo excursion out of Kansas, I met a traveler who’d seen the world. As she and I became acquainted she sized me up, saying, “You don’t seem like you belong in Kansas. You seem like you belong in Portland.” I’m not sure how that played into my decision to move to the Rose City but I ended up meeting my husband in Phoenix and together we moved back to his home state of Oregon.

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It was at the end of October when we got to the Pacific Northwest and it was like moving from day into night. A persistent night that lasted until April. I remember the striking feeling I had the first day the sun shone after months of cloudy skies. I was walking across a parking lot and I noticed my shadow following me, something I hadn’t seen in over a hundred days. It was like a visit from an long lost friend.

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All that rain creates a lush, verdant landscape that resembles piles of fluffy green cotton. Mountains surround the city of Portland, and every so often a volcano’s peak will jut up far enough to pierce the clouds.

The mountain ranges of Oregon tell a fabulous story of moving tectonics plates wrinkling up the landscape and causing volcanic eruptions that still threaten to change the topography millions of years after the first eruption.

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Two rivers cut through the city, formed by cataclysmic flooding from an ancient melting glacier. The rushing water dug a trench on its journey to the Pacific Ocean, filling up the Columbia River and carving out a spectacular gorge when it came to the porous volcanic rock of the Cascade Range.

Shades of the Oregon Coast Range

All this moisture provides an ample amount of fog that can take a familiar landscape and turn it into a mysterious land of intrigue and secrets. Things as great as mountains blur until they are simply graduating shades of grey, and well-traveled roads twist and turn into oblivion. It’s a silent, secluded world that encourages inward reflection and room for your imagination to flourish.

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I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost twenty years and, like many of my fellow Portlanders, I can tire of the seemingly endless days of darkness, but I still love this region. It’s beautiful in a way that is easily understood by the casual observer. The emerald valleys, steely-grey rivers, golden sunsets and abundance of rainbows make up the color palette of fantasies. And quiet moments spent in the shadows of clouds are a gift of time travel, taking me far into my imagination to reflect, to learn, and to create from this land’s endless inspiration.

But the part of me that grew up in Kansas continues to flourish inside my soul. The aliveness of a land where there is rarely ever stillness stirs up energy inside everything connected with it. It’s a beauty that is felt, as much as it is viewed. Visitors may miss the grandeur of this endless land if they spend their time passing through it inside a car. It’s a living, breathing, thriving beauty that’s fighting to survive against intense elements, and to truly know it you must experience it, not just look at it. 

I guess for me the combination of these places helps put balance in my extremes and keeps me centered in the middle where I feel most at home.

A Picnic in Helvetia

Helvetia Last Saturday was about as perfect a day in the Pacific Northwest as you can get. My family took advantage of it by stopping by The Meating Place, a local butcher shop and cafe, to pick up sandwiches before driving out into the country to our new favorite picnic spot in the gorgeous Helvetia countryside. DSC00923 We spread our blanket under a large maple tree standing next to the road and shared our lunch while we watched a herd of cows doing the same thing in a nearby field. DSC00912

Down in the lower lands a tractor was turning dirt in a field and it’s long dark track revealed the fertility of the Helvetia farmland.

DSC00917Across the road is the Helvetia Community Church, a quaint house of worship that is reminiscent of the churches found in the Swedish and Germanic villages from which Helvetia’s European settlers immigrated. Of course, they weren’t the first people to claim this region as their own. The Atfalati band of the Kalapuya Indians settled in this region 10,000 years ago and today are a celebrated part of Helvetia’s history, with their presence being honored each year at the Helvetia Cultural Fest.

The famous Helvetia Tavern is a family favorite and as we drive back home my husband can’t help but roll down the windows to see if he can catch a whiff of the burgers he so passionately loves. Hot off the grill, these tasty burgers Helvetia_Tavern_(Washington_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(washDA0029)are juicy goodness between a sesame seed bun. Their fresh cut fries and onion rings are so delicious we never can decide on one or the other so we opt for a “half and half” order. Recently, a back yard patio has been added and from there you can watch the setting sun gild the entire landscape in its warm light.

All along the road you’ll find signs leading to privately owned farms that offer an abundance of fresh-from-the-field produce, meat, and wool products. Throughout the spring and DSC03240summer you’ll be able to harvest your own fruits and vegetables at many of the U-Pick farms. During the fall and winter months bring your children out to the pumpkin patches and christmas tree farms and let them experience a bit of farm life, too. Helvetia is facing the familiar threat of urban expansion. As the influence of the Hillsboro tech companies continues to creep north, the residents of Helvetia have organized to fight for their border rights. Save Helvetia protects rural Helvetia by advocating for rural reserves, challenging unnecessary urban growth boundary expansions, advising governmental bodies about interchange improvements and new road construction, and clarifying soil fill practices. DSC02933 Helvetia, Oregon can easily boast one of the most beautiful rural settings in the state, and maybe even in the United States. It’s productive farms are a reminder of what enticed the settlers to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to stake their claim to the American dream. I’m glad I’ve done it because I believe I just may have found paradise on Earth.

A Natural Work of Art

I just returned from a trip back to Western Kansas where I grew up. After several rainstorms the landscape has turned a vibrant blue-green, which contrasts beautifully with the white limestone rock that tells of its history as an ancient seabed. The creek was alive with turtles and fish while I was there, and deer and rabbits bounded gracefully along, racing me as I turned my car down the country roads.

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My favorite activity when I’m in Kansas is getting up early to watch the sunrise. With a cup of coffee and my camera in hand, I drive out to my family’s farm, find the perfect spot and park. Prairie grass, wet with dew, bathes my feet and the scent of wild sage fills the air. The birds awaken and I hear the distinctive songs of meadowlarks, kildeer, mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds. Nearby rabbits pause as if hypnotized into a state of absolute trust–they’re here to witness the same show I’ve come to see and together we watch the horizon as the first colors of the day appear in the night sky.

A streak of red rises just behind the black silhouettes of trees. Then orange, so brilliant it could be mistaken for a brush fire.

Flourescent CloudsSoon clouds pick up the colors and sweep the sky with a pink that I’m sure can’t be reproduced on canvas. Brushstrokes race across the sky, becoming lighter and sharper as the sun crests the Earth’s eastern edge.

Over the next few minutes the sky turns from dark night to a clear blue that is deep and rich with vaporous, wet clouds.

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The dawn is near and with each color splash I’m granted an intimate glimpse at nature’s palate.

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As blocks of color reveal themselves to me I am reminded of the artist, Mark Rothko, an artist who is often identified as an Abstract Expressionist, although he himself rejected this label. He is considered one of the most famous postwar artists and his signature style, referred to as “multiform”, consists of only two or three large color blocks painted onto large canvases with the intention to induce an experience in the viewer through the feelings brought forth naturally from his choice of color combination. He would instruct people to stand as close as eighteen inches from his work so as to envelope themselves in the intimate moment of viewing the artwork. In his later years Rothko stressed that to truly experience his art was akin to a spiritual experience.

I experienced the same feeling watching the great dome above me turn night into day, and as much as the artist wants to imitate life, in my opinion, it still remains outside his grasp.

Here are a few of Rothko’s paintings.

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Blue Light Lady

Out on the cold, dark prairie a blue light appeared at the top of Sentinel Hill. As it grew in size everything else around us went pitch black until there were no trees, grass, or sky. Just an empty, black world. The light began to take on a human shape, with shadows defining its eyes, nose, and mouth. It was the Blue Light Lady.

The ghost of Elisabeth Polly is well known in Fort Hays. As the wife of Ephriam Polly, the frontier fort’s hospital steward during the cholera epidemic of 1867, she nursed the ailing soldiers until she succumbed to the infection and died a painful death . She was buried on Sentinel Hill with many of the outbreak’s other victims and marked with a limestone post that had long ago been stolen. Several sightings have been reported over the years, with one local policeman even fearing he’d accidentally hit a woman when he had seen Elizabeth’s ghostly form in front of his squad car, only to mysteriously vanish when he stopped to help.

The apparition crested the hill and floated along the prairie like a stray tumbleweed. It paused once to glance up at the full moon, then continued on its descent toward our hiding spot in the bushes. As the blue light drew closer, the shadows of her face became distinguishable features and the pattern of her long prairie dress and bonnet came into view and, even though the apparition faded before touching the ground, I heard footsteps shuffling through the dirt.

“She’s so beautiful,” my friend whispered.

Her head whipped around towards our hiding spot and Elizabeth Polly’s cold, dead eyes drilled into ours as her blue light faded. Moonlight suddenly lit up the pasture, revealing hulking shadows moving around us. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty huge black forms circling slowly in all directions.

Frozen in place by fear, we held onto each other as the shadows closed in. I squeezed my eyes shut. My friend’s fingertips dug into my arm, clutching me just as I was clutching her. The footsteps were heavy now, I could feel them stamping the earth nearby. My rapidly beating heart skipped when a whoosh of hot air blew the hair away from my face. I felt a touch on my head, soft and wet. Slowly, slowly, I raised my head and met the large, dark eyes of the beast. It opened its mouth and, from deep within its chest, a “moooo” rumbled to life.

Looking around, I saw that Elizabeth was gone and the pasture had been returned to the cows that lived on it. I patted the cow’s giant head as he sniffed my hair and said to my friend, “Let’s go home.”

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The legend of Elizabeth Polly is true, as is Sentinel Hill. This story is a very embellished version of what I experienced when I tried to locate her gravesite. Wikipedia has a bit on Elizabeth’s story:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Polly

The Last Indian Scare

A dog came running into town this morning…with an arrow sticking straight out of its side.

“Cheyenne,” an old-timer said with certainty. The red, blue, and green stripes encircling the shaft were the same colors the braves had painted on their faces during the Indian Wars.

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It was the fall of 1878 when that dog ran into the dusty, new settlement of WaKeeney, Kansas. The town was less than a year old then…a tiny speck of humanity on the vast and empty prairie. No roads, no fences…only a hotel, post office, general store, and a land office to frame the main street. It was the start of settled life on the Great Plains

…and the original inhabitants were not welcome.

The arrow belonged to the Northern Cheyenne, a tribe whose leader, Chief Dull Knife, and his warriors had fought at Little Bighorn in 1876; standing up to the US Army and killing its celebrated general, George Armstrong Custer, in a battle that lasted two days. When word of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ made its way back East, people, filled with patriotic fervor during the nation’s centennial, were outraged. Calls for retribution echoed through the halls of Congress and the US Army stepped up pressure on the Plains Indians.

On October 1876, one thousand troops from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Cavalry Regiments and a large contingent of Native American scouts set out to locate the Northern Cheyenne camp. Dull Knife’s tribe was taken by surprise and were driven out without blankets, clothes, or the other necessities of life just as winter was bearing down on them from Canada.

After some resistance, it was clear the Northern Cheyenne had no recourse but to sign the Treaty of Fort Laramie. They agreed to a life on an Oklahoma reservation in return for the U.S. government’s promises of hunting rights, free medical care, and separation from their traditional enemies….all of which were lies. After a few months, frustrated and embittered by the deaths of loved ones due to sickness and starvation, Dull Knife and around three hundred members of his tribe made the decision to return to their homeland and on September 10, 1878, they headed north to Dakota Territory in what is now referred to as the ‘Northern Cheyenne Exodus’.

During this time of year the wind in Western Kansas begins to change. Gone are the hot blasts that come up from the South, replaced by a cold, Arctic wind that blows with such force it could knock a grown man to the ground. It’s exhausting and relentless, and eventually, you begin to hate the wind more than the heat, more than the humidity…even more than the mosquitos.

Dull Knife’s tribe spent their days walking into that wind and their nights camping near creeks. They moved quickly, making it to an area called Big Basin in Clark County Kansas in one day, a perfect place to plan an ambush on the soldiers who were surely following them. Some braves went out into the prairie to fortify their meager supplies; stealing two mules and a rifle and leaving two cowboys dead before breakfast. No confrontation with the Army occurred at that location and the Cheyenne moved further into Kansas with 250 troops hot on their trail.

The Cheyenne prepared for another ambush at Punished Woman Creek and, after a false start, they mounted a successful attack; killing Colonel Lewis and a few other men during the skirmish and causing the surviving troops to turn back to Oklahoma.

The number of confrontations increased as the Cheyenne passed through Kansas, with the most brutal raids occurring in the northwest counties of Decatur and Rawlins between the dates of September 30 to October 3. Unbeknownst to the farmers and residents in and around Oberlin, the area they’d only recently claimed as their own held significant meaning to the Cheyenne as this was where twenty-seven members of the tribe had been slaughtered by buffalo hunters in an unprovoked attack in April 1875. Dull Knife and his braves saw a chance at retribution for their deaths.

Approaching the settlers with signs of friendship, the warriors would suddenly shoot them at point-blank range….just as the buffalo hunters had done with their families. Panic raced across the prairie with the wind. People scattered, hiding in the scrub brush and creek beds in hopes the roving Indians would only destroy their property and leave them alive. One group of settlers, having been warned of the Cheyenne’s presence, hid in a stand of trees near their farm. Fear gripped them and tensions rose as a baby named Pearl cried uncontrollably in her mother’s arms. Finally, one of the men in the group choked the life from her little body to keep them all from being caught.

At another farmstead, a home and all its contents were burned, two teenaged boys and their father killed, and two young girls were stripped naked and sent into the flames as their mother begged for their lives, only to be released after their mother gave Chief Dull Knife their life savings. Reports claim anywhere from nineteen to forty men and boys were killed and twenty-five women and girls raped at the hands of the Dull Knife’s warriors.

After the massacres around Oberlin the Cheyenne moved North into Nebraska but it wasn’t long before they were confronted by three thousand settlers and ten thousand soldiers; the original group out of Oklahoma, plus troops from five Kansas forts. The fight was now thirteen thousand to three hundred. The Cheyenne were chased day and night and five times were confronted on the prairie but, with their knowledge of the land, they were always able to escape into more treacherous terrain. Eventually, the pursuit wore the Cheyenne down and six weeks after their run from the reservation began the tribal leaders held council. A division of opinion concluded the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, with two sides choosing different paths. Some continued moving North, while others, including Dull Knife, decided to stop running. They took possession of an empty fort in NW Nebraska and waited for contact with the authorities, at which time many more empty promises were given and more fighting occured. In the end only nine members of Dull Knife’s tribe survived, including the Chief, himself. They were moved around as prisoners for a time, then finally sent to Fort Keogh in Montana. Over time, several members of the Exodus were tried for the murders that had been committed in Kansas.

As for the dog who’d run down WaKeeney’s Main Street on, what I imagine to be, another windy day on the prairie…he’d brought the ominous news of a war party to my hometown from a campsite several miles East of Wakeeney. His owner, the camp’s cook, was found days later…lying in the grass; dead.

*The facts of this story are based on sources available on the web. The Decatur County Museum memorializes this event in the Last Indian Raid section of their museum and markers where significant incidences occurred are scattered throughout the county.

Below is a photo of my hometown, WaKeeney, Kansas seven years after that fateful day when the dog with an arrow ran into town.

WaKeeney, Kansas

Mom’s Music

I’m listening to classical music right now.

I listen to all kinds of music while I’m writing, often picking particular styles that set the mood for whatever I’m working on at the time. I don’t know why I picked classical today but it just so happens the first piece to come up features a pianist.

As I’m trying to concentrate there is a thing deep inside me that makes itself known. Not a voice, although it certainly speaks to me. Not even a feeling, really. Just a knowing…

It’s my mother.

My mom passed away almost ten years ago and for those who knew her personally I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the sound of a piano instantly brings her back to life in my mind. Music was a big part of her life. As was I. If only two things could be said about my mom they would be, above all else, she loved her kids and she loved music.

Thank you, Mom.

Now that I’m writing I can understand why she felt so connected to her music. Just like putting pen to paper is for me, playing music transferred her to a different world…heart and soul. When she heard the notes rolling gently along, building then receding, they spoke to her in a language only she could understand. It is the most intimate thing in the world. It was her poetry.

The image of her at the piano keeps popping up in my head. Her back is to me, her hands fanned out across the keys. They move with the grace of someone who is part of the music…not the clumsy, clunking poking at them like I do. She felt each and every note she played.

In a way, I see her music in my writing. The ebb and flow of the story, the pace and tone…it’s there. The way a sentence reads, letting it lead to the next thing. The images. For me, I must feel what my characters are feeling. I have to experience their emotions myself in order to express them in my writing. Sometimes that’s a bit scary…like right now.

I see her finishing now…just as I’m about to. She lifts her fingers from the keys gently, letting the music fade off into nothingness…

Just as she does…

The Roundup

WARNING: This is a historical fiction piece based on stories told to me by my grandmother, Hazel Low. She was in her twenties during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and witnessed a jackrabbit roundup near her hometown of Stockton, Kansas.

This story will not be to everyone’s tastes.

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“Alright, boys. Everybody…load up!”

The farmers walked away from the fencing they’d just erected, hopping onto pickup trucks and heading out over the dusty field.

It was blisterin’ hot, humid and windy as hell. Nobody said much. They hung onto the sides of the pickups with one hand and passed around canteens spiked with homemade, rotgut whiskey with the other. There were times when a man needed to dull his senses, whether or not it was legal.

Over five hundred farmers had shown up for the roundup that day. A good number, according to the county extension officer who was hoping to cull ten thousand jackrabbits in one afternoon. For weeks word had gone out to the surrounding counties and beyond and folks from all over Northwest Kansas had traveled to Trego County that day to be a part of a jackrabbit roundup.

Only a few men were excited about the task to be undertaken. Anyone who’d already witnessed a roundup knew what carnage they were expected to carry out over the next few hours but it had to be done. Locust, black widows, and now jackrabbits…the plagues kept coming, following on the heels of dust storms that stole the topsoil right off their land. Some farmers had lost faith in the land and moved out to California to pick vegetables with the migrant workers. It was a tough decision…abandoning the family farms that had been settled by their grandfathers and worked by their fathers but they’d just had enough. Enough drought, enough dust, enough infestations…

The pickup trucks rambled on across Rasmussen’s pasture towards Big Creek. It’d been dry for a year and a half but they’d still find plenty of jackrabbits hiding out in the underbrush. As the caravan slowed the men jumped off with bats, shovels, and axe handles in hand. They lined up in the sandy creek bed and started kicking and poking at the scrubbrush, flushing the hares up the embankment and out into the open. The pests bounded about erratically, stopping every now and then to sit back on their haunches, sniff the air and twitch their long ears back and forth as they got to know their new surroundings. The farmers walked behind them, getting just within reach of the jackrabbits before they’d hop off to a safe distance several feet away. They never ran too far or too fast…they weren’t scared of men anymore.

This was the way the great grey and white wave rolled over the prairie. Jackrabbits so thick, it seemed as if the land itself was moving. Herding them over miles of prairie, the farmers guided them to the corral and closed the gate behind them.

“How many you think we got?” the question was posed.

“Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of nine thousand, is my guess.”

The farmers went into the corral in shifts. With clubs swinging high above their heads, they crushed the  jackrabbits’ skulls. Over and over, pounding them mercilessly into the dirt. Blood and gore splattering on their hands, clothes and faces, mixing with the dust in the air and pooling at their feet.

Carcasses piled up four and five rabbits deep, littering the ground so thickly the farmers were forced to step on the dead and dying bodies to get to the next victims. They could feel the hares squirming beneath their feet and worse yet, they could hear them screaming. It was an unnerving, chirping sound that didn’t stop until the last jackrabbit had died.

Afterwards the farmers brought out pitchforks and shovels and started pushing the bodies into piles. Dousing them with gasoline, they burned the jackrabbits. The smoke that came off the bonfires smelled of sweet meat and burned fur.

Either sickened by the spectacle or bored by the repetition of the process, the people who’d come out to watch began to drift away until they all eventually went back to their lives but they knew they’d remember those jackrabbit screams to their dying days.

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