My first stop of the day
A "soddie". The original little house on the prairie for most starting-out homesteaders
The comfortable, if rather cramped interior of the sod house
Can you picture John Wayne as Wil Andersen in here?
These schools only provided primary eduction, but they did get to Shakespeare.
Detective's wife, Mrs Bair in Yuma, CO today
As recommended by the Bairs, my Mexican supper
I woke early, full of anticipation for the road. I set off westwards towards Colorado, pausing at the town of Colby, KS to visit the Prairie Museum of Art and History
. Kansas doesn't have a lot of history
. It only celebrated its centennial in 1961. The museum, organised by a local history society with private funding, is interesting nonetheless.
One of my favourite exhibits was the map showing Kansas (largely acquired through the Louisiana Purchase at $0.03 an acre - one of history's great real estate deals) parcelled up into plots. These were offered, free, to anyone who came forward to claim them as homesteaders on condition that they would improve the land. These claims are the basis of legal title to much of the state (pace the Native Americans).
My other favourite was a startling photo of a dust storm in the centre of Colby in the "dirty Thirties". The Western part of Kansas was caught up in the agrarian catastrophe of the dustbowl. I could only admire the presence of mind of the photographer, who must have assembled his complicated 1930's equipment (probably even older as he was a professional in a small, poor town) under some time pressure.
More impressive though were the buildings from around the state assembled in the museum grounds. Particularly touching was the "soddie" - a house made of dried sods, which was the typical house of the early homesteaders - probably the first "improvement" necessary to complete their claim. This was the real "little house on the prairie". There was a more impressive later version which, though presented as an example of poverty, was actually rather more commodious than my London apartment! Americans - having land to spare - have a much different sense of space.
There was also a church and, most touching of all a one room frontier school house familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Western movies. The scene that sprang to mind immediately for me was John Wayne recruiting his young trail hands in "The Cowboys", his best performance in my opinion and perhaps my favourite cowboy film.
These schools sprang up as soon as a group of farmers could afford to pay a teacher for their children. They were small because the transport infrastructure didn't allow for more children than could walk to them. If the children of a locality grew up, then the school was simply moved. The list of a teacher's duties on the wall rather amused me. I fear the NUT would do its nut and the NAS/UWT get quite nasty about it.
From Colby, I set off toward Colorado again. Diagonals are difficult to do in this part of the world, so I progressed North-West by moving West, then North. The roads were just as I like them - some 75mph interstate to burn a few miles but mostly two lane blacktops through open country at 65mph, slowing to 25mph to pass through the occasional country town. The sun shone. I had my roof down for much of the journey. There were ranches, farms and nodding donkey oil installations to look at. It was bliss.
I thought I had bagged my first speeding ticket when a Kansas State Trooper's car suddenly caught my eye. I was accelerating, at perhaps the merest tad over the limit, past a couple of trucks. He was sneakily parked on the wide grassy central reservation, which sank lower than the carriageways it divided so he was as far below my line of sight as I often am of the drivers of enormous pick up trucks. I slowed rapidly and watched my mirrors anxiously until I crossed the State line. Perhaps he was too slow with his radar? Or perhaps he simply realised that I was so far "out of state" as to be not worth pursuing. I overtook with even more caution thereafter, apart from one wonderful "Ferrari moment" that I shall not detail here for reasons that will become apparent.
I paused at Wray, CO to refuel and asked some youthful Ferrari enthusiasts at the gas station if they could recommend a car wash. Speranza was in need of a good clean. They sent me to one behind the Riverside Cafe, which was conveniently on my route. She was caked with dead insects (those in Louisiana were particularly plump and splatworthy I had noticed) and it was satisfying to reveal her gleaming loveliness in all its full glory again. It was also cooling to mess about with the water sprays in the shade afforded by the car wash enclosure. By then it was 33º Celsius.
I pressed on to my tentative destination, Yuma, CO, arriving in the late afternoon. I had been unable to find any promising hotels there online and had decided to take a look before committing. If the establishments in town were unsuitable, I reasoned I could press on. I stopped first at a launderette in the centre of town. Speranza's many virtues do not include much storage so I am limited (in order to make room for computer and photographic equipment and to be able to drive with the roof down, occupying much of the boot/trunk space) to one carry-on bag for my clothes. This means I have to do laundry every ten days and my time was up. It's a job I hate, but it had to be done and there were some amusing signs to make me smile. You know you are in the West when the laundrette needs to prohibit the washing of saddle cloths, for example.
As I was busying myself with this task a police car screeched to an alarming halt outside the window and its driver came inside. I thought it was another document check (or a deportation order to Kansas!) but no, it was Investigator Bair, a local detective (CID guy, in British terms) and a Ferrari enthusiast. He could scarcely believe that one was really present in his little community of 3,500 souls. I gave him the tour and we chatted happily. It passed the time for me while I waited for my washing cycle to finish. He went away and returned with his wife and daughter and it is the charming Mrs Bair who is pictured here. I gave them the blog address when obtaining Mrs Bair's permission to publish the photo, which is why I plead the 5th about my "Ferrari moment." I don't want to embarrass my detective friend with his colleagues in traffic.
The Bairs told me the Nelson Inn was more comfortable than it looked from the outside and recommended it to me. They also sent me to La Cabana del Amigo, a simple but charming little Mexican restaurant full of local families with their children, where a local waitress took me in hand selected my food for me and kept refilling my Diet Coke. I shall miss the endless drink one glass buys you in the States when I return to stingy Europe. They also tipped me off that there was a storm warning for tonight and that there was a possibility of the dreaded "damaging hail". They said the proprietor of the Nelson Inn has a big garage and that I should ask to shelter my car there tonight. I did and he courteously agreed. She is in an enormous barn with a couple of trucks and his Corvette, so the storm is no longer a worry.
As you see, though many thought me nuts to bring her here and take her places so far from Ferrari dealers and valet parkers, Speranza continues to work her charm. She is allowing me to overcome my natural English reserve (which seems happily to be fading in the face of American openness) and make enjoyable contact with the people I meet on my tour. All in all - and I know you must be bored with this by now and waiting for it all to go interestingly pear-shaped - another splendid day.