Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Oz, Almost Like Home. Denver to Winfield, KS

High and Dry

The ride from Denver was familiar to me. I attended Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas from 1972 until 1979. In the spring of 1973 I drove to Colorado Springs during spring break to join some Air Force friends who were stationed there for a week of skiing and camaraderie. I knew we could make excellent time across this high prairie. After being in majestic mountains, we enjoyed the grand feeling of spaciousness afforded by the vast dimensions of the great plains.

I was astonished by the evident drought that eastern Colorado and western Kansas has experienced this summer. We drove past hundreds of miles of corn and milo fields whose crops were scorched and stunted. Even those that had irrigation equipment were similarly affected. The wells have run dry on many farms. I recalled reading in a history of the great dust bowl, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, that the source of water for this area is the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground lake that runs from South Dakota to Texas along the borders of Wyoming and Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, and New Mexico and Texas including the Oklahoma panhandle. The tall grass prairie that grew here and was the grazing ground for millions of American Bison has, for millions of acres, been converted to tilled land now used to grow crops that could not grow without pumping water from this aquifer. For many years, this land was used to grow wheat. Wheat could be grown here with irrigation needed only in times of drought. But, with the increased demand for corn as a fuel source, and with a number of 'wet' years providing good yields, many farmers took the risk of growing corn on this ground. The drought that occurred this year has shown the folly of this endeavor. The aquifer is being depleted. More water is being taken out than is returned by rain and snow melt each year. This situation is like the elephant in the room here in the west. Everyone knows that there is a crisis coming, but nobody is talking about it. The more the aquifer is depleted, the number of farms unable to irrigate their land will increase. The Great Dust Bowl was concentrated in a relatively small area compared to that overlying the Ogalalla Aquifer.

At Limon, Colorado we left the interstate and took the only road that brought us south-west and closer to Wichita, Kansas. U.S. 40 is a well maintained two lane road. It is heavily traveled by semi-trailer trucks. The speed limit is 65mph and we had to take the magnetic mounted CB radio antenna off the roof because the blast of wind by passing trucks blew the antenna from the roof. We were happy that we had such a substantial tow vehicle on this road. The apparent winds had to be over 150 mph, yet the truck and trailer held steady on the road.

After a long day, we arrived at Gunsmoke Campground in Dodge City, Kansas. The temperature was 101F. This well maintained campground has a swimming pool for which we were very grateful. When we arrived, we noticed two interesting motor homes. They looked like they could have been built by Airstream, but we know that Airstream never made anything like what we were seeing. These motor homes turned out to be Ultra Van, made in the 1960's in Hutchinson, Kansas. The original models used Corvair engines. Only a few hundred were made. The ones that we saw were part of a mini-rally at the Gunsmoke Campground. We spoke with Dr. Ron Zoutendam of Sheldon, IA. His Ultra Van is beautifully restored.
Ultra Van Rally
Dr. Ron

Because Winfield, Ks is a place that I visited each year while in veterinary school, the next leg of the trip, from Dodge City to Arkansas City felt like we were going home. The rolling landscape, straight roads and small towns don't appear to have changed over the last 30 years.

Getting off the interstate is always an adventure and usually provides unexpected curiosities. This diversion from I-70 was no exception. The most amazing place we found this day was on U.S. 400 just as we entered the town of Mullinville, Kansas. On each rise of the road approaching the town I could see movement on the north side. From a distance, it appeared to be flags fluttering. When we reached the town line, we saw that the source of the motion was hundreds of sculptures with moving parts in a field along the north side of the highway. What we found was a large installation of metal sculptures by the local artist M. T. Liggett. The sculptures are created from found objects and plasma cut sheet steel painted and accentuated with searing political opinion. Mr. Liggett spares no political ideology. We could have spent hours dwelling on these installations.
The artist's info
Mr. Liggett is very dedicated, and talented

We are now at the Cherokee Strip Campground in Arkansas City, Kansas, just 3 miles north of the Kansas/Oklahoma border. We are here to attend the 40th Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas just 15 miles north of here. Along with a number of my classmates, I came here each year while I was in school in the late 70's. We would have liked to stay at the fairgrounds, but dogs are not allowed. It may be a good thing because we have been told that the campground can be noisy until the very early hours of the morning.

We are excited about attending the festival and hearing some great music.

Stay tuned.

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