My Witt's End

Hunting for Ghosts

Courthouse Yates Center, Woodson County, Kansas

Originally posted 01 December 2010

I stood looking at the imposing red brick courthouse, probably, possibly where my father stood nearly 95 years ago during the Kansas-life he had, and I never knew about. He was a kid fresh into his teens in 1916, anchored by loose ends in his life that we can’t imagine—or long for.

The building stands in the geographic center of Woodson County, Kansas, where my genealogy research project dropped me off for a few days. Looking east, the direction from which Dad had somehow managed to navigate, colorful buildings built in the late 1880s, restored numerous times, blocked my view of the rising sun. Looking west, where his future disappointments would lie, a shroud of dark clouds and unrelenting wind welcomed me to late-November Kansas.

The streets are made of solid, if uneven, unspeaking bricks, darker in color than those used to build the Courthouse building, designed to keep secrets intact. No stop signs around this square to impede traffic—or progress, one might guess. Angle parking on both sides of the street still left plenty of room for modern cars to make U-turns. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what might have been when the dirt streets were crowded as long-horned cattle passed through from the no-longer existing railroads to tallgrass prairies north and west of Yates Center.

My camouflage outfit seemed to be a bit off the mark this morning. First, my car was the only one of its breed in this land of seriously big pickup trucks and SUVs so tall I’d need a stepladder to get in or out of them. I’m no slave to fashion, so, when I entered the Feedbunk, the only place around to get breakfast, I donned the obligatory baseball cap. Mine, however, advertised a striped bass, not some cattle feed or farm implement. I had on my best Justin boots, only to learn natives dress in real camo and wear Nike and New Balance. Since I was relatively free of mud at 6:30 a.m., they probably sensed I was an outsider. I’m something of a city guy so I had to ask what a “feedbunk” was. The waitress looked at me and said, “Well, honey, it’s where we put the feed for the cattle.” I guess that’s better than calling your restaurant The Trough.

I ate at the Foodbunk two mornings, noting that the same guys sat in the same spots wearing essentially the same clothes both mornings. The things that changed were the conversations, which extended from one table across the aisle to another, booth to booth. I noticed the waitress never offered the locals a menu. She’d just ask, “Are ya eatin’ this morning?” Then bring a customer a plate of food.

There seemed to be a lot of conversation about dogs: “Yer dog ever come home, Bill?”

“Yep. Never did tell me where he’d been for three days.”

Or, the locals talked about hunting: “Yer nephews get any birds yesterday, Bill?”

“Those two fools? First the young one shot up a trash bag that was blowin’ across the field. Then the otherun shot two crows. Then they complained ‘bout not seein’ any pheasants.”

I’m not sure if the conversations were real or entertainment for the stranger in their midst. Doesn’t matter. As writer William Least Heat-Moon says, “You can worry about every twist in the road, or you can sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

 

Where Rusty's dream of being a cowboy began 

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