Experiencing the Authentic America

A few nights ago, Elke and I got back from our annual storm observing and outdoor photography excursion across the Great Plains. Even though we’re back to work and back to the household normalcies, the trip spawned countless memories, some preserved in photography that we shall offload, sort, and share in various ways online over the coming months.

As every year, the storm days ranged from hugely rewarding (picturesque tornado in Wyoming, playing safely in hail in Colorado) to indescribably frustrating (blocked by hail and flooding from getting in front of a profusely tornadic South Dakota supercell). We saw a white buffalo and a white tornado on the same day. We chased farther north than ever before, capturing a brief tornado 90 miles south of the Canadian border in Minnesota.

We enjoyed the company of friends encountered in storm inflow just abut anywhere on those blue highways, folks like David Fogel, Chuck Doswell, Keith Brown, Ross Weitzberg, Bill Reid, Howie Bluestein, Thunder the Dog, Porthos the Dog, and many others. We aimed for a potpourri of photogenic abandoned farmsteads and other old structures this year, in preparation for a potential photo-book on the subject, and the landscapes from the Texas Panhandle to eastern North Dakota didn’t disappoint in that and many other ways. Fittingly, the last chase ended with a gorgeous sunset supercell in western Nebraska, and some of my favorite convective-side storm shots of all time. Yes, that’s a shameless teaser.

For now, though, I want to share our last day, the ride home, the relaxing instead of the frantic, how we revisited the real USA, and how we ended up with a 6-foot stone fencepost.

We began in North Platte, bound for Norman. This meant that north-central Kansas lay along the way, and with that, the regionally unique sight of limestone fenceposts lining the byways in and near Russell County. For generations, area farmers and ranchers have carved and erected such pillars from easily mined and plentiful outcrops of (what else?) Cretaceous Fencepost Limestone, along with a few other similarly aged limestones.

Loaded with fossils, the Fencepost formation can be sawed easily into quadrilateral-edged columns when freshly quarried and damp, coming out yellowish when new. After several years a post weathers to a durable slab, mildly mossy, with a somber but stately gray form that will match our house’s brickwork. The stone fencepost is an identifying cultural (and agricultural) phenomenon in those initially treeless prairies, born of necessity, and of course, now the subject of a museum.

Elke and I have wanted one of these Kansas stone posts since before we married, and with a little acreage and favorable landscaping, have a place for it. Unfortunately, a combination of logistics (lack of suitable vehicle, not enough room, not being in the area near the end of a trip) precluded our procuring one…’til this year. We used Google to locate quarries in the area, and a gut urge told me to call the Bluestem quarry near Lucas. It took us awhile to get there from North Platte, then to find the quarry, with some help from the thoughtful proprietor of Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas.

That was a trip back to a time long before my birth, back in a way to the youth of my late father, a realization of his idyllic descriptions that I didn’t entirely believe until this day. It was a journey to an era when one could open the door to a small-town, 1922 butcher shop, stroll inside immersed in the delicious, smoky aroma of freshly-prepared bolognas, sausages and jerky, while viewing all manner of meats through the glass. A kind, dignified, well-spoken, gray-haired gentleman behind the counter would provide tasty samples, and gently encourage you to purchase a variety of his careful cuts and choice selections. He would ring your order up on a cash register from the early 1900s, a machine passed down from his ancestors, one so clean and perfectly functional you would swear it’s brand-new.

This experience is not a bygone relic of nostalgia! Indeed, it is available on any given weekday on Main Street in Lucas, and we were treated to it first-hand. Better beef jerky I’ve never had. Doug, the welcoming and friendly chap behind the counter, will supply you with the most delicious of meats and give you mouth-watering samples of just about any of them that are cooked. I should have bought more than I did, got some ice, and packed the meat in a cooler with it. That oversight will be ameliorated on our next visit. Doug also gave us directions to the residence of the Thaemert family, who operates the quarry just north of the Wilson Lake dam, and who used to run a B&B on the house in which they now raise their kids.

Jon and Becky Thaemert are great folks — down-to-earth, smart, resourceful, and a joy to be around. Jon and his little boy took us out to his quarry to select a fossil-rich, newly-cut fencepost, which he loaded in our truck with his forklift before I even paid. At no extra charge, we even came away with several fine, foot-wide siliceous concretions he had obtained from the layer of softer limes and shales above the Fencepost formation. [I jokingly represented them to my kids later as fossilized sauropod crap.] Before we had to go, Jon and Becky showed us their property, on which they hope to reopen a B&B in the future (and if they do, we’ll be making a reservation). I gave Jon’s son, who collects rocks, a piece of shiny, black, Precambrian mica-schist from the Black Hills. After pleasant chats about two of my favorite topics (weather and geology), we were on our way to Oklahoma with a 400-pound slab of seabed from the Cretaceous Interior Seaway and the pleasure of meeting some great folks.

The last day of our vacation may have been the best, even without a supercell to follow or a creaking old Blair Witch-style house to explore. And if you want some new or reclaimed limestone, and can go to Russell County to get it, get it from Bluestem. You will be glad you did.

We were so thankful that we went looking for the elusive stone post. Let the screaming pundits of the East and West Coasts and their lemming-like minions of opinion, all bound in their delusional “reality” Matrix of endless artifice, sneer at red-state “flyover country” and the people they perceive as ignoble knaves who inhabit it. The ivory-tower ignorance of those grand proclaimers who seem well-educated, but in truth drift bereft of Middle-American common sense and humility, seems to be a curse. Instead, in one respect, it is actually our good fortune and blessing, in that their unwillingness to experience the hinterlands has kept their thought-pollution from contaminating the real people out the prairie very much. We left northern Russell County reminded again that, away from the big double-slabs of Interstate pavement, away from the noise and bustle of the skyscraper canyons, disconnected purposefully from the asphyxiating, insidious, anti-American and anti-family bombardment of mainstream culture and media, the real USA lives on.

Yes, you can find our roots still in places like Lucas, KS, where sturdy and trustworthy folk work hard, devote their efforts to excellence for its own sake, cherish craftsmanship and an ethic of service, fly the flag, keep the faith, do what’s right simply because it’s right, welcome home our servicemen with due respect, weather the storms, and aim foremost to live in a wholesome, efficient, thrifty and productive manner from which we all could learn lessons.

Of course it’s not perfect. Of course there are socioeconomic problems there, as everywhere. But at least the ideal thrives and stands tall as a desired state of life. That’s a heap better than the prevailing conditions on either margin, and in nodes of supposedly “enlightened” thought sprinkled across big cities and eco-hipster enclaves in between.

Want the real meaning of America? Unwind a little, go to Lucas, KS, Llano TX (a nearly annual destination), or Winterset, IA (where we spent two fantastic days last year), and see for yourself. Real food, real people, real life.


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