Aliens and Cowboys in Ellsworth, Kansas

Our Kansas adventures began on Saturday, January 13.  

9:48 am: We leave the Starbucks at 21st and Maize Road, a bag of freshly ground Italian Roast, two breakfast sandwiches, a blueberry scone and two hot coffees in hand. Brad has landed a job with the Post Rock Wind Power Project in Ellsworth County, so it makes sense that Ellsworth and its surrounding area is the first on our list of towns in Kansas to visit in 2012. I plug in the IPod, select the playlist titled “Jed Clampett Dancing,” and we hit the road. “Wichita” by Gillian Welch and the smell of chicken sausage and Gouda fills the cramped Ford Focus.

 Brad reminds me I’ve driven to Ellsworth. He was returning from the worst snowboarding trip of his life. The Explorer engine light kept coming on as he frantically drove back to Wichita with then twelve-year-old son Ian in a pain pill induced coma in the back seat. Ian had broken his femur against an unfriendly tree during his first snowboard run. I met them at Ellsworth and followed them to Wichita. All I remember of the drive is wanting to get them safely home, so it’s not surprising I don’t recall the meeting point being Ellsworth, Kansas.

 Brad needs to stop at the Keller construction site before we actually visit Ellsworth and I admit I was a little disappointed he had to work the first hour of our trip, but as we enter Ellsworth County, the disappointment turns to awe. We come over a slight hill on I-70 and are greeted by the first of the giant pinwheels of the wind farm. They are amazing and as we continue to drive I am mesmerized by their height, their breadth, their unending rows that stretch for miles across the blonde-brown fields, like an alien second-line they dance against the bright blue sky.  And when the horizon suddenly covers their stem-like towers and all we can see are those magnificent blades cartwheeling slowly across the Kansas plains, we are silent.

 As I am typing these opening paragraphs, I’m sitting in the dirt lot of the new facility for the Post Rock Wind Power Project where Brad is inside test-staining an area of the floor. Five minutes ago, three large semis passed by, each carrying one blade of a soon-to-be constructed wind turbine. One semi, one blade. In the distance is the wind farm and I wonder if they make any noise as they gather the wind. Is there a constant whirring, a subtle roar or are they silent, the latter being the spookiest. It’s hard to imagine such great structures silent in their work. All I can seem to think is how alien and alien-like they are and what it would be like to stand at the base and look up at these gigantic creatures. Suddenly, I’m imagining Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as he approaches the mother ship. So, when it’s time to leave I ask Brad if we can get closer to the wind farm.

 We cross I-70 and enter a dirt road. Along the bumpy road, shaggy black cows curiously watch us pass, their coats thick and unruly. I believe they are Galloway cattle, a hardy breed with insulated fur for harsh climates. As we slow down, the cattle watch us intently, a few shaking their great heads and returning to graze on the dry fields, while others stand at the ready to either charge the short fence or run the other direction.  I snap a photo of the furry beasts with the man-made beasts looming behind them.

About ten yards from the grazing cattle, we pull over and turn off the engine.

There is a distinct hum coming from the massive generator and while I’m certain it is deafening at the top of the turbine, here on the ground the noise descends in gentle waves. My curiosity satisfied, we head to the town of Ellsworth, but not before having to pull to the side of the dirt road to allow two more semis to pass.

 Ellsworth is a community of 3,000 and was once known as “the wickedest cattle town in Kansas.” As we enter the city, there is a disc golf park and playground. So much for gunslingers in the streets, but Brad is happy.  He’ll pack his bag of Frisbee discs along with his equipment for the job. The Main Street area is quiet for a Saturday afternoon, holiday décor still adorns the light posts and right away we notice the shadow-like historical markers set about the town. There are seventeen markers  providing a history of the daily life in “Old West” Ellsworth.

 Since much of our day was spent at the wind farm, we decide to grab lunch at Paden’s Place, a restaurant and bar established 25 years ago. The place is long, with the restaurant and bar divided. We sit in the bar area where the booths are squeaky and slightly slanted, but there are three televisions (cable-ready but not flat screens) and the prices listed in black magic marker behind the bar are perfect. A few regulars  sit at the bar watching the K-State/Oklahoma basketball game,  while two men in dark cowboy hats occupy a nearby booth.  We order two drafts, rather large mugs for only $2.00, and decide to try the chicken-steak sandwich with fried cauliflower on the side (Brad) and chicken livers with fries (me). Our meals are less than $5.00 each and are served quickly.  The batter is thin but crusty, not overpowering the livers, which are good-sized and very satisfying. Brad says his sandwich has great flavor but it’s a  very small portion for a mid-day meal.

 It’s getting late so we finish our meals and beers and take a walk down Main Street. We visit the Antique Mall that houses a deli, ice cream shop and various booths, plus the large Rene Pennington mural. Down the street is the museum and historical walking tour describing the early days of Ellsworth, but the museum looks deserted so we decide to walk adjacent to the train tracks and the co-op, reading some of the markers, taking a few pictures.

The January sun is slowly descending and the air chills the back of our necks and faces.  We decide to drive through the town, past the high school, winding our way through old neighborhoods and stop to gas up the car. Next to the gas station is the relatively new Ellsworth Steak House, which is adjacent to the only motel in town. The motel reminds me of traveling as a kid, our car packed with pillows, a cooler full of sodas and books and toys to keep us occupied. I used to love to stay at the motels, our car parked just outside our door so dad could peek out the dusty room curtains, “just checking.” And there was always a pool and a vending machine, not to mention the ice maker. I would tumble into the double bed, my hair still damp from the evening swim, and watch television while snuggled next to my little brother. I can still smell the chlorine in my hair and the bleach of the scratchy sheets.

 It’s been an interesting, educational and relaxing day and we make one more stop in Sterling for coffees at the Broadway Market of Sterling-Flowers, Coffee, Food, Gifts. It is locally owned by David and Lynn Landis. We order chai tea and Lynn gives us a sample of their daily roasted red pepper and wild rice soup. We promise to return to Sterling to have lunch, as well as visit the beautiful campus. The business card she hands me reads “Flowers celebrate all of life’s moments, coffee ensures that you are awake for them.”

 Ironically, when we arrive home the Kansas Travel Guide is waiting for us in the mailbox. While Brad naps on the couch, I review my new Kansas map, browse the listings of Kansas towns and events, and peruse the Kansas Cowboy, “The Official Publication of the C.O.W.B.O.Y. Society  (cockeyed old west band of yahoos), the small newspaper I picked up in Ellsworth. The paper filled with the daily diary entries of a cattle drive, the history of Sheriff  Shenneman, and the Saddle Tramp schedule of events. But as I close the paper, an ad catches my eye:“The Kansas Explorers Club is created to inspire, educate, and encourage the exploration and appreciation of Kansas, and to have fun doing it!”

 Funny, that’s  just what we’re planning. I mark off Ellsworth from list.

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