Jon de Vos: All birthday, no cake
February 16, 2012
Kansas turned 151 last month. Before marriage to a woman who was born in Pittsburg (not Pittsburgh), Kan., I believed that people vacationed from Kansas, not to Kansas. My wife had to take a firm grip of my ear to drag me there the first time. Kicking. Screaming.Despite my dire predictions, I was charmed by the state and after the shock had worn off, I was taken by the beauty and solitude the plains offer. I also discovered a lot of odd things to be found in Kansas. Actually, “odd” is a significant understatement. It might be that solitude thing.Where else would folks push together a huge mound of dirt into a caricature of Amelia Earhart best seen from the air? Who else would carve giant Pepsi swirl bottles out of pine trees that die in their parks? Why would anyone carve a giant limestone Mennonite? What right-thinking community museum would exhibit a 55-pound hairball found in the stomach of a slaughtered cow?All these intriguing questions can be answered with a simple road trip through our neighboring state. You will definitely want to head to West Mineral, Kan., to visit Big Brutus, the World’s Second Largest Steam Shovel.Brutus was built in 1963 to strip the dirt off the top of coal seams so other equipment could spirit off the exposed coal to power plants. For 11 years, Brutus scraped off 120 cubic yards of Kansas earth every 54 seconds, 24 hours a day, creeping along at a relentless 18 feet per minute.You can do the math but Brutus moved more dirt than Kansas lost during the Dust Bowl. One cranky day in 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency literally pulled the plug. The owner of the shovel, P&M Coal, hung a “for sale” sign on the side that could be seen from 20 miles in any direction but they got no takers. Although a hybrid of diesel and electric, Brutus’ gas mileage was measured in centimeters per gallon. Kansas folks are resilient. Brutus cast a 20-story pall over the town. What to do? They slapped a coat of paint on it, called it a museum and charged people eight bucks to crawl around on it. And 40,000 people per year do just that. Plan to visit Brutus over the first weekend in June when retired miners gather to swap stories.Everyone knows that at 38 feet in diameter, the ball of twine in Cawker, Kan., is the world’s largest. But did you know that it may soon be disqualified as it no longer resembles a ball? It is becoming decidedly flat-bottomed and can no longer be rolled, allowing a true wrap around the sphere in all directions.Fortunately, the list of Kansas roadside attractions only starts there. One attraction, not to be missed, is the Garden of Eden in Lucas. The Garden of Eden is … peculiar, even for Kansas. It was built in 1843 by Samuel P. Dinsmoor, a farmer, a schoolteacher and a Civil War veteran who survived the Battle of Gettysburg and the capture of Robert E. Lee. He was 64 years old when he moved to Lucas and built his two story log cabin on the plains. Undaunted by the fact that there are no logs on the prairie, Dinsmoor carved his own out of native limestone. Next he took 113 tons of cement and created 153 intertwining statues, some 40 feet tall and supported by 29 cement trees. His creation is one man’s interpretation of the bible and the story of modern civilization. It took 17 years but when it was done, Dinsmoor relaxed. He ran a speaking tube out to the mouth of a concrete angel to scare hell out of passersby. When he turned 81, Dinsmoor married a woman 61 years his junior, siring two children. He had this to say about his efforts: “… when I was building this they accused me of being bughouse on religion. I am bughouse good and proper, but not on religion, perpetual motion or any other fool thing that I cannot find out one thing about.”It must be the solitude.