February 22, 2009

Bust of Andrew Taylor Still - Topeka, KS

As I was walking back to my car from the World's Largest Wren, I passed the Kansas Association of Osteopathic Medicine. On the left side, I noticed a small sort of garden. There was a red brick path off the sidewalk that led into the area that circled a creepy looking bronze bust with stone benches around it like pews around an altar. I circled it looking for a plaque or explanation of who this man was but there was nothing. Just this memorial garden in homage to head and hand of a really creepy looking man.

The eyes of the bust glance to the side, it makes it seem as though he is regarding you with a sidelong stare - he is sizing you up for some unknown purpose. I know the bone he is holding in his hand is supposed to be a sign of his powers as a healer, but with the creepy stare it becomes more menacing. Like he is threatening to hit me with it. This is supposed to be an homage to this guy, but really he doesn't seem like someone I would want to spend too much time with.

When I get home, I look up the the Kansas Association of Osteopathic Medicine online. There is no information about the bust itself except for a picture. But browsing more I learn it might be Andrew Taylor Still who created osteopathic medicine in 1874, a method of healing that focuses on the unity of all body parts. After a little more research, I found that Still may have this little memorial garden in Kansas but he actually founded the first school of osteopathic medicine in Kirksville, Missouri. It still exists although now it carries his name as the A.T. Still University.

The creepy bust of Still doesn't do much to improve my opinion of Topeka. I still think it is the most depressing place I have traveled to in a while. But I will be giving it another chance soon. I'm going to go back to see the Brown v. Board of Education Historical site, only a few blocks away from the wren and the bust. We'll see if the second visit proves more uplifting than the first.

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Soundtrack: Fiona Apple "Extraordinary Machine"

February 21, 2009

World's Largest Wren - Topeka, KS

Driving to Topeka after work was a liberating experience. I was going 70 miles down the open highway that cut through the flat plains with Carrie Underwood's new CD blasting on the stereo and a cigarette dangling from my fingers as I sang along at the top of my lungs to my new anthem "Out of this Town." But arriving in Topeka sent me tumbling back to reality. Out the window, I could see nothing but sadness. Boarded up buildings and crumbling small businesses lined the streets then faded as I moved into the government's district. But once I was past the capitol buildings, devastation took over again. The saddest sight was a wedding cake store that looked like it was just sinking into the dirtiness of the sidewalk.

It was a stark contrast to the signs that celebrated the city. I drove under an arch over a major intersection that brightly declared the city's status as a capital. And on the side was the World's Largest Wren in Huntoon Park. The park itself was sad. In fact, I don't understand why they call it a park. It's a median! A median in the middle of a busy intersection with grass, a sign, a big bird and one picnic bench. But that seems to be what passes for a park in this area. I had passed another "park" earlier that was more a patch of grass between the sidewalk and a parking lot. There was a sign to declare it a park, but nothing whatsoever particularly natural about it.

The World's Largest Wren has no plaque telling its history or purpose. It's just sort of there. It doesn't look well cared for either, the paint is peeling in several places. On its back are thousands of little spikes to keep pigeons from landing on it - sort of ironic I think to keep birds away from the giant bird. I stood around for awhile, waiting for something to happen I suppose. Waiting for someone to be in the park maybe or look at the bird. Mostly people just stared at me and wondered who that chick with the camera was standing in the median. So with a sense of disappointment, I started walking back to my car and dodged the oncoming traffic of rush hour.

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Trip Time: 3 hours
Distance Traveled: 153.5 miles
Soundtrack: Carrie Underwood "Carnival Ride"

February 19, 2009

Road Trip Memories - Middle of Nowhere

My family loved road trip vacations. We would drive to Omaha, Nebraska to visit my father's family or Breckenridge, Colorado to go skiing or Denton, Florida to sit on the beach. No matter how long the trip, we drove. And like any family, we had mishaps. But the funniest was at a middle of nowhere gas station off the interstate.

Separated by four lanes of speeding traffic was an Arby's and a gas station. My mom and sister were hungry so my dad dropped them off to get a bite to eat while he and I went to the gas station. He started fueling up the car and then I followed him inside to use the bathroom. A few minutes later I came out and saw a station full of truckers, but no dad. Toothless smiles and ballcaps everywhere, but no dad. I went outside but no dad. And no car.

My dad forgot me at the gas station!

Don't panic, I thought. You mother is at Arby's so he'll probably go there. I decided the quickest way to find my family and not be left in the middle of nowhere was to run across the four lanes of traffic to the restaurant. Not my smartest decision but I really didn't want to wait around with the sketchy looking truckers for my dear old dad to remember me. I could see my mother coming out of Arby's and so with all the speed I could muster, I ran.

Only later did she tell me she was screaming at me the whole time to go back. When my dad had shown up without me, she promptly started screaming at him and had sent him back to the gas station to find me. While I was running across the highway, he was looking for me. When I couldn't be found, he told me his first thought was, "My wife is going to kill me." Meanwhile, I had made it alive to the Arby's parking lot where my mother, sister and I all burst out laughing.

For years to come when I would tell people how my dad forgot me at a gas station, he would teasingly correct me, "I didn't forget you. I left you. You just found your way back."

Arg! Leave me again and see what happens, Daddy-O!

February 15, 2009

Concrete Teepee - Lawrence, KS

Today, I went with my parents to Lawrence, Kansas to visit the University of Kansas Law School. We spent some time looking around campus, at Green Hall and student residences near by. After an hour, I suggested we go see a roadside attraction I had heard about - the Concrete Teepee. It is 50 feet tall and 33 feet around and was once the center of a Native American-themed tourist trap.

Frank W. McDonald patented the giant teepee that was once surrounded by a gas station, restaurant, and motor court of smaller teepee tents that made up "Indian Village" off US Highway 40. The other teepees are long gone. All that is left is the sign, the 50-foot concrete teepee and a one story building with a teepee on either side. The sign says the teepees are available for special occasions - to be rented for birthday parties or weddings. Personally, I'm not sure why someone would have a wedding at the Concrete Teepees. It seems to be an extremely politically incorrect attraction and years of decay from its abandonment make it seem hardly nostalgic or idealic in any way. The most recent development seems to be the high water markings on the side of the 50-foot concrete teepee from the Kansas River floods in 1951 and 1935.

We stood around for awhile, wondering why someone had bothered to build this thing in the 1920's and wondering even more whether it was ever popular. Afterward, we decided to grab something to eat on Massachusetts street in Lawrence. We stopped at Jefferson's because there was a parking spot out front and a sign for oysters and burgers - a brilliant combination. The food was okay, the server was wonderful but the wait was ridiculous! We sat for almost an hour waiting for three burgers and a tray of baked oysters! Seriously, I could have killed a cow, ground the beef and grilled a burger before they got us our food.

All in all, it was a good trip. I got to see a potential law school, enjoy a decent burger and see a politically incorrect roadside attraction with no visible purpose.

Trip time: 4 hours
Distance Traveled: 80 miles
Soundtrack: REM's live album

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February 14, 2009

The Pony Express National Museum - St. Joseph, MO

Not far from Jesse James home is a museum that commemorates another aspect of St. Joseph's Wild West history, the Pony Express National Museum. On April 3, 1860, the first rider left the Pony Express Stable in St. Joseph to carry saddlebags full of mail more than 2000 miles to Sacramento, California. In our digital age when I wouldn't trust the post office with anything truly important, it's hard to imagine when a guy on a horse was the height of speedy mail service. St. Joseph was a logical place to start the Pony Express. During western expansion and the gold rush, more people left from St. Joseph than any other city on the Missouri River. So the mail followed as people headed out into the frontier.

The museum is amazingly hands on and provides a wealth of historical information. You can see the first rider, Johnny Fry on horse back and the stables with fake horses preparing for their adventure. There is a fully stocked covered wagon and a multitude of maps to show the past to the west and the routes the riders took. You can also see figures of William Russell, Alexander Majors and Waddell who founded the Pony Express. In addition to the basic facts, museum also provides interesting little trivia tidbits. Check out this piece of trivia: The founders only managed to obtain half of the million dollar government contract they aimed for and ended their business bankrupt.

The museum honors the riders, the settlers who went west and also the equine adventurers. A portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the horses of the Pony Express. There are saddles you can sit on and also a place where you can interactively see which kinds of horses were used and which weren't suited for the fast, long journey westward.

The museum was interesting to visit - maybe not as thrilling as seeing Jesse James' skull cast but interesting none the less. It is definitely an educational experience.

Soundtrack: Jenny Lewis "Acid Tongue"

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Jesse James Home - St. Joseph, MO

On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was murdered in his home. Bob Ford, a member of the notorious outlaw James' gang killed him to collect a $10,000 reward being offered by the governor. At the time, 34-year-old James was living as Tom Howard with a wife and two children. As he was straightening a picture, Ford shot him in the head from behind.

At the entrance of the home, is a small display of news articles showing the history of the museum and the famous people who have come to visit. Most interestingly, was a middle-aged Johnny Cash with a mustache that made him almost unrecognizable in the newspaper picture. In the next room is a series of portraits showing Jesse James at various stages in his life. The museum is not about his adventurous outlaw career. It shows Jesse James as a man. There is a leather vest of his namesake uncle in a glass frame. In another room is the bed he once slept in and the safe he kept in the kitchen. It is a museum occasionally mundane in its details, but in that aspect it memorializes Jesse James as a human being and not just a Wild West caricature of pop culture.

One aspect of the museum is just plain morbid. In 1995, the body of Jesse James was exhumed by forensic scientist James Starrs. There had long been rumors that James faked his death and actually lived to a ripe old age under another assumed name. However, DNA tests concluded with 99.7% probability that the corpse was Jesse James. But that's not the really morbid part. They made a casting of his skull to show where the bullet entered his skull behind the right ear. The cast is displaying in a rotating class case in the museum along with casts made of his teeth. So at the Jesse James home, you can see where he was shot and...well, where he was shot.

As I looked through a small glass case that is the museum's gift shop trying to find something to commemorate my visit, I talked with the curator about all the history St. Joseph has to offer. Really, it is a sort of roadside attraction goldmine. A place proud of its history and always looking for a way to memorialize it. There are at least four other museums I can see from the entrance of the house. As we talked about where my next stop should be, I saw my souvenir - a cowboy hat!

But this was only the first stop in St. Joseph! I had one more place to go see. And this won't be my last trip here either. Like I said, this town was like a roadside attraction goldmine. I have lots more to see and many more trips back to see it all.

Travel Time: 4 hours roundtrip
Distance Traveled: 160 miles roundtrip
Soundtrack: Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins "Rabbit Fur Coat"

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February 10, 2009

Union Prison Collapse - Kansas City, MO

Every time I drive to the Crossroads Art District, I am usually stopped by a red light at Grand and Truman. I don't know why but it happens every time. I noticed a small plaque there commemorating it as a Civil War site. I started reading little bits and pieces every time I was at the light. On August 13, 1868, the Union jail for women collapsed. The three story building called The Longhorn Store and Tavern was being used to hold women were suspected of aiding Confederate troops. Four women were killed in the collapse.

What caused the collapse is controversial. Some claim it was structural flaws. The building had only been standing for seven years but there had been suspicion that the building was in danger before. Allegedly, the shopkeeper moved his wares out of the first floor when he noticed cracks in the ceiling. But he was injured when the building fell so it stands to reason if he knew it was coming down he wouldn't have been standing around inside. Some conspiracy theorists say the Union forces rigged the building to collapse and in doing so murdered the women inside. But mixed in with that accusation is also some anti-Semitism towards the Jewish man who supposedly ran the store front on the first floor. Personally, I find it hard to believe prison guards would intentionally rig a building to fall, killing women and destroying store (which was their liquor supplier) beneath it.

Five days later, Union General Ewing made the situation worse by banishing the families of the guerillas from the state out of fear of retaliation. Enraged over the collapse of the prison, Confederate forces raided the city of Lawrence eight days later. They killed 150 men leaving behind only widows, orphans and a city in ruins.

It is a sad and tragic story to read about, especially on that corner. It is right next to The Sprint Center where all the big name concerts in Kansas City are. It is also right by the entrance to the Power and Light District, where all the hot clubs and bars are. It is a very sad and stark reminder of a disaster over a century ago, just before you go join the parties.

Time Spent: 25 minutes
Distance Traveled: 18 miles
Soundtrack: Tegan and Sara "The Con"

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February 9, 2009

Lewis and Clark Mural - Kansas City, MO

I had set out to find the garment district and see the very large needle and button, similar to the ones in New York City but not as big or well known. I never did find them. After taking a wrong turn, I was stuck on Highway 169 for four miles until I finally found an exit that would take me back to the city. Then I took another wrong turn and ended up at the Missouri River. Turning around I ended up going the wrong way down a one way street. When I finally got myself back on track I was nearly hit by a woman who thought a stop sign was a suggestion. Or maybe it was just a really important phone call she was taking.

Just as I was stopped at a red light and about to give up, I saw the giant Lewis and Clark Mural. I couldn't help but laugh. Artistically, it was not particularly impressive. There are numerous murals throughout Kansas City, my particular favorite is the one on Grand and Truman commemorating the first African-Americans to play baseball. But I stopped to take a closer look anyway. Unfortunately, I parked next to a couple just recovering from the throws of passion in the car next to me. Why they were doing it in a parking lot at 4:30 in the afternoon, I have no idea. But they didn't ask why I was taking pictures of a wall and I didn't ask why they didn't get a hotel room.

The mural is on the corner of 5th and Wyandotte in the River Market neighborhood. I found out later is was commissioned by the owners of the River City Antique Mall, which it is on the side of, and was dedicated as part of the Lewis and Clark commemoration in 2004. Local artists Alisha Gambino, Jesus Ortiz and Joe Faus painted it. As for its historical accuracy, I'm not sure there's much I can say. I don't know much about Lewis and Clark beyond the basics. I know it's not one of the most interesting or visually stunning murals. But I'm counting it all as a personal win because I didn't drive into the river and I found a roadside attraction I never knew was there.

Time Spent: 1 hour
Distance Traveled: 30 miles
Soundtrack: Throwing Muses "The Real Ramona"

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February 8, 2009

World's Largest Shuttlecocks - Kansas City, MO

As I start planning my trips to see the curious roadside attractions of the Midwest, I realize the best place to start is at home. Only a half hour drive from my house and just across State Line Road is the world’s largest shuttlecocks. Sadly, most people seem completely incapable of pronouncing the exhibit’s title without tittering and some residents have objected to the name by suggesting the term “birdies” could be used instead. I don’t really see the problem. I played badminton in middle school gym with light rackets and shuttlecocks or birdies. Whatever you call them, they are still giant reminders of my athletic inability.

The shuttlecocks were designed by pop art sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen for the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Each stands at eighteen feet tall and weighs two and a half tons. If they are not the largest pop art sculptures, then with a combined weight of approximately 10 tons they are probably the heaviest.

The shuttlecocks are part of the Nelson-Atkins' sculpture
garden, which I wandered one particularly sunny afternoon with my mother. She volunteers at the museum and was thrilled to show me her favorite piece in the garden, Standing Figures by Magdalena Abakanowicz. I was excited to share my first little road trip with her. It was a half-hour drive in the warm sun listening to country radio and singing along to Brad Paisely's "Start a Band." When we arrived, we saw other people enjoying the unusually good weather in the garden. People were playing football, looking at the sculptures, and I saw one group reclining by one of the shuttlecocks with a couple dogs. From a distance, the shuttlecocks don't seem intimidating. Just a rather unusual disruption in the lawn. But once you get close you can appreciate not only their sheer magnitude but also the details put into their design. How they seem to carelessly lean and perch, the realistic aspects of their design right down to the texture of the feathers are all impressive. I was especially impressed by their size. At 18 feet tall, they are more three times my height!

The four are spread out around the garden with three on one side of the museum and one on the other. The idea was for them to be spread out as they would be on a court with the museum as a net. Oldenburg and Bruggen were making a statement as much as they were creating an impressive installment. Art was treated as high brow and elite. By designing a piece of athletic equipment in monumental proportions (and with some vulgar connotations to the name), they made art accessible and common place. It was a way of extending art to the everyman. Just from seeing people hanging out around the sculptures, I would say they succeeded.

Travel Time: 1 hour roundtrip
Distance: 30.5 miles roundtrip
Soundtrack: 106.5 FM - The Wolf

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