Sprinkles of Sunshine

A Photo Journey: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Put away your red slippers and Toto jokes; there really is no place like the Flint Hills of Kansas. My heart feels at rest when I’m there; this is my heart’s home.

A Flint Hills Prairie Morning

A Flint Hills Prairie Morning

Here’s an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published novel, Voices on the Prairie:

The wind lays soft against the prairie

And gives its breath to the new day

This winding road I’m traveling on’s a memory

Of a place I’ve been and a place I’d like to stay

I recently conned a fellow photographer, Darryl Hill, into getting out of bed at 4:30 on a Saturday morning to accompany to a little known jewel of America, the Tallgrass National Preserve that wears the Kansas  Scenic By-Way of K-177 like a beauty queen wears a sash. His wife thinks he’s as crazy as my wife thinks I am.

In 1878, Stephen Jones bought the land and started building the mansion.  It had just been 76 years since Lewis and Clark discovered the land east of the Mississippi and 14 years after Lincoln was assassinated.

Spring Hill Creek Mansion

Spring Hill Creek Mansion

Kissed by the Morning Sun

Kissed by the Morning Sun

Iron Flowers

Iron Flowers

After photographing around the mansion, Darryl and I followed one of the trails to the pasture where the bison roam.

The Wind Lays Soft Against the Prairie

The Wind Lays Soft Against the Prairie

The Kansas State song is Home on the Range. It’s literally impossible to look out over a herd of bison and not hum, oh give me a home where the buffalo roam. I bet you’re doing it right now.

Bison on the Prairie

Bison on the Prairie

Apparently, the writer of that song didn’t know the difference between bison and buffalo either so I don’t feel so bad. Bison live in North America and buffalo live in Africa and Asia. This information will come in handy with Trivial Pursuit, but I doubt you’ll care which is which if they’re chasing you. They have a six foot vertical jump and run up to 40 mph. In 1840, 50 years before this ranch was built, there were an estimated 40 million bison. By 1900, the numbers were down to 300!  

Tallgrass Bison

Tallgrass Bison

I wanted to photograph The Lower Fox School which is on the Tallgrass Preserve, but there was a wedding going on at 6 o’clock in the morning!  I learned, once again, that I might not capture the image I want, but if I keep working a scene, I’ll surprise myself with an image I like. This is the back side of the school and an image that I like much better than the one I hoped to get.

The Lower Fox School

The Lower Fox School

Along the hike, we found this pleasant surprise snuggled down in the grass: a butterfly opening her wings to let the rays of the sun charge her batteries.

 

Charging the Batteries

Charging the Batteries

I know how she feels; a trip through the Flint Hills always recharges mine.


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Hart-Parr Tractor

People Who Amaze Me: Jerry Toews and His Antique Engines

If it’s built after 1915, I’m not interested. – Jerry Toews

Jerry Toews (Taves) wandered down the alleys as a kid in Nickerson, Kansas, digging through 55-gallon burn barrels looking for things like old clocks to fix.  Now, as a retired band instructor, he wanders all over the U.S. and Canada looking for things to fix. And, man, does he come up with some doozies. One tractor is twelve feet tall and weighs twenty-five-thousand-pounds!

I finally made it to a photography outing arranged by Susan Bartel for a local group, the Fourth Tuesday Photography Club.  A couple of dozen photographers visited the farm of Jerry and Leann where we traveled in time machines to capture images of yesteryear hidden in the barns on their property.

Flour City Tractor

Flour City Tractor

“I love to find things that don’t work, then figure out how I can make them work.” Jerry said with a chuckle.  “I moved up to bicycles, then, when in high school, started working on old cars. I like things before 1915. Nowadays, I lift up the hood on a car and say, What is that? You can’t even see the ground.” Jerry says most things with a chuckle.Jerry Toews

When I asked him how he ended up being a band teacher he said, “I love music and I really don’t find it so different. I figure music out just like I do mechanical stuff; I’ll listen to the band and see what’s wrong, then I fix it.”

One Rear Wheel Tractor

One Rear Wheel Tractor

Jerry taught band for 30  years; 23 of which were in Goessel, Kansas. He says he’ll probably stay there since he has too much junk to move. But it’s not junk; not now anyway. Most of the things he restores came to him in pieces and parts and he’s put it back together again. One photographer asked another, “How does he ship these things back to here once he finds them?” The other responded, “In boxes, just like he found them.” Jerry turns one man’s junk into incredible treasures.

Antique Shed

Antique Shed

The Antique Shed 2

The Antique Shed 2

1915 Tractor - weighs 25,000 pounds!

1915 Tractor – weighs 25,000 pounds!

In addition, Jerry figured out a way to turn his passion into helping others. He repairs old cars and tractors for auctioning off at the annual Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutchinson, Kansas, each year. I especially admire people who turn their hobbies into a way to feed the hungry.

If you’d like to see some more great photos from the evening, here are some  taken by Alan Smith and others by  Jeff Heidel.

I wonder how many of Jerry’s students understand what a gem they had on their hands in this unassuming man whose photograph should in the dictionary beside the words curious and genius. 

Jerry’s fixed a lot of broken things through the years and I bet if you asked a few of his students, he fixed a few broken people along the way, too.


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One Room School- Florence, Ks

Growing Up Kansas: Learning to Write Until I Make Myself Laugh

Somewhere, some cow’s therapist knows everything there is to know about me.

When I started writing my soon to be released novel, Voices on the Prairie, I took the advice of E.L. Doctorow who said that writing was like driving at night; you can only see as far as the headlights.

After writing this Growing Up Kansas series, I would add: you also need to look in the rearview mirror ever once in a while to see what you ran over in the road.

I started off the “Growing Up Kansas” humor series to chronicle mostly true stories of my youth. Twenty-five thousand words later, I now look back at what I ran over in the road and realize that The Cows of Hobson’s Pond play a significant role during my formative years. My imagination took flight about the same time our naked little bodies streaked across a Kansas pasture. Some people blame their parents for everything that’s wrong in their life. Not me, I blame the Cows of Hobson’s Pond.

As a writer, this series taught me a lot about writing that I didn’t know.  For example, I did not know I could make myself laugh while writing. In the first story of us three little boys streaking home naked from Hobson’s Pond, I busted out laughing at six o’clock in the morning as I wrote. My wife checked on me to see if I was okay and I said I’d told myself a joke I’d never heard before. She walked off muttering something about who in their right mind laughs at his own writings at six o’clock in the morning?

Making myself laugh has become my standard for each of these stories. I write, re-write, and re-write again until I make myself laugh. Hopefully, you laugh, too, but by the time you’ve read it, I’ve already had a good chuckle or two. I’m kind of simple that way; I can entertain myself.

Every writer writes for both a known audience and an unknown audience. The known audience for these stories of my youth is made up of eight people, seven of whom can’t read or write yet. Those seven are my grandkids; someday they’ll read this and it will make complete sense why they think cows can talk. The eighth is my older sister, Carmen, whose children are a part of these stories. Her children are also to blame with what’s wrong with the other parts of me that the cows didn’t tarnish. I learned early the American way: accept no responsibility and always play the victim.

The unknown audience is people I’ve never met like the lady from Australia who lived for a period of time in Kansas with her children. She wrote to tell me how homesick the stories made her for Kansas. They apparently met some distant cousins of The Cows of Hobson’s Pond.

Each time I write a story, I call Carmen on the phone to read it to her. Writing a humorous story is very different than telling a joke. With a joke, you get to hear people laugh. With a story of humor, you just hope someone writes back to you and tells you it was funny.

My sister makes for a great audience because she knows the players in the story and, as a person, has more fun tickets than most people I know; she laughs easily and sweetly.

She laughs when I read the stories; she cries when I read the stories; she reminds me of things I had forgotten; and she apologizes for letting Jeff and Colleen torment me so much.

And always, and I mean every bloody time, she says this: those poor cows. She feels sorry for The Cows of Hobson’s Pond and the manner in which I portray them. However, I argue I’m actually being much nicer to them than they were to me.

A friend once told me I’m an anthropomorphic writer. I told him to wait right where he stood while I looked that word up ‘cause I might have to punch him for insulting me. It turns out he wasn’t questioning my heritage after all; he was saying that I give human-like qualities to non-human beings like the Cows of Hobson’s Pond. I won that argument when I reminded him that the Chik-fil-A cows could read and write. My logic was flawless.

I’ve decided I’m changing the name of the series from Growing Up Kansas to The Cows of Hobson’s Pond. All of these stories are being compiled into a Kindle book that will also have a print form. That’s the nice thing about writing a series of blogs that turn into a book; one day you look down at the word count and realize you have enough words to make it a book.

Each book has a dedication section and I would be remiss not to dedicate this book to The Cows of Hobson’s Pond. I suppose I’ll list Gertrude, May Belle, Claudine, Nettie, and Frances, since they were my favorites. But I sure hope I don’t hurt the feelings of the rest of them like Flo, Hazel, Henrietta, and Eudene.

I make it a point not to offend any cows these days. I’m just getting too old to be chased across any more pastures.


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blue river trout

Fly-fishing the Blue River in Colorado

Fishing is always the answer- even when it’s not clear what the question is. – John Gierach

I hate getting skunked fly-fishing for trout. But after a long day of standing in a river waving a big stick, the trout made me once again question my ability, sanity, and overall good sense. Who, in their right minds, spends so much time day dreaming about something so exasperating? Apparently, me.

I’ve wanted to fish the Blue River that tumbles out of the mountain above Breckenridge, stops for a bit to fill the Dillon Lake. Part of my soon-to-be-released novel, Voices on the Prairie, is about fly-fishing!

Dillon Lake

Dillon Lake

Dillon Lake is unusual because it’s filled with Mysis Shrimp that hang out at the bottom of the lake and get sucked through the outlet of the dam.  This time of the year the lake is turning and they’re letting California have more water ’cause Colorado, for once, has had great snowpack and rainfall.  The tailrace (water that flows out of a dam) is then loaded with these shrimp that become caviar for gorging trout. This tailrace is a continuation of the Blue River.

Dillon Dam

Blue River as it flows out of Dillon Lake’s Dam, forming a tailrace.

People who fly-fish spend ridiculous amounts of money on itty-bitty imitations of various aquatic insects called flies. I learned to tie flies 30 years ago in Idaho, but have recently resurrected the craft (for some, it’s an art, but for me it’s still a craft) after my wife learned how many flies I lose to the trout, submerged rocks, trees, and power lines. I never said I was good; I said that I loved it.  So I found an easy Mysis pattern on video at RipLips.com and tied some up myself.

Typing a Mysis Shrimp

Typing a Mysis Shrimp

Epoxy Mysis Shrimp

Epoxy Mysis Shrimp

The problem I had is that, because of the snowpack and rainfall which Colorado is deciding to share this year, the river was flowing about five times it’s normal flow. Usually, it flows around 300 cfs (cubic feet per second), but they cranked it up to 1,500 cfs. This made the fishing extra hard for me.

This was supposed to be a relaxing vacation for me so, after getting skunked the first day, I decided I’d spend the second day doing other things I love; taking photos and writing stories.

The towns of Dillon and Silverthorne are conjoined twins connected at birth by Interstate 70.  Clever marketers one day looked at all the guys lined up in the river fishing and decided the best way to get the wives there was start a shopping mall.  It’s the only place I know where a woman can literally dump her husband off in the parking lot to go fishing in a Gold Medal stream while she shops away. This worked well for Christine and me.

Fly-fishing at Silverthorne

Fly-fisher man fishing the Blue at Silverthorne Shopping Mall

Christine headed to the stores and I grabbed my camera and notepad and headed to the Blue with the intent of finding a story or two.  The Blue has various spots that have been nicknamed like Asbestos Alley (it’s the part right below I-70 that smells like hot brake pads from the cars that just came down a mountain), and The Big Gulp (it’s right behind the 7-Eleven store).

The first guy I found had a dandy 20″ trout he had just pulled out of The Big Gulp.  Doug Steinke was there with this son, Blake, and Doug was photographing the fish. I volunteered to use his camera (I could tell it was a nice one and he must be a pro) and then reassured them that I knew how to handle a camera.  My assumptions were right, Doug is a professional wildlife photographer from Grand Island, Nebraska. DougSteinke.com  He sized me up and handed me his camera; it’s really hard to take a selfie when you’re holding a squirming, slick-as-ice-on-concrete fish.

Doug Steinke with a 20" rainbow

Doug Steinke with a 20″ rainbow

Doug’s son, Blake, taught himself how to fly-fish when he was 9. This was his 5th year fishing on the river and, after watching him, I think I’ll hire him as a guide the next time I go fishing.  You just can’t beat a father and his son fishing together.

Blake Steinke gearing up to fish the Blue

 

I wandered up the Blue for a ways and spied a fisherman that had a big trout hooked. Hooking a fish is only about half the battle in this fast water because once they head out to current, they’re really hard to land.  Fly-fishing using very lightweight tackle and lines so you can’t just reel them in with muscle; you have to finesse them. I also know that a person fly-fishing loves a good photograph of themselves with a big one bending their rod. Again, it’s really hard to get a selfie in the midst of the action. The Blue was too loud for a person to converse, so I got his attention, held up my business card, and pointed to my camera. It was my smoke-signal way of saying, “Email me; I’ll send you photos.”  Sure enough, when we got back to our condo that night, I got an email from Zach Leonard.

 

Fish on the hook

Zach Leonard with a fish on the hook

Next, I bumped into Ben Baxter. Ben is from Colorado and has the joy of working in a fly shop, the Anglers All, in Denver. I could never work in a fly shop for the same reason I can’t work at Chipotle.

Ben Baxter

Ben Baxter

Ben makes the hour-and-a-half trip from Denver to the Blue any chance he gets. Naturally, he ties his own flies and, when I prompted him, showed me a dandy little San Juan worm he ties. Trout in just about any water in the world like San Juan worms.

 

San Juan worm

Ben Baxter’s hand-tied San Juan worm

The next day, we went to Breckenridge. We drove along the Upper Blue River above Dillon Lake and it was as muddy as a Kansas stream. This is awful water for trying to fly-fish. But I had my choice: go shopping with Christine in Breckenridge, or go fly-fish.  Um, I’ll take door number two, please.

the dirty blue

Upper Blue River south of Breckenridge – The Steps

I was the only idiot in the area called The Steps. Most mountain streams have, at one time or another, been decimated by mining and industry. Actually, most rivers in America have been wiped out with industrialization at one point in time.  Fortunately, conservation groups like Colorado Trout Unlimited help rehabilitate these streams. In the 1990s, these groups created The Steps which is a lovely place to fish.

There are three basic ways to fly-fish: dry fly, nymphing, and streamer.  Dry fly is my favorite because the bugs living in the water swim to the surface, hatch, then fly away. This happens at very random times and fisherman try to match-the-hatch with a fly that resembles what trout are feasting on.

The second is nymphing. You tie on strike indicator (same thing as a bobber but no fly-fisherperson with any dignity at all will ever call it a bobber), then two-feet below that you tie on your first nymph, like the Mysis, then you tie on to the hook of the Mysis another line about sixteen inches and tie on a San Juan worm. Then you cast that combination into the current and let it drift. This is the best way to catch fish, but not as much fun as a dry-fly.

The third is using streamers.  You tie on a fly that usually resembles a fish and throw it into the current, let it drift down until the fast water meets the slow water (called the seam) and being stripping it in.  This is usually a highly-successful and easy way to begin fly-fishing.

I’m sure people driving by thought I was nuts for fishing in the muddy water. But compared to shopping, this was heaven.  I was about to give up when the sweet thunk hit the end of my line and my nine-and-a-half foot long Sage rod bowed in a big arc and I nearly had a heart attack. I had a big fish, a strong current, weeds in the water, and my chance of landing him were minimal.  A miracle occurred and I landed him! I wanted to take a selfie, but I knew the fish, me, and my phone would all end up in the river so I laid the big ‘bow on wet grass and took his portrait. I fish catch-and-release so I quickly released him back into the river. It just proves a point I’ve suspicioned all along; luck plays a huge  part in fly-fishing.

blue river trout

Blue River rainbow I caught in The Steps below Breckenridge.

If you decide to go there, here are some great fly-fishing shops in Dillon, Silverthorne, and Breckenridge. They are very helpful and keep relatively up-to-date fishing reports.

Breckenridge- Mountain Anglers

Silverthorne – Cutthroat Angler

Dillon- The Colorado Angler

I only caught one fish, but captured some great images, made a few new friends, and found a few stories waiting for someone to tell them. All in all, I’d say I caught what I like to fish for.


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Springtime on the Prairie

Growing Up Kansas: The One Thing That Kept Me From Running Away From Home

It was not a good sign when my Mom volunteered to pack me a lunch when I threatened to run away from home. I found a hobo stick that was longer than I was tall that would serve as a multipurpose tool of sorts. One on end, I’d wrap up all my worldly possessions in a knapsack.

On the other end, I whittled a spear-like point so I could impale any charging lion that I might encounter along the journey. I was planning on running a long way from home and end up hanging with the Maasai in Africa. I knew missionaries there that treated ten-year-olds far better than my Mom treated me.

I don’t recall all the egregious methods of parenting my Mom was dog-piling on me, but making me eat liver-and-onions was the final straw. I had had enough; every man has his limit of enduring torture and mine was liver-and-onions.

I anticipated my announcement causing more reaction than it did. I hoped Mom would drop down on bended knee and apologize for making me eat liver-and-onions or, at the very least, drive me to Rosalia to spend the night with Kendall and Annie. She didn’t even look up from ironing Dad’s t-shirts while she was watching General Hospital.

Yes, she ironed my Dad’s t-shirts. And underwear. It was a different era.

            Me: “I’m running away from home.”

            Mom: “Okay.”

            Me: “I mean it this time. I’m leaving and never coming back.”

            Mom: “Want me to pack you a lunch?”

            Me: “Yes, please, I’d like a bologna sandwich.”

            Mom: “Don’t forget to wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident.”

Mom could never come up with sound reasoning for why a person needed clean under wear on in case of an accident, so I went to the Oracle, my Dad.

Me: “Dad, why does a person need clean underwear on in case of an accident?”

Dad: “I’m not sure; I’ve never figured that out, either. When an accident happens, first you say it then you do it so the underwear end up soiled anyway. Go ask your Mom again.”

Furthermore, I had a variety of fears that I kept around like pets. I’d feed and water them to make sure they stayed healthy and sometimes rescued a few from euthanasia. Occasionally, a visiting evangelist or missionary would drop off a new fear like a stray dog abandoned along our highway. It might be a picture of a nuclear warhead in Russia that was aimed at our house or a tribe of cannibals ready to boil me in beans, but I’d adopt that fear as my own. Being a good little Christian boy, those fears gave me a new way of feeling bad about not having enough faith, which ended up being a good thing after all. Feeling guilty about not having enough faith was genuine proof that I was a believer. I might make the rapture after all.

When my pet fears heard I made the decision to run away from home, they all threw a party and invited friends. They scrambled out of their cages and started jumping up and down; Oh, boy, this sounds like fun! I wanna go! I wanna go! Pick me! Pick me! I always had a hard time choosing teammates on the playground so I just decided to let them all go with me.

Therefore, preparation for the trip was based on what fear was the largest. Although missing the rapture was my perennial favorite of all-time-worst-fears, a different fear took center stage for my journey: the dark. I’d developed a nervous tic after watching The Skull with Jeff in New York when he took me to new levels of fear of the dark.

The epic journey required serious decision-making. What kind of things lurked in the dark? What kind of weapon would I need? Where would I find water along the way? How much food could I get in my knapsack? What if I run out of clean under wear?

I concluded that whatever was in the dark that posed an imminent threat could be dealt with in one of two ways: a bow-and-arrow for the long shots and a tomahawk for hand-to-hand combat. Fortunately, I had both in my arsenal.

The bow was a green fiberglass longbow about a foot taller than me. I’d collected enough nickels from the sale of pop-bottles so I bought the primitive weapon at T.G.&.Y. I purchased it to hunt on the prairie, but had yet to fine-tune my marksmanship to be a serious threat to anything other than a hay bale or the Cows of Hobson’s Pond.

Although I’m sure I could have hit one of the Cows, I knew better. After watching me practice on hay bales, they rightfully concluded that I might be scheming to take a shot at them.

Cows: “Hey McNary kid. You’re not planning on trying to shoot us with that are you?”

Me: “Um, well, it depends. You chase me through the pasture again and I just might.”

Cows: “You do realize, you little idiot, that there are more of us than there are of you. You might get one of us, but we’ll get you. And besides, we have a direct line to Jesus and if you try to take a shot at us, we’ll tell him to rapture every one else but leave you behind.”

The Cows knew where to find my soft underbelly.

The tomahawk was a real flint-knapped stone that we found in a field. Plowed fields in Kansas sometimes reveal treasure troves of ancient Native American artifacts like flint arrowheads, hide scrapers, drills, knives and, yes, a tomahawk head. We found the head, fashioned a stick to make a handle like we’d seen in various drawings, then covered it with blood from big, fat, gray ticks we’d pull off our dogs. We wanted it to look like we’d actually scalped a human being.

It was a communal tomahawk that Kendall and I shared and, yes, we lost it. Leave it up to a dumb little country kids to loose a thousand-year-old artifact. Oh, how I wish I had that back.

After much consideration, I finally chose the necessary items for the journey, rolled them up in a knapsack and tied it to my stick. I put on clean underwear, grabbed the bow, stuck the tomahawk in my belt loop, and bid my Mom farewell.

Me: “I’m leaving now. I’m running away from home.”

Mom: “Did you get your bologna sandwich?”

Me: “Yes, thank you. Can I take one of your bottles of Pepsi, too?

Mom: “Nope.”

Me: “Okay, well, I’ll be leaving now. Tell Dad not to come looking for me when he gets   home.”

Mom: “Okay. Call or write when you get wherever you’re going.”

I don’t know if I was expecting her to wail, bargain with me, or throw a farewell party, but I was a bit put off with her apparent lack of interest.

Little boys have no sense about what time of the day it is. Unlike my forbears who could look at the sun and tell you it was a-quarter-past-two, I only knew what time of the day it was by my Mom.

It’s time to get up.

It’s time to brush your teeth.

It’s time for lunch.

It’s time to come inside; it’s going to be dark soon.

It’s time to put on clean underwear.

Once outside, I checked my compass and set a course for due east along Highway 54. It was late summer and the withered grass would make the trek easy.

I made it about two-hundred-yards and noticed something quite disconcerting; it was getting dark.

Mom: “Back so soon?”

Me: “Yeah, I forgot to pack extra underwear.”

 Mom: “They’re in the dryer now; you’ll have to wait ‘till tomorrow.”

 Me: “Well, I really hate to, but I don’t want to be in an accident without clean underwear.”

Mom: “That’s very wise of you. By the way, I made some extra chocolate pudding while you were gone. Want some?”

Me: “Oh, I suppose.” Chocolate pudding was my kryptonite.

Mom: “Good, I’ll get some whip cream for it too. There’s always tomorrow to do what you started today.”

A big bowl of chocolate pudding with whip cream and a good night’s sleep gave me pause to reconsider my plans. Mom came into my room the next day as I was packing.

 Mom: “Here’s clean underwear for you.”

 Me: “Thanks, that’s what I was waiting on. I can go now.”

 Mom: “That’s probably best. I’m fixing liver-and-onions for dinner again tonight and I know you hate them.”

  Me: “Yes, yes, I do.”

  Mom: “But if you stay, I can fix you a hamburger.”

Every man has a price for which his principles can be bought or sold. Mine was a hamburger.

I never attempted to run away from home again. And, to this day, I never leave home without wearing a clean pair of underwear.

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PHOTO: Springtime on the Prairie- I took this photo east of Cassoday, Kansas, in the Flint Hills. Thousands of cattle sprinkle the prairie as ranchers fatten them on lush green grasses.

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