Howdy from Garden City, Kansas in the heart of the American West. Just down the road to the east is the famous Dodge City. This is the heart of the Dust Bowl, a stop on the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, it sits on the Santa Fe Trail and the Arkansas River. Everyone here is adjacent to agriculture, the descendants of farmers or ranchers, homesteaders, or people who built businesses to support those endeavors. Suffice to say it is the west, and it feels like it. There are brick streets downtown, grain elevators rising to the sky beside the train tracks, a smell of cows in the air, and its dry and dusty, and the sun is shining.
I’ve been here for a couple of days staying with my good friend Valarie Smith, host of Songbirds on High Plains Public Radio, musician, and longtime friend of mine. We met years ago when I worked at the Olde Town Pickin’Parlor in Arvada, Colorado. Valarie is a real booster of Garden City and seems to be involved in everything around here. I’ve gotten to know this prairie city very well thanks to her promotion of it and all the invitations from HPPR and Tumbleweed music festival to perform (both organizations she is deeply involved in).
It’s great to get out on the high plains to play shows. I love the prairie-land and these communities feel so familiar to me. I grew up in Gering, Nebraska and Wheatlland, Wyoming, both prairie towns in the west. There is a lot of similarity between the places I have played on this tour and where I grew up. It’s almost as if I could see an old friend around any corner. The main streets are different but the same. The businesses have different names but do the same things (farm insurance, land titles, etc.) The main streets are both unique and the same all at once.
Friday, October 13th, I was in Lamar, Colorado playing at the Shore Arts Center. I have passed that places several times driving to venues and was glad to have had the chance to stop and play a show. It’s similar to other arts centers in Kansas where I have played. A large empty room roughly set up for events and clearly used quite a lot. There is a thriving wind and percussion ensemble in Lamar that uses the space for rehearsal. The Shore Arts Center has a huge fascade with the name boldly displayed and you can’t miss it if you’re headed from Denver toward Garden City, Kansas. Your turn is right at the corner.
I was met by a nice man named Ken who was in a motorized cart and helped set up chairs around the place. We chatted about music and history. Ken is a music enthusiast who said he had seen Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker in concert once. He told me that he used to deliver jewelry in downtown Denver, and that he used to dress in dirty clothes so no one would suspect that he had huge amounts of money with him. He’s an enthusiastic listener to High Plains Public Radio. He said he had polio when he was younger and that’s why he uses his motorized scooter. We had a nice talk while I was setting up and tearing down.
Arts centers like the Shore Arts Center are nice in a lot of ways. Small towns often struggle to keep arts centers open or well funded. But just having them in the community brings opportunities and outside influence into a community. They are places of connection where someone like me can meet some local folks and get to know an area. They become “living rooms” of the community where people come together just to be around one another. All it takes is people to support them, and all someone has to do to support them is to show up for the events. Of course it’s nice when there are people who are willing to pick up a broom or sling a paintbrush, or contribute some money to the place, but showing up and enjoying the events is perhaps the most fulfilling way of supporting these organizations. It is the reason the exist.
Thanks to Ken, and Trevor La Cost (and all the other folks keeping the Shore Arts Center going) for what they do. Even at its easiest it takes work. If you’re in Lamar check out the events at Shore Arts Center, and if you’re passing by give a wave as you drive by!
I went to Goodland, Kansas on October 14th. The drive north from Lamar out across the prairie was very beautiful. I have seen a lot of the eastern plains of Colorado but the stretch from Lamar to Cheyenne Wells is especially beautiful. It’s right in the heart of the Dust Bowl region and it easy to see the history in the landscape. Many fields had already been harvested and were dry and dusty. There are scattered old abandoned homesteads along the side of the reload. Old windowless houses with gnarled trees that someone planted in the early 20th century, but that died when no one was there to take care of them. The kinds of things that you see throughout the west, but that are so poignant when the landscape looks like a Dust Bowl photo. I couldn’t help but wonder who lived in these places and what happened to them? Some of their descendants are still around I’m sure. Some of them are gone forever.
There was an eclipse on the 14th and about 10:30 am I noticed that the light got very strange out on the prairie, as if there was smoke from a fire. The air gained an unusual pink/yellow hue and the grain elevators and silos took on an eerie feeling. I pulled over a couple of times to try to see the eclipse by lookin gat a shadow through a pin hole. But, I didn’t have any luck and I didn’t have any eclipse glasses. Regardless, I enjoyed the lighting effect. I saw the 2017 total eclipse and that was unbelieveable. It was one of the most moving natural phenomenon I have ever experienced.
The museum in Goodland, Kansas is nice. Sami, the curator and museum director, does a nice job maintaining the exhibits. I used to volunteer at the museum in Wheatlland, Wyoming. We had a large collection of stuff, but a lot of these community museums end up being collections of stuff people don’t want to keep, but that they don’t want to throw away. Often the exhibits are. A hodge-lodge of stuff with tangential relevance to the story of the town. Often, their contribution to the story of the community is just that it is something that belonged to someone who lived in the community. But that’s not the case with the Goodland Museum.
They have nice collections grouped into relevant displays about the community and events from the community’s past. I enjoyed reading the displays and learning about the railroad lines and settlement of the area. It’s very similar to the story of settlement in western Nebraska and Wyoming (of course it’s not that far away). They also have an amazing “working” model of the first patented helicopter in the United States. It never flew, but the design was patented and the model features a button that visitors can press and watch the rotors turn. It’s quirky and cool. Definitely worth a stop if you’re driving by on the interstate. The museum is free and the folks there are really nice.
I did a small presentation on western history and music for a nice crowd of locals. We talked about general western history and that led to conversations about local railroading history and farming stories. A nice cowgirl poet named Helene Landenberger shared a poem with us. Sami brought out some special items from the museums collection for display including a conductor’s hat, a wagon brake, and a butter mold.
That evening I played at Terra Bona Hawaiian Shaved Ice in downtown Goodland. Nick Evert, who is on the board of the Carnegie Arts Center and runs an amazing flower shop downtown, suggested that I play there because it iss like the “living room of Goodland” as many people too me. Mary Ellen and her husband John make amazing shaved ice treats and serve coffee drinks as well. The place filled up with families coming in to play games and visit with each other. It was full pretty much the entire night and had a fun community vibe.
Nick’s flower shop is connected to Terra Bona and he has lots of creative and stylish arrangements there. He has little ceramic tile ornaments with adhesive that folks can use to make their own arrangements. If you find yourself in Goodland make sure to stop by and see what he’s up to. Oh, and the Hawaiian shaved ice at Terra Bona is amazing. Make sure to get the sweet cream. You won’t be sorry…guilty maybe…but not sorry.
I met my friend John Depew in Garden City the next day and we played a fundraiser for the Tumbleweed music festival where I have played many times. The festival board put on a bluegrass & bloody Mary’s event that was lots of fun. John is an amazing musician, songwriter, and artists from Arlington, Kansas. He sounds like Kansas. I can’t think of an artist that more suits his surroundings than him. His songs are fantastic, his musicianship is outstanding, and he’s a dang good guy. Make sure to check out his music. We played some Tim O’Brien songs together and had a nice time swapping songs back and forth together.
High Plains Public Radio music host Jenny Inzerillo had me on her show on October 16th. I played a few songs while she did fundraising for their October pledge drive. She’s a fantastic radio host and a tremendous resource for music in the HPPR region. She’s also a lot of fun to hang out with and talk about music. I always learn so much about new music from radio DJs and they always introduce me to new artists and movements happening within music. It’s a real skill to be a good DJ and Jenny has the talent for it. Make sure to catch he show in the mornings on HPPR you can listen online at HPPR.org.
Tuesday, October 17th I played in Lakin, Kansas at the Cottonwood Coffeehouse which is a real treasure in western Kansas. I love drinking coffee and have been to a lot of coffee shops, but the coffee at this place is extra special. Even better than a lot of upscale coffee shops I have been to in cities around the country. John, the owner, said a local person roasts their coffee and they serve homemade food every day. There was a nice mix of regulars and folks who came specifically for the music. I played in the morning and tried to catch the lunch rush. I met some ladies who attended the University of Northern Colorado and a chatty old guy who told me about getting in a car chase with the Nebraska Highway Patrol in his old Ford F-150. Everyplace is full of characters.
I’ve been seeking out good tacos on this trip. There’s no shortage of places to try out here on the high plains. I had great lengua tacos at Lucy’s Tacos in Lamar and perhaps the best tacos birria I have ever had from a food truck in Garden City called Taqueria Cuernavaca. If you’re in those areas looking for tacos I defininately recommend those spots. I also had a great lunch at Traditions Soda & Sandwich in Garden City which is an old soda fountain that has been open since 1954. It still has the old menu posted behind the bar. It’s like walking into an old world.
There hasn’t been much time for sightseeing sinc eI’ve been staying busy playing and teaching, but I was able to make it to the Finney County Museum in Garden City where they have the worlds biggest (and most disgusting) hairball ever removed from cows stomach (YUCK!) The Lee Richardson Zoo right next door is pretty cool and free to the public if you are willing to walk. It costs $10 to drive through. Some of the highlights include black rhinos, friendly otters, comical lemurs, and lots of big cats. I’m also a fan of their bactrian camels (two humps) which you don’t see as often out here as dromedaries (one-hump).
It’s great to be back on the road and I’m grateful to get to do this as a career. I love meeting folks out here in these communities and seeing this region of the world. Thanks for following along and I hope to see you at a show sometime soon!