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Saturday, July 30, 2011

To Sleep Soundly, Meander More

     I have a photo or two that I haven't posted from the recent excursion down Ray County Line Road and points East, West, North and South (i.e. I really didn't have much of an idea where I was, other than the setting sun).

     Had fun with an otherwise unexciting shot of an old barn, a weathered one made from wood with a door that's hanging by a thread and a tangle of overgrown weeds in front. The photo was OK in color, nothing special, but I turned it to black and white and then sepia to find something I liked more. This won't win any awards, but it's that peaceful easy feeling you find on quiet country roads.

     The other shot's of a horse that had to wonder (and this is a direct quote), "What's this fool up to? I bet he works for the assessor." I tried to frame the photo with the three bales of hay in front, but what I like about it is that the horse's curiosity rivals mine, possibly exceeds it.

     If you like a photo, have advice or would just like to leave a comment, feel free. If you'd like a copy of one of my before-work or after-work photos, let me know at I can e-mail a high-resolution file or burn it to a CD and mail it to you for a reasonable price.

     Thanks again for looking and reading.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You try walkin' around in this damn cow suit!

I came across this farm house and field of beans and corn on Foot Hills Road.

     When time isn't a big factor, one of my favorite meandering routes is two-lane H Highway, which connects Liberty and Excelsior Springs. It's a twisty-turny road with two or three near 90-degree hairpin turns.
     As far as this road's concerned, the word "highway" is a bit of an exaggeration. It's more of a route, which is what the state officially calls it.
     If you're not paying attention and don't make one of the turns you're likely to become one with nature – and not necessarily in a good sense. I like the road, of course, because of the openness of the pastures and sky, the old graveyards, the herds of cattle, the red-winged blackbirds, the wildflowers and – maybe my favorite, several mules that graze next to a straight leg of the road that's sandwiched between two hairpins.
     There's no shoulder to pull over on, no driveways or farm roads to pull into, so if I stop and take a quick photo from the road – always with an eye on the rear-view mirror and nervous glances to see who might be coming in front of me. I'm no Ansel Adams, but I'm guessing he wouldn't put up with these hit 'n' run rural photo techniques.
     At the edge of Excelsior Springs – for you non-natives, the accepted local pronunciation is something very close to "sellser", as in "I have to go through Sellser to get there" – there's a sign that says to turn off to reach a popular winery. I rarely have time to wander, so I pass by and wonder where it is and what it looks like.
     Curiosity is definitely the only trait I share with the common cat, other than maybe napping frequently.
     I left work yesterday and didn't have anywhere to be and no one at home, so it was a green light to wander. I'd noticed a similar sign directing people to the winery from the other side of Sellser, this one off 10 Highway.
     The turnoff was right by the Sellser Springs Airport, a facility whose motto should be "Where Planes Take Off Twice Every Three Years".
     With some time to kill, I turned off and headed toward the winery and who-knows-where.
     After the usual twisting and turning and craning my neck to read street signs (as if I'd know their significance), I wound up on a gravel road named Ray County Line Road. That's pretty self-explanatory, since Ray extends to the edge of Sellser, where Clay County begins. Given all the political squabbles in the area, I'm surprised there's no Fray County.
     I found the road that leads to the winery, but by then I'd become far more interested in my wandering perusal than actually finding it. You've seen one winery, you've seen them all. You know, people in pressed linen slacks discussing vintage grape varieties and pretending not to be hitting the demon alcohol while guzzling it (in moderation, of course, with lots of cheese).
     I can understand that some people have no interest in seeing horses flicking flies off their tails, cattle cooling their heels (and everything else) in ponds, an old trucks parked on hills and rows and rows of braided corn and money-green soy beans.
     I took photos of most of the above, but never really knew where I was. It was after 5, so I was using the setting sun as my personal GPS (thank you, Mother Nature, thank you God) and making turns by instinct.
     When I passed a group of cattle in a pond, I stopped, rolled down the passenger-side window and took some photos. Sorry, Ansel, I'm a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. I took maybe five or six shots of the cows, but only one turned out to be interesting.
     All but one of the cows stopped doing what cows in ponds do and stared at the weirdo in the silver VW who'd stopped for no reason. When someone stops driving on a dusty country road, it can be big news. After one shot, they went back to chewing their cud or whatever it was they were doing and paid no attention to me. I suppose I would've been more accepted if I were there to feed them.
     All I could think of was a caption for the photo ... maybe something out of The Far Side ... picturing the cows talking like inner-city toughs from West Side Story or something.
     "Hey, what choo starin' at? Ain't you ever seen no one in a bath before? This friggin' cow suit is hot, you mutha!"
      My meandering finally led to to J Highway, another rural road where you take your life in your hands if you're not paying attention. I'm OK with that. When I'm on these roads, I'm all eyes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Highways, traffic, civilization: not on my watch

Before I go on and on about how wonderful my commute is, there are a few things that made it all possible: I-35 South, the (old Paseo Bridge), I-635 South, I-435 South, College Boulevard and the rest of the county that makes the good agrarian state of Kansas look bad (that would be Johnson County, the Gold Coast of Kansas City).
I like to think of Johnson County as Little Los Angeles, minus Hollywood, the ocean, the Byrds, Neil Young, fish tacos, palm trees (real ones, that is), Laurel Canyon and whatever makes that city tolerable.
In my previous lifetimes (I should say "jobs"), my commutes exposed me to the worst things civilization has wrought: cars, pavement, traffic lights, 9-to-5 jobs, accidents and the general degredation of nature in the name of development and monuments to mankind (i.e. big-box stores, apartments, office buildings, sprawling shades-of-beige housing additions and bigger-and-better highways that are never quite big enough for all the cars that use them).
When I commuted to south Kansas City, the direct routes were I-35 south to the Plaza and then south on Ward Parkway or I-435 to Wornall Road (it's pronounced either war-NELL or WARN-le, depending on your preference and upbringing) and the long, twisting route through Swope Park, which in its time must've been a beautiful urban sanctuary.
When I left early enough or was man enough to take my chances with encountering gridlock or an accident on I-35, my actual favorite route was getting off and taking The Paseo. Of course, where I live (Kansas City North near Pleasant Valley) and work (the good-ol' Mushroom Capital of the World), the simple word "Paseo" translates to "lock the car doors/pack a piece".
As a history lover and someone who's drawn to old architecture and boulevards with wide grassy areas between the lanes of traffic -- they call that "green space" now (feel free to vomit) -- the Paseo was never threatening, always interesting. There's a black church there that used to be a synagogue, back in the day when Jews and other white families lived there. They're gone, but the Hebrew writing on the side of the church remains.
I can only imagine how kids used to play on those broad grassy areas. There's enough width for a pick-up baseball game, not to mention 11-a-side soccer or football.
The Paseo's monuments and trellises are beautiful, enough so that I took my daughter's senior pictures with those urban works of art in the background.
When I went to work for the Kansas City Star, I was transferred to the Johnson County Bureau to be editor of the Olathe Neighborhood News. Never mind that the office was a good 10 miles from Olathe, which I would never have stepped foot in were it not for my own insufferable curiosity.
I enjoyed the work there, but it was the commute that was the killer. It was only 30 or so miles -- almost 10 fewer than I travel now -- but the choices were highway, highway or highway. I-35 through downtown was easily the riskiest as far as traffic was concerned; one car breaks down or there's an accident and (boom) you get to know more about your neighbors in other cars than you might care to.
God forgive me, but I'm not a big fan of watching people talking on their cell phones.
My nature is to escape traffic and delays, so I often used I-635, which cuts through Parkville and Kansas City, Kansas, before it hooks into I-35 in northern Johnson County. KCK is on a par with The Paseo when it comes to Caucasian/Suburban Stereotypical Fear, but I suppose I'd rather risk my life (not that I did) than get stuck in a traffic logjam where whitey feels safe!
So I took 635, which is relatively light on traffic and heavy on boarded-up retail establishments and gritty industrial areas. They don't bother me.
My favorite route, though, was that blessedly underused section of I-435 south that connects Johnson County with the airport. Johnson Countians have long grumbled about the location of the airport, but putting it up in the sticks created a road that cuts through pristine, hilly country from western Parkville south across the Missouri River (and, of course, lush river bottom) all the way to The Legends shopping center.
There's so much corn, you'd think you were in Orrick.
From The Legends south, things get dicey as the road gradually enters the suburban rash of apartment complexes, housing additions and strip malls, but the traffic's pretty light until it gets close to the nexus of I-35, I-435 and Kansas 10, the heart of the Joco monster.
It was during these two commutes that I developed my "leave the pocket," "get out of Dodge" approach to busy roads. My motto: I see traffic, I exit.
Everyone needs a creed to live by. That's mine.
If I have to drive 15 miles out of my way to avoid coming in contact with the eyesore of urban civilization, I do it. Nobody in my family understands the impulse, but that's OK. I do.
It explains, I think, how I feel about driving to work in Ray County. The only traffic I see is when I leave KC North or cross into Liberty on the way home.
Given where I've been in previous commuting lifetimes, I can handle a few big-box stores, chain restaurants, mini-vans, Cadillac SUVs with GPSs and traffic cameras (Hi, Mom!).
When I get home to Beige Estates, I lock the door and hole up. There's no reason to go out. I've got everything I need at home.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In the Magic Commute, there are several recurring themes, but everything hinges on beauty and taking time to stop

In my commute from Beige Estates -- my pet name for our suburban housing addition -- to Ray County, there are two basic routes. There's Highway 210 -- a flat, fertile Missouri River-bottom through south Liberty, Missouri City and Orrick -- and Highway 69/Highway 10, my often hilly "inland" route from north Liberty through Excelsior Springs, Wood Heights and Elkhorn and on into Richmond, the Mushroom Capital of the World (one of several, I've found).
These are the basics, which isn't to say I haven't wandered from time to time, found smaller paved roads that connect these routes and discovered buildings, pastures, herds, trees, train tracks, old cars and vistas that attracted -- and magically continue to attract my attention in different seasons, lights and moods.
Seeing and feeling beauty is one thread through The Magic Commute. But the other controlling factor is making time to stop, look and take photos. While working at a newspaper isn't exactly like working at a factory, there are general expectations of when the workday should begin and end. Many of the things I see and want to photograph are on the way to work, which creates a tug-of-war between punctuality and creativity. There have been winners on both sides. After all, I'm only human -- or, as I like to say, barely human.
The photo here was a stolen moment on the way to work. It was taken in Orrick, a town of under 1,000 people that's largely agricultural, has a main street with a good restaurant named Fubbler's, a community center (it's where bingo's played every week and there's a once-a-month country jam session), the Lions Club, post office and a few other things, including The Bearcat Den, a hamburger joint presumably named for the Orrick Bearcats, the two-time state football champs.
The building on the right's the grain elevator; the one of the left is also part of Orrick Farm Service, which sells seed, fertilizer, other crop inputs like insecticides and propane. Next to agriculture itself, it's the goingest business in town.
I saw the lighting and silhouette from the "highway" -- 210 -- and it was one of those days where the urge to stop and shoot a few photos out-muscled responsibility. I'm glad it did, even though sunrise/sunset/silhouette shots are like the Top 40 hits of photography. But I don't see myself as a serious photographer who lugs a tripod around and studies the technical ins and outs of a shot. I can't tell you what the shutter speed and aperture where, nor do I think the equipment matters as much as seeing beauty, feeling it, pointing and shooting.
But making time's the big thing, and on that day beauty seduced me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What the World Needs Now ... Another Blog, Sweet Blog

I've had the idea for The Magic Commute since December 2009 – the 14th to be precise – when I started working in Richmond, Mo., the capital (population 5,900) of Ray County. After a long period of self-employment (i.e. unemployment plus whatever freelance work I could scrounge up), I was hired as news editor at the (then) Richmond Daily News. The paper has since scaled back to twice-weekly publication, another sad chapter in the de-evolution of the newspaper industry (I believe we're in the Dinosauric Era at the moment). But then I was handed the gift of a daily 38-or-so-mile commute to Richmond.

This followed not-so-magical commutes to Johnson County, Kan, the Waldo area in Kansas City and the frontage road to I-29 in Kansas City, North. The words "frontage" and "I-29" pretty much speak for themselves.
The commute through the river bottom and pastures of Ray County have been a different story entirely. Nothing about it speaks for itself. Almost every day I discover a new road – virtually all gravel – that I someday hope to explore.  In a world clogged with blogs and other Digital Age wonders, this blog is created to speak for my commute – in words, photos, song lyrics and whatever other communicative appurtenances I can dredge up, including wanton improvisation.

Photos will be the starting point. Words and everything will follow their lead, all without the aid of a GPS, Smart Phone or Google Maps. A seeing-eye dog may be considered at a future date, however.

Hope you enjoy this! If you like what I see, let me know with posts or e-mail to