Holiday Road Trip and Day Trips To Boot–All Made for a Great Winter Break

Wind turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm line the wintery horizon in pastures along the Lincoln and Ellsworth county line, not far from Wilson Resevoir.

A wet, grey afternoon with some unexpected early hours off from work make it a good time to try out one of my Christmas gifts.  I received a set of silicon baking pans, so the square one is being used for brownies–mix-type–with a lot of goodies added.  We’ll see if I pack them up to share at work.

I can hardly remember a better Christmas since I was a kid back in the Santa Claus days.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, maybe mostly because I was prepared and things went as planned.  I even enjoyed the shopping and wrapping gifts, which sometimes I find tedious.

With the car all loaded the night before, Annie hopped onto her place on the passenger seat, and we headed out the morning of the 23rd for Kansas.  Even at the more than 11 hours (mostly stops for gas and a dog walk here and there), the drive wasn’t that bad.  The weather was mild and putting the car on cruise for long stretches of the interstate made the drive almost easier than my two hours each week day of commuting to work.

Needless to say, it was one of those Christmases of too many presents and too much food, what with a table-filled buffet spread at my sister’s and her kids and families.  Then the next day we headed off to my brother’s, the second year in a row that I was together with my two brothers and sister for Christmas dinner.  Until last year, there were a good many years in between that for one reason or another we all hadn’t gotten together for the holiday.  I think we all realize that we are a pretty lucky group that have our health (yeah, we all have a prescription for high blood pressure, but, hey!) and get along well to boot.

I headed back to Houston on the first day of the new year, but before that I spent some relaxing day drives with my sister as part of what I would say was one of the best vacations for a long time.  One of my goals during the trip was to load a cooler with some Kansas cured meat.  I like to go back to the very store that I went to with my dad when I was a kid and pick up smoked sausage.  Back in my tag-along days, it was called Klema IGA; now it’s Wilson Family Foods, in Wilson, Kansas.  The store hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s still a good store for a small town.  I wish I could have broad back some of the fresh meat from the cooler because there’s no comparing  it to plastic, no-taste stuff I find in the big name super markets out here in the suburbs.

Another place we like to go is Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas, Kansas, about a 20-mile drive that passes by Wilson Resevoir, which is much more impressive to me these days than it was when I passed by it back when I was a college kid going to and from a summer job.

Locally, it's called Ralph's Ruts (Rice County, Kansas). This is one of the few places where you can still see the Santa Fe Trail, which was dug out by the thousands of teams of wagons that passed through in the 1800s.

Geese feeding in a field near Odin, Kansas. These are part of the large numbers of ducks and geese that stop annually at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area not far away.

The parking lot at Meridy's Restaurant in Russell, Kansas. The buffet is loaded with mounds of fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and gravy that rival Mom's. It's basically a "have-to" on every Kansas trip. (It's right off I-70 if you're making a trip through western Kansas.)

Over the several day trips, we didn’t go but a county or two away from my sister’s house in Lyons, Kansas, but each outing held a new discovery or re-discovery in the central part of the state where I grew up.  My car brought back with it some dried Kansas mud from some of the few dirt roads that had not but a few days before been plowed clear of snow.  I can say that even though I’ved lived a good long time outside of Kansas, I’ve still got some of that same dirt in my blood.  (I’ve got other photos that I wanted to include, but WordPress is kicking my butt right now as I try to insert them.)

This old limestone schoolhouse has been empty and looked the same since I was a kid riding by on the school bus. This is one of the landmarks I was looking for on a day trip filled with memories. This was also the road that kicked up all the mud onto the sides of my car.

The train still passes by the local wheat elevator in my hometown of Dorrance, Kansas, pretty much the way it has for many years.

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A Christmas Road Trip, Digging Up History, and a Garden for the New Year

It’s a little late to say it, I suppose, but “Happy New Year” to anyone who slips and falls upon this page.  This is the first post of the new year, as other interests, including just lying around, have gotten in the way of writing.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, but on January lst, I felt motivated to plant a “winter garden” in my little plot behind the garage.  There were already several pepper plants still producing from last summer and a couple of tomato plants that I planted in November with several tomatoes on each; now I’ve set in 80 red onions and 10 shallots (let’s see), a couple of rows of yellow beans, and several varieties of lettuce.  It’s been a rainy evening here, with more than an inch already, so this moisture should get everything going.  Although the thermometer has read 29 or 30 on several occasions, everything down inside my back yard seems to have been protected.

A few days before Christmas, I loaded up the car, and with Annie for a co-pilot headed up to Kansas for the holidays.  Even with quite a number of short stops for gas, dog walks, and grab-and-go food, we made each way in between 11 and 12 hours.  Both driving days were grey and dreary, and coming back took longer because we ran into rain and, of course, more traffic coming into Houston. 

Driving that far in one day is always a bit grueling, but stopping to stay somewhere along the way just never seems worth it, and it’s always so good when I arrive up there, and just as good when I get back home.

The Christmas festivities carried on over several days, of course, with a lot of presents and too much, but really delicious, food and goodies.  Even though Mom is now gone, almost every one of her kids and grandkids (including in-laws) seems to enjoy cooking and is pretty good at it as evidenced by all the variety.

My sister and I are both history buffs, and whenever I get back to Kansas, we take some kind of road trip to “the old stomping grounds.”  The beauty of the mostly treeless, somewhat stark, rolling plains of central Kansas, where I grew up, always amazes me.  When I was living there, it was something I couldn’t see.  Another noticeable thing is that life is changing; there are fewer and fewer small farms, and you have to drive more and more miles between farmsteads where someone actually lives.  And thus, the small towns, and even not so small ones, are losing population.  Some of the smaller places will soon be just a spot on the road.  This is not something new, though; if you look at the census numbers, the decline in rural counties in Kansas started as far back as the 1920s.

We had a good drive, though, taking us back down memory lane, and finding answers for some of the questions about places that we had been talking about.

The Smoky Hill River from the Dlabl Bridge southeast of Wilson, Kansas. We encountered this new bridge after taking a scenic sand road north from Holyrood.

An old tombstone with German inscriptions in the tiny Immanual Cemetery southwest of Wilson, Kansas. The Smoky Hills can be seen in the back.

One of the markers that were erected to show the route of the Butterfield Overland Despatch (sic) that followed the Smoky Hill Trail through Kansas. Down the draw from this marker is the spot where I believe the Hick's Station was located.

Rolling farmland (winter wheat in the foreground) surrounds my old hometown of Dorrance, Kansas.

VW Bug and College Life on the Great Plains (Chapter 4)

I went to college in the middle of the Vietnam War years. Though I’d had my VW painted purple and maybe even had a peace sticker on the back window, I was hardly a hippie or a protester. Right at the time I started college, my brother had just come back from Vietnam and gotten out of the army, so I was personally aware of the war and its consequences, but I’d really never thought about whether I was for or against it.

I went to college in Hays (Fort Hays State) and sometimes drove the 44 miles home on the weekends. Forty-four miles seemed much further in those days, and some of the trips back to school on a Sunday night felt long, especially in the winter. The VWs of the 60s had terrible heaters, and sometimes the car never got warmed up the entire ride, and if there was snow or sleet, it would freeze on the windshield because the defroster had so little effect. I know there were times that it was so difficult to see through the windshield and through the blowing snow that it was only because the car knew its own way that we got back to Hays.

However, being light-weight and having the engine in the back, the car got really good traction. Because of that, if the streets around Hays hadn’t been plowed clean, my roommates would always get me to drive. My last year at Fort Hays, we had gone back for inter-session ( a short 2-week mini-semester) early in January, but there had been such a big blizzard that they called off classes for a few days. Of course, we had to get out of the apartment anyway. We found out that the movie theater downtown was open, so we got into the VW and headed out. With the weight of four guys in the car, we moved pretty well through the snow-filled streets, but sometimes we’d run into a drift in the road and the car would just get stuck; then, the other three would jump out of the car and push it through, jump back in and off we’d go. When we finally made it downtown, there weren’t many other cars out and the crowd inside the movie theater was a meager bunch of the most hardy of souls, or maybe the craziest. I guess we felt something like pioneers for being able to get ourselves through all that snow to watch a movie.

The student population at Fort Hays was very homogeneous in those days. The farm population of western Kansas was already dwindling, but not nearly as much as it has in more recent years. Most little towns still had their own high schools as consolidation had just barely started. Like me, the majority of the students came from small Kansas towns and from a more or less isolated existence. There were some out-of-state students and a few foreign students, but most of us came from the same rural background. The first black guy I met was at Fort Hays, but he too was from a small western Kansas town. (Nicodemus, Kansas was started by the exodusters, freed slaves from the South, who settled in western Kansas after the Civil War.) The people I went to school with were basically nice people, really good people, but I think most of us had grown up relatively naive to what was going on very far beyond our part of the state.

Even so, there were a few anti-war rallies on campus, but they were tame in comparison to most, and certainly there were no campus buildings damaged or destroyed by war protestors like happened at KU and some other campuses around the country.

There was a “head shop” that sold mostly black lights and black light posters, but drug use wasn’t that big. Like most college towns, there were a few bars and clubs that attracted students, but aside from weekends, I didn’t know that many people who drank that much. However, one of my roommate’s dorm friends was a pothead of sorts. Through him, I had my first and only experience in Hays of getting high. He had this stash–and, yes, it was truly stashed. One night four of us went out to the college farm to this pasture testing area. There were some test plots, which had fences around them in order to let the native plants grow and prevent the cows–or maybe buffalo (they had some buffalo out there too)–from eating them. We drove all over the place until we located the right plot, and the guy who had the pot stashed went and dug out this big bag of pot–I mean it was about the size of a bread sack. (I wonder how much that amount might be worth today.) He got back in the car, and we drove to another place there on the college farm, which looked out over the city. (At about 15,000 it was a city to all of us from towns of 300 or so.) He rolled some, and we proceeded to smoke it, looked at the glowing city lights, peered through the swirls on glass Pepsi bottles, and laughed a lot. I don’t know whether I got high from smoking the marijuana or just from the excitement of that new experience, but whatever, it all felt a bit dangerous but nonetheless fun.

My social life was typical of most of the “dormies”. Most of the students at Fort Hays were either dormies, lived in a frat or sorority house, or lived at home and commuted. Of course, like my roommates and I during our final year, some of the dormies eventually moved into apartments.

Looking back, the four of us probably could have been classified as nerds, but I don’t think there was such a stigma of being studious as there is today. The three of them were science majors of one kind or another and I was an English major. They studied more than I did, but we all ended up getting good grades. On the other hand, after living in the dorm for three years, we did like to have parties. About once a month, on a Saturday night, we’d throw a party, inviting everyone we knew. Of course, it was always alcohol-centered. If food was involved, there was never anything much more elaborate than some bags of chips. Sometimes, we’d have a “trashcan party”. We’d get some cans of Hi-C, pour it into a big plastic trash can, then everybody would add whatever booze they’d brought into the can. Sometimes, there would be 60 or 70 people inside our small two-bedroom apartment on Custer Drive, with the majority of them spilling out onto the balcony that ran all along the second floor. Well, maybe we weren’t such nerds (and maybe some people did drink quite a bit) after all.

Somehow I got this girlfriend, the first semester of my senior year. I had had a few dates before then, but for the most part, I was scared of girls. Don’t get me wrong; I liked girls, and always had lots of friends who were girls, starting from grade school. Dating, though, was a different matter. In college, I was pretty out-going and involved with student government and other organizations, and lots of other guys I knew were dating, and even getting married, so I guess I felt it was something I should do. I really never felt pressured to do it, for sure not from my roommates, who had less going on in that part of their social lives than I did.

Anyway, that fall, I started dating this girl, who was a year younger than I was. I guess you could say she was on the aggressive side when it came to making the moves. No doubt, she was more experienced than I was, because I had never had any kind of physical relationship with a girl up till then. She seemed to really be into me, so at the beginning I liked going out with her. She liked to come out to our apartment and get me into my shared bedroom, even with the roommates out in the living room, which sort of embarrassed me. There were two things, though, making me reluctant to go all the way: one, I just wasn’t quite as interested in doing it as she was, and second, my mom had put “the fear” in me when I was back in high school about getting a girl pregnant. So while we can say there was sometimes a lot of frenzied action, “no deal was ever completed”.

We soon “started going steady”, exchanging high school class rings and framed photographs. Then not too far down the road, she got me even to look at some engagement rings in a downtown jewelry store. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight, I realized that this girl was one of those who went to college to get an M.R.S. degree. One weekend, we drove out to meet her parents in Ulysses, where her dad was a school administrator.

Saturday of that weekend, we went around town looking at different churches because the church she and her parents attended would just not do for the wedding she was thinking about; it wasn’t big enough nor nice enough. Mind you, I had not even asked her to get married, but to her it was a foregone conclusion. Sunday morning, we all went to their church, a Baptist church. (Growing up, I went to the Methodist church in Dorrance with my family, and it was pretty low key: a lot of singing of hymns, which I liked, and listening to the boring sermons, which were mostly about how to be a good person, and probably sometimes about how people needed to give more money. When I was about 13 or 14, there were three of us who took catechism classes at the church parsonage in Wilson, taught by the grizzly old preacher that we had at that time. We had to learn Bible verses and other lessons in order to become full members of the church. I really didn’t like going because this old geezer thought that he really had to put the “fear of God” in us. He treated us like we were stupid and primarily terrified us. In the end, I did become a member of the church, but I never liked going after that.) I knew people who were Baptists when I was growing up, and they were no different than any of the rest of us Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever. I guess maybe they weren’t supposed to dance, but I think at that time if you were really a strict Methodist, you weren’t supposed to dance either.

But this Baptist church in Ulysses was really different. The preacher was one of those “fire and brimstone” types, and he said that if you weren’t a Baptist, you were going to Hell, but you couldn’t be just any Baptist; if you weren’t a member of that particular Baptist church there in Ulysses, you were going to Hell.

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel like a runner caught between second base and third base in a squeeze play. That drive back to Hays was one that I couldn’t wait to end, and over the next few weeks, I began to distance myself. I knew I didn’t want to get married to this girl, (and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to marry any girl), not because of what had happened during that weekend, but I knew I wasn’t in love with her.

She still had one more card to play; a couple weeks later, she called up and told me that her period was late. I didn’t do anything but worry for a couple of days, wondering how her being pregnant was biologically possible and what I would do if she were. Then finally convinced by a mutual friend, she told me that she had made it up. The one thing I wanted back was my class ring, so I went over to her dorm with her ring and picture. She still had a couple more scenes left in that little drama of hers; when I took her ring and picture back over to her dorm, she started screaming and threw my ring and framed picture down the stairwell at me, shattering the glass all over the place.

Sometime after I had graduated and was already in the Air Force, I heard that she was able to get that M.R.S. degree. Over the years, I’ve thought back on that fall of my senior year and what a miserable mistake it would have been if that relationship had gone any further.

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You may also want to read VW Bug and a Summer Job, VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter 2, and VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town.

After Hurricane Ike: Getting Back To a Routine, But Thinking About Blizzards and “Bierochs” (Recipe Included)

This week really felt good–getting back to a normal schedule, after being at loose ends without electricity and not working. I feel so fortunate to have pretty much everything back to normal, when there are so many who don’t, from those still without electricity here around town, to those down on the coast and other places inland, who lost so much–homes, jobs, and, in some cases, even loved ones.

A Clean Fridge

A Clean Fridge

It’s actually nice to start with a clean, fresh refrigerator. I threw everything out the next day after Hurricane Ike came through, knowing that even though the fridge was still cool, the electricity probably wasn’t going to come back on soon enough to save anything, and, in fact, it didn’t.

Somehow restocking the fridge and just going through being without utilities for a few days got me to thinking about the blizzards that we used to have on the farm when I was a kid. If there was an ice storm, or the winds were strong enough and snapped a pole, then there’d be no electricity. And the electric crews couldn’t get out to repair the lines until the snow plows opened up the drifted roads.

The worst storm I remember was when I was in maybe second or third grade. The drifts in front of the house were lots taller than Dad, and some of the drifts on the roads covered them completely, so it was hard to know where the roads and ditches were or where the stone post and barbed wire fences were alongside them. That year, the National Guard flew out in helicopters or airplanes and tried to throw hay bales down for the herds of cattle that were stranded out in the snow. Apparently, they missed their target somewhere between our place and town, because they ended up tossing some of the bales down onto some power lines, and made getting the electricity back on much more of a problem. It took two weeks to get electricity back and for the snow plow to come make a way for us to get out.

During the time the lights were out, the biggest problem on our farm was getting water because there was an electric pump on the well. There was a tank in the well, but even if there was electricity, sometimes the pipe from the well to the house would freeze up. If it didn’t freeze, we’d try to make the water from the tank stretch, just using it for drinking. For washing, we’d go out and get snow to melt or go to the creek, break the ice on top, and bring it back, then strain it with the milk strainer to get it clean enough to use.

A lot different than these “modern” days, when a hurricane comes through during the hot months, keeping food and cooking it was never really a big problem when the electricity went off during a blizzard. Things from the fridge that needed to stay cold could go out in the wash house, where they would stay really cold or even frozen. Also Mom always kept cupboards stocked with the basics like flour and lard, and there was milk and cream from the couple of milk cows that we usually had, which needed to be milked blizzard or no blizzard. We also used propane for the cook stove and heating, so we always kept warm and ate well. Out back, we had “the cave”, which held the jars of canned vegetables and fruits and a bin filled with potatoes. (The cave is another story altogether.)

Mom cooked a lot on cold days because it warmed up the kitchen, which helped keep the entire house warmer. It seems like we always had a lot of soups on those cold winter days. Because we had chickens, we had homemade noodle soup and from our own meat, vegetable beef soup, and, well, chili too. Mom made the best angel food cakes, and I usually got a chocolate angel food cake for my birthday. (You’re thinking I’m changing the subject, but I’m not.) The angel food cake Mom made took a dozen egg whites, so then the yolks were left over–Just what is needed to make homemade noodles. Mom would roll them out on the linoleum-topped kitchen table into big round circles, and then hang them over the backs of the chairs to dry a bit. Then she’d lay all of them one on top of the other, roll them up, and slice them into thin, curly strips, spreading them out on the table to dry some more. That’s when we’d try to sneak a few of the fresh, uncooked noodles without her seeing us. Well, I did that; being the youngest, I know I did. And I got away with it most of the time.

We had our own meat from the cows we raised. Dad would get somebody to take one of the younger ones that had been born the spring before into Klema’s in Wilson, where it would be butchered. Klema’s also had a locker plant, which rented lockers where you could keep the meat that had been butchered frozen. I’d go back in there with Dad when we went to get groceries; it was so cold that they had extra coats hanging on some hooks that you could wear while you were inside the locker part. Dad had his own key for our locker, which he opened and got the meat that we wanted for that week. There was no cellophane or styrofoam on those packages of meat; everything was wrapped in white butcher paper, taped closed, and stamped with whatever cut of meat was in the package: Pike’s Peak roast, round steak, hamburger, and the like.

From our own ground beef, one of the best cold weather dishes that Mom made was bierochs (pronounced beer-rocks). (Actually, now that I’m writing this I’m thinking that I’m going to make some when the first really cool weekend arrives here in Houston. But who knows when that will be?) Not many people are familiar with beirochs unless they’ve got some German-Russian in their heritage. And I don’t mean German or Russian, I mean German-Russian. In the area of Kansas where I grew up there were lots of people whose heritage is German-Russian. I don’t know the history of it all because our family was not of that descent, but apparently, for reasons of not wanting to be in one military or another military, at some point, large numbers of these people immigrated from Germany to somewhere near the Volga River in Russia, and then in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, many of them or perhaps their descendants immigrated to the US, especially to parts of central and western Kansas.

And one of the best things they brought with them was bierocks. It was one of those dishes that many people in my little town of Dorrance made (and still make), and my mom was one of them. I guess she may have learned how from an aunt. We didn’t have bierochs too often at home because they’re one of those delicious dishes that take time to make. Basically, they are a meat and cabbage filled bun. The filling is the easy part, and it doesn’t take exact measurements. How much of the few ingredients you use depends on how many bierochs you want to make.

In a big skillet, you need to brown up some ground beef (a pound or two) and some onion, just like you might do if you were making spaghetti sauce. Then drain off any grease that cooks out. Then add at least a half of head of shredded cabbage. Again, you might want more cabbage if you’ve used more ground meat. (My mom used to complain that some other women were cheap and didn’t use enough, or maybe any meat.) Salt and pepper well because the cabbage, especially, will absorb the seasonings. (I’ve lived in Texas so many years that sometimes I also add about a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper.) Put a lid on the meat and cabbage mixture and let the cabbage cook down some. The cabbage can stay a tad on the not-so-cooked side because this filling will cook a bit more when baking the bierochs themselves. When cooked, let the mixture cool down some before filling the dough. I’ve seen some recipes that add ketchup and mustard and a few other ingredients, but ground beef, cabbage, a little onion, and salt and pepper is “the Dorrance way”.

To make bierochs quickly, some people like to roll out dinner rolls from the dairy case to use for the outside. I’ve tried that, but the results are just “OK”. You really need a good recipe for homemade rolls, or “buns” as we’ve always called them, for the bread covering of the bierochs, if you’re going to make “real” bierochs. As I said before, the filling is the easy part, so if you’re going to make homemade dough, you have start it first. And if you’re going to have bierochs for supper, you might want to get the dough started in the morning, depending on how fast your dough rises. Making bierochs really is not difficult, but because there are several steps, it does take time.

Here is my mom’s “bun” recipe, but I’ve also used one that included a mashed boiled potato and the potato water. Both are good.

1/4 cup warm water, 1 package yeast, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3 tablespoons shortening, 2 beaten eggs, 2 cups boiling water, and 7 cups flour

Dissolve yeast in the 1/4 cup of water. (Add a teaspoon of sugar to make the yeast rise.) Put sugar, salt, and shortening in a large glass or crock bowl. Add 2 cups of boiling water, and let cool. Add beaten eggs, yeast, and four cups of the flour. Beat well (with an electric mixer). Then add the rest of the flour and stir in gradually. Let rise until doubled.

For bierochs, take a portion of the dough and roll it out on a flour-covered surface until it is about 1/4 (or less) inch thick. Cut the dough into pieces about six inches square. You’ll probably need to roll each piece again as it tends to pull back together once you cut it. Using a spoon, heap about 1/4 cup of the filling into the center of the square of dough. Then fold the corners in so that all 4 corners meet; pinch all of the seams tightly closed. Then place the bierock in a greased baking pan, seam side down. Continue making the individual bierocks and arranging them in rows in the baking pan. The bierocks do not need to touch in the pan because they need to rise one more time before baking. Place a tea towel over the entire pan (or pans depending how many you have made) and let rise until they look like soft pillows. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the bierochs until they are golden brown on top. (If you have made more dough than filling, you can make the rest of the dough into “buns”. With your hands greased, roll the dough into balls a bit larger than a silver dollar, place them in a greases baking pan, let rise, and then bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.)

Some people like to make much bigger bierochs, maybe because they think they can make them faster, but I like them about the size of a hamburger bun (only square). Plan for two or three per person. These are great with a nice salad or vegetables alongside. Some people (including me) like to dip bierochs in a little ketchup; however, some people are purists and like them plain. They are great right out of the oven, but they can also be kept in the refrigerator and heated up in the microwave. They also freeze well if they are kept in a very tight plastic bag or container.

Still today, after eating foods from all over the world, if someone asks me what my favorite is, I’ll still say the same thing that I would have said when I was about 10 years old: bierochs.

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