Pulling on Trouble’s Braids: Kansas Road Trip

It was hard to get beyond my first impressions of the guy I met in Kansas during the windstorm. While setting up camp, I eyed his small, dented box of a trailer the size of a garden shed. No license plate, decals faded and peeling, the windows opened out and banging in the winds. His trailer lot was chock full of dried grass, desiccated dog poop, a broken ladder and empty fuel tanks. This place looked like so many I’d seen while traveling across the country. It’s the hallmark of an entire group of people who travel brokenly and follow along after jobs. If they’re lucky, they live in pay-by-the-month trailer lots and take showers in public restrooms. If unlucky, they sleep in their trucks through summer heat and winter’s blizzards.

Mark was one of the lucky ones.

The first time I saw him, he was getting out of someone else’s truck, a case of Miller Lite tucked under his arm. I’d seen about five empty cases of Miller Lite in the dumpster, along with Wild Turkey whiskey bottles and broken lawn chairs. His, I assumed, and I watched as he flipped a cigarette butt out on the drive before slamming his way into his trailer.

It was in the low 90’s that day. The sun was still burning high in the flat blue sky, and I thought his trailer looked like a Kansas grasslands kind of hell. He had no air conditioning and I imagined him in there, windows too small, air stagnant and saturated by the smell of cigarette smoke and beery body sweat.

The heat stayed steady while the winds tugged at everything in the park, including his ripped awning that snapped and fluttered on bent poles. An hour or so before sundown, he came out, shirtless, wearing baggy gym shorts that slid down narrow hips, a cigarette locked between his teeth. He held a roll of duct tape in one hand as he tried to prop his broken ladder against the trailer with the other.

By the time I’d wrestled with the wind for my trailer door and made my way around to his lot to offer a hand, he’d somehow navigated the ladder and wrapped tape around the plastic awning. Mark was his name, and he works for a company that builds concrete bases to support electric substations. The ones that move electricity through power grids across the country. The stations with springy electrodes, steel cables and towers that stand tall against the sky. The ones that look like they’re BIG and IMPORTANT and GOING SOMEWHERE, even if it’s across deserts and alongside feedlots. Mark thinks these electrical towers are another way of conquering the country. “We’re just finding new ways of making a buck,” he says.

Mark and I stand in a Kansas shitstorm and he tells me what it’s like to scrape the ground, dig up rocks he calls “leave-ems,” and move on to the next place. “Crushed pieces of the earth’s bones,” Mark says, “those leave-em rocks.” He pulls on his cigarette and tells me how the rocks sparkle in the sun, quartz, calcite and amber. He collected them for awhile, before becoming overwhelmed by their weight and leaving them in a pile someplace in west Texas. After he leaves a jobsite, he says, other guys come in and the towers go up. The grid marches on. “You couldn’t be out here without it,” he says, and he’s right. It’s what he means when he says the grid is just a new way of conquering the land and settling places that were never meant to be settled.

He’s got a weird way of talking, leaning forward on the balls of his feet, staring directly at me. It’s as though he’s trying to will me to listen, to pay attention to what he’s seen and the stories he has to tell. Chronologically he’s younger than my 54 years. Except he looks older. Mark wears his life on his skin; his wrinkles and tattoos telegraph hard living. He’s missing several teeth and from the looks of his fingernails, he hasn’t used the campground showers in several days.

He sweats beer and smoke and tells me he worries about the animals. When I look confused, he says the concrete pads disrupt ecosystems and destroy habitats. Mark loves prairie dogs. He can tell you which families of prairie dogs are on the endangered species list in Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. And he can tell you why they’re not likely to come back.

Mark didn’t vote – he says he couldn’t see any real solutions coming from Clinton or Trump. His job is to dig up the earth and level it out so the next guy can come spread gravel the size of a child’s fist across this bed of progress. He told me he doesn’t think anymore about what he’s doing to the earth and he’s not looking for answers from any Washington politicians. After he said this, he sucked smoke all the way down, and looked away, out past the ethanol plant and into the middle distance. We sweated together in the sun without speaking, breathing cow shit, shifting from one foot to another.

Why build these towers out here, I wonder. I don’t see the money, small towns are shuttering up. What’s here? I ask. Cattle feedlots and prisons, Mark answers. He says the real gold mines are the prisons built out in the desert somewhere between the cowshit flying in the winds and fracking. “We lock up more people than any place else in the world,” he adds. Mark worries about this, along with the prairie dogs. “I don’t know what we think we’re doing,” he says, “destroying the world and locking up all the people”

Mark tells me he and his faded trailer will be gone in the morning. He’s headed to Colorado to make another pile of leave-ems. He shakes his head and goes back inside for another beer.

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