March 30, 2017
The weather continues unsettled, apparently vexing the National Weather Service as well as myself. Other than a couple of peeks of less than a minute, I haven’t seen the sun in a week now. A stubborn low pressure system persists in disturbing the western Midwest and eastern Great Plains, stalling its usual progress to the east and bringing bands of occasional rain (seldom heavy) and frequent mist and fog, appearing and then disappearing from the weather radar in as little as an hour. The wind continues out of a quadrant from east southeast to north northwest, seldom a sign of fair weather. Forecasts for the moisture and clouds to depart go unheeded. Predicted high temperatures into the upper 50s to 60 degrees are sometimes reduced by as much as 10 degrees. Farmers sit in cafes and complain and gossip like schoolgirls. It’s not that they don’t need the moisture (it was a relatively dry winter in these parts with little snow cover), but that they’d like to have a day or two of steady rain and then commence with their corn planting. Some of the older ones say there is at least one more freeze left before the truly cold weather gives up until fall.
About all I can do is dress for the circumstances, try to put my mind elsewhere while my face is into the wind, and wait for more settled conditions. A sunny 65-degree day with little wind would do my attitude good. On my nightly readings about the places I will be visiting in the upcoming days, I note I have just passed out of the humid subtropical climate zone and into the humid continental zone. That may seem a distinction of interest to only the geographically and meteorologically obsessed, but in broad terms it’s the difference between the climate of, say, Atlanta and that of Pittsburgh. Part of me worries about getting out ahead of springtime, but my eyes note the greening grass, the tiny, palest green leaves and the redbuds that are still in bloom (although much earlier in their cycle than farther south). And I travel on.
Lawrence, Kansas, is a classic Midwestern university town. I’ve been in most of them at one time or another: Iowa City, Iowa, Columbia, Missouri, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Bloomington, Indiana, Ann Arbor, Michigan, even Madison, Wisconsin, which has taken on larger urban trappings but remains a college town at heart. They all have a sense of being Neverland. No one really grows up; one class leaves and another crop of young, eager students takes their place. There’s the novelty of living for the moment of self-discovery more than the mundane routines of settling down, forging a career and raising a family, although that exists here, too.
People elsewhere in Kansas spoke to me in slightly hushed tones, “You know, Lawrence isn’t like the rest of Kansas,” as if it were a secret that needed to be shared in private. No, it’s not, even if the innate conservatism of the state gives the city a sense of orderliness and mutes the most extreme excesses somewhat. Parents (at least most of them) need not worry that their precious offspring will go hog wild, but that they will be exposed to people and ideas they would not find in their safe small-town and suburban cocoons.
My Warm Showers host, Rexy Bodean, put it this way, “It’s not like San Francisco, where every night is like Halloween, but it keeps the pot stirred.” He reminds me of people I knew years ago, with a relaxed, make yourself at home, don’t get riled up, keep it real attitude that makes him easy to be around. His own connection with Lawrence is that he came here in 2006 on a coast-to coast bicycle trip from his then home of San Francisco to return to his roots in the Philadelphia area. Traveling on a shoestring with not much more than the bicycle and a few clothes, he stopped to pass the night. “What are you going to do?” someone asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe look for work.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Carpentry.” “Fine, you can start tomorrow.”
He is currently renovating a building in what once was called “the student ghetto,” although students live a little better today than in my time. One of the apartments he maintains as small but nicely furnished quarters for employees and guests. Outside the door, if you turn to the left, walk 10 minutes and up the hill, you are on the Kansas University campus. Make a right turn and you are downtown in the same amount of time. Navigating Lawrence is easy. The north-south streets are named after American states, in the order in which they were admitted to the union, which presents no problems to a history buff such as myself.
To continue with the required Kansas history lesson, Lawrence had an important role to play. Today Kansas is known as the Sunflower State, which suggests peaceful images of large yellow and black blooms waving in the prairie breeze. But at the time of its settlement in the mid-19th century it was known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and for good reason.
I suppose you can say that Kansas was born out of politics and ideology. America’s consuming struggle at the time was over the issue of slavery. The Northern states were dealing with a burgeoning abolitionist movement, while the Southern states were trying to preserve their institutions and way of life. The conflict periodically boiled over into incidents of violence, especially on the frontier, where law and order were difficult to maintain.
There had been a shaky truce in the U.S. Congress, which in 1820 enacted what was somewhat euphemistically known as the Missouri Compromise. Essentially, states were admitted in pairs, one a so-called “free state,” and its counterpart that continued to allow slavery. Ungainly as it may have been, it lasted until the newly formed territories of Kansas and Nebraska were created in the 1850s. Northern states were under pressure to end this dual-state situation, and in 1854 Congress passed the passionately debated Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave the new territories the right to determine whether slavery would be allowed via referendum. It was a noble democratic concept but poorly executed. Settlers of both persuasions rushed into the new areas determined to assert their ideologies by whatever means necessary, legal or otherwise. Soon it was virtually impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Kansas was torn between the two factions almost immediately. Settlers from New England flooded into the territory, determined to keep slavery out. Residents of neighboring Missouri, a slave state, crossed over in order to ensure that slavery would be allowed. Soon there were rival gangs of partisans and ruffians that clashed with each other. Proponents of slavery called themselves “border guards” and tried to keep the New Englanders out, who themselves eventually assumed the term “jayhawkers” (today the Jayhawks are the nickname of the Kansas University sports teams). As I was told at the historical museum in St. Paul, Kansas, sometimes the marauders who participated on both sides were the same people.
Lawrence was founded by passionate abolitionists from Massachusetts. The main thoroughfare of the city’s downtown is named Massachusetts Street. It was a prominent target for slavery sympathizers, and was burned twice, the second time in 1863 during the Civil War by famous Confederate irregular and later outlaw William Quantrill, which resulted in 164 deaths. On both occasions, the city was quickly rebuilt.
Kansas was admitted to the Union in early 1861, after the election but before the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. This was cited by Southern states as a prominent provocation for their secession and ultimately the beginning of the Civil War.
Today Lawrence maintains its political independence as a liberal bastion, an island of blue in an almost entirely red state. When I walked into a bicycle shop (the most well-stocked I have seen since Houston) to buy the correct tubes to replace my compromise Walmart substitutes, I explained the nature of my trip and said I was from Canada. The clerk in the shop immediately said, and the mechanic nodded in agreement, “You better be prepared. You might be seeing a lot of us up there soon.”
I did not fail to avail myself of good craft beer at Free State Brewing, an excellent brewpub that has been highly successful since the 1990s. A little tip to saloon patrons who want to know more about a place: always sit at the bar rather than a table. It very much puts you in the middle of the picture. I carried on a wide-ranging conversation with brewers, servers and customers alike, while consuming a sandwich, a cup of soup and two pints of excellently brewed beer (for the beer geeks, a flavorful German maibock and a hoppy—and malty—American amber ale). And to prove my assertion that it is indeed a small world, the two women—sisters—sitting next to me had graduated from high school in a nearby town with the husband of Susan Rader, my more than gracious host who had guided me around the town of Ottawa, Kansas, just the previous day.
Massachusetts St. in downtown Lawrence, Kansas orderliness with the trappings of Neverland:
The Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence has been brewing really good craft beer for a good many years:
Kansans love their courthouses. Here is a classic of the Romanesque Revival style, the 1903 Douglas County Courthouse in Lawrence: