The sign says Collyer, one mile. You have just crossed the line where the West begins, the 100th meridian. All you see is another cluster of houses with straggly trees, grain elevators from bygone decades, a steeple, and acres of flat farmland; same as all other towns strung along the interstate, give or take a Best Western. An equal amount of data could be collected looking down from 35,000 feet, which is how most people prefer to experience the plains. Mostly what you see is a sky that someone in Ian Frazier’s book, Great Plains, said looks like someone yawned and didn’t stop.
No gas, no food, no lodging, no reason to take the exit, but if you did, you would pass two cemeteries, Protestant on the left, Catholic on the right. The sectional grid, unyielding in life, holds unto death; every row goes perfectly north to south. The Protestant rectangle has three struggling locust trees; the Catholic has some teardrop junipers. Given the number of slabs, you’d rightly suspect there are more citizens in Collyer below ground than above.
Let’s say you arrive after dark, the streetlights above Main Street so amped it seems their primary intent is to aggravate or accuse. They illuminate only vacancy; there is not a car, not even a parked one, the whole length. Flickering lights on drawn curtains indicate life, maybe somebody watching Dancing with the Stars. One dog barks, then another. Some violence seems to lurk on the edge of town, and the town is all edge. (Didn’t In Cold Blood happen in a place like this?) You might quickly decide to burn a U in the middle of Main Street and get back on the interstate and press the accelerator, calmed by the hum of wheels barreling elsewhere.
If you continue down Main Street, however, beyond where the asphalt changes to sand and the sand to gravel, away from the clatter of the big rigs and the reach of the streetlights, if you turn off your headlights and wait a few minutes, things get strangely brighter, and you realize you can see by starlight, there are so many overhead. The breeze smells of sweetgrass and clover. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Still, some ghost haunts the periphery, or ghosts. Maybe it is the bison, the millions who moved in clouds over these plains, reduced to a remnant so rare as to be exotic in a few decades’ time. “The Indian’s commissary,” General Sheridan called them, a rationale, if one was needed, to exterminate them. Hunters vied for the honor of shooting the last one.
Maybe it is the Indians themselves, destroyed by smallpox, alcohol, and government betrayal. In the midst of that late 19th-century apocalypse, a religious craze, the Ghost Dance, took hold among the tribes. Worried Indian agents wired their superiors about Indians dancing in the snow. The ceremony’s eerie hymns prophesied the bison’s return to the land of sweetgrass, the evil of the white man overcome.
In 1878, a band of Cheyenne, having escaped an Oklahoma reservation, moved north toward their ancestral homelands. They attacked settlers near a creek where buffalo hunters had murdered their own people. Nineteen settlers lost their lives. It was the “last Indian raid” in Kansas.
Maybe it is the settlers who died or left defeated, routed by drought, grasshoppers, dust, and blizzards, whose voices you hear haunting the everlasting wind, a wind that repeats its message until it finally has been learned: Keep moving. This is no place to settle. Kansa means people of the wind.
In the same year, 1878, the Colony House was built near the Union Pacific railroad tracks to house the homesteaders settling Collyer. Many were Civil War veterans, so from the start the town had an orientation toward the lost and the missing. Every Decoration Day the “old soldiers” rode into town for reveille at 10 a.m., and marched to the cemetery to orate and decorate the graves with flowers. In the afternoon in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, the veterans sat on a platform surrounded by bouquets representing those who had died.
By 1906, when my grandparents and nine other relatives arrived from Russia at the Collyer depot, Main Street had two hardware stores, a furniture store, a newspaper office (The Collyer Advance), a barbershop, two grocery stores, a bank, two churches, a cafe, a post office, and the G.A.R hall. Even after they had put down roots, I doubt my relations often attended the Decoration Day ceremonies. They had their own migrations, their histories involving raids and massacres that nobody wanted to talk about, and their own cemetery.
Except for the cemeteries, which slowly grow, the grid increasingly nets nothing. The post office keeps part-time hours; on Sunday there is Mass for a dwindling congregation. Otherwise Main Street is shut up, burned down, blown over, hauled to the dump, or rotting in place, except for the squat limestone building where my father once sold cars. Amazingly, someone has fixed it up, hung a neon sign and bolted a section of a ’52 Pontiac Chieftain over the door, and opened a bar and grill. My brother sent me a photo. Amazement barely covers it. I wonder if buffalo burgers are on the menu.
Richard Schwarzenberger of San Francisco writes, gardens, and teaches swimming to adults afraid in water.
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