Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Blank Kansas, flat Nebraska and the beginning of Colorado

Our welcome to McCook, Nebraska was unexpected.

'James it's raining'

I woke up in the tent in a panic. Had we left anything out?

James reassured me.'Mari, the tent is waterproof'

Since we got to the mid-West everyone has said the same.

'We've had no rain this summer. It's been awful. All the corn has died. '

And finally here it was. After the drought, the rain.

Turns out it wasn't actually the rain. It was in fact a stealth sprinkler that had appeared from underground to periodically douse our tent with thunderous droplets. In the middle of the night this was not a welcome surprise. It was lucky we didn't put our tent on top of it. The pipe might have burst through the canvas and gone who knows where.

Just for future reference, any American city planners out there, if you are going to install night time concealed sprinklers in future, please at least put a sign up. The things you don't know about other countries.

I was expecting Kansas to be hot and flat and if I'm honest, a bit dull. Turns out that the north of the state is more flattish rather than flat. And that it has a rich and interesting history and friendly people - not at all blank. But they were right about the heat. The quicker you start in the morning, the better. Pity both of us like breakfast to be slow and easy. Two coffees and the world seems a better place.

It was on one of these boiling days that we took an extended break in a small drug store in Glasco, Kansas and where we ended up meeting Jo Cool who I mentioned in my last blog.

Joanne Cool was of course cool. She reminded me of my late gran. Bright eyed, smiley and engaging. She gave us directions to her beautiful white house on the hill. We cycled along one of Kansas' dirt roads to get there, the evening sun making the big Kansas countryside look even more beautiful.

Joanne's grandparents were original homesteaders. The Homestead Act was passed in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln.

The passage of the bill was only possible because the southern states had seceded from the union. Southerners had been concerned about competition from non-slave owning farmers and had blocked previous bills.

Homesteading meant writing your name in a box on a map in Washington. This was a way of ended land disputes as much as expanding West. If you built a house, improved the land and stayed 5 years the land was yours. And you could mean anyone with the money to pay $640 for $640 acres. Even women and African Americans could have their little piece of America. Everyone that is except the Native American tribes whose land it was in the first place. Joanne's grandparents originally from Wales had come with other family and bought the plot. She showed me the original maps.

Populating a country is add odd idea. Especially when there are other people there. In 1820 the area that is now Kansas was designated Indian territory.The Indian Removal Act of 1830 did what it said on the tin and Native American peoples were moved west to make room for tribes being moved from the east. After 1854 the lands which were found to be very fertile were designated territories and open to white settlement.

One of the legacies of homesteading is the grid system. Not unlike the Romans the Americans decided on a straight road system. Grids, endless north, south, east and west. Roads are alphabetised and as you go west the names became less imaginative. In Glasco the roads were called Eagle, Fawn and Deer. Further west there were D, E and F Road. America is built on the belief that humans can do anything, put roads anywhere no matter what nature suggests.

Another spot in Kansas are pointed to the other side of white settlement. In Oberlin we stopped for lunch in Pizza Hut. Kansas bosts the first ever Pizza Hut (don't think we were in the original), as well as the geographical centre of continental United States and not forgetting the biggest ball of twine in the world. Oberlin is famous for where the 'last Indian raid' took place in Kansas. Those pesky Indians. They wouldn't leave the settlers alone. Language is so powerful. Especially in history. I researched the context for this event.

The Cheyenne tribe were from Montana. Following the Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer and his men were defeated by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne, the Cheyenne were rounded up and forced to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. They were promised a great life in this new land. However food rations, warring tribes and no medical provisions meant many died from European diseases or starvation.

Under the leadership of Dull Knife a group consisting of 84 men, 112 women and 134 children escaped the reservation. At Oberlin they attacked some settlers. There are accounts of a baby being strangled and women being attacked on the outskirts of town. The plaque that marks the event has changed over time.

In the original, the words 'murder', 'terrorised' and 'killing' were used.

It said the Cheyenne were 'Harassed only by a small troop detachment and cowboys' and they moved through Kansas killing and plundering.' and left the reservation because they were 'homesick'.

Now, the plaque at least recognises that they were 'forced' to move by the American government and that they were 'embittered by their plight'.

Clearly killing innocent people is wrong but moving indigenous people off their homeland in another context would be at very least considered an act of war.

I was trying to think of another historical equivalent of homesteading or perhaps the modern day equivalent. Settlers on the Gaza strip perhaps? Gentrification in cities? Lebensraum? One of the difficulties with history is that in trying to learn from the choices of our ancestors it is important to not judge them on the values of today or to saddle their ancestors with the full responsibility of past actions. People came to America for a better life.

Once you make people the 'other' and you treat them differently then you are saying human beings are not the same. And once people try and separate people be it in separate schools, an apartheid system, a wall in Palestine or Berlin or even set up different countries for different people, as happened in Eastern Europe after World War One, then you are saying that people cannot get along. And we can and have to get along.

The most common response from everyone we have met to our question 'If you could teach the world one thing what would it be?' has been that people should learn to get along and that we should be tolerant of each other.

We were lucky to watch Julian Castro and Michelle Obama speak at the Democratic convention from the comfort of our friend Sean's mum and Dad's RV. Tolerant, progressive and Christian,Tom and Linda are like many Americans in that they are increasingly loosing faith in Obama citing the economy and healthcare as the big issues. Four years and they are concerned nothing is better. When Michele talked about her and Barack's families she said,

'You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.'

We were told the same thing by Tammy who we met running a bar in Norton, Kansas. We got talking she told us of her own childhood. 'At one point my mom and us kids lived in a car. I remember my mom saying, we might not have much but we have love and that is all we need.'

She showed her capacity to love others in her actions. She and her husband had allowed their daughter's friend to come and live with them - her parents having taken no interest in her welfare. She had to live under their rules and she made the same fuss of her as she did of her own children. For her birthday they made a cake and this was the first she had celebrated. Another unsung hero.

This is what brings America together, the American Dream. The Dream has been redefined to become thankfully more inclusive with politics at least looking more like the real America.

I am mindful of the fact that to get along with all humankind requires a leap of faith. You have to trust people that you do not know and will never know. There has to be a way between naivety and cynicism which allows talented and principled people to make decisions based on decent values.

This trip has only served to secure the faith that I have in our ability as a people to get along. Every story I hear reminds me that we are all looking for the same things in our lives. Love, security and a better life for us and our families.

Elton came to talk to us at breakfast in Holyoke, Colorado. He was 92, remembered ploughing the fields with horses, fought in Europe in World War Two and every day had coffee in the same cafe and then went home to fill his wife in on any news. His father was a 'sod buster' and the first settler to fence off his land but someone else honesteaded it.

The difficulty is we do not start with a blank canvas. History does change how we understand our own present and can shape the choices we make. Understanding its complexities should however create opportunities for us as individuals and as groups. Be it coming up with a healthcare system when an extensive insurance system already exists, a school with a poor record or a country with some wrongs to acknowledge. It is bound to be difficult but it's got to be a worth doing.

Love and hope is all you need - well it's a start at least.


  1. Mr Worthington I hope you are well and not to exhausted from cycling, you will be proud to know I have just helped my younger brtother( at haggerston ) who just started year 7 with his maths homework.

    Your favourite student.

    P.s maths is not wizard

    1. Mr Worthington says ...

      'Wizard, It is wizard that you are passing on your maths knowledge to your younger brother. Hope this year has started well. All the best to the class. Keep working really hard.'

  2. The toilet look cleaner than a Greek hospital seems like they are in the forefront of technology

  3. Just catching up on all of your adventures whilst out in Austria DJing European Bike Week. These ones have engines though which whilst admittedly being less impressive than your equivalents, the majority of beards here are massively more impressive than Jimmy's weasly efforts in that department.

    Talking of which, can we please have at least some level of input from Jim-Bob in the writing front? I know that it might not involve numbers, but surely some insight from the fingers of the fen's finest wouldn't go a-miss? Ha.

    Loving the blog guys and seriously BIG UP on all the endeavours. Be safe.

    Proudy x

    p.s. Oh no, my brackets are expanding... (that's a maths joke for Jimmy)

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  5. I was sent to your page by my mother-in-law whose dad is Elton - whom you met in the coffee shop in Holyoke.

    (My wife's Grandpa is 92-years-young Elton Oeltjenbruns)

    Looks like you are on an AMAZING adventure!

    My wife and I like to travel as well... on 40+ countries now, and spent 2 years completely on the road, though not on bikes.

    You're smart to stock up on warmer clothing. It will begin to get colder soon.

    Would love to stay in touch and I'm excited to hear where all your adventure takes you.

    My very best to you, from a fellow traveler...

    Jonathan Kraft

  6. Elton was a great guy. He said he would teach the world to keep being friendly which he certainly was. Love your website and the life style and the romance that underpins it all! Keep in touch. Mari