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Stay away from our strawberry pie

Part 3 of Everlands, scenes from a pandemic road trip, 2020
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In New York, where the streets were empty and the hospitals were full of covid patients, I had an alarming sense of the pandemic. But on TV, people were partying in Boise and running track meets in Texas. I wanted to square what was happening in the rest of the country during this strange time of ventilators, masks, work from home and closed theaters. So, on June 5, 2020, I flew from New York City to Wichita to begin my road trip into the pandemic. I had no route, no rules, no expectations other than to follow my curiosity.

I rented a double cab Dodge Ram for about $750 a month, unlimited mileage, and set out into the Kansas countryside. I knew it well, because I grew up in a town called Lawrence, Kansas, and spent many vacations visiting relatives out west, where there were few trees and hills, and the fields went nearly to the horizon.

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The rate of coronavirus out here at the time was incredibly low. Most counties just had a few cases out of their thousands of residents. Other than the meat processing plants, where a high percentage of the immigrant workers were getting sick, life seemed to go on as normal. Yet still, people were frightened. I saw a sign reading “Strawberry Pie” in the window of a cafe, and stopped. It reminded me of my childhood visits to my grandmother’s farm. I love strawberry pie, in particular. But a sign on the cafe door turned me away. I was from a forbidden zone.

Early June, 2020, Cuppa Joe cafe, Ness City, Kansas. This was the first time I was shunned for having been exposed to the coronavirus. I wanted to ignore the sign — that’s how badly I craved the strawberry pie. But instead of pie, I swallowed my pride and just drove on. All photos and videos by Stephen.

I headed east on Highway 40, following the yellow brick road. On my left, a farmer had set up a 100-yard-long outdoor gallery of metal and wood sculptures in a field where passing cars could see them. These representations of famous people and political events were rusting and uncared for. The farmer artist’s 2017 obituary in the New York Times opened with this sentence:

“M.T. Liggett, a gruff-talking, self-taught folk artist from Kansas, whose roadside sculptures, signs and whirligigs often carried scabrous political messages and brought him a measure of fame, died on Aug. 17 in Wichita. He was 86.”

 A swastika labeled “Hillary” spun in the wind. Liggett called her, “Our jack-booted Eva Braun.” A wild boar was tagged “Haliburton.” There was a dapper rabbit named “Ted Kennedy'' and a group of hearts called “Lady Magnolia.” Hundreds of these sculptures, including one of Lady Diana that bore more resemblance to an older Camilla than to the Princess of Wales, lined the roadside. I walked the length of the exhibit, wondering about the viruses that infect our minds.

Sculptures, including several swastikas, lining the farm of the late sculptor, M.T. Liggett, near Mullinville, Kansas

I was in Kansas, where I grew up. A place where a lot of farmers do weird stuff, like supplementing their wheat income by using scraps to make the world’s largest ball of twine, and then charging people to see it. Hardly anyone out here had been infected with the virus, but already there was plenty of resentment. I passed a grave on the side of the road that symbolized the beauty and destruction that I was finding. My road trip was now official. I headed west towards Dodge City.

As I drove north, something gold flashed in my right peripheral vision. A wrought iron cross stood against an endless field of two-foot-tall wheat, a dramatic setting that packed a visual wallop, gold cross against golden wheat against golden light. The gold mesh center of the cross spelled out “Chris” the dead person’s name. Deer antlers sprang up from the top of the cross. The antlers were meant to draw attention to this roadside social media. Hi, this is where Chris died, and we, the people he touched, want to own your eyeballs for a moment. We want you to love him.

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Everlands, by Stephen's People
Everlands, by Stephen's People
Surprising stories, videos and photographs from a 35,000 mile journey into the heart of the American pandemic, beginning in June 2020.
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Stephen P. Williams