The drive from Denver to Wichita Kansas is long and pretty boring. No mountain scenery, no coastal views— just lots of corn and sunflower fields. But if you were on I-70 as you get close to the Kansas-Colorado border you’d start to see a series of very old signs— not professional billboards – but they looked like hand-painted, wooden signs stuck in the ground for miles. They read, “See the worlds largest prairie dog!” “Hundreds of rattlesnakes” and “Wildlife adventures”
Of course, I always wanted to stop to see the worlds largest prairie, I mean, who wouldn’t be at least a little curious, but when I would suggest we stop to see it, Kirk would give the logical, “We have to make it to Wichita before it gets dark” or “maybe on our way back, but we just need to get there today.” And somehow on the way home, we were all tired and just wanted to get home.
There are lots of little pull-off stops along the way from Denver to Wichita, if you want to see the worlds largest ball of twine, the tallest hill in Kansas, the Oz museum, or of course Toto’s Tacos. We’d always joke that we would one day take a vacation just to see all of those places.
In 2015 our family made several driving trips and a couple of flights, from Denver to Wichita when Kirk’s mom was very sick. That summer we all went to say our last goodbyes to Grandma Schreck, who was then under hospice care. They were sad trips for sure.
On that last visit, we each took turns sitting with her, gently holding her hand and talking softly. Her hands were like holding a very dainty coin purse made from the softest leather. At this time her voice had a gurgling sound in the back of her throat, I’m sure from not having the strength to swallow, but she looked at me and said, “Take the time to stop more. See sites. Go places and dance.” She always wanted to be a dancer but put that dream on the back burner when she married her high school sweetheart and had two very active boys. It made me think of Sarah Barellis’s song, She Used to Be Mine, where she sings, “sometimes life slips in through a back door and carves out a person and makes you believe it’s true.” I sat there feeling so much loss. For us and for her.
She was the quintessential mom and then the dream grandmother we all wanted. I feel bad that we robbed her of the daily joys when you live close and have grandkids over all the time, running around the house. They came out to Colorado a few times a year to see all of the kids and we (very infrequently) made the trek to Kansas.
Sitting there soaking in her words, I heard a woman who was telling me she had not always voiced her wishes. Wishes to stop longer on road trips, to get that puppy who would sit on her lap at night or a woman who kept her dream on that back burner until the fire went out.
On that extra-long and sad drive home I said, we are stopping to see the worlds largest prairie dog. Kirk could tell that I wasn’t joking this time. He said in his logical dad voice, “Gina, you know those signs have been there for over 30 years. The place is probably not even there anymore and even if it is, that prairie dog is certainly not still alive. The guy probably just hasn’t taken the signs down.” I repeated, “We’re stopping to see the world’s largest prairie dog.”
We pulled off I-70 in Oakley, Kansas and after a few turns, we were the only car in a dirt parking lot looking at a very rundown building, that had even me wondering if this was such a good idea. We walked in and the place smelled old. We were obviously the only people there and it was $9 per person to go through. A man in his late 70’s greeted us and said his name was Larry. Behind him was a wall with freakish dead animals hanging on it. I was sure I heard the two-headed calf heads saying in unison, “RUN… RUN AWAY.” If this was a scary movie, Larry would be luring us into the back room where experiments were going to be performed on us before we were each murdered. So we paid the $36 and went in.
Larry said to be sure and see the 6-legged cow and the 2 headed snakes that were in the back yard. I could almost hear the chainsaws starting up. We walked through the “gift shop” area first and near the backdoor, there was a large glass aquarium filled with rattlesnakes. The enclosure had chickenwire on the top with holes surely large enough for a rattlesnake to get through — As we approached the glass, Larry banged on the top to make the snakes go crazy and we all jumped. Larry laughed.
We walked into the backyard since I was in search of the world’s largest prairie dog. We saw cages and pens filled with mutant animals. The 6-legged cow (it had 2 scrawny appendages hanging from his shoulder), a two-headed snake in another cage, a few scrawny coyotes and foxes in pens and lots of little prairie dogs scampering around this freakshow yard.
I went back in to ask Larry, “Where’s the worlds largest prairie dog?” He pointed to the back corner of the lot and grinned. I noticed his very long and very dirty fingernails and was creeped out again. I asked, “Is it running around with the others?” He laughed and said “Nope. It’s the big cement statue behind that wall” pointing again with his creepy finger at what looked like a sculpture he probably made out of chicken wire and cement.
“WHAT? It’s a statue? All the signs… The signs said WORLDS LARGEST PRAIRIE DOG!” Feeling completely duped. Larry threw his head back and laughed. “I never said it was LIVE!”
We all left completely creeped out but we did stop back by the gift shop to buy t-shirts for the girls that read, “I saw the world’s largest prairie dog.” I figured they can wear it to therapy later in life!
Not all of our stops along life’s roads will be filled with WONDER like this. Some will just cause us to slow down and create memories that we will share in our later years. But what that trip has continued to teach me is that regret is a very bitter pill to swallow when we are older. Don’t keep putting things off. Make a point to at least explore all of life’s little detours, whether that is meeting with a business coach and mentor, signing up for an improv lesson or taking a dance class. Do it before that backburner flame burns out.
Thank you, MaryJane Schreck, for your beautiful life! I will not let your lessons be in vain.