North of the Texas state line, parts of I35 become a toll road. This was, and is, a shock to me, like charging for air or water. But since I had already aroused the car rental company’s suspicions by slapping a paddle board atop my borrowed Chevy Spark and did not know how to navigate a toll payment with a rental lest it be one of those “pay by mail only” situations, I opted for the “avoids tolls” route on my navigation app. This took me through some scenic views and small towns, both charming and not: I found a cheap little roadside motel in one, got offered a roll in the hay and a pitbull puppy in another. “You shore are pretty.”
As I approached Wichita from the south, still avoiding I35, I began to roll through sweet little pastoral scenes of farmland known as Belle Plaine—pretty plain. Dark green leaves, low to the ground, indicated a crop I can only assume was cotton. Occasionally, a purple political sign would pop up in one of the farmhouse yards. Moving by at a fair clip, though nowhere near as fast as I would on I35, I could see what looked like the silhouette of a young girl with her head bent over a book. It is a message I can support. The encouragement to VOTE YES loomed large enough for me to read, even though the finer points of the sign escaped my attention, and I assumed it was a slam-dunk of a bond proposal to help local schools.
Rolling into Wichita proper, I rejoined a highway, though somehow still not I35. On an overpass bridge surrounded by chainlink fence, I saw three figures, what appeared to be college students, two female and one male, though I was moving much faster at this point and hate to assume someone’s gender. It was relevant, however, but I would learn too late: as one of the females, the white woman, made the international “honk your horn” motion, the other held up a tiny carboard sign with lettering so dark and small I struggled to read even as I passed directly beneath them: MY BODY MY CHOICE. A message I can support but known too late, and I failed to toot my horn as I blasted into downtown.
I had been catching up on the news, learning days late that the president had a rebound case of COVID (I had not known he had a first case) and had started hearing about Kansas being the first to vote on banning abortion at the state level. It had to do with an amendment to the state constitution. Once I exited the highway and began looking around at a pedestrian pace, I learned that the purple sign was not a school bond election at all, but pro-life propaganda paid for by a PAC called Value Them Both, whose name was in fact written across the bottom of the sign, which depicted not a little girl reading but a mother, obviously a white woman, holding a baby in her arms.
There were also bumper stickers advising me to VOTE NO ON AUGUST 2, the pro-choice argument to keep the amendment in the state constitution. I finally found some of the pro-choice printed propaganda on the ground outside my hotel. I picked it up, thinking it was a group photo someone had printed out and lost; the doorhanger hole was punched right through one of the women’s faces. Both sides claimed the other was using scare tactics, a topic explored by a podcast I listened to the next morning as I ran along the river toward the Keeper of the Plains. (“He’s a keeper!” winked the article I skimmed on best trails in Wichita.)
I visited Botanica, the botanical garden that by stroke of luck also featured a traveling Washed Ashore installation. I managed to find all 13 pieces and still avoid the children’s garden full of screaming kids. I took a picture of the sleeping troll bridge with a pair of children’s flipflops abandoned next to the troll’s mouth and captioned it “Look, he ate one!” for my friend back in Texas who is, incidentally, a parent by choice. In search of solitude, and shade, I found an educational garden with a lovely sculpture of a young girl with her head bent over a book—a message I can support. At the time, I was in the middle of Madeline Miller’s Circe, about the witch of Greek myth who firmly regulated her own reproductive system until such time as she chose to have a child with Odysseus.
I followed a Hyundai with a VOTE NO bumper sticker out of the museum district, then watched local drivers disrespect each other all the way to my salad spot for lunch. I stopped into CVS or Walgreens, whichever was next door, and picked up two newspapers while I was there. USA Today had the Kansas story on the front page; The Wichita Eagle made no mention of abortion…that is, until I got to the last page, where an editorial stated simply that the poorly worded bill was political chicanery and to vote no.
On my way out of town, I stopped by Eighth Day Books and wound up spending an hour combing the religious and secular titles, including at least two books on the concept of the week, hilarious to me given the name of the bookstore (and, upon reflection, the fact that I had just finished Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals). I dug through the stacks and bought my first Marilynne Robinson. My rental car was blocked by the garbage truck, so I ended up taking a back street to the traffic light and saw a church with a sign out front: “Jesus trusted women, and so do we. Vote no.” A message I can support.
The newspaper editorial had mentioned both sides defacing each other’s messaging, and I saw evidence of this just down the street, where a community baseball field, somehow festooned with the Value Them Both signs on the infield fences—itself an egregious misuse of community space—had been graffitied to read NO where they had been printed to say Yes. Neither side looked good in this visual. I would soon realize I had left my wallet on the counter at Eighth Day, an almost exact recreation of the absentminded mistake I had made at Commonplace Books in Oklahoma City. If there is ever a place to lose your wallet mid-roadtrip, it is at the bookstore; both times, I recovered it unmolested.
Leaving Wichita, still not on I35 despite heading in the exact same direction, I saw a van with windows painted VOTE NO while I listened to NPR to try to put the amendment in context. When I got to Kansas City, I made sure to get a hotel on the Missouri side, where I saw on the news that the amendment had been soundly defeated. The next morning, over coffee and a life-changing savory bear-claw croissant at the Filling Station in Union Hill before my pilgrimage to Prospero’s Bookstore, I chuckled aloud while reading the local alt-weekly, The Pitch. The Letter from the Editor comprised a pro-choice personal narrative involving holding his girlfriend’s hand while she swallowed a Planned Parenthood-provided morning-after pill at Disneyland: “We were standing in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle—its shadow cast over us, and dozens of screaming children with beleaguered parents formed a Greek chorus of reminders that we were absolutely making the right decision.”