Part 2: Prairie Dog Town
Tim, Anne, Jeanne, and I were driving out to Colorado to see the Pope for the 1993 World Youth Day celebration. The long monotonous drive through Kansas had taken a serious toll on our sanity. We had been on the road for about 19 hours, and were now just a little more than an hour from the Colorado border, when we neared Oakley, Kansas. We saw a sign that said, “Prairie Dog Town: See The Largest Prairie Dog In The World.” There was no discussion about it, no need to arrive at a consensus, at that moment we were all of one mind. That mind was now putting on the blinker and steering toward the exit for Prairie Dog Town.
As a side note, I have to say that I often marvel at the human mind and its ability to create things of heartbreaking beauty, to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and to make precise judgments about what is good and what is bad. I am equally amazed at its ability to conjure up things so ridiculous, so utterly moronic, as to defy description. To illustrate the latter, a couple of years ago my youngest son, Joe, had been in the bathroom for an inordinately long time….never a good sign. The longer he was out of my view, the more I felt an innate sense of alarm arise within me. I got up to check on him. As I approached, I heard this sound coming from the bathroom: “Weeeeeeeeeeeee!” The sound of his delight has often been the source of my woe. Bracing myself, I opened the bathroom door and found that Joe had spread shampoo all across the bathroom floor, turning the room into his personal skating rink. As I looked at him, I saw a ripple of different emotions register on his face: beginning with irritation at having his skating time interrupted and then, slowly, the dawning realization that he was in trouble. I must admit that, secretly, there was a part of me that yearned to remove my shoes and slide across the slippery soapy bathroom floor.
As we mature, we earn our bumps and bruises from acting on these ill-conceived notions. For most of us, I believe that the pain resulting from those moronic ideas cause one’s mind to form a kind of defense mechanism: an internal sentry that stands watch against the idiotic. (In me, I suspect that this sentry is prone to long and frequent naps.) To function properly one must make a conscious effort to develop this mechanism. However, no matter how well developed, there are a number of things that can completely disarm this inner guardian of good judgment: the excessive consumption of alcohol, the flutterings of infatuation, or a road trip in its 19th hour that has you driving through Kansas.
As we drew nearer, we were enthralled by large signs that said such magnificent things as: “Pet the Baby Pig,” “Live Rattlesnakes,””8,000 Pound Prairie Dog,” “Live 5-Legged Cow,” “See the Live 6-Legged Steer,” and “Roscoe The Miniature Donkey.” We pulled into the Prairie Dog Town’s parking lot, listening to the gravel crunching and popping underneath the tires of our 1993 Pontiac Grand AM, our hearts brimmed with excitement.
You should know that, after driving six hours through the dull unchanging landscape of Kansas, we were giddy at the prospect of seeing something novel. As we made our way through the entrance, we were overwhelmed by the uniqueness of this place—it was like a really rancid fart for the eyes.
It is a common thing for one to respond to a personal error in judgment with irrational optimism. Looking around this bizarre shop, I kept telling myself that this was a wonderful adventure. From the cage full of rattlesnakes on one side of the room to the Jackalopes for sale on the other, my mind could not absorb all of the oddities contained in that space. As I stood there dumbfounded, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, like when you feel someone staring at you. Turning around I locked eyes with the ass of a dead deer. The owner of this fine establishment felt that the décor would not be complete without hanging on the wall something called an “assquatch.” It turns out that an assquatch is the rear end of a deer mounted on a plaque that has an eye glued on either side of the deer’s tail, thus making a face. I was amazed to learn that some assquatches have a bottle opener where the anus used to be. At that moment, the wild enthusiasm I had upon entering this place was being replaced with another emotion, one that I struggle to find words to describe.
The others in our group had not yet come to their senses. Tim called out to me, “hey, they have got a petting zoo out back, c’mon Chris, let’s go.” Desperately hoping that the zoo was better than the inside of that shop, I paid my entry fee and joined my companions out back. It was not.
The first thing I noticed as I entered the “zoo” area was the animal this bizarre tourist trap was named for. There were prairie dogs in a cage disproportionately small when compared with the sheer number of these rodents stuffed into it. There must have been several colonies of them in there. And we were in luck, because they were for sale. We could have our own prairie dog for the low, low price of $10.00. Coming from the Midwest, I struggled to see the logic in purchasing a rodent that dug holes in your yard. Back home people paid good money to have moles and voles exterminated. The damage those critters did was miniscule when compared with what a few prairie dogs could do to your yard. I was more surprised by the fact that people would consider buying rodents whose cousins were responsible for a lethal outbreak of the Hantavirus in New Mexico just a few months earlier.
I turned to Tim and asked, “so, where is this world record prairie dog at?” He pointed across the yard. Much to my disappointment the “World’s Largest Prairie Dog” was made out of wood. What a jip. I walked around looking at the various animals on display. The first animal I noticed was a bobcat. Nearby, there was a fox, and a couple wolves. On down the way was the noteworthy five legged cow, whose fifth leg was actually the limbs of a parasitic twin protruding from its body. All of the animals were kept in cages that I felt were too small for them. I should say that it would be unfair to characterize how these animals were kept specifically as animal cruelty. They did all appear to be well fed. However, there was a look of despair in the eyes of these animals; I felt sure that when they died, it was not of old age but rather a loss of a will to live. Perhaps the only thing that kept them alive was the knowledge that their death would be followed by a trip to the taxidermist, and then followed by being put on display inside the gift shop.
I think that when we had pulled off the freeway we had hoped to be rejuvenated by our trip to this roadside attraction. While it did not breathe new life into us, it was at least sobering.
We piled into the car and quickly put Prairie Dog Town in our rearview mirror. The next four hours were a blur. At last, after 24 hours on the road, we arrived at our destination: Loveland, Colorado. Skipping dinner, I went directly to my cabin and passed out.