Category Archives: Travel

Death Tour 2014: Everyday Magic, Day 797

Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat

Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat

Within one week, I attended my uncle’s moving funeral in New Jersey, our dear community friend Maggie’s beautiful memorial service in Lawrence, and gave four Holocaust book presentations in the Kansas towns of Newton, Hutchinson, Hillsboro and McPherson. I’m beyond weary, but also inspired by the love that edged everywhere I went and most everyone I met.

The funeral for my very funny and lively uncle took place on a brilliantly blue day, where we gathered at the grave site for a short ceremony. The rabbi told about my uncle’s spirit, and his unwavering love for my aunt as the wind lightly blew and the sun brightly shone. We took turns dropping three or more shovel-fulls of dirt on the simple wooden coffin, and then the Bloom men (nephews, son, cousins, brother) continued until the grave was filled. While my trip did entail long days of flying each way, and a whole lot of driving through New Jersey, it was full of appreciation for family, great meals at diners, and laughing hysterically and mom while rolling down various highways.

The service for our friend Maggie today was sparkling with soul. Beautiful music, especially a bass solo played by one of Maggie’s nephews, and heart-opening remembrances her her brother, son and husband all culminated in the 500 or so people there standing up to sing “This Little Light of Mine” together. This is the same song a bunch of sang at her window about a month ago on a snowing March day as we sheltered our candles from the wind and leaned into each other for warmth. There’s a lot to say about the injustice of such an alive person dying from cancer at the age of only 49, but there’s even more to say about her legacy of love.

In between the funerals, I traveled with my friend Liz to a bunch of south-central communities to give presentations on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. Four talks in three days meant I occasionally forgot what I told each audience, and what was left to tell. Nevertheless, the audiences surpassed expectations and numbers everywhere, especially in the small town of Hillsboro, where over 100 people came out to learn more about the Holocaust and the Polish resistance. When I showed photos of Lou’s extended family, all of whom were killed in the Holocaust, I was reminded of how, in some small way, of how right it is to remember and acknowledge these people and their lives.

Now that the week is over, I sit on the porch with Shay the dog, the wind blows fiercely, and we await whatever comes next, which might likely be another nap, with a grateful heart.

Goodbye, Old Friend: Everyday Magic, Day 756

DSCN2269Today we emptied out my beloved Toyota Sienna so it can become a trade-in for Forest’s new (and yet to be named) used car. Cleaning out the plastic door pockets, under the seats, the glove compartment, I came across years of small trash and treasure: a nickel with a hole in the middle, a triangular-shaped black stone from Lake Superior, pennies stuck together with mud, many manner of writing instruments, pieces of maps. For close to a decade, I basically lived in this vehicle by day, hauling to school and back little kids who morphed into teens who exploded into young adults.

The van ferried us great distances: to the Rockies many times for camping disasters that ended in all of us rushing into that van in the middle of the night to escape a tent in which two of our three children threw up on each other. It took us to The Farm in Summertown, TN for a bioregional congress that brought together people in love with the earth from throughout the Americas. We drove it far north and south, east and west, diagonally too, especially during my poet laureate term when it carried bundles of poets around Kansas.

As a rite of passage van, it’s what I drove after delivering Natalie to her college in Minnesota, crying so hard in my navigation of the Twin Cities that I kept DSCN2272confusing which city was which. It’s what we had to get back into, nervous and heartbroken, while Daniel waved goodbye to us when he started college in North Newton, KS.

The van was famous for many things, not the least of which was hauling couches. We brought a large red couch up to St. Paul for Natalie, stuffed an extra-large futon couch (and futon) into it to the amazement of our friend, who sold us the futon. The van easily carried an extra-long and super-heavy tip-top condition couch I found on a curb (and loaded on top thanks to strangers who came to my aid).

I have cried in this van, laughed so hard I cried again, changed my clothes in it a thousand times (usually not while driving), and eaten hundreds of meals at the driver’s seat. Kelley and I have used the van to haul her piano, guitar, our clothes and sundries for a week and all the Brave Voice supplies to Council Grove and back. I have loaded dogs and cats into this van, family members from near and afar, stray furniture to take in and piles of clothes to give away. I’ve made big life decisions in this van on highways that rose and fell across expansive lands.

All the time, this van has been exceptional, “a magic car,” Ken calls it. Yet now that it will cost twice or three times what the van is worth to fix all that’s wrong with it, we made the sorrowful decision to let it go (thanks for the great assessment and car-transition-counseling, Slimmer’s Automative!). So on this cold and nearly-final day of the year, we say goodbye for good to a very dear old friend. I wish our old friend a new home with a lot less driving and hauling, spanking new brakes and a shiny new timing belt, and most of all, to find people who will see just how good one big, red, old but reliable car can be.

You Can Go Home Again Even If It’s Someone Else’s Home: Everyday Magic, Day 740

DSCN1937As I was photographing the side of the house where I grew up in Manalapan, New Jersey, a handsome man came to the window and opened it. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I know this looks strange, but you see, I used to live here.” It turns out that at the moment I was creeping around his office, he was working on a film, thinking to himself, “I need a writer.” Sometimes the universe cracks itself up.

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Residents present and past

Within moments, Adam, the man who lives with his wife in the house where I lived from ages eight to 19, was shaking my hand, and allowing my daughter, mom and me inside. The synchronicities abounded. “This is the house where I became a writer. It’s an artist house,” I told him. He understood — he’s a photographer and filmmaker, and his wife, a painter. We talked about the bad mojo of my parents’ divorce in this house, and the subsequent divorce of the people who moved in after my family, as well as the healing energy of this place.

Adam and my mom discuss the backyard, past and present

Adam and my mom discuss the backyard, past and present

Inside and out, the house has flourished. Gone are the walls dividing the kitchen and ornamental dining room, and family room and living room. Spaciousness, light, color and life whirl through house instead. When we got to my bedroom, I shared another wall-removal story: what it was as a 16-year-old to wake up one morning after a 12-hour shift the day before at the Englishtown Auction (largest flea market on the planet as far as we were concerned), open my door, and see all sky. That was beginning of my father’s removal of most of the upstairs to create another common room and a few more bedrooms.

Outside, the gardens were lush, artistic and inviting, and I was especially thrilled

The view from my old bedroom window

The view from my old bedroom window

to see that Adam raises tomatoes and bounties of flowers. The hill where I sat nestled among bushes and trees for hours, journal in hand, was still mildly wild and steep. The railroad ties that framed a 25′ x 15′ sandbox — my dad never did anything small — in lieu of a fabulous deck and oasis of peace.

So I got to go home again to the place I held onto for dear life as a teenager when the rest of my world and family spun out of control. I lived here with my family of origin, alone with my dad, and with a big stepfamily and Trinidadian housekeeper. During all those years, I tucked myself between the pussy willows on the left-side of the house, just outside Adam’s office window, and wrote plays and poems. Now I return to discover the place continues to shelter artists, having come home to its best self.

The Night Before the Big Trip: Everyday Magic, Day 739

The carry-on is packed with care, each item of clothing smoothed and rolled, although on the way home, everything clean or dirty will be stuffed in haphazardly. The backpack and purse are cleaned out and re-ordered with the minimal amount of survival items: Excedrin, cold medicine (if needed), apples, almonds, a few unread magazines and a novel, and lots of colored pen. The hand-outs are copied and remembered, and extra stars for remembering to bring a light jacket, umbrella and enough socks.

The night before the big trip is part of the trip itself. I felt giddy all afternoon as I planned trip-related things, which were many and mainly required vast amounts of time on the New Jersey Transit website squinting at timetables. Of course the plan is never the real route, but it’s a lovely fantasy of how that route might unfold in cars, planes, trains above and below ground, and one shuttle van. Lots of walking while carrying and pulling my identity and clothes are also in my future.

Now that I’m in the in-between space — home one one end, destination on the other — all is quiet and luminous. The dog barks, the cat meows, and the bath calls my name as well as a wicked-early flight tomorrow. But this feeling, this bright and radiating NOW between worlds, is one of life’s balms, a little like that feeling once the whole house is clean, the food is ready, and the guests have yet to arrive. Travel on, my wayward life.

Two Jewish Guys from New York Make My Day: Everyday Magic: Day 724

I write this from my comfortable perch in the United Club, a somewhat-secret (to me until now) quiet space in the noisy Chicago airport that I’m visiting, thanks to the mysterious passes that arrived in the mail. Here I’m delighting over the free magazines, drinks, treats, and the two Jewish guys from New York I met today. Being a Jewish gal from Brooklyn, I’m thrilled to be escorted from the Goddard residency in Vermont to life in Kansas by people who speak my language.

The first guy was my taxi driver. Within 10 seconds of hearing him speak, I had to ask, “You from New York?” From there, we talked Brooklyn neighborhoods, which high school he went to and I would have gone to had my family not fled to New Jersey, and his astonishing tale of being somewhat radical at a Utah university in the late 1960s (a story that involved jail time, a campus-wide water fight, a kindly judge, and a big steak dinner before getting on the plane back to Brooklyn).

The second guy was my seat companion on the flight from Burlington to Chicago. An accomplished pianist and retired physician, he has a vivid love of fiction and poetry, a 52-year-old marriage, a deep understanding of the environmental causes of many cancers, and a love of life in San Francisco.

But I tell you, just hearing anyone speak with a New York accent, or New Jersey accent (which is different than a New York accent, and never entails saying Jois-y), is a balm for my sleep-deprived state born of 10 days of going hard (and trying to stay smart) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later.

Well-fed (I recommend the Chinois Chicken salad at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant upstairs in terminal B), comfortable and thinking fondly of my package of shortbread cookies, thanks to this club, I’m deeply grateful for the rare stretches when travel goes well, and for the new friends from the old ‘hood.

Scaring Ourselves At High Altitudes: Everyday Magic, Day 708

DSCN1355A few years ago at a Chelsea diner in New York City, I overhead a famous actor on the phone in the booth behind me testing out some new jokes with his agent. “Get this one,” he said, “Why do we go on vacations? Because life has gotten too easy, so we say to ourselves, ‘I know how to survive here, so I’ll go someplace where it’s harder for me and see how I do there.’” It wasn’t the best joke, but it is kind of true.

DSC_5734I’ve just returned from some extreme vacationing, the kind of rejuvenating activities that make a person understand mortality rather explicitly. There’s no place better for such experiences than at high altitudes in Colorado where there are many ways to know, in unquestionable and visceral ways, how vulnerable humans are.

DSC_5724White-water rafting in Brown’s Canyon through Class III and IV rapids? It seemed like a good idea beforehand and a spectacular one afterwards, but during the actual roaring drops and spins between big rocks, I was wide awake in both terror and joy. So was everyone in our raft, including our expert guide, a wonderful young woman who assured us dozens of times that “we were crushing it” every time we hit another rapid, some with descriptive names like “Widow-maker.”

The other rafts twice the number of people on them as ours with only Ken, Forest, our nephew Andrew, me and our guide. “Will that make it easier?” I asked her, wondering also if the water being so high would help us avoid big rocks. Actually, a light boat and high water equal speed on steroids, and it wasn’t until after the trip that she confided to us, “I didn’t want to scare you guys, but I’ve never seen the Arkansas [river] higher than today.” She didn’t need to scare us, especially when I flew out of the boat only to land back in, paddling like a DSCN1421demon the whole time.

I also faced vivid images of another kind of danger when horseback riding through three climates: high desert, aspen forest, and alpine-ish field. Three different habitats means big changes in altitude, which means leaning forward while going up a steep path through the trees, praying my lovely horse, Wonder Pony, didn’t slip. Even more heart-race-inducing was going down what felt like a vertical path. “Do the horses ever lose their footing and slide down the mountain?” I asked my guide. No, she told me, unless there’s a lot of mud. I looked down at the wet dirt, leaned way back and pressed my knees in as hard as I could (just as my guide told me to do) and prayed. By the time I got off the horse I could hardly stand up and could only walk cow-girl-bow-legged. But none of that mattered because I was ecstatic. Survival can do that to a person.

DSCN1410There were also the big drops to look down, especially at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park in southwest Colorado where the canyon is both narrower and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Sitting on the edge and looking to the ant-sized river below made my heart beat hummingbird-fast, as if willing me toward hovering position. Walking the two-mile loop down and back up simply made me grab hold of trees and pant hard, determined to keep going.

Now that I’m back in Kansas, I face our local dangers: chiggers, ticks, hail, humidity and state politics, as daunting as white-water and high altitudes but not quite as enticing, but that’s what vacations are for.

How Locking Your Keys in the Car Can Land You in Oz: Everyday Magic, Day 691

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Winnie-the-Pooh looks very concerned, and who wouldn’t with hundreds of giant Dorothys and Lions around?

Imagine being stuck somewhere along I-70 in the middle of Kansas late at night. There’s a truck stop, and it’s a good thing to put gas in the car although there’s enough to coast home on fumes. The drive – 200 miles west, and now 200 miles east with a poetry reading in between – went swimmingly well although the driver does wish she didn’t eat quite so many enchiladas in Hutchinson. While the car sucks the gas from pump, the driver thinks well of both going to the bathroom and buying more water to drink. What could possibly go wrong?downsized_0404132306a

Keys can tumble out from an unsuspecting purse, and the smug little car, neatly locked, could now hold in its lap said keys.

Thankfully, there’s AAA, a membership which I purchased this year on Kelley’s good advice. It would only take AAA about 30-40 downsized_0404132305aminutes to send help. In the meantime, I got to experience Kansas from the vantage point of gift shelves, and this is what I saw: Oz, Oz and more Oz. Big Oz. Little Oz. Witches in pink or black. Dorothy free and clear, or locked in a snow globe. Scarecrows comparing Dorothy to crazy women who screw up their lives. T-shirts from Toto about how he took all the money. Cowardly lions on shot glasses. Since Oz is kind of the opposite of Kansas, I begin to wonder why anyone in Kansas sells it at all.

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Help! Help! Let me out!

At the same time, all this stuff is fascinating, full of bling and shine, drama and surrealistic bizzaro scenarios. The beer mugs, welcome mats, postcards, sweatshirts and statue-ettes of all sizes overwhelmed me with a place not far from here, only accessible through particularly bad weather. The more I look at it, the more I wonder if I should bring some of it home with me.

Luckily, just at the point that I was actually starting to consider buying any of this stuff, a big wrecker pulled up, and I run outside to meedownsized_0404132312t Junior, a man far older than any wizard, but equipped with many manner of long metal poles of various sizes and with variously-shaped hooked ends. It wasn’t that I had the power within me all along to go home (I didn’t even have a hanger I could use), but I did have that Triple-A card, and I could hold one pole while Junior used another to tap against my dangling keys until he hit the unlock button, and I heard that lovely beep that said, Yes, you can go home again.

Vacation Fighting, Getting Lose & Getting Found: Everyday Magic, Day 684

DSCN0978“If you get angry, you can take a moment to think about why you’re upset, and how you’re contributing to the conflict. Then you can sleep on it before talking it out,” said our very wise son Forest after we promised no one would yell today.

“That’s not the way we roll,” Ken replied, making me laugh so hard I cried as I high-fived him.

Vacation fighting, one of my least-favorite things, has been too much a probability for us over the years, mostly due to confusion over directions and/or getting completely lost, and who said they would meet who at whatever time, only to discover timely misunderstandings on all sides.

Yesterday in Great Smoky Mountain National Park we had a doozy of both varieties, first a map-reading misadventure resulting in all four of us yelling, “Just stop it already.” Worse, though, was the getting seemingly lost in time and place fight.

Our sons, my sister-in-law, some of her kids and one of their boyfriends, Ken and I went on a hike, lovely and full of that early spring green light that illuminates the mossy curves as we went up the winding trail. After the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch at the side of a grassy field, most of us headed back to the trail hDSCN1008ead to go horseback riding at the nearby stable, leaving Ken and Daniel to do more hiking. “Turn around at 2:30 and come back to where the car is, and I’ll meet you there about 3:30,” I told Ken. Turns out he told me something vital I didn’t hear: that it might take longer. Turns out also that his and Daniel’s map was totally inaccurate when it comes to the distance involved.

On top of a slow, red-haired horse in a slow line of other horses with their riders, I experienced the kind of euphoria that would only matched by the opposite feeling in the hours to come. The light breeze refreshed me, the beautiful trees were just leafing out, the creek we crossed glistened in DSCN1004sunlight. After the ride, we took a lot of pictures of the horses, said goodbye, and I got into the rental car to move it to a shady place while I waited for Ken. He was late — it was near 4 p.m. — but I figured he and Daniel would show up soon. I also thought they might be coming out from the woods a little beyond the trail, where others exited, so I drove there, only to discover I was suddenly on a scenic 11-mile loop. A one-way loop.

No worries, I told myself, This might take 20 minutes or so, but I could circle around and meet the guys soon.

I was vastly mistaken. The cars ahead of me habitually went 5-10 mph, sometimes stopping entirely for a few minutes, making me increasingly anxious despiteDSCN1022 the scenic views of mountains, wide views leading up to mountains, or thick forest in mountains. I kept picturing Ken and Daniel sitting on the curb, wondering where I was for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and by the time I actually finished the loop, close to an hour.

Since I was to meet them either at the information booth on the road or at the picnic area nearby, I spent the next hour driving back and forth between the rendez-vous spots, trying to see where they might emerge. They didn’t. Of course, cell phones didn’t work either. Close to 6 p.m., I found a pay phone at a closed camping store. By punching in 1 for English, 3 for use of a credit card — the only kind of currency I had on me — and then a long series of numbers, I could call my sister-in-law on the premise that perhaps the guys gout out early, didn’t see us, walked to this pay phone, called her, and she picked them up. No answer. I went through the long process of calling Forest, my nieces, even Ken and Daniel. Repeatedly. No response. So I drove the long way out of the park, and by 6:30, I was within cell phone range and could reach my sister-in-law, who hadn’t heard from them.

I breathed slowly, told myself all would be well, prayed fiercely, and tried to comfort myself with the bumper sticker of a car in front of me that said “Love > Fear.”

DSCN1023I raced back into the park to look for the guys, only to see a police car quickly turn around to follow me to the picnic site. I was driving twice the 25 mph speed limit, and by the time two police cars pulled me over, I could only jump out of the rental car, peaceful breathing be damned, and cry hysterically. “My husband and son are three hours late, and I’m really worried about them,” I managed to get out. “I don’t even have a license on me!” I added, remembering I didn’t take my purse this morning.

The police were wonderful, one of them even from Kansas, and although they were planning to give me a warning, not worry about the license, and then go with me to the trail head to enact a rescue plan, all quickly resolved itself. I looked toward the picnic area, and at the first table was Ken, quietly waiting. They had just turned up after discovering what they thought was the end of the trail was only the half-way point.

Let’s just say the ride home was the opposite of sitting atop a horse in early spring sunlight. There was no laughing until I cried, but simply a lot of crying. Nothing like finding people you love after a wide span of thinking they were lost.

How do we roll? Not the most elegant, graceful or polite way when the pressure is on, but at least, we roll back together again.

A New Place, An Old City & Some Sweet Rewards in Tennessee: Everyday Magic, Day 683

This evening, we wandered downtown Knoxville, home to our son Daniel, but a brand new city to me. I was instantly enamored with the old buildings packing surprising archways and hand-carved doors, and bDSCN0945etween them, slim alleyways where coal used to be stored for warming homes long morphed into warehouses, office space and swanky loft apartments. Although I was running on the fumes of only five hours’ sleep (nothing like pre-trip excitement to catalyst insomnia) and too much coffee, the cure was within reach: each step landing in this new place, cold air on my face, the approaching corner where I would turn toward a view I’ve never seen before.

There’s a lot about Knoxville that sings out to me in the familiar tune of east coast city: the age of the buildings; the spidery ways streets are laid out, some wide boulevards and others intersecting at close quarters; the sense of time aged and changed as this city reinvented itself again and again. Living near Kansas City, which to me always signifies the beginning of the west (and

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Erica and me below a sign that says “Chocolate Gelato.”

western cities), and coming from a very old eastern city, I feel a kinship to places where the buildings speak the language of my origins.

The rewards were more than sweet. Besides the glimpses of this place — a tiny cabin on top of a tall building, the shadow where a torch used to hang although the carved candle still hangs -I got to see more of my son’s life, hang out with his delightful new friend, and eat outrageously good food. Fried green tomatoes? Yes, and truth to be told, a few of these delicacies of the great beyond both at lunch and dinner. Freshly-madeDSCN0939 biscuit? Oh. My. God. With homemade blueberry jam. Pickled okra. Some kind of fried, sauced, smothered and amazingly still light chicken too. Sometimes there are amazing awards for waking up too early and getting flung through space at 30,000 feet until you can land in a brand new place.

Homing In: Everyday Magic, Day 680

downsized_0224131357aHoning and homing in are easily confused, but I recently learned that knives are honed and birds home in on where they’re heading. Definitely not the sharpest knife in or out of the drawer today, I homed in on my travel becoming a farce because farces, despite and because of everything that goes wrong, end well with marriage, homecoming and great joy in the land.

The world of travel farce is narrow and treacherous. What wouldn’t shake me much in ordinary life level me here. My burrowing animal keeps ramming itself against the rock, convinced more effort will open the rabbit hole to home. Last night, a dropped call to United, after 45 minutes of waiting for a representative and another 20 of trying to sort out the tangle of getting my Delta ticket, originally a United ticket, back to United, tipped off a long crying jag (which led to me calling Ken and asking him to take off calling the airlines to arrange for my two flights, starting at 6 a.m.). Two hours later, when Ken called on one phone while talking with Delta on the other to make sure I was cool with a direct, non-stop flight at the reasonable hour of 11 a.m., I started crying so hard I could barely say, “Yes!” as in “Yes, Fredrico, a million times yes. I will marry you!”downsized_0224131444a

Back home this afternoon, I told Ken how I tried to think of the travel challenges as akin to an intensive spiritual retreat focused on letting go. “How did you do with that?” Ken asked. “Not very well,” I told him.

Yet there were moments of almost grace when I relinquished control, particularly when parked on the tarmac in Hartford, CT in a very small plane, completely full, for three and a half hours. I was on the phone for an hour with the airline, the aisles full with a snaking line of people waiting for the bathroom. People’s butts occasionally hit my head as I said to the United rep, “Could you say that again? I couldn’t hear you.” When I hung up, I surrendered to what the women around me were saying, which included repetitions and variations of:

  • There’s nothing we do, so why worry about it?
  • It is what it is.
  • It’s better to be sitting here alive than dead.
  • Yeah, this is challenging, but we’ve got it better than a lot of people in this world.
  • And you know, if I miss my connection, it’s not the end of the world.
  • I just missed my connection, but what you gonna do?

In communal travel mishaps, people tend to take turns being the cheerful one and the freaking out one. As soon as I told people my story (up until that point), the main cheerleader among us got a little depressed, and I repeated to her some of what she said to us earlier.

Soon the pilot announced that we were ready for take-off, back for a third try to land at La Guardia, but now we had to wait until someone could drain the overflowing toilet to prevent its contents from rushing down the aisles. The whole plane laughed together, and laughed some more when we needed to get de-iced again. Right before take-off for real, the pilot said, “Ladies and Gentlement, federal regulations stipulate that we inform you that if anyone wants to get off the plane at this airport, we can let you off.” The whole plane laughed harder, then we all looked around, as if to say, “No one is leaving this plane, sucker, so stay put.”

We were homing in together, and although I did start crying so hard at La Guardia at the information desk that a young Indian man came up to ask if he could help, I was grateful for help whenever I needed it.

Travel farce turns on plans dissolving, missed connections, the kindness of strangers, taking walks down streets in cities you never expected to visit, shuttle downsized_0224131446bdrivers talking about the last big snow, tiny bags of mini-pretzels that taste remarkably good when you miss a meal, and letting go of expectations right at the point of them being met (or not). When the plane I boarded today, the seventh plane I was booked on (and only the second flight I made), the pilot announced there was a small issue to resolve before take-off. I asked the flight attendant if she thought we going to actually go, and then told her my story. Although I wished I carried around some Valium, I was glad I at least had a story.

Then of course the story took off, and from the air, the world shone with snow, roads and rivers all the way to Kansas.