White mountains and good people.
The Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum in Kansas (Harvest Host) was my next sleeping spot. Home of Jessie James gunfights, several Bonnie and Clyde sightings, and Micky Mantle—who reportedly hit a ball 550 ft to the middle of of the Spring River at 16yrs old. Baxter Springs—a somewhat forgotten place along Route 66— is in the process of a revitalization because of a local billionaire. Rich in Civil War and Native American history, Baxter Springs is also bordered by a ghost town called Picher Oklahoma), about 10 minutes north. This isn’t your old run-of-the-mill ghost town of cowboy legends and movies. It’s an abandoned zinc and lead mining town from the 1800’s that the EPA finally shut down; after first the schools were found contaminated with lead, than the neighborhoods, then the soil. The miners had some of the highest rates of cancer in the country and several friends that I met while I was here, and who grew up in Picher—Jolene and Dru—had not only had cancer several times themselves, but also lost most (all) of their family members to it. I drove over to Picher to take a look for myself and as I drove down the main road, I saw white mountain after white mountain of gravel—also known as CHAT—protruding from the earth. A ghost town it was; old dilapidated houses, roads that once led to churches and farmhouses but now covered with tumbleweed and spindly bushes choking through the cracks. Crippled buildings turned into meth houses and rusty, abandoned cars.
The EPA reportedly cleaned up the town years ago (but not the mining areas) by removing the topsoil, which didn’t accomplish anything of course. The town disappeared and it’s residents moved on, or sadly, died. These man-made mountains of CHAT are what’s left after the rocks were crushed and the zinc and lead “removed.”
Cities and municipalities now haul the CHAT out by semi loads all day every day. I sat on the side of the road and watched the trucks blow by me, leaving swirls of white dust in their wake. I was told the first sale of CHAT was over 800 tons and it was—and still is—being used as asphalt all over the country.
Asphalt filled with arsenic, silica, and residuals of lead. Yikes.
I spent less than 12 hours in Baxter Springs and not only learned of the white mountains to the north of town, I also met the most resilient and down to earth people here, which is a big part of why I went on the road to begin with. I wanted to experience people and places like Baxter Springs. To experience their tragedies along with their triumphs.
Baxter Springs is slowly becoming the little town that could. The Military Street (aka RT 66) revitalization hosts several new businesses including Decade of Wheels (a must see if you’re into classic cars), Rita’s Cafe On The Route, Little. Brick Inn B&B, and Rita’s Roost, where I happened to meet Jolene and heard her story. Same birth day, month, and year as me—we hit it off immediately. She told me about the town and of the billionaire widow, Geri Williams, who is almost single handily responsible for much of the retro-style improvement happening on the street. Geri, the widow of a wealthy Texas oil tycoon, is fulfilling her late husbands wishes, and every person I met that night had only kind things to say about her.
I listened to some live music for a bit and chatted with my new friends Jolene, Meredith, Tiffany, and Stormy until it was time to walk back to my tiny rolling house. The next morning I woke up with ominous dark clouds in the sky and an impending tornado warning to the north. Good thing I was heading west.