Chase County Courthouse in the early morning light
Without a doubt and without a close second, waking up at the Millstream Motel early Wednesday morning is more pleasant than any other morning of our ride. I’m sure that some of this has to do with the realization that this is a day off – a day of rest and relaxation after 5 days of riding. But there’s more to the “goodness” of the morning than just this knowledge.
For one thing, the room is the nicest we’ve stayed in so far. For another thing, it’s really quiet – the only real sound outside being the sound of the stream falling over the little dam that was built when there was a mill operating on the site. For another thing, I’m really looking forward to exploring the town a bit on our day off. But there’s more as well – something I’ll just call “good energy” for now.
The room we’re in feels warm. It’s almost a suite, with a small bed and chair in the front area where the TV is, and a bed in the back area where the bathroom is (and the back door). Dave has been more than gracious and lets me have the nicest part of the room – the back section with the real bed – while he’s taken the front room with the TV, A/C, and smaller bed. I sleep really cold, and rarely even need an A/C, so part of this decision is based on the fact that Dave wants to be closer to the A/C. Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that I got the better end of the bargain, and I’m grateful as I wake up before first light on our day off. Though I’m an early riser, Dave is usually awake and up before I am. This morning, I try and sneak outside without waking Dave.
It’s a perfect morning as the pre-dawn light grows around me. Sitting on the back veranda, I’m surprised by the lack of bugs. Listening to the sound of the water in the creek, I lean back in my chair and watch a fisherman sitting on the bridge with a line in the water. I watch for quite a while as the light grows around him, and figure he might be sleeping in his lawn chair. I wonder if he’s spent the entire night there on the bridge.
Fishing for catfish
After the light grows a good bit, I take a walk down to the bridge, and chat with the fisherman. I’m not a big fan of catfishing – just because of the static nature of it – but am enough of a fishing nut that I’m always interested in how someone’s doing when they’ve got a line in the water. Turns out that he’s been there a good bit of the night, and hasn’t had any luck. I would have thought that with the water up like it is, there’d be a good chance at catching some catfish – but what do I know about it?
Fishing is a funny sport. I’m a fan of a more active style of fishing – one where I’m pursuing or hunting the fish – but there are some odd aspects to the sport that seem to be common across most styles. This fella sitting on the bridge has spent hours in this lawn chair, watching his line down in the water, and hasn’t had a single bite. I might spend hours in my boat, softly trolling along a shore and casting hundreds of times up against the bank, and never get a single strike. But we keep coming back, and keep trying again.
On the surface this seems like odd behavior, but if you fish, it’s perfectly reasonable. There’s something about the activity of fishing that pulls us back to it all the time, and it doesn’t seem to be (as logic might suggest) connected much to the actual catching of fish. There’s some combination of factors that stack up to a complete “gestalt” of fishing that’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t infected with an attachment to this particular pursuit.
First off, there’s the peace, tranquility, and thoughtful space that usually surrounds the act of fishing. This isn’t something that’s always part of the sport, but it’s a pretty common component. For some, (like myself), there’s the hunt, which is powerfully addictive if you’re wired in a certain way. Learning the patterns of the prey, learning how he behaves, “becoming” or assimilating with the prey in order to hunt him. And for some, it’s a sport with the challenge that sports often bring to the individual.
For myself, I don’t really think of fishing as a “sport” – at least that’s not the aspect of the activity that grabs me. I think it’s more the combination of the peace and tranquility of the space, and “the hunt”.
Of course, in college I had a neighbor who used to go down to the creek (or crick depending on your dialect…) and fish for catfish every evening after work. He’s spend most of the night down there, then come back to sleep a few hours and head off to work again. He eventually confided that the real attraction to fishing for him was that it allowed him to get out of the house and away from his wife. I guess it was his escape – his way of avoiding conflict. I’m thinking there must be more effective ways of solving that particular problem, but then again, I suppose marriage counseling can get expensive…
One of many stone homes in the town - this one is new but there are some really nice older ones too.
Following my conversation with the fisherman on the bridge, I wander around to explore the town in the early morning. It’s still cool at this early hour, and the early light gives limestone a warm glow. A good bit of this town is built of limestone, right down to the sidewalks. Of course, over the years, most of the limestone sidewalks have been replaced with concrete, but there are a number of places where you can still see the old limestone. I’d like to believe that the replacement of limestone with concrete happened only when the limestone got broken for whatever reasons, but it’s pretty easy to believe that there may have been a time when limestone seemed too old-fashioned, and a modernization effort replaced much of it. Either way, it’s pretty cool to see those spots where it wasn’t replaced. My son designs and installs decorative concrete in ways to make it look like stone or slate or other materials, and the results are usually quite beautiful. But to see these old sidewalks – 100+ years old – in such perfect shape and continuing to grow in beauty as they age is a great reminder of just how tough it is to replicate what mother nature takes millions of years to create.
Dave is exploring the town too, and I run into him down by the courthouse. We each spend the early morning hours on our own self-guided walking tours of the town, before meeting up again at the hotel room around 10:00 or so. By that time, the Emma Chase Cafe is open, and we’re more than ready for breakfast.
Looking at the name, you might think that the Emma Chase Cafe is named after Emma Chase, who must surely have had something to do with the naming of the town. In a little bit of reading that I did at the historical society there, I think someone saw a picture once of a woman from the 1800’s, and they just “named” her Emma Chase, hung the picture on the wall, and called the place the Emma Chase Cafe. Subsequent to that day, someone came along who could actually identify the woman in the photo, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t named Emma Chase.
But the photo still hangs, and the name of the place remains. And I like it. Sort of like Roslyn’s Cafe in the fictitious town of Cicely on the old Northern Exposure show. In the show, the story went that the Cafe got it’s name from a woman who was part of a couple who founded the town. In the show – as in Cottonwood Falls – it’s irrelevant whether the story is actually true or not. It’s a good story. That’s all that matters.
In fact, the town of Cottonwood Falls reminds me in many ways of the Northern Exposure town of Cicely, and I see a lot of similarities in the people as well. It’s a neat little culture and community that seems to be evolving in Cottonwood Falls. On the one hand is the old ranching community – folks with local history that usually goes back a couple of generations or more. I know that culture well, having lived in the general area for many years myself. That community is pretty darned conservative in the true sense of the word. They’re generally independent, and don’t want to edge into other folks’ business. They generally figure we’ve all got our own eccentricities, and one man’s are no better or worse than another’s. On the other hand are the folks who come from a more “alternative” style of America. Interestingly, their leanings aren’t really that different from the old ranching community – they just have a different set of eccentricities. The two groups might speak in a slightly different dialect, and might dress differently from one another, but their basic conservative tendencies match up pretty nicely.
That word – “conservative” – is one that I need to talk about a bit in this context. I don’t use the word in the same way political talking heads on TV or in newspapers will use the term. Those folks seem to think the word conservative is synonymous with right-wing. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. In the same way, the talking-head elites seem to want to use the word conservative to describe a particular brand of religion in the country, and again I say, nothing could be further from the truth.
When I use that word – conservative – to describe the folks that I see building this community, I use it in a very pure sense, in the sense of pure and foundational conservative values. I don’t use it at all to describe someone’s political (right-wing or left-wing) or religious (progressive vs fundamentalist) beliefs. In the most pure sense, a conservative mindset could be summed up with a few bullets I think:
- I mind my own business – if someone needs help I help them, but short of that need, I keep my nose out of the affairs of other folks.
- I don’t spend money I don’t have. We each have different jobs to do, some make more money than others, but making more money or less money isn’t what conservative is all about. It’s about not spending money that you don’t have.
- I need convincing to make a change. It’s not that all change is bad, it’s just that I need convincing before I’ll embrace the change – the change has to improve the situation in some way.
- I’m generally tolerant and accepting of differences in people. Since I mind my own business, I accept that there’ll be a lot of differences in folks, and it’s not my job to try and make other folks behave the same as me.
- I’m frugal and careful with the resources that I have. I don’t waste money or other resources. In other words, I conserve what I have.
Cottonwood River at sunrise
In the town of Cottonwood Falls – as in the fictional town of Cicely in the Northern Exposure show – the nice harmony of folks from many different backgrounds, and their basic conservatism, seems to make the town work well.
The proprietors of The Millstream Motel fit into this little harmony well in my opinion. Sharon and Richard Clute haven’t lived here their whole life, but moved into the area and bought the motel at some point in the not-too-distant past. They have the motel decorated in a way that makes you feel quite comfortable – I could easily see myself spending many days there sometime. While their appearance doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of small-town Kansas, they fit in perfectly here and seem to be both pillars and ambassadors for this unlikely little pocket of quirky harmony in the heart of the Flint Hills.
This morning, when I asked Sharon if there was a laundromat in town, she insisted that we just give our clothes to her, and she’d take care of them. While we’ve been washing our kit in the sink every night, we figured it’d be good to actually run everything through a washing machine at this point. As I dropped the clothes off with her, we sat and talked for quite a while about the town and the motel.
The Millstream Motel hasn’t been around all that long – at least I don’t think it has. I think Sharon and Rick purchased the property not that many years back from the fella who originally built it. The exterior walls of the motel are constructed with pieces of limestone that were once sidewalk in Cottonwood Falls. Sharon impresses me as someone with a nice blend of eccentricity and practicality. In talking with her, it sounds like she’s done more than her share of recruiting of folks to move to Cottonwood Falls and set up shop. Sharon’s a quiet and gentle soul I think, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to venture a guess that she may once have considered herself a hippie, I also wouldn’t expect that she’d be upset if I did say something like that…
While we’re talking, my stomach is growling for breakfast. Dave and I head down to the Emma Chase Cafe. Which is where I was in this story before I wandered over into this discussion of Northern Exposure… Dave an I sit down at a table at the Emma Chase, looking around for a menu. My breakfast menu has pretty consistently been chicken-fried steak, and I’m thinking that since we’re not riding today, maybe I should eat a little more lightly this morning. The waitress sees us both looking around, and lets us know they don’t really print a menu.
“What do you usually have for breakfast”, the waitress asks.
I shrug and look out the window before replying, “Eggs and toast I suppose – maybe some bacon.”
“Then that’s what I’ll fix for ya’”, she replies. Then looking at Dave, continues, “How ‘bout you?”
I don’t remember what Dave orders – I’m so enthralled with this nifty way to run a restaurant. Just fix folks what they like. I suppose it makes sense. If someone wants something you don’t feel like fixing, just put on your best Jedi Mind Trick Voice, and inform them that they really don’t want that, and maybe even suggest something that you feel like fixing. It’s such an elegant solution!
Sign at the Emma Chase Cafe - need I say more?
After breakfast, we have pie for dessert. It is late in the morning after all. And they’re darn proud of their pie at the Emma Chase – I figure it’d be an insult not to order pie. (Of course, for those of you who are really in the know, you know that no pie could really compare to Peggy’s Perfect Pie…)
We talk to a gal who I assume is the proprietor, and she tells us about their schedule of get-togethers during the month. It sounds like this is the happenin’ place to be on Friday nights, as they rotate the flavor of live music they host throughout the months, but always on Friday nights. This Friday, (being the third Friday of the month), is gospel night, and she’s sure we’d truly enjoy the jammin’ and singin’ and pickin’. I’m positive I would as well, and I’m sorry I’m gonna miss it.
I also learn that on the first Sunday of each month, they host a bicycler’s breakfast buffet. I’m sorry I’ll miss that as well. I think if I do this ride again, I’ll try and end up here on a first Sunday just to enjoy it!
Dave and I head back to the motel for a little rest between breakfast and lunch. I’m pretty sure a nap is going to catch up with me as the day moves along, and I also want to explore downtown now that the shops are open, but right now a little rest on the shady back porch is in order.
Back Veranda at the Millstream Motel
Dave and I settle in to chairs on the back veranda of the motel. The day’s getting quite hot already, and the breezy shade on the back of the motel is the perfect place for us to palaver. Dave and I like to talk politics. Even though there are things we disagree on, we both enjoy the benefit of a slightly new and different way to look at something that we already have an opinion on. And really, there’s not much I don’t already have an opinion on…
In America today, it’s unfortunate that the art of social discourse has become so crude and intolerant. I place the blame for this partially on the media for the hate mongering that they’ve become so good at over the last 30 years or so, but even more of the blame has to rest on us – the American people, who seem to harbor some addiction to watching this trash on TV and listening to it. We only want to talk to and listen to people like us – they must hold exactly the same opinion that we do, or they must be an idiot. The ability to respectfully disagree with someone is lost, as is the ability to have a conversation with someone and believe that they might be a little more right about the topic that I am.
I feel very grateful for my friendship with Dave. We often will pick a topic, and find that we have different opinions about the topic. We’ll dig in and toss things up and about for a while, and quite often end up realizing that there’s not a gnat’s hair’s worth of distance between what we believe about the topic after all. In the process we get to have some great conversations, I always learn a bit more about the topic that we’re discussing, and most importantly, I generally learn a little something about myself in the process.
Today we’re talking about corporations, and the role of the corporation in our culture and our economy. As always, the conversation moves back and forth and around to many different complexions of the issue. Dave and I have both worked in Corporate America for most of our career. We’ve both had high-responsibility jobs in large corporations. I’ve run my own business, as well as businesses owned by others. How how businesses (large and small) are run is something that we’re both familiar with.
It’s interesting to me how the media has portrayed a competition of sorts between government and the corporation in recent decades, as-if they’re two different forces designed to achieve the same thing, and we always need to choose one over the other. As we’ve privatized more and more public functions, it’s often been portrayed as an improvement, because private enterprise (ie: a privately owned company) is always more efficient than public enterprise (ie: government).
First off, I’ll say that my experience has been that a smaller enterprise is almost always more efficient than a larger enterprise – whether its public or private. I’ve always worked in the private sector in one way or another, and I’ve seen some very efficient operations, and I’ve seen some that are astoundingly inefficient. I don’t think there’s anything inherent in the word private or public that makes something more or less efficient.
However, in terms of focus, I will say that it’s much easier for a public enterprise to lose focus, and that can lead to inefficiency. In a private enterprise, the focus is extremely clear. Nearly always, the core mission of every private corporation is ROI for the shareholders. Plain and simple, make money for the people who own the company. There’s nothing evil or inherently bad about this – it’s the heart of a capitalist economy. However, it’s also important to realize that at the heart of the matter, this is the sole function of a corporation.
A corporation is not designed or chartered to do good things for the economy of the nation, or to help people, or to behave in a way that builds strong community, or anything like this. (Of course, there are exceptions to this – there are non-profit corporations who are chartered to do this sort of thing. However, in the context of this discussion, I’m referring to the for-profit sector of corporate America.)
Jailhouse inside of the Chase County Courthouse
In fact, if you’re acting on behalf of a corporation, (as an officer for example), and you behave in a way that might contribute to the community or the nation in some way but harms the shareholders of the corporation, you might just be taken to court – might even be held criminally liable for harming shareholders.
This is really critical to understand. The corporation exists for itself and itself only. Given the choice between greater good (something that might help the community or the nation), and individual good (something that helps the shareholders of the corporation), agents of the corporation MUST ALWAYS choose shareholders over everything else.
Once again, I don’t see this as bad. I just see it as misunderstood in our country. The for-profit corporation is a very selfish agent, out for its own good only. This is the nature of the beast, and the way it should be.
Public enterprise, on the other hand, should have the sole mission of serving the greater good of the public that has chartered the enterprise. A public enterprise should serve no profit motive, but should instead serve only a motive of achieving the greater good of the public that they serve.
Viewed this way, there’s no competition between public and private enterprise. They serve two very different masters. The master of the private (for-profit) enterprise is the shareholder of that corporation, while the master of the public enterprise is the public body that chartered the enterprise. They should both be strong, and they should both work to keep the other in check. If private enterprise becomes too strong, then we’ll see growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, as those with power, money, and influence in the nation gather more power, money, and influence into their “empires”. If public enterprise becomes too dominant, then we’ll see growing inefficiencies as opportunities to leverage profit from the economy in the form of private (for-profit) enterprise diminishes.
This is the backdrop of our discussion this morning, as we talk about concepts of “greater good” vs “individual greed”. It’s hard for guys like me and Dave – who grew up in the for-profit world – to equate The Corporation primarily with “individual greed”. We’ve both seen good people do good things in the for-profit world, and surely seen some pretty selfish and greedy actions as well. We’ve grown up believing in this alter of “privatization” and “profit motive”. But at its most basic truth, it’s very hard to argue with the premise that the for-profit corporation is chartered to fulfill the individual good of a small group of shareholders, and this can often be at odds with the greater good of the community or the nation.
The lens that Dave is looking through in our discussion shows Corporate America in the more positive light, focusing on the good things that do get done in the private (for-profit) world. I’m arguing that while I see good things happen as well, I believe that they’re generally blips – they fall outside the charter of the enterprise in-which they happen. It’s people behaving as people, not as agents of a corporation, and those same people will behave well regardless of what sort of enterprise they’re an agent of.
This gets us to the core – the people. We’re social creatures – wired by evolution (or whatever you might believe has honed the wiring) to strive for survival, and our survival depends on community. I’m sure social scientists have lots of competing theories about the hows and whys of all this, but if you just back up from the forest and look around at us as humans today and throughout history, it’s plain that we’re wired to live in community. It’s also plain that we’re wired to survive as an individual. While a honeybee will immediately sacrifice her life at the slightest hint of a threat to the hive that she’s part of, we’re much more likely to give it some thought – to do some internal math to find out whether it’s worth sacrificing ourself for the good of the community.
Inside each of us, it’s like there’s this ongoing calculator hooked up to a scale of some sort, and the thing’s never unplugged. All through life, it keeps calibrating and recalibrating itself, building the algorithms that get applied to every situation that we come up against, guiding us to make decisions that might come down on the side of serving our selfish interest while sacrificing the interests of community, or might come down on the side of serving community interest while sacrificing our selfish interest. I don’t think the algorithms are built-in to us when we’re born, I think they develop within us as we live our life.
Within the context of a small group of people – especially when the group is isolated – it seems to me that the little “algorithm builder” would see a real possibility that the life of the community could end. I would likely see myself as a much more important member of the community – I would see clearly how much those around me depended on me for our mutual survival. By the time I’d reached adulthood, it’d probably be rare that many of my decisions would lean toward my selfish interest over the interest of the tribe.
As we’ve become less and less tribal, and few of us can really even identify a small group that we’re an important part of, I think the little “algorithm builder” inside of us tends to see little reason to help us make decisions that go against our selfish interest. I think that’s why when people do act in a selfless manner, it’s so often highlighted and seems like a really neat thing to us.
An enterprise is just a collection of people, and those people are going to try and act in the way that they’ve been wired. While we’ll surely try and carry out the mission of the enterprise, we’re going to do so within the confines of that little algorithm builder that we’ve been feeding and building all our life. At their core, and enterprise can’t be good or evil – it’s just a set of rules that the members need to live by.
As with all really good conversations, this one raises more questions than it answers, leaving us both pondering deeply when we’re done. The next day we’ll agree that one of the central functions of any government is to assure that the playing fields are tilted in favor of the greater good over the individual’s ability to be selfish – whether that individual is a person or an enterprise. But now, we’re thinking it’s time to do more walking and eating.
Walnut staircase in the Chase County Courthouse
We explore the old courthouse in Cottonwood Falls together. This is a gorgeous structure made of beautiful limestone on the outside, and trimmed with native walnut on the inside. I think the literature said it cost $40,000 to build 100+ years ago – heck the walnut trim alone would probably cost that today! There’s no “guided” tours of the building – you just open the front door and walk around – but everyone there is more than happy to answer any question that you’ve got.
As we’ve walked around downtown, we’ve noticed a place that seems to be a coffee shop, but wasn’t open quite as early in the morning as we wanted coffee. It’s open now, and we walk in to investigate. Elexa Dawson is the proprietor, and the name she calls the place is “The Gallery at Cottonwood Falls”. It’s a fun and eclectic mix of furniture, art, books, coffee, and pastries. Both Elexa and her store seem to fit perfectly in the fun little harmonious mosaic that is Cottonwood Falls.
Dave and I both spend a good deal of time rummaging through the historical museum. I’m a nut for that sort of thing anyway, but this is a much better museum than I’d expect in a town many times the size of Cottonwood Falls. We enjoy a good lunch at the Emma Chase – followed by pie – and then head back to the room for a nap.
After a brief nap, I wander over to the little cabin that’s part of the Millstream Motel, and sit on the front porch for quite a while. The sound of the river is wonderful, the shady breeze is warm but pleasant, and I can think of nowhere I’d rather be right now. I drift off to a place close to sleep a few times as I’m kicked back in the chair, and enjoy the wonderful energy of this quiet little corner of the world.
Tomorrow I’ll have to face saddle sores again, but right now I feel like I’m tucked into a little niche made just for me and my day off.