Where the Highway Ends
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS
In the summer of 1965, my parents took my brother and me to the Arkansas River, a mile south of Pawnee Rock, to see the flood. Heavy rains in Colorado had sent a crash of water downstream.
This was a mighty flood; it washed away the river’s wooden bridge. Mingling with other locals, my family stood at the jagged edge of pavement and gaped at the brown water rolling past. We were there as witnesses to one of Pawnee Rock’s historic events.
The bridge was missing and the road was broken. This was all rather startling I suppose, but my 6-year-old self was more dazzled by the fact that a boy in my class, Tracy Bright, was wearing a pair of red-framed toy sunglasses just like the pair I had on. The same sunglasses!
Now, decades later in another town, I find myself again standing before a river in flood stage. Over recent weeks, hundreds of Emporians have trekked to the edge of town to view the Cottonwood River. Being Kansans, we’re always amazed to see water in a hurry to get anywhere. Our streams tend to be small, slow and shallow.
You really haven’t seen a river until you’ve crossed the mile-long bridges that span rivers such as the Ohio or the Mississippi. And if you want to see rapidly moving water, your best bet is a trip to Colorado, where rocky streams follow the highways, and the speeding water does its best to beat your car in a race down the mountainside.
As the Cottonwood filled with heavy rains at the end of July and the beginning of August, the river left its banks. And even though the river was expanding left and right, it was still rising, until it almost reached the bottom of the old arch bridge.
The new bridge was constructed in 1987, but the 1923 Rainbow Marsh Arch Bridge was preserved for fishermen and for pedestrian traffic. Saving that original bridge was a wise decision. It’s a destination. We take visitors there. And many of us stop by occasionally to check out the river, especially after a rain. Or after a week of rain. Or two weeks of rain.
As the water rose, it covered a section of K-99 south of the bridge. The highway was then closed, which gave sightseers two vantage points, two bridges, from which to view the swollen river.
When Dave and I went to see the Cottonwood on Sunday, Aug. 4, we had to park about three blocks away – a crowd was already there. People stood on both bridges, amazed by the amount of muddy water, which was definitely in a hurry to find an ocean.
“Are there sharks in there?” I heard a small girl ask. “No,” her mother replied.
A man picked up a rock and skipped it across the expanse of water that was covering Soden’s Grove Park. Inside the park, the water reached to the zoo fence and to the ball diamond.
Dave and I continued walking south on K-99, around the curve and past the first mile road – which was completely underwater. A thin strip of K-99, the white line at the top of the curve, was dry, a pathway to nowhere. Even that little strip of dry pavement ended in water.
Parents brought their kids to see the Cottonwood, just as my parents had taken me to see the flooded Arkansas River. People photographed the muddy water and the newly-formed lakes which drowned out fields of soybeans.
We all came to see; we were there as witnesses to the flood of 2013. While looking at the out-of-bounds river, I recalled the helplessness we felt during last year’s endless summer – a summer of drought and intense heat.
Last August we looked to the heavens for relief, but the sky had forgotten how to rain. It seems the sky is just not good at moderation; it may never stop raining.
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh