Kansas this year! Breaking new territory for Adele and I, but we were amongst friends. Over 200 writers, musicians, poets, actors, agents, and associated 'artists' joined in mutual indulgence - the grand story of the west, with all its tragedies, accomplishment, heroism and brutality laid bare in the works of those who attended. And, despite the numbers, you can't help but feel a sense of family - shared interest and experience. So often, the pernicious feeling of underlying competitiveness and critique pervades groups of peers, but not here. A more supportive and inclusive cadre you could not wish to meet.
Aside from an excellent schedule of formal events, celebrations of achievement, and well ... celebrations, we joined a fascinating visit to the Arabia Steamboat museum in downtown Kansas. Dug up from a field (the Missouri used to move its course by up to half a mile on an annual basis) by a group of enthusiasts. A museum, not my thing I thought, having expected a leisurely trip floating down the Missouri on a historic paddle steamer. However, I was surprised. What an eye opener. The museum provided a fascinating insight into the relative modernity of the household goods available to people on the western frontier - every design of Wedgwood crockery set imaginable, extravagant linens and silks, the sort of hinges and door handles that you would pay a premium for in any specialist ironmongers, and, a big surprise to me, screws and screwdrivers (1850's!). I had anticipate nails and hammers, but not every size of screw you might imagine.
Leaving the convention, we headed out on a tour, picking out two of the historic places featured in my first novel, Native - Leavenworth and St Joseph. Leavenworth is in reality a military base. The facilities in the town centre entirely on the base, and sadly, similar to most of the communities I've seen around military bases, it feels pretty poor and run down. Of course, I should have done my homework before we visited, because we drove around for several hours trying to find evidence of the site of the historic fort, only to find eventually that it is located inside the wire, on the current base. This only became evident when I got out of the car and went up to the security gate - two armed guards taking a dim view of my brazen approach and loosing hand guns.
St Jo, however, was unexpected. The old town is now tired and much of the area along the river has become industrial. Not visually appealing, but tucked away there are real historic gems - The Patel House, a plush hotel with 150 bedrooms in the 1860's, is now packed with memorabilia of every kind. The old general stores still stand down by the river, as does the first bank to be built. We stayed at the Whiskey Mansion, set on the hill overlooking the old town, and classic of the ostentatious homes built by the wealthy in the late nineteenth century. The house was originally owned by the Westheimer family, of Red Top Rye fame, and was burnt to the ground during the 1900's but has been lovingly rebuilt.
All in all we had a great trip out west, made some good friends, saw a slice of history, ate ribs and flatiron steak, and soaked up some of California's best produce!