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Nine tons of rock, Vol. 1

Three rock yards. One sat on an old railroad switch where the owner, Chris, was out back burning a load of trash and wood. The second was just over the Kansas River in sight of my bluff. The third lie down in the Kansas River Valley. At the first, Chris greeted me with a strong hand.

Rock. We got it,” he said. He was a tall, sturdy man in flannels and a heavy canvas jacket. “You just look aroun’ here and is ya see som’thin’ ya like, we’ll arrange to have it delivered tomorra.”

The stone was gorgeous. Stacks on dirty pallets set on dried muddy sediment, runoff from behind a railroad service shed. Water pooled in concrete bays where Chris kept stores of substrate and fill—limestone gravel and chat, river rock, granite dust, and sand. Behind the bays rose mounds of disturbed earth. The railroad still ran next to Chris’ property—now a line that ran from an intermodal yard in North Kansas City to Houston. Piles of rubble and ballast lay tangled in weed, grape, and scrub. Discarded appliances jumbled about as if on a stormy sea, stiffly bound with Virginia creeper and poison ivy. On the property, a hundred projects started and restarted, some finished, some in evolution. Chris could account for them all.

We walked along the muddy road, talking prices. Moss rock, $200 a skid. Kansas dry stack, $350 a pallet. Cherry blend, “twel’fiddy fer three twenny square.” He ran his heavy-mitt hand over his shaved head as talked up the advantages for each of the ten kinds of stone and gravel on the lot, for wall and walkway—since I needed both eventually. Ten. That was good. A limited selection is a grand thing for a shopper like me.

Chris was a good man and an excellent educator for the novice in stone. Not a bad salesman. We came to the corpses of fencepost limestone from farms in central Kansas. “I can’t go get it maself,” he said. “Them farmers don’t like having ya on their places. They bring it to me, and Ah sell it for a hunnert a post.” It was beautiful. Pin and feather holes still visible along the length of the stones. A person could find a “hunnert” uses for them, all of them ornamental and none of them practical. But that’s the nature of landscaping sometimes.

After looking at the posts for a while, talking of the unique bed of stone they come from, I used an excuse to leave without buying. “I have to run this by my wife,” I said. We shook hands. He smiled. He knew I was off to look someplace else.

A few days later at a rock yard in Kansas City, Kansas, just in sight of my bluff, I ran into a man and his toddler son. The business was closed, but the yard was open for shoppers. Richard was a landscape architect. Harry, his son, rode astride his father’s shoulders in thermal overalls. They looked like they were out for a stroll in the park.

“Just getting some ideas,” Richard said, looking around the yard. He handed me his card. Guenther Lawn & Landscape, Basehor, Kansas. “I got a patio with five kinds of vintage stone I have to put together. I’m just trying to see what’s around.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I have a steep hill in a small backyard up there on the ridge.” I pointed to Silk Stocking Ridge, which rose out of the river bottom about mile and half distant. Beyond the bluff towered the buildings of downtown.

I gave Henry a finger to wrap a hand around.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, really,” I said. “I just want to see what kind of stone’s around.”

“Whatcha thinking of?”

“Whatever’s around this area,” I said, turning back to the yard, a crossword of neatly stacked pallets of stone. “There’s rock all around where I live, and if I had the time, I’d pick it up myself.”

“But a man’s got a life to live,” Richard said. “That’s why me and Harry here’s going for burgers after this.”

“Have to make it fun.”

“Rock’s always fun,” he said.

We parted ways and I looked at the stacks of stone and their prices. Pecos Tan, Buckskin, Osage Buff, Birch White Ashler, Calico Crème. Nothing made much sense. To me, simple names like limestone, sandstone, granite, felsbar made sense. The names added a layer of mystique to sometimes-ordinary rock. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who quarried it? None of this information was here. Sometimes a state of origin was listed, but never a geologic stratum, never a notion of an era or epoch.

It was a good yard and seemed like an honest place. It was neat, orderly. Too much so. It seemed a lot like a suburban lawn center.

I’m sure the owners worked hard to give the yard an aura of gentility. They were, after all, purveyors of stone, and people with money ordered stone in bulk, had it delivered, and men like Richard created new spaces with it. I wondered about the rock and it occurred to me that even ordinary limestone is made only once.

The third rock yard had a Web site. Pictures of stone. Prices clearly marked per ton and how that price worked out per square foot. No shenanigans. When I arrived, men walked in and out of a spare room next to the office. They said “good morning” to the room as they walked in, and everyone replied in return. They were contractors, workers, all with gloves in their pockets, some with concrete and stone powder on their jeans and boots. They stood in a loose formation at the counter. A woman sat at a desk behind a rough wood partition. A little cocker spaniel made the rounds of the men, most of whom bent down for a pet and quick, soft word.

A printer’s box on the counter held samples of different gravels. Price per ton, limestone or granite. I asked where to see the building stone, and the woman smiled, got up from her desk, and led me by the arm to a door at the end of the office.

“It’s all right out here,” she said. “You just take a look. See anything, just come back and tell us. Any of us can answer your questions.”

All the stone in the yard had nice names, much like the yard where I met Richard and Harry. But small signs, along with the market name of the stone, price per ton, per square yard, listed places of origin. Some signs even provided the name of the quarry. The prices were all better than either of the two places I’d been before, and, even a greater draw to me, was a simple notation in language I understood—Limestone, Sandstone, Quartzite.

Dwight stood behind the simple counter, a big man with canvas overalls and jacket. His hands were the size of baseball gloves. I asked him about the big pile of stone in the yard, the stone I wanted in my yard.

Kansas Dry Stack,” he said. “It’s good stuff for around here. What’re you planning?”

“I wanna build a terrace in my back yard, something about 25 feet long, about three feet high,” I said. “I won’t be using mortar. It’s a hill. A lot of water comes down and through the hill.”

“Yeah, good thinking,” he said. “Winter’d murder a mortared wall. If you’re not into anything fancy, that dry stack about the best I can recommend.”

It was also the least expensive—per ton. Other rock would build the same wall in fewer tons, but without mortar holding things together, this rock was looking great.

Dwight pulled a pocket calculator from behind a cash register, worked a couple of figures into the keys, and wrote some things down on a small pad with a golf pencil—everything the man touched with his hands looked ridiculously small. Then, he told me how much I might need, as well as what might cover two walkways either side of my narrow driveway (which turned into muddy sumps in the rain). He told me how much it cost.

“Seven tons all together. Five Kansas Dry Stack. Two Kansas Flag. We can have it delivered tomorrow,” he said, looking up from his pad. Whatda think?”

“I’ll do just that,” I said.

“It’ll come in a big truck,” he said. “You have any problems with your driveway, or the place we’ll deliver it? Any cracks, that sort of thing?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“There won’t be any problems unless there’s problems already,” he said. “As long as there aren’t, there won’t be.”

I ordered two tons of limestone gravel I would pick up in my truck a half-ton at a time when I needed it. He rang the figures into the cash register, and I handed him a credit card. I signed the ticked and walked away the proud owner of seven tons of Devonian limestone, two tons a little flatter than the rest.

The next morning, I woke early. I had arranged for delivery of the stone after my obligations at the university. When I was finished there, I rushed home in time to see the bucket truck drive up the boulevard. When it halted in front of my house in a flush and squeal of airbrakes, I was in awe. The truck wasn’t a small, big truck. It was a big, big truck. It was red. Fire truck red. A tall, lanky, older man climbed down the ladder from the cab and shook my hand. He smiled kindly and talked softly. I told him where I thought I wanted the stone—off the side of the driveway on the side yard. I would haul it from there in a wheelbarrow to the back.

“That’s a sound plan,” he said. “But I see you gotta crack.”

We looked down at the drive. A fracture ran from the street up the ramp. Right in the middle. I’d never seen it before.

“You think it will be a problem?” I said.

“With these new drives, it’d be hard to say,” he said. A wisp of his thin white hair flipped up in the breeze. “Could be a little heave or settling. The truck could make it worse or it could do nothing at all.”

“What do you think?”

“Well, it depends on what your insurance looks like.” He smiled and adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses.

“I’m not gonna worry. Repair it now or repair it later. I wouldn’t know where else to put this stuff.”

He unclasped the door on the back of the bucket, climbed back into the cab of the truck, and backed it into the drive and onto the side yard. Once stopped, he pulled the engine out of gear and with some revs the bucket began to rise on a hydraulic arm. The door opened, and with a great clamor of stone on steel, then rock on rock, stone slid and bumped out of the truck into the yard. My neck and the back of my head became sore with tension. The man pulled the truck forward, and more rock tumbled out, and then more. When it was nearly done, he bumped the bucket up and down on the arm to get the last of the stone out.

It struck me as the man smiled and waved, as I watched the red truck bump off down the boulevard beneath the bare sycamores toward the rock yard: I was committed to move this pile of stone–some six feet high and twelve and some feet in diameter–120 feet and down steps to the backyard. The only one way was one rock at a time.

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