Three rock yards: One sat on an old railroad switch north of the city. The second was just over the Kansas River in sight of my bluff. The third lay down in the Turkey Creek Valley.
I had a wall to build. My house was new, built in the inner city as in-fill housing, what we used to call “worker housing.” The hill in the backyard used to be one of Kansas City’s construction and demolition landfills. The incline allowed water to pool at the base and around the sides of the house, creating a malarial swamp. I didn’t know how to build a wall, but I wanted space to sit and build fires. I needed to terrace the hill to make room.
At the first rock yard, the owner, Chris, was out back burning a load of trash and wood. He greeted me with a strong hand. I was his only customer.
“Rock. We got it,” Chris said. He was a tall, sturdy man in a flannel shirt, overalls, and a heavy canvas jacket. “You just look around here and you see somethin’ ya like, we’ll arrange to have it delivered tomorra.”
The stone was gorgeous even if Chris’ yard wasn’t. Stacks of various colors, sizes, and shapes sat on dirty pallets set on 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 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 of Virginia creeper and poison ivy. On the property, Chris had started and restarted a hundred projects, some finished, some in evolution.
We walked along the muddy road, talking prices. Moss Rock, $200 a skid. Kansas Dry Stack, $350 a pallet. Cherry Blend, “twel’fiddy per three twenny square.” He ran his catcher’s mitt hand over his shaved head as he 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. Ten. That was all and that was good. A limited selection is a grand thing for an uncertain shopper like me.
Chris was a good man and an excellent educator for the novice in stone, and not a bad salesman. We came to the fencepost limestone from farms in central Kansas. “I can’t go get it myself,” he said. “Them farmers don’t like having ya on their places. They bring it to me, and I 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, he said, all of them ornamental and none of them practical. That’s the nature of landscaping sometimes.
After looking at the posts for a while, talking of the unique stratum 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 the bluff on which I live, I ran into a man and his toddler son. The yard was open to 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. There was no one else in the yard but us.
“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.” Vintage stone. It occurred to me that even ordinary limestone is made only once.
“Me, too,” I said. “I have a steep hill in a small backyard up there on the ridge.” I pointed to Silk Stocking Ridge about mile and half distant. It rose out of the industrial river bottom of warehouses and railroads. The buildings of downtown Kansas City towered above the bluff.
I gave Harry a finger to wrap his 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.”
“What’re you 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. I understood simple names like limestone, sandstone, granite, feldspar. The yard’s market names for the rock added a layer of mystique to sometimes ordinary stone. Where did it come from? How did it get here? Who quarried it? The signs in front of the pallets of rock contained none of this information. 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. But it was too neat and orderly. Battalions of neatly stacked pallets of stone stood in perfect lines on a lot two blocks square. It was a lot like a suburban lawn center, the opposite of Chris’ railroad switch. I’m sure the owners worked hard to give the yard an aura of gentility. People with money ordered stone in bulk and had it delivered. Men like Richard created new spaces with it.
The third rock yard had a website. Pictures of stone. Prices per ton clearly marked and how that price worked out per square foot. No shenanigans. I drove over and parked on the gravel lot out front. Men in work clothes 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 quick and soft word.
A printer’s box on the counter displayed samples of different gravels. Price per ton, limestone or granite. I asked where to see stone I could build a wall with, 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, looking out onto hundreds of pallets and piles of stone. The yard was orderly but worked in—somewhere between Chris’ entropy and the suburban yard’s cleanliness. “You just 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 the yard was separated into classifications I understood—limestone, sandstone, quartzite, granite. Small signs in front of skids and piles of stone listed the genteel market name of the rock. The signs also displayed price per ton and square yard. Notations beneath named 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.
Dwight stood behind a simple counter in the sales room. He was a big man with canvas overalls and jacket, his name embroidered on his shirt. His hands were the size of baseball gloves. I asked him about the big pile of stone I’d seen 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 want to build a terrace in my back yard, something about twenty-five feet long, about four of feet high,” I said. “I won’t be using mortar. It’s a hill. A lot of water comes down and through the hill.”
“Good thinking,” he said. “Winter’d murder a mortared wall. If you’re not into anything fancy, that dry stack is 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 on a small pad with a golf pencil—everything looked ridiculously small in his hands. 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. “What do you 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 ticket and walked away the proud owner of nine tons of rock—seven of Devonian limestone, two a little flatter than the rest, and two tons of limestone pea gravel.
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 cherry red and well-scuffed. 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. I would haul it from there in a wheelbarrow to the back.
“That’s a sound plan,” he said. “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 noticed 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. It really depends on what your insurance looks like.” He smiled and adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses.
“I’m not going to 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 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 the engine revved and the bucket began to rise on a hydraulic arm. The back gate swung open, and with a great clamor of stone on steel, then rock on rock, stone slid and bumped out of the truck onto the grass. My neck and the back of my head became sore with tension. Was this the right rock? How do I build a wall? 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. I’d build a wall and to do that I needed 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 way was one rock at a time. The possibilities defied my imagination.