The cross and the coal shovel

They say everything’s bigger in Texas, but I think it’s actually a regional thing. I’ve spent the last two days driving south through eastern Kansas, then west through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle following old Route 66. One of the most striking things about these days has been the sheer size of both the land and its attractions. Ok, and the people, too, but I would never be so rude as to mention that.

Exhibit A: the giant cross touted as the second-largest in the Western hemisphere.

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The cross is really quite arresting. It’s 190 feet tall, weighs 2.5 million pounds, and is visible from 20 miles away. It’s wrapped in 26-gage R-panel metal, and if you knew what that meant I bet you’d be extremely impressed. Built in 1995 on donated private land, the cross was funded by a guy named Steve Thomas, said to have been fed up with the adult bookshop billboards along the highway. (There’s a remarkably similar cross in Effingham, IL, that stands 8 feet taller and was completely in 2001. Foiled!)

The cross is clearly the main draw, but it’s surrounded by other attractions, including — but not limited to — a series of 10 bronze statues illustrating the stations of the cross, an empty “tomb” with the stone rolled away, a replica of the shroud of Turin, a gravestone that reads “dedicated to the sanctity of life: in loving memory of the innocent victims of abortion,” and a nearby Jesus statue who holds a tiny fetus in his open palm. Oh, and a gift shop.

Not even close to the biggest cross in any hemisphere.

Not even close to the biggest cross in any hemisphere.

The Last Supper is about to begin.

The Last Supper is about to begin.

Please find your name card and take a seat. The bread and wine will be served shortly.

Please find your name card and take a seat. The bread and wine will be served shortly.

Upon leaving, you see this. Only in America:

The original name was "Teen Virgin's Hot Stuff," but for some reason the cross people objected.

The original name was "Teen Virgin's Hot Stuff," but for some reason the cross people objected.

Now, the cross IS in Texas. But this isn’t:

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Pretty impressive, right? About 24 hours before I visited the cross, this sign had lured me off US-69 in the southeast corner of Kansas:

Don't mind if I do.

Don't mind if I do.

Big Brutus is a retired electric coal shovel said to be the largest in the country. It was the second-largest when it was built back in 1962, but the former champ has since been dismantled. You know what they say: He who laughs last makes the tourist money. Brutus is 160 feet tall, weights 11 million pounds, and had a maximum speed of .22 miles per hour. The dark interior looks like a sort of weird machine-age cathedral, and climbing into the operator’s cabin provides an impressive aerial view.

Just another day at the office.

Just another day at the office.

As one Brutus pamphlet put it, “Standing beside it makes one aware of how fragile he or she is.”

Can you see me? I'm very tiny compared to Brutus, but I'm there.

Can you see me? I'm very tiny compared to Brutus, but I'm there.

John Steinbeck wrote in his great American travelogue “Travels With Charley” that he was setting out “to rediscover this monster land.” And “monster land” is just right. The cross and the shovel are huge, so huge that each made me laugh to myself with disbelief as they loomed into view. But they were built that way on purpose: Such size is one of the only ways to make an impact — spiritual, physical — on such a comically, magnificently huge land.