Saturday, May 23, 2009


A week ago last Wednesday we started to cross the American prairie from Limon, CO. We drove out of the Colorado mountains the evening before. Limon is just a bit too far from Pike's Peak to see the mountain. We had crossed about 75 miles of the treeless great plains before stopping at dark.

From Limon it is almost 100 miles on I-70 to the Kansas border. We pulled into the Kansas welcome center about 9:00 am. The wind off the mountains was so strong it nearly swept us off our feet. Little sand grains got in my eyes and my cap blew off. A genuine tumbleweed got stuck under the driver's door. The rolling land is farmed as far as the eye can see. We collected a bag of brochures about the wonders of Kansas and our free Kansas sunflower seeds and set off again. The wind blew hard all day.

We were resigned to crossing most of Kansas on I-70. The distances are just too great to use the back roads. Three hours of non-stop driving brought us to Hays. This little city of about 20,000 appears to be the business center of northwestern Kansas. Off I-70 strip malls stretch toward the town center for a mile or so. We headed for the downtown in hopes of finding some regional cuisine. I couldn't help but notice the German heritage of the place: street names, brick architecture and a big sign announcing “the German Capital of Kansas.” Main Street downtown was mostly deserted. We pulled up to a department store that has been converted into a number of small shops. Inside the old-fashioned Soda Shop offered a daily special soup, green bean with dumplings. The special sandwich was blue cheese sliders. Just what we needed.

An hour more on I-70 and we were getting pretty tired of the interstate driving. Merry was leafing through the literature we got at the welcome station looking for an alternative. At Wilson we got off and started to follow the “Post Rock” Scenic By-way.

When white settlers arrived on the prairies in the mid-nineteenth century they wanted to put fences around their farms, something that never occurred to indigenous people. The problem with this plan was that there's a lot of space to fence and virtually no trees for fence posts. All of Kansas, however has vast deposits of limestone just under the surface. Some of this stone was found to be quite soft and workable when quarried, but then hardens when exposed to the air. Thus there are now large areas of farmland encircled by wire fences with stone fence posts that have been there for a long time.

Traveling north from Wilson we not only saw thousands of stone fence posts but signs for “The Garden of Eden.” When we turned toward Lucas, we had no idea of what we would find. On a back street of the little town that calls itself the “Grassroots Arts Capital” we found the amazing homestead of civil war veteran, S.P. Dinsmoor. This concrete jungle gym completed in 1907 can't be described in a few words, but take a look at Merry's picture for an idea.

We decided to head for Manhattan, KS on a back road. KS 18 is an arrow leading from one set of grain elevators to the next, each eight to ten miles off. For many miles out of Lucas we were surprised by occasional large metal creatures along the roadside sculpted from scrap. When these ran out I was ready for some new amusement. Shortly after a county line I noticed that every crossing road was named with single syllable four letter word. “Barn” was the first one I saw. A little later I glimpsed “Deer'” then “Gate.” I mentioned this to Merry and we started to pay attention. “Hail” road was followed by “Iris.” We now surmised that the county had named each road in alphabetical order. We made a game of trying to guess the next road name, then at the letter Y we reached the county line.

We finally pulled into Manhattan bone tired. The wind was still blowing.

Fairly early the next morning we drove to the 3500 acre Konza Prairie Biological Station on the outskirts of Manhattan. This area of Kansas is called the Flint Hills because the limestone contains outcroppings of harder stone that made the area very difficult to plow and which eroded into unique bluff-like hills. The Flint Hills stretch from Nebraska to Oklahoma and contain the largest expanse of unplowed tallgrass prairie. We walked a six mile trail at Konza and saw many unique wildflowers, bison, school kids, a short horned lizard, and prairie birds including a strikingly red summer tanager. We met a woman who helped do a controlled burn of the grass just a few weeks earlier. “That all went up in a whirlwind of fire in four minutes,” she said gesturing at about 200 acres. Already the grass and flowers were six inches high where the prairie had been burned. Standing on a ridge here, surrounded by open prairie, it's easy to imagine what this country looked like 200 or 2000 years ago. Only 4% of the estimated 140 million acres of original prairie survive.

To get a better feel for the Flint Hills and to get some lunch we drove south on a back road to Council Grove. The Santa Fe Trail passed through this archetypal midwestern small town. We had a good lunch at the Hays House on Main Street. Build in 1857 the Hays House doesn't exactly line up with the modern street. When built it was oriented to the Santa Fe Trail.

Twenty miles on south through grasslands, and more grasslands, with virtually no other traffic, we came to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This is the heart of Chase County, the center of the center of the country, all prairie except for two small towns, immortalized by William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth.

There is little wind today. Standing on the prairie the sun and sky totally surrounds us. As dusk approaches small birds appear. The air smells of grass and dust.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your trip through Kansas. I enjoyed it all, but as a docent at the Konza, I especially enjoyed your wonderful description of the Flint Hills and the tallgrass prairie.