Friday, June 25, 2010

Kansas: Boldly go where no tourist has gone before

“Well, I’d guess this trip probably doesn’t measure up much to all your other travels,” noted Doni, a tough Kansas farmer in her mid-seventies after we finished a day of kayaking on Cedar Creek in Chase County.

“No, that’s not it at all! I always say the best way of killing happiness is comparing it to something else. If you spend time thinking about whether what you’re doing is better or worse than what you’ve done before, then you’ll just sit around trying to figure out if you’re having a good time, rather than just having it.”

I’ve traveled to a lot of different places. I’ve had some amazing adventures. But wouldn’t it be awful if excitement and adventures just made you bored with the rest of life? What a terrible curse! If you find yourself looking at the Rockies and thinking, “They really aren’t as beautiful as the Himalayas,” you better stop and check yourself, because you may be jaded. And that is a sad fate.

In honor of this idea, I’ve decided to revive this neglected blog to muse about traveling in Kansas.

I decided to spend my summer back in Kansas after nearly three years on the east coast. I managed to fall in love with a Kansas boy and closing the 1445 mile gap between us has been the best decision I’ve made in a long while.

Drew was raised in Burns, KS, a town of about 200 people about 50 miles northwest of Wichita. This weekend we visited his mom and went kayaking and camping on her friend's land.

Pulling into Burns, we were welcomed by a painted rooster standing proudly on a pile of limestone. “Burns! A Town to Crow About.” (Just one of the many ideas set into motion by Barb Anderson, Drew’s mom.)

The town is the definition of Kansas-quaint with the small water tower with “Burns” painted on the side, the rural volunteer fire department in small metal building with a handpainted sign, the Café in the one-crossroads-downtown, and the houses in town on large plots with small gardens and machinery in the yards.

Everyone knows everyone in this town and everyone waves as you drive past. The waving, even when both parties are driving in cars, seems to break through the anonymity that vehicles normally give people in the suburbs or the city. In most places, the minute you get inside your car, you see others as “cars” not “people.” Drivers regularly engage in behavior that would be considered outrageously rude if it were between two “people” instead of two “cars.” I wonder if there is a lot less road rage where drivers wave to one another as they pass. It all seems much more human out here.


We packed up the kayaks at Doni’s farm and headed down the river. We stopped at Doni’s neighbors’ where we left the truck. I went to go pick up some forgotten water bottles and the neighbor saw me walking up the road from the river and came outside to talk. And talk did he. He told me all about his recent trip to Alaska in detail from the times they landed in the small planes that took them out to the most remote locations to the number of hours driven between each city. He was so friendly and easy that you would think he’d known me all my life even though we just met as I walked onto his property for the first time. He ended up doing us the favor of driving the truck down the river to a take out point and spent at least an hour and a half looking around for us. When they finally found us, they weren’t the least bit bothered even though, in some parts of this country anyway, such an imposition would have been met with some major irritation. Either they have a lot more time or a lot more kindness. I think probably both.

We were late to the old cabin where the neighbor finally found us because we had hit quite a ridiculous logjam across the creek. The logjam blocked the entire creek and was about 30 feet long and 10 feet tall. It took us nearly an hour to figure out how to portage over it. Drew and I carried the four kayaks over the logjam and the kayaks and my legs earned a few new scrapes and scratches.

The creek was beautiful. Peaceful. Surrounded by huge oaks and sycamores with their impressive roots exposed in the midst of a very slow fall into the creek. I like to think of how when you find yourself falling, time seems to stop and you try to grasp for anything around but fighting the inertia is futile. Those trees must feel like that, but they experience that helpless vertigo for years. I can imagine them yelling “whooooaaaahh…” but it is so slow that we mistake it for the wind.

We came upon refrigerators and water heaters and corrugated metal left in very odd positions. Doni pointed out that the tornado that came through a few years back picked up all these things and left them behind on the creek banks. And floods carried other strange items along. There is something satisfying about knowing that it is nature messing with humans and leaving a trail of human made debris behind instead of careless humans dumping their unwanted things in a creek without regard for its beauty.


Back at camp, under two gorgeous oaks, Barb cooked up some tasty dinner on the fire. I managed to stay politely unoffensive even as Doni and I talked politics. In a rare show of deference, I let her do most of the talking and I didn’t launch into a single tirade even though we didn’t exactly see eye to eye. But her philosophy towards nature was something I could appreciate. The way she lives her life is something I find immensely valuable and maybe even a far better method than my own that I’ve developed so far.

After dinner, Barb and Drew played guitars and sang songs, many of which they wrote. It was lovely to see the similarities between mother and son, especially with a boy I am so fond of.

Late that night, Drew and I took a walk to see the stars and the equally impressive array of lightening bugs. We had eyed a field full of rows of round bales on the way in. We jumped on top of them and hopped from one to another. Giggling and jumping around on such a phenomenal playground under the stars was just about the best game we could have asked for.

It was a wonderful weekend topped off with my first geocaching search at an artesian well and then getting lost in the lovely dirt roads with farm fields for miles. Drew and Barb taught me a lot about the names and functions of different crops and machinery. I felt like a city slicker trying to become a legit Kansan.


I’m thrilled to be in Kansas for the whole summer. This feels like home. The beauty of flat or rolling farm fields or prairie is far more soothing to me than even the waves of an ocean or the peaks and valleys of a mountain range. It is the everyday beauty that doesn’t scream its own virtues, demanding awestruck admiration. It simply goes about its way and if you have the eye for it, it slowly and modestly reveals its steadfast and deeply rooted strength and beauty. Kind of like some Kansans I know…


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your musings! You are so right about enjoying right where you are. Last night at Tablerock Lake we had the most fantastic rain storm followed by the most beautiful sunset that I have ever seen. Ever! I took many pictures but none of them could capture the beauty of the purple, yellow and blue hues. We thought Hawaii was the most beautiful place, but last night the most beautiful place was our very own deck looking over Tablerock Lake in Kimberling City Missouri!

Harna said...

I love this post! That's exactly how I feel when I drive through the rural parts of Kansas in between KC, Tonganoxie and Baldwin City for my writing job. My favorite spots are the tiny, old cemeteries. I've stopped to take pictures a couple of times.

Swish said...

I live in upstate, New York. I'm building a place in the Adirondack foothills and I enjoyed reading this post. My neighbors live up in the mountains for the very reasons you speak of and there are little cemeteries that dot the mountainside. They are actually very peaceful, cozy and well-kept places. Thanks for the post.