Kansas – a state of surprises

Thanks to John McKenzie, I spent five days traveling the back roads of his home state of Kansas, stopping at some of its 8 Wonders and immersing myself wherever possible in its history.  There is so much more to explore but I recognize the wisdom from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America  — we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

In that light, Kansas unfolded with unanticipated detours and wondrous sights.  As I posted photos on Instagram or exchanged emails with friends, the refrain was consistently – “I didn’t know that Kansas had . . .”  I’m clearly not alone in my failure to appreciate the sunflower state.

Kansas John BrownStopping at the Kansas State House (I’ve been to many state capitols but this building stands out for its beauty.  They were clearly trying to make an impression when it was built immediately after the Civil War.) and the Kansas Museum of History, I immersed myself in the threads of history from the Native American tribes and the Civil War that left its imprint on this land. Many of us remember the phrase “Bloody Kansas” from middle school history or have seen the mural by John Steuart Curry called “Tragic Prelude,” Curry’s interpretation of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement in the Kansas Territory. The fury evident in Brown’s eyes was deeply embedded in the state history as free-staters and pro-slavery forces battled with blood on all of their hands.  Militant bands affiliated with the free-state cause adopted the term Jayhawkers and waged a guerrilla war back and forth across the Missouri-Kansas border.  The Jayhawk lives on as a mascot for University of Kansas and as a term adopted by many Kansans as a point of pride.

The hands of humans are not the only ones that have shaped this land.  Most of us have images of states on the Great Plains with fields of hay and grain sorghum that go on as far as the eye can see.  Driving across Kansas that is genuinely a dominant image.  As the sun’s rays touch upon those fields, the variety of colors from gold to red can take your breath away.  They are matched by the grain silos that define every town and the windmills in every field,

Kansas pastoral scenes

What you don’t anticipate are pillars rising up from the earth, concretions (don’t you love that term) that include spheres up to 27 feet in diameter and other limestone, chalk and shale formations dating from the Cretaceous period when Kansas was part of an inland ocean.  What stands out is that each of these sites are so undeveloped.  When I was visiting, I was the sole person present.  The only noise was the sound of wind – the sense of solitude and adventure was palpable and delicious.  (Although it wasn’t as welcome when I came close to getting stuck in the deeply rutted dirt roads around Castle Rock.  The Kansas badlands was not a spot I wanted to get stuck for the night.)

Kansas Natural Wonders

The deposits of limestone and sandstone also provide the building material for banks, churches, and public buildings that define the landscape of small towns.  Many were built out of sheer determination and hard labor.  St. Fidelis Church (see below) rises up majestically over the plains having been built by German immigrants from the Volga region of Russia with each parishioner required to haul six wagon loads of 100 pound stone blocks from a quarry seven miles south of the construction site.  Its beauty and size inspired William Jennings Bryan (visiting the area in 1912 on a presidential campaign) to dub it the “Cathedral of the Plains.”

As referenced in my earlier post, abandoned “ghost” towns dot the landscape and capture my attention.  What I didn’t expect was to see the Garden of Eden.  It is a fascinating story of a Civil War veteran’s passion.  At the age of 62, Samuel Perry Dinsmoore began construction and only stopped work in 1929 when he went blind.  Forty-foot tall concrete trees, a mausoleum to house his mummified remains, and larger than life figures fill his sculpture garden and convey messages about his populist politics, “modern” civilization and the Bible.  You have to come away chuckling and impressed.

Kansas Garden of Eden.JPG

As I entered the High Plains and headed to Colorado I was almost blown out of the state (literally a gust of wind knocked me over as I was filling the car with gas – great for the wind farms that dot the landscape I guess).  The High Plains known for one of the lowest population densities of any region in the continental United States as well as extreme variations in temperature (once falling more than 90 degrees in one 24-hour period) offered an opportunity for quiet reflection.  Next stop are the ski slopes of Colorado – an unsettling juxtaposition on so many levels.

And now some wisdom from Steinbeck . . .

 “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

If you get to Kansas, don’t miss  (with gratitude to my muse – John McKenzie)


6 thoughts on “Kansas – a state of surprises”

  1. You should check out the state above Kansas! Nebraska is the home of Arbor Day, a 98 foot waterfall, Fort Robinson (where Crazy Horse was shot), Chimney Rock and the great Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River. When I turned 18 we used to slip across the border into Kansas for a 3.2 Beer since the drinking age was 18 then!!


  2. Michael, I love your writing style, so vivid and clear and personal. Will send Chrissy the Steinbeck quote as she and Stewart will go on a safari in Tanzania in a few weeks. Happy New Year in San Francisco! Hugs to the “girls.”


    1. Thanks so much Barbara. We’ve all just settled into a house on Bodega Bay above San Francisco. Great place to relax, cook and drink together and simply luxuriate in being reunited.


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