Right after we finally exited the western slope of the Rocky Mountains we met a woman fly fishing in a small coal mining town who asked us what we were doing. After hearing about the walk, she shook her head in shock that we had walked through Kansas. She bombarded us with questions about walking through the Sunflower State, but didn’t inquire once about how we just made it through the Rockies. Her reaction is typical. When people we met asked us about our route early in the trip we often heard something like “you have to walk through Kansas? I hope you make it.” Kansas was the state people expressed the most concern about, not the Rockies, not the desert, not the 110 miles in Utah with no services, and not the Sierra Nevada. Kansas. People seemed more worried about us dying of boredom than they did about us getting eaten by bears or frying in the desert. At 400 miles across, Kansas is the widest state we will walk through and many people who had driven through it warned us about the tedium of the landscape and couldn’t imagine spending more than 6 hours on the road, let alone 3 weeks. However, our experience could not have been more different and I found that Kansas is a state where you can really only appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the character of its residents by walking. Below are some of the highlights from our time in Kansas.
Walking towards Manhattan, Kansas a woman named Tina pulled over in her minivan and invited us to spend memorial day weekend with her and her husband, Ponch. We learned later that they were both veterans and Tina had recently suffered an unexpected heart attack and decided to retire and spend more time exploring the country. Tina invited their neighbors over for a barbecue, showed us around the Kansas State campus, took us to her favorite Thai restaurant, and brought us to scenic viewpoints of the Tuttle Creek Lake. We discussed politics, Tina’s time working for the government as an environmentalist, the military, homelessness, farming and more. We agreed on many issues and disagreed on some, but overall our conversations gave me hope for what effective political discourse could look like during this time. It didn’t matter that we were a group of people with vastly different backgrounds, ages and experiences because everyone at the dinner table listened respectfully to each other talk about the challenges facing our respective communities and our hopes for how to build a better future.
However, the highlight of our time there was when Tina and Ponch took us to the community golf course practically in their backyard and taught us how to play what they call “Hillbilly golf.” The rules to Hillbilly golf are there are no rules. We drove around on golf carts to the best holes to watch the sunset and hit as many balls off the tee as we wanted and then played whatever ball we felt was best. Or, we just threw the ball where we wanted to hit it. We crushed Keystone Light, while laughing hysterically whenever we whiffed the ball, which was often. There were no pretensions of clothing, silence, rules, and etiquette. Just golf clubs from Goodwill. Just tooling around. Just learning about another community. Just joy. “Hillbilly golf,” my kind of golf.
Kansas is home to some pretty great world records. We stopped by the world’s largest ball of twine and the world’s largest easel. We also visited the geodetic center of North America; not a world record, but still a cool landmark.
National Historic Sites
Nicodemus, Kansas was the first African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River during the Reconstruction era. Newly freed slaves made the difficult journey to Kansas in hopes of creating a better life unavailable to them in the the south. Today the town is home to a visitor center with exhibits on the history of the town and African-American pioneers and 5 historic buildings from the early years of the settlement. The women who worked at the museum, some of them descendants of the first pioneers, were incredible. After we left the museum a storm developed and they drove out to check on us 3 times to make sure we were okay. When the storm looked like it may turn into a tornado they found a friend with a pick-up to give us a ride to safety. You can learn more about Nicodemus here.
Kansas’s landscape is subtly stunning. Whereas the majesty of the mountains and canyons of a state like Colorado can be appreciated in every mode of transportation, from driving to flying, Kansas’s beauty is much harder to see at 60 miles an hour. On the eastern side of Kansas there are rolling hills dotted with idyllic farmhouse and many lakes and state parks. As we moved west there was an endless sea of golden wheat; when the wind blows the strands change colors slightly, giving off a mesmerizing sparkle. When corn stalks are in their infancy, less than a foot tall, they are such a bright lime green that in the morning it looks like there are fields filled with glowing neon lights. In western Kansas we could walk ten miles and still see an outline of the grain elevator from the town we had stayed in the night before. Sometimes it felt like you could see to the end of the world. The sides of the roads are filled with tiny wildflowers, probably impossible to see in a car, that were all shades of pink, purple and yellow. The sunsets were some of the best we’ve seen yet. I could go on and on, but I’ll let our pictures do the rest of the talking.