In this installment of my paddling blog, Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters, for Canoe & Kayak magazine, I explore the rapids of Cataract Canyon at high water. Please click the link below to read the story and see more photos by myself and a trio of awesome adventure photographers–James Kaiser, Justin Bailie, and Whit Richardson–who contributed to my new guidebook, Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route.
In this digital feature for Adventure Cyclist magazine, I searched for a bikepacking loop through Red, Casto, and Bryce canyons. And everything went oh-so-perfect, exactly like it should, just like it always does, no mishaps here…
Part 3: The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.
The next morning, after five days in Kansas, we met friends Woz and Delwen on the steps of the Kansas State Capitol. We toured the impressive building, with its polished marble walls, gilded columns, and colorful frescoes under an ornate dome. I’m not going to say the capital was trying to compensate for anything—but, oh crap, now I’ve done it.
I became particularly engaged by huge murals in the central hall. Painted by John Steuart Curry in 1940-41, they depicted Kansas history in a highly romantic manner. All the men had impressive deltoids and heroic postures. The women had slender waists and legs. The children were blond. The land was rugged and surprisingly colorful. The steam engines smoke-free and shiny. And the natives either fiercely hostile or docilely tamed.
Before showing us the signature attraction, Truckhenge, artist and owner Ron gave us the grand tour of Lessman Farm and Catfish Pond. Inside his home, a renovated aluminum hangar, Ron shared his rock collection and carvings. Countless floor, wall, and blanket murals depicted impressionistic human forms, female nudes, and other artworks by Ron.
About his many wood figurines carved from downed trees, Ron explained, “My bears look like pigs, my pigs look like dogs.” His collection included beer bottle walls, beer bottle trees, beer bottle towers. “We like to have a little fun around here,” he said.
We walked the grounds, which doubled as a concert and event venue. A newer piece was Boathenge, which included six motor boats elevated at 45º angles and covered in graffiti. Woz climbed aboard a vessel and spray-painted his name.
Finally, we arrived at the most famous installation. Over the years, Ron had plenty of run-ins with Shawnee County officials. They considered Truckhenge to be a public hazard should flooding carry the trucks downstream. In his defense, Ron pointed out that each vehicle was anchored by 21 tons of concrete. He described once digging a trench with a backhoe around inspector vehicles in protest.
In the mid-1990s, the county told him to pick up the many old trucks on his property. So, Ron elevated them in two parallel lines, taking inspiration from Carhenge in Nebraska. For his creative efforts, Truckhenge was designated a Kaw Regional Art Park by the Association for Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation in 2006.
“My wife says the art has matured,” joked Ron. “But the artist hasn’t.”
Our next stop at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, in Abilene, offered a welcome break from driving through rain. Approaching, my wife noticed a racing dog statue and blurted, “I thought this was about the buses!” I imagined a depression-era Supercoach on rotating pedestal. Perhaps a 1970s Americruiser with a gold medallion strung across its grill?
A museum host greeted us somewhat warily, eyeing my camera, perhaps feeling us out as animal activists. She introduced us to her two tail-wagging greyhounds, making a point to explain how happy they are. A house-made documentary featured an owner crating her greyhound to prevent injury. “That’s their security,” she said. “They would rather be in that cage than in a field.” The four of us glanced at each other. This defied everything we’d ever learned about dogs.
I strolled through the Hall of Fame, where the greats—like Lucky Pilot, Rooster Cogburn, and Kunta Kinte—are immortalized. Of note was Miss Whirl, with her “amazing ability to foresee and avoid trouble on the track.” Her $108,000 career earnings were a record for over a decade. She made the All-America team three times and was team captain twice—she would have been captain a third time if not for losing the vote to fellow hall of famer, Westy Whizzer.
My wife skimmed through a copy of Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies, which offered suggestions for managing the many injuries of retired racing dogs. Meanwhile, I noticed a disturbing drawing, possibly the work of some greyhound-obsessed mad scientist. On the left, a standing human skeleton. On top, a greyhound skeleton on all fours. On the right, a greyhound skeleton standing on hind legs. And on bottom, a human skeleton on hands and knees. I gathered the others. Woz suggested departing before this maniacal plan, to flip the human-dog hierarchy, came to fruition.
After watching a refurbished steam engine transit the town, we drove a rainy two blocks to the Museum of Independent Telephony to examine a collection of old telephones and exhibits about non-Bell telephone companies. At the welcome desk, a friendly woman in her 80s described how Cleeson Laverne Brown started a company here in Abilene that later became Sprint.
“I’m actually a distant cousin of Brown,” she said. “But most don’t believe me.”
I looked at her sagging eyes. “I believe you,” I said. She shrugged and bid me goodbye. Her shift was over. Outside, she climbed into a black Mustang convertible and peeled out of the gravel parking lot.
Nicknamed the Smithalo, a 60-ton concrete buffalo rises from a hilltop near Longford. Built by Ray Smith, it’s supposedly visible from ten miles, but after only a half mile the clay road turned to slop. Woz’s tires began to spin. Retreating to the highway, our two vehicles dripped with mud, and we realized all remaining destinations must be accessible by pavement.
On I-70, we passed a road sign: “If you die today, where will you spend eternity?” My wife shrugged off the easy question. “Kansas.”
Created by artist Erika Nelson, we find the World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate to be a painted satellite dish that’s hole-pocked and faded from a recent hailstorm. The plate features local attractions around the town of Lucas, the Grassroots Art Capitol: Wilson Lake, the clearest in Kansas; Florence Deeble’s Backyard Mount Rushmore; and the Garden of Eden, a concrete sculpture garden resembling an MC Esher painting. We decide to visit the latter site.
Created by S.P. Dinsmoor during the early 20th century, it depicted a highly impressionistic biblical and political history of the world. Next door, we stumbled across another outdoor attraction, the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Truth in advertising, these glass-encased miniatures even included a two-inch miniature of old friend, Big Brutus.
Arriving to our next stop at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, we found a crowd of fellow quirk-seeking pilgrims. A young couple was taking a break after a year of grad school. A road-tripping family. And four guys from Ohio who carried with them a porky statuette named Mr. Pigsley. Woz took their photo with porcelain mascot in front of the town’s centerpiece.
Started in 1953, creator Franke Stoeber coiled 1.6 million feet of sisal twine into a sphere 11-feet wide, before his death in 1972. Since then, the town has added to the ball with a twine-a-thon every August. In recent years, estimates indicated 7.8 million feet sum to a diameter of 13 feet and weigh about 20,000 pounds.
My wife and Delwen seemed unimpressed. Raggedy, my wife noted. An odor of mildew. Being out of round, it’s more of a twine gumdrop than a perfect circle. Delwen was disappointed by the shelter over top. Seemed like cheating. Apparently, when put together, the two ladies were the world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine.
Driving north, we passed collapsed barns and saw more old cemeteries than people. At the end of an empty road, on a slight hillock, there was a landscaped campus with a picnic shelter and play structures. From a flagstone, with marker plaque, rose the American and Kansan flags. A family was lunching, while two boys frolicked through the grass. We’d reached the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States.
We wandered past a small chapel to an abandoned motel, windows painted gray. We pondered its original purpose. A presidential retreat? A contiguous cult center? A domestic listening station, to catch the tenor, literally, of middle America?
The Ohio guys arrived, having suffered a minor calamity. While buckling Mr. Pigsley into their SUV, he fell to the pavement, breaking off an ear. They laughed while delicately setting the maimed Pigsley on a bench.
“I can fix this,” I said, returning to my truck for double-sided duct tape. I reattached his porcelain ear with medical precision.
“I didn’t even know double-sided duct-tape exists,” said one thankful Ohioan. “I’ll have to pick some up.”
Meanwhile, Woz was feeling playful. While we chatted, he wandered over to an old steel rocking horse atop a coil spring. He turned his ballcap backwards and hopped on, swinging forward and back, trying to touch the hat bill to the pavement. The nearby boys stared, enthralled. After Woz tumbled off, the boys stepped forward and mimicked the action.
The Ohio guys explained their next stop was in Nebraska. Delwen wondered aloud what that state looked like. “Like this,” said one fella, gesturing at the horizon.
At the very center of our country, our week in Kansas felt slightly symbolic. Like we were no longer explorers in a strange land, but citizens in a familiar one. Our trip wasn’t over quite yet. We had another day with a Czech egg. A giant easel. Impassable roads which would deny us access to the chalk formations at Castle Rock and the dugout hole where the killer of John Wilkes Booth lived. Still, this central point felt like a finale.
We all dispersed. The Ohio guys, with porcelain pig went north, continuing their kitschy pilgrimage toward the original Wal-Drug. The family with young boys went east toward home. I put the truck in gear, finally realizing what a week-long vacation in Kansas felt like. Holding my breath underwater. A fun thing to do, and not just for novelty reasons. I was ready to surface, move on to something else. But happy I’d done it, aware I’ll probably do it again someday.
We returned to I-70. Drove west at 80 mph toward Colorado and the setting sun.
Part 2: Maybe I am from France… tourist or local boy?… no disputes about barbed wire… post rocks and mushroom rocks… this salt museum is not no nonsense… Velveeta the health robot… symbol of patriotism with a side of cereal grains.
A reconstructed Old West town and museum in Dodge City, Boot Hill offered about 20 false-front buildings and over 60,000 objects, photos, and documents from the 1870s to 1920s. Its name comes from a common moniker for Wild West cemeteries, like the one underfoot, where gunslingers were said to be buried with their boots on.
The museum documentary celebrated the simple and heroic times of early Dodge City, including the strategic slaughter of the Buffalo, which was designed to stop the terrible bloodshed of the Indian wars. We leave the theater feeling like we’ve been unwitting guests at a Manifest Destiny booster event.
Wandering the exhibits, we toured a recreated frontier home. We viewed an old beauty parlor with water-stained corset that could strangle a swan. A collection of posters demonstrated Hollywood’s fascination with Dodge City as a setting for westerns, including Gunsmoke, which coined the phrase, “Get the hell outta Dodge.”
In the replica saloon, the barkeep told me he’s a 5th generation purveyor of spirits and ales, though the museum’s top offerings were now sarsaparilla and Budweiser. He explained Dodge City started as a watering hole for the dry Fort Dodge, nearby. The barkeep suggests we visit old Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts 10 miles west. But our intended direction is northeast, toward the state capitol in Topeka—a choice I once would have considered crazy. This close to Colorado, we’re turning back into the heart of Kansas.
I asked about Fort Larned, pronouncing it lar-NED. He gave me a look, like I was from France.
“LARN-ed,” he spat, like tobacco into a spittoon.
Despite my foreign mispronunciation, the barkeep continued our conversation, explaining Dodge City is known all around the world—not so much for things that actually happened here but more for things that didn’t.
Across the street, the combo Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame and Gunfighters Wax Museum is sadly closed. On the drive outta Dodge, we passed oversized trucks transporting 116-foot windmill blades to the spreading wind farms that rise from the fields like a new form of row crop.
At Fort Larned, we wandered the grounds and stone buildings, now managed by the National Park Service. Operating from 1859 to 1878, Larned today is the best-preserved fortification on the Santa Fe Trail, a 900-mile route between Missouri and New Mexico. The forts were built to police the bloody conflicts between settlers and natives, as America increasingly claimed territory west of the Mississippi. Eventually, the forts were used in post-Civil War military campaigns against Indian tribes. Later, as distribution points for tribal annuities. And with the relocation of Native Americans to reservations, plus completion of the railroad, they were no longer needed and abandoned.
In the gift shop, I ended up the third wheel in a conversation between a local woman chatting with a ranger about how travelers that detour south from I-70 discover how much history there is in Kansas.
“But they don’t even know what milo is!” The woman laughed haughtily, like it was the funniest thing in the world. The ranger rolled her eyes, and I shook my head.
“Tourists,” I joked, like a local boy. “Just a feed crop.”
They both replied with knowing nods.
The woman at our next stop seemed surprised when we entered, the only visitors of the day. Not only was LaCrosse home to the Barbed Wire Museum, it was also the headquarters of the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association and the undisputed—who would dispute this?—Barbed Wire Capitol of the World.
The museum housed over 2000 types of barbed wire. Many were used for inexpensive fencing during American settlement of western Kansas, which offered little in the way of natural materials. Highlights included a display copy of Barriers: An Encyclopedia of United States Barbed Wire Patents, a glass case of wire cutters from around the world, and a whole wing devoted to fence stays.
In one corner, I found the Barbed Wire Hall of Fame, established 1974, to honor hobbyists who have made major contributions to the collecting of barbed wire. Near the lobby, there was an installation of artwork made from barbed wire, including a chess board, a tornado, and a sunflower, the official state flower.
We wandered next door to the Rush County Historical Museum. Waiting for us inside was a lifelong resident, an avid barbed wire collector, and the friendliest, most endearingly nervous museum curator. He toured us through a collection of frontier antiques, ladies’ dresses, military uniforms, and buffalo skins. Plus, black and white photos showing dusty pioneers in hats posing next to brick buildings against an empty horizon.
We followed the curator to another building, the Post Rock Museum, the most popular local attraction. We learned that American settlers arrived to central Kansas, finding a treeless land of prairie grass. Seeking supports for grazing fences, they dug under the grass to cut posts from bedrock limestone. I’d noticed these weathered rock posts on the drive in, interspersed with more typical steel stays and cut branches. But at one time, the post rocks alone lined up like angular chessmen stringing barbed wire across a landscape about to be forever transformed.
Some places yield exactly what’s expected, and so it was at Mushroom Rock State Park near Brookville. Here, a pair of giant mushroom rocks bathed in setting sunlight. Glancing at a green landscape more typical of the east, I realized we’d re-crossed the 100th meridian. A form of hoodoo, the upper formations are concretions of highly-resistant Dakota sandstone cemented by calcium carbonate, with the biggest cap being 27-feet wide. The underlying stalk eroded from a softer, whiter sandstone, now covered with carved initials and dates.
At five acres, this was the smallest state park in Kansas. The formations were often used as a landmark and meeting point for Native Americans and European pioneers. A wooden sign explained the Fremont trail passed nearby along with the first overland stages, “until they were forced to a northern route by”—and here the world “hostile” was scratched out—“Indians.”
One morning, we departed our shoreside campground at Kanapolis Lake and headed south. Just outside McPherson, we passed through an industrial campus filled with elbow pipes, chemical tanks, and railroad tracks. Glancing at my fuel gauge, I realized we were almost out of gas. In the middle of an oil refinery. I scanned for an outlet hose to beg some gas from, but no luck. We coasted with a welcome tailwind into town.
At the Strataca Underground Salt Museum in Hutchison, the cashier told me that Strataca is a nonsense word invented by management to re-brand the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. The rebuilt 2007 facility had the feel of an amusement park, plus it’s an active salt mine and climate-controlled vault and storage facility. Nearby posters promote Murder in the Mine, an interactive mystery dinner theater presented 650 feet underground. We purchased the Blast Pass for three underground adventures.
Wearing hardhats, we descended in complete darkness while our jovial tour guide explained we were in a hoist. “Not an elevator, not a lift, a hoist.” No one argued. “Raise your hand if you want the light on,” he joked.
Our first adventure was a self-guided tour of the cavernous space with striated walls and ceilings of highly-compacted sodium chloride deposited 275 million years ago. We can touch the salt, but don’t lick, climb, or pick, we’re told. Our second adventure was a tram ride through dark mine passages. Occasionally, the driver shined a flashlight on points of interest, like a collapsed ceiling or abandoned front-loader. The third adventure was a ride on an old narrow-gauge railway which once transported rock salt ore and miners. Today, it took us through parts of the mine as they appeared 60 years ago, including a trash pile—mostly fast food packaging from the 1950s.
Because the mine’s atmosphere is always 68º with 40% humidity, everything is preserved as left. For that reason, unused portions of the mine were converted to vault storage in 1959. Salt mines are often considered for nuclear waste disposal, or, conversely, as safety bunkers from nuclear apocalypse. We completed our tour at the vaults gallery, where Hollywood film reels lined the shelves. Rest assured, if ever a war destroys America, our culture will be preserved through the timing print of City Slickers 2 and the extended cut of Striptease.
The Kansas Learning Center of Health in Halstead, home of Valeda: The Talking Transparent Woman, was the next stop of our whirlwind afternoon. “Why’s there a health museum in the middle of nowhere?” I pondered aloud, realizing a town of 2000 in a sprawling rural county is probably where it’s needed most. Still, this was a perfect set-up, given our trip had finally devolved into endless one-line banter. “It’s Kansas,” replied my wife. “Everywhere is the middle of nowhere.”
On the lawn, the center’s neon sign flashed valuable messages toward an empty intersection. “Fresh fruits & veggies are 74 to 96% water!” “Adults should aim for at least .5 hr of physical activity per day.” “Monday is Memorial Day.”
Inside, we sat for a presentation by Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—one of only three transparent talking female health robots in the world. Rotating on a pedestal, the anatomically correct Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—displayed 6.25 miles of glowing wiring that simulated 60,000 miles of veins and arteries. One by one, Velveeta—crap, I’m sorry, Valeda—described her inner organs, which illuminated in a colorful representation of the human body. An employee explained that Valeda offered two programs: one for adults, another for children, with the latter excluding all discussion of the reproductive organs.
At the Mennonite Heritage Agricultural Museum in Goessel, home of a Liberty Bell Made of Wheat, a curious door sign explained: “THE MUSEUM IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS.” Despite the warning, we forged fearlessly ahead into a remarkably safe museum depicting stories of Low-German speaking immigrants from Russia who settled nearby in 1874. We toured preserved Mennonite homes and displays of frontier cabins, period dress, and homestead certificates. A wall mural depicted Mennonite farmers hurriedly containing a grass fire as a tornado crested the horizon.
Made of turkey red wheat straw, the replica Liberty Bell was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute for the 1976 Bicentennial. Taking 2000 hours and 80 men, aged 10 to 80, to complete, the bell is 6′ by 6′, weighs 80 pounds, and cost $51.
An evening hike in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, near Strong City, provided vistas of how the plains once looked. At one time, tallgrass prairieland spread for 170 million acres. During the first generation of white settlers, most was plowed and developed. Today, only 4% remains, with much of it found here in the Flint Hills. The reason for the preservation is revealed by the region’s name. Flint is a sharp, hard variety of chert, which speckles the landscape and destroys plow blades. A bonus. As we returned to our car, we spotted a rare yellow Cardinal flitting among some bushes.
The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.
Part 1: The world’s longest vacation to Kansas… the biggest (and smallest) electric strip mining shovels… dinosaurs from car parts… Kansas not the flattest, okay… a storm that would make Dorothy think twice… waterfalls in Kansas?… getting the hell into Dodge
“We’re almost there,” said my wife eagerly, uttering words about Kansas possibly unsaid since weary wagon parties heading west. We’d spent the five-hour drive bickering about silly things like her oversleeping, me misplacing the charging cable, us not packing enough sunscreen.
How much sun protection is needed for a week in Kansas? I’d wondered.
Our tension may have related to the destination. I’d crossed Kansas dozens of times, usually at 80 mph. Spotting countless signs for roadside Americana with a just hint of size queen fetishism—World’s Largest Easel! World’s Largest Czech Egg! World’s Largest Electric Strip Mining Shovel!—I got the idea to take the world’s longest vacation to Kansas. Hopefully, seven days would do it.
I caught myself describing the idea to wife and friends as a bit of a joke trip, and I felt guilty about selling it this way. I wanted to do the trip in earnest, without a suitcase full of sarcasm and irony. But even Kansas made this challenging with the state motto Ad Astra Per Aspera, which translates as A Rough Road Leads to the Stars. Apparently, even founding Kansans realized most folks are just passing through on their way to Colorado.
I kept reminding myself to visit without casting judgment. So here we were. Outside a sweeping bend in the highway, a sign read: Kansas Welcomes You! Appropriately, in the grassy distance, there was a big gray barn. I imagined a farmer in overalls deadpanning, “Now why would you want to do a thing like this?”
We started in the southeast corner of the state near the town of West Mineral, where an orange behemoth with black boom rose 16 stories above tree-line. Meet Big Brutus, the world’s largest electric strip mining shovel still in existence. With weather approaching, we were encouraged to climb up ASAP. Scrambling along catwalks we visited the engine room. Eight empty platforms once held the 500hp motors that powered this 11-million-pound rig. During its short operational life, from 1962 to 1974, Brutus blazed across the landscape at 0.22 mph. Using a 90-cubic-yard shovel, Brutus stripped 9 million tons of lignite from a shallow seam, traveling only 12 total miles before being decommissioned following environmental reforms.
Today, the surrounding landscape is crisscrossed by over 1000 linear lakes, rain-filled excavations that comprise the bluntly-named Strip Pits Wildlife Area. Inside the rustic museum, I examined Little Giant. At 700 pounds, it’s of course the World’s Smallest Working Replica of the World’s Largest Electric Strip Mining Shovel.
An afternoon detour next led us to Dinosaur Park in Erie, where ten model dinosaur skeletons were welded from auto parts and scrap metal. They were created by the late Robert Doris, at the suggestion of his daughter, between 1989 and his passing in 2007. A stegosaurus had piston arms and leaf-spring ribs. The spinosaurus’ skull was an oil pan supported by a tin can. Two velociraptors had shocks for forearms and claws made from pruning shears. But the crown jewel was the tyrannosaurus rex. Atop car frame legs, it towered 12 feet, ready to run amok through the rural town.
Heading west through the rolling Flint Hills, darkening clouds foretold weather. NOAA radar revealed a flood advisory and approaching storm the size of Oklahoma. A roadside sign offered a more zombie-like explanation: “Those in the grave who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
We decided to stop for the night, but an internet search didn’t reveal any campgrounds or affordable motels. Outside Sedan, rain poured in waves like a 1950s film noir. Under a gas station shelter, I approached an idling county deputy. He mentioned two city lakes a few miles north that might have camping. He wasn’t sure.
Passing through the tiny downtown of Sedan, we discovered scant food options on a weeknight in mid-May. I circled back to the Pizza Hut and parked. A knock on the window startled me. The deputy. My mind raced. Why did he follow us? Did I make an illegal u-turn? Did I take inappropriate photos of Big Brutus? Does he know I sold my wife on this trip as a joke?! How do I explain that I’m trying to be a more-rounded American explorer without sounding like someone who is trying way too hard to be a more-rounded American explorer?
The burly fella nodded in his deputy hat, which dripped rainwater from the plummeting downpour he was ignoring. He called the city dispatcher. The first lake had camping. We could pay $10 in the morning at City Hall. He shrugged. Or not, he said. It’s no big deal. We thanked him profusely, and he returned to his vehicle with a friendly smile.
We darted inside under torrential rain and ordered. While waiting, my wife and I perused some advertorials we collected at a gift shop. The Kansas Official Travel Guide offered a page 3 myth-busting section. One box in particular, KANSAS NOT THE FLATTEST, explained six states have less topographic variation than Kansas. In increasingly flat order: Delaware, Minnesota, Louisiana, North Dakota, Illinois, and Florida. Unmentioned was that Kansas lies on an elevated plain, ranging from 679’ in the east to 4039’ in the west. Surprisingly, this makes it the 17th tallest state, compared with its 7th-tallest neighbor to the west, Colorado. That show-off.
Glancing outside, I noticed the street was flooding which suggested we hustle along to our camping adventure. The first lake was not ideal, with the campground exposed on a windward ridge. Accessed by a half-flooded mud road, by morning it might be a lake. Luckily, the second lake presented a leeward event shelter surrounded by short retaining wall to divert runoff. We tent camped on cement. That night, the storm intensified until lightning struck nearby trees. Rain plummeted onto the aluminum roof so furiously it sounded like millions of crickets that could shatter glass. Opening the tent door, I noticed a pool spreading toward us, so I built a diversion dam with canvas tarps and dry bags.
Lying awake, I noticed my wife was staring at me with a mix of fear and judgment. I tried to ease the tension with an observation. Babe, have you ever wondered why Dorothy decides to leave Oz and return to Kansas? Yes, the place had a strange authority structure, with a creepy wizard overseeing a bunch of witches who use flying monkey enforcers, but otherwise it was a technicolor wonderland. She left a cool group of eccentric pals—a talking lion! a sentient scarecrow! a poorly-lubricated robot!—for a black and white plain of tornadoes and flood advisories. Speaking of weather, we heard a tree crash into the lake.
“That’s really hilarious,” said my wife. “And to think you had me worried about sunscreen.”
At some point I dozed off and woke to find the truck didn’t wash away during the night. After breakfast, we finally walked the World’s Longest Yellow Brick Road. Over 10,000 painted bricks, most imprinted with donor names, circled the quaint town. We stopped at city hall, offering $10 and sincere thanks for the World’s Friendliest Deputy of Chautauqua County.
Our whirlwind continued with a joining of two words not normally associated: Kansas and waterfalls. Yet, while searching for camping options the previous night, I stumbled across a webpage at www.kansastravel.org listing 46 waterfalls statewide. Yes, most were unmarked, unnamed, man-made retention dams. But a half-hour west of Sedan we reach Cowley State Fishing Lake, where a falls plummeted 25-feet off a limestone sill, undercutting red shale beneath. The biggest in the state.
“That’s an actual waterfall,” said my wife. “Not a Kansas version of a waterfall.”
Hiking down to the base, a short treacherous trail was embedded with countless glass shards. The river-level rocks were covered with graffiti. But despite the trashed environs, the falls itself was plenty nice and entirely unexpected in America’s 7th flattest state.
Continuing west, the landscape flattened as the Flint Hills gave way to open country. My wife said it looked like we were approaching a distant ocean, not the blue underside of dense clouds. Arriving in Greensburg to visit the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, I noticed many torn foundations and grassed-over lots where houses once stood. I got a sinking feeling of déjà vu—even the town’s name seemed familiar.
I learned the reason in the museum. On May 4th, 2007, 95% of Greensburg was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado which killed 12 people. In the aftermath, almost half of the population relocated. Those who stayed rebuilt with the help of strangers, organizations, and relief funds. Feeling slightly ashamed that we came to stare, somewhat comically, at a hole in the ground, I ascended a spiral staircase to an elevated atrium that offered 360-degree views of the rebuilt town.
Since 2007, Greensburg has been progressively rebuilt and now runs entirely on wind energy. Leed’s certified buildings dot the patchy landscape. To the west, a brick and window city hall. To the north, the wood and glass 5.4.7 Arts Center. The original whitewashed planks of Big Well Museum were destroyed and replaced by this new sustainable building. A remarkable feat.
Finally, we descended into the dark well. Before the tornado, the big well was Greensburg’s claim to fame. Completed in 1888, the town’s original water supply is 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide, with walls of fitted stone. The reason for the well’s size? To convert a homestead into a county seat by drawing residents, including those from a competing town, two miles away. Across from the gift shop, there was a map with pins denoting visitors’ origins. While a few pins emerged from far-off places like Tokyo, Sydney, or Anchorage, the vast majority resided within the borders of Kansas. Upon leaving the museum, Tornado sirens howled. Along with an icy wind, the blaring alarm gave us chills before the announcement it was just a test.
Heading west, we crossed the Arkansas River, one I knew well for its rushing headwaters upstream, near the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado. We’d crossed it twice downstream during the past two days. North of Arkansas City and on the outskirts of Wichita, the river was deep, fast, and brown. But this third time, the river trickled like a creek through a scrubby channel. It was a surprising discovery, a river going dry in its middle section, until I recalled we were near the 100th meridian, the longitude that climatically bisects the United States. To the east, moisture and humidity are plentiful. To the west, semi-arid lands at lower elevations receive less than 20 inches of precipitation per year and irrigation is necessary for crops.
Just outside Dodge City, we crossed the Arkansas River for the fourth time. Steel asterisks lined the levees near downtown, flood debris structures resembling the Czech Hedgehogs that guarded the beaches on D-Day. In the dry riverbed, there was a guy walking his dog. We pulled into the enticingly-named Water Sports Campground, only to find it sitting above an in-stream reservoir that looked more like a vegetated meadow with the shallowest of lagoons. On the far side, several docks sat askew on grass. Bicycle tracks weaved through the channel.
Inside the campground office, a man sitting in a plastic chair gestured at the kayaks on my truck roof. “Hope you’re not planning to paddle those boats in the river?” We all chuckled, and I asked him where the water went. “Been dry for twenty years.” Extensive groundwater pumping of the Ogallala Aquifer in eastern Colorado and Western Kansas had suppressed the water table, causing the river to seep underground for miles.
During dinner at a downtown bar & grill, I asked the owner, Ray, about the debris structures. He joked they kept the cowboys and Indians on their own sides of the river. Or maybe for herding cattle to market? Unsure, Ray called to Amos, a stocky man in cowboy hat. Soon, the four of us shared the booth like old pals. Amos explained the structures were installed in the 1980s by the Army Corps of Engineers to catch woody debris during floods. Had it flooded since then? Amos sheepishly shook his head.
Amos pointed at a friend at the bar wearing a purple Kansas State tee-shirt. The man was supposedly a billionaire farmer and fellow KU alum whose plane they’d flown today to a booster event. The farmer grew mostly wheat and milo. When I asked what milo was, Amos seemed surprised and struggled to define before settling on a feed crop. My phone discreetly revealed it as sorghum.
Ray, a Puerto Rican transplant, shared photos of a recent trip to the island, where he took his son on a chinchorréo. The word literally describes a hand-fishing net. Figuratively, it was a trip where one tried to catch a lot of different places.
“That’s what we’re doing,” I blurted, sharing photos from our trip.
“I’ll be darned,” said Amos, a native of the state. “I never realized there were waterfalls in Kansas.”
Maybe I am from France… tourist or local boy?… no disputes about the barbed wire capital… post rocks and mushroom rocks… this salt museum is not no nonsense… Velveeta the female health robot… a symbol of patriotism with a side of cereal grains.
I thought I was prepared. I clutched pink slip, smog certificate, and a stack of pre-completed forms like they were permits to climb Everest or descend the Grand Canyon. But I wasn’t expecting this. There were two lines stretching out the door from the DMV office in my hometown. One line was maybe 50 people following the cement-paneled exterior wall and stopping just short of the full parking lot. The other line had hundreds, wrapping around the building, along the sidewalk, and reaching halfway to the nearby above-ground BART station. Add another hundred people and I could see it continuing through the turnstiles, up the escalator, across the platform, and onto the tracks. The imaginary headline: “System down for days due to grieving DMV patrons flinging selves onto third rail.”
Luckily, I was early for my 9:50 AM appointment, which the field office webpage informed me meant only a 2-minute delay compared to an hour for the instructionally-themed no appointment line. But, inside, a sign clearly indicated I must first wait behind the 50 people who also had appointments. I texted my hometown buddy, who was off skiing in Alaska, about the situation.
“What they mean by appointment is there’s no wait to wait in the no-wait line,” replied Cole. “You can walk right in and start waiting immediately.”
Got it. But given the bumbling behavior of arriving appointment holders, it was clear that many did not understand. A friendly employee came out to greet the confused, handing out clipboards with various forms as a peace offering. She explained the appointment line was definitely the faster of the two. Maybe an hour. The non-planning souls without appointments would be here much longer, transitioning from the standing line, through the check-in desk, and to a federal penitentiary—err, seated waiting area. They might never be seen again.
Meanwhile, us fore-thinking appointment holders would also progress to the seated waiting area, but we’d be there for a much shorter time. This discrepancy appeased most appointment holders, who accepted their fate and watched apprehensively each time the non-appointment line lurched forward and ours didn’t.
“This is my third day here,” said the young man behind me. “I think I finally have the right form.”
I hoped I could say the same. I’d studied the online requirements like a topographic map. First, was a smog check. However, since my battery had recently been disconnected for some work, our local mechanic explained I must drive the car 100 miles to reset the internal monitors before testing. They offered this as a service, but I’d save several hundred dollars by doing it myself. He also offered a list of recommended routes through the traffic-intensive Bay Area. I texted Cole to confirm I’d heard right.
“It’s important that before the state determines your car doesn’t emit any extraneous emissions that you first emit 100 miles worth of extraneous emissions inside the state. Welcome home.”
Nearing the doorway, I noticed that many non-appointment holders had brought books to occupy themselves while a few were unfolding lawn chairs for a registration-themed tailgating party. Inside, I decided to enjoy my own light reading from around the room. The rotating messages on overhead screens focused on various forms of reduction, including road rage, impatience, and blood pressure. Perhaps a dozen placards explained the complex legal ramifications of threatening DMV staff. A series of signs explored what is and is not allowed regarding children. Do keep them in sight. Don’t place them on high countertops. Do accompany them to the restroom. Don’t leave them in the restroom.
When I reached the check-in desk, the amiable attendant reviewed my forms and asked if I had a completed Verification of Vehicle form. The online instructions had explained that a vehicle owner must obtain this in-person verification from an authorized DMV employee. I decided not to mention that I had come to this very DMV because I’d heard a story, no, a rumor, that this was the place to find authorized DMV employees. Nor did I elaborate that since I don’t live in a DMV—not yet, at least—it wasn’t really physically or temporally possible for me to arrive to the DMV with the completed verification I had come to this DMV to complete. While a time-continuum paradox formed above my head, I simply answered no.
Upon instruction, I moved my vehicle to the verification lane and all went smoothly until the inspector discovered an issue. Because the unladen weight of my pick-up was not listed on the Missouri title I was surrendering, there was a chance that I would be asked for a weighmaster certificate at my next counter stop. Just a chance, like intermittent rain showers, he explained. So, I returned inside to discover that the attendant had gone on break. I received an ID number and went to the seated waiting area, where a non-appointment family of four had recently learned that they would likely not be seen before the office closed. Instead, the whole family was offered a no-wait appointment for the following week.
When my number was called, nearly all was completed with ease including my payment. But without a certified weight, I was unable to receive new plates. Instead, I was given a handwritten note that would allow me to return to the no-wait appointment line should I obtain a weight certificate in the next few hours. In the meantime, this latest employee was required to list an estimated weight, which she entered as 3500 pounds.
My mechanic gave me a tip that there was a weighmaster at the north Berkeley recycling center, so off I went and soon I was driving onto the scale. The employee glanced inside the cab.
“Oh, they want the truck entirely empty,” he said.
I looked at the few items on the passenger seat. “I can wear the two shirts,” I offered, like a person traveling without luggage on a plane. “And I’ll just toss the tools in my backpack and hold it.”
The employee was unconvinced. He pointed to a parking spot and said I needed to unload everything onto the asphalt and then drive back onto the scale. So, I made a big production of removing about 10 pounds from my truck, while jamming the other 20 pounds under the seats. The weight came out as 3520 pounds.
Four hours after my DMV day trip began, I was back in the no-wait appointment line, which only had a ten minute wait this time. From the check-in counter, I returned to the seated waiting area. This time I noticed a caution sign explaining that self-immolation is strongly discouraged. Finally, I reached the counter of a sixth employee I’d met that day. The hours seemed to have worn on her, the remarkable friendliness I’d noticed among the staff replaced by fatigue. But all my forms were accounted for. My many fees were paid. I’d reached the Hilary Step or the Grand Wash Cliffs. I received my plates within an anticlimactic hot minute.
I burst outside into the brightness of daylight, full of hope and imagination. My vision blotted out. Was the adventure really over? I half-expected to be funneled to one final station for a radiogenic injection—just makes the blood glow and helps the crash scene investigators in the unfortunate event of. Upon insertion of the needle, all would go blank and I’d wake up in a room filled with documents. Wires—mostly telephone cords from the 1980s—running in and out of my body. Disembodied voices asking me questions about wait-times, certifications, and fee schedules.
I texted Cole: “I think I am the DMV now. If you ever need a no-wait appointment, just let me know, and I will totally hook you up.”
“Gently rock along the sacrum,” cooed the yogi, “as you fold your leg across and hold.” A dozen disciples, backs on yoga mats, moved into reclined pigeon position. Meanwhile, I slipped into my Pyranha Fusion and pushed off into the Grand Basin.
I veered under misting geysers in the reflecting pool below the St. Louis Art Museum. Passersby stared. Children stopped running to point. A couple, posing for engagement photos against the balustrade, leaned in for a kiss. Entering their shot, I tastefully waved and wondered if I’d make the reception slide show.
A decade after the initial idea, I was finally paddling across Forest Park.
A digital feature about a winter grand canyon trip. Please click this link: