Destination Kansas! (Part 1)

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.

Who knew?

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.”

 

The Destination Kansas! adventure continues in part 2, with:

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.