Editor's Note: This the first installment of an occasional series by Illinois writer Doug Kamholz in his "search for a gem," as Bob Dylan put it, in his travels. Easterners typically sniff at the offerings of Flyover, America — that vast swath of civilization that stretches between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. But Doug makes it his business to find marvelous places therein off the beaten track, but never "over-hyped, over-priced underwhelming big attractions." You will see that he has done so in a recent trip to the Flint Hills tall-grass prairie in Kansas, a state that that has as much to do with Western lore as the American West, as Doug tells us. Doug was born in the Midwest and says he's "happy to be living here at age 75." His work has included journalism, peace activism and university teaching.
Miles With Moxie: No. 1— The Flint Hills of Kansas
Cattle herded down a hillside in the middle of Kansas seems hardly anybody’s idea of a vacation centerpiece. However, it was ours. And we were thrilled. And not alone.
Cowgirls and cowboys crest a rise in the middle distance. In early evening light they drive hundreds of white-faced Herefords and red Angus across our view. That view is blocked a bit by three billowing sides of a days-old stage where the Kansas City Symphony has come to play for a few thousand of us spread out on a pasture slope in the middle of 10,000 square miles of tallgrass prairie. Music mixes with hoofbeats, and there are smiles all around.
These are the Flint Hills. They make a hundred-mile-wide swath of eastern Kansas that stretches 250 miles from Manhattan south to the Oklahoma state line. Below that they are called the Osage Hills, headquarters to the tribe of the same name (and a destination for another day).
Visitors are wise to start at the stunning new Flint Hills Discovery Center on the south edge of Manhattan where both the science and the seasons of Midwest prairie are well-displayed. Then it is to meander the hundred miles of scenic Highway 177 as it unfolds its curves and crests that put you smack dab in the middle of a landscape painting by Thomas Hart Benton.
The draw to this almost treeless undulating land is in part its rarity. The Nature Conservancy, which operates an excellent Visitors Center (including American bison) on the scenic highway, counts less than four percent of the world’s tallgrass prairie still waves, and most of that is here in the Flint Hills.
Another draw is an equation I apply to many places I travel. Divide how stunning the beauty or cultural significance of a place is by how well or little it is generally recognized by the traveling public. So a relatively un-famous wonderful spot scores big. And larger scores multiply how happy the locals are that you were smart and adventurous enough to choose to peruse their beloved piece of the world.
Now here’s a sneak-peek into the future: Young prairie grass is tasty; you can make weapons out of flint; and nobody will ever put a plow into these hard-baked hills.
But let’s back up many thousand years.
[WARNING! The paragraph below contains hard sciences, specifically geology and botany.]
During the Permian Period shallow seas covered Kansas. The aftermath of those eons is layers of limestone and shale full of prehistoric aquatic fossils close to the land’s surface. Thin topsoil over hard rock means trees can’t put down roots to anchor themselves. However, slender tallgrass roots called rhizomes can wriggle their way through porous stone. Reaching ten or twelve feet deep and branching sideways, they can and do nourish abundant tall prairie grasses — big bluestem, Indiangrass, little bluestem and switchgrass — which grow up to eight feet above ground. Also, as these layers of limestone erode, fragments of flint — a kind of dense quartz also called chert — accumulate.
[Whew! OK, back to the soft sciences: history, culturalanthropology and then vacationology.]
About 13,000 years ago several Mississippian tribes shared these bison-rich Flint Hills hunting grounds, though Kaw (or Kanza or Kansa) predominated. Arrowheads and spears made of flint can be chipped to sharp points, so we can safely assume folks were excited to find much of it among the hills’ rubble. (I would like to observe here that they were animated with the flintstones, but my editor wife will probably veto that line.) Each year Kaw burned thousands of acres of prairie. They had learned from lightning that fire induces new grass to grow, and then bison come for those young sweet shoots. Life went on like that for a good ten thousand years. These days there is an emerging, albeit belated recognition of the brutality visited on tribal people in the Plains after European invaders arrived.
White people first showed up from Spain in the 1500s. Finding no gold, they went south to conquer Mexico. Of course more white people showed up as years passed.
Part of what I want readers to know is that in the 1800s Kansas was what we call the Wild West, and that sense has never left. TV’s Matt Dillon was marshal of Dodge City, not somewhere in the far Southwest. The real Wyatt Earp, an Illinois boy, worked as a lawman in Dodge City and Wichita. Jesse James hold-ups? Billy the Kid’s famous jailbreak? The Marlboro man? Kansas, Kansas, Kansas. Same for cowboy boots and cowboy hats. And where did all those buffalo roam and deer and antelope play? Those are words from Dr. Brewster Higley (or Highley) out of Smith County, Kansas.
Our last time in the Flint Hills celebrated the 200th birthday of the Santa Fe Trail. For most of my life, that historic path always had Rawhide trail boss Gil Favor (and a young Clint Eastwood) driving cattle north to market while meeting families — always boys with sticks and girls in gingham — moving west. All of that is almost all wrong, but the real Santa Fe Trail story is better than fiction. In short it was our young nation’s first overland international trade route. It was primarily a highway of commerce, and two-thirds of it — 750 miles — stretched diagonally across Kansas. Wheel ruts from wagons that trekked it still can be found, often preserved and protected.
Starting in 1821, dry goods, household items, hardware, whiskey and a wide variety of manufactured wares went from Missouri to the adobe buildings that made up Santa Fe. Hides and mules — those famous Missouri mules — came the other way along with Mexican gold and silver coins. Revenue grew to almost half a million dollars in the 1840s. There could be a Santa Fe Trail only after Mexico revolted because Spain and frowned on trade with the U.S. The Flint Hills loom large in trail history. In Council Grove, one of two principal towns in the area, traders made pacts with Osage and Kaw for safe passage along the Santa Fe, and tribes were involved in buying and selling along the way. Many traders made multiple trips out and back; it was a two-month trip each way. My wife and I went to a lecture about women on the trail. Some found good reason to rejoice.
“I breathe free without that oppression and uneasiness felt in the gossiping circles of a settled home,” Susan Shelby Magoffin wrote in her trail journal. “Oh, this is a life I would not exchange for a good deal!”
These sojourns even had their own language. “Follow the tongue” meant pointing the lead wagon’s tongue at the North Star when halting for the night in open country so they would head in the right direction the next day. Heyday for the Santa Fe ended with our war with Mexico, disputed lands in our Civil War and most dramatically with the coming of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad on February 11, 1859.
Of course Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls celebrate their places in Flint Hills history. You still can eat at Hays House, opened in 1857 (though breakfast may be better down the street at Saddlerock Cafe). Or 25 miles down the scenic highway, you can have one of those touted Kansas steaks at Grand Central Hotel and Grill where, as the name implies, you can stay. Back up in Council Grove and right downtown is the Cottage House, dating from 1867. There are plenty of spots for lodging and camping in the area. Our nights were in an old converted barn called Tired of the City. The Cottonwood River ran right below our windows.
The Flint Hills is home to many places that teem with the history and culture of various peoples who live and lived there. There are strolls around towns and hikes in the countryside. We drove off one June-green day deep into that countryside and found ourselves crossing onto open range. This is still grazing land. Plows can’t cut it. Cattle ranching is king, and to this day they burn more than two million acres in spring exactly as the Kaw taught them. We shared miles and miles of gravel roads with hundreds of herds of cattle as well as other wildlife. Every moment in these low, overlapping mounds is rich with a profound sense of place. Recently, right along the Neosho River in Council Grove, the community built an outdoor amphitheater (borrowing Greek earth-and-stone methods which seem to last a couple thousand years). Michael Martin Murphey, a big supporter of the Flint Hills, played its inaugural performance. (Most of us got back to our cars before a late-evening downpour!)
“The Flint Hills don’t take your breath away; they give you a chance to catch it,” says Jim Hoy, a fourth-generation resident who teaches at nearby Emporia State University.
The scene at the beginning of this writing is from an annual event called Symphony in the Flint Hills. Back in 2006 rancher Jane Koger wanted to celebrate her terrain so she hosted 3,000 guests at her place, and the summer concert has grown from there with a different ranch each summer and the Kansas City Symphony happy to hop into a caravan of white vans for their one-night offering of European and American music rooted, so to speak, in rural land. We heard “The Magnificent Seven,” the movie theme composed by Bernstein and Phillipe as well as “Divertimento in F Major” by Mozart, which he intended for outdoor festivals. Our 2021 crowd was COVID-reduced to 5,000, a couple thousand fewer than normal. The afternoon of the big day offers lectures and covered wagon rides and reasonably priced rental chairs for the hillside performance. And then the sun slants. And then the herd comes over the rise. And later, carefully timed with the setting of the sun, we stand and belt out all the verses to the Kansas state song, “Home on the Range.”
With all that, who could possibly say a discouraging word?
— 30 —
Postscript 1: Of course these travel pieces could be dotted with links offering more wisdom than I can. But they won’t. I wish my writing to be for eyes, minds and hearts, not phones. There is an exception, though. Upon returning home, I sometimes recap adventures as Facebook photo albums (never with more than 21 images). If you have a FB page, you can access this one by searching for Douglas Kamholz, then Photos, then Albums and then click on the one entitled “VACATION, yes! But in KANSAS?”
Postscript 2: Today’s mailing is a special case. Kansas songwriter Kelley Hunt has composed an homage to the very lands lauded in this month’s “Miles with Moxie.” Her song “Heartland” is used in the documentary film shown at the Flint Hills Discovery Center (which includes narration by Lyle Lovett, Michael Martin Murphey et al.), and you can hear it (with all its schmaltz) here:
As someone who once spent a vacation in North Dakota, I see nothing amiss about hanging out in Kansas.