Imagining Kansas

interstate70
For many people living in the Ozark Plateau region, Kansas is regarded as the price one has to pay in order to drive to Colorado, and whether or not one shares this view, it is undeniable that the topography of Kansas is somewhat less than varied. In fact, more than one person has told me that, if on a clear day someone were to stare at the horizon in Kansas long enough, he would eventually see the back of his own head. In a similar vein, one of my pupils in Asian Studies class once submitted this haiku:

driving though Kansas
is like eating
from an empty plate.

Whatever one thinks of the artistry of this little poem, it would be difficult to find many individuals who would disagree with its argument, especially if, as I have on many occasions, they have driven across Kansas on Interstate 70.

However, I submit that, whatever other virtues Kansas may or may not possess, its unlimited vistas and relentlessly consistent landscape provide the human imagination with ample room for exercise, and many entrepreneurs have tried to exploit this fact by filling Interstate 70 with billboards advertising the sundry attractions to be found in their towns and cities. These blandishments include museums, a gargantuan prairie dog, curiously-weathered rocks, and the homes of modestly-famous people, usually astronauts, inventors, or politicians, and what person, his mind numbed by hours of driving through what seems like the same flat stretch of prairie, can muster the resolve necessary to resist the temptation to turn off the highway and for a time take unbridled delight in such fascinating wonders?

Well, I have, and without too much difficulty, but what I can never resist is allowing my imagination to blossom in response to the mottoes that three Kansas towns have attached to themselves, in an effort to lure tourists into their precincts. These places are, moving east to west along Interstate 70, Hays, Colby, and Goodland, and I would like to pay tribute to these worthy cities by describing some of the imaginative – or imaginary – adventures their clever self-promotions have inspired in me and which helped me to endure many a weary mile en route to a more articulate geography.

“Hays Has It.” Perhaps so, but the travel-weary mind wants to know what precisely “it” is that Hays has. A staph infection? The Holy Grail? “The Book of Love”? After some serious reflection, I eventually concluded that Hays has everything, and it is usually when I am about twenty miles from the town that my imagination begins its unfettered journey.

I see myself exiting the Interstate and then driving slowly down the byways of Hays, where, in a circus-like atmosphere, I find booths purveying not only exotic goods, but exotic ideas, as well: gypsies mingle with yoga gurus, while rabbis discuss dietary imperatives with pork partisans, and hawkers offer tourists their diverse wears, including rare goods from Kashmir, Shangri-la, and New Jersey. At the town’s cultural center, located between the country club and the golf course, I discover a marble structure built in emulation of the Parthenon, and in similar fashion it looms over the surrounding countryside (since Kansas is famously level, rising just ten feet over the landscape constitutes “looming,” which is, after all, a decidedly relative term), and through its pillared hallways pass toga-clad philosophers debating the meaning of life and speculating about likely trends in the wheat futures markets of Chicago and Tokyo. As I leave the city and re-enter the Interstate, I note that one thing Hays indubitably has is the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which houses one of the finest fossil collections in America, but staunch Creationists should not fear viewing the Museum’s prehistoric exhibits, since, consequent to the passage of a law that was actually written in stone by the scientifically-astute state legislature, no fossil discovered or displayed in Kansas is permitted to be more than six thousand years old.

“Colby: The Oasis on the Plains.” Readers can probably anticipate the direction of my reverie in this case, particularly after I inform them that “Beau Geste” is one of my favorite movies. Every time I approach Colby, I envision a cluster of palms surrounded by hummocks of desert sand, with camels slaking their thirst at the only watering hole for a thousand miles, and where herdsmen and caravaners mingle with Legionnaires (the Foreign Legion, not the American Legion; members of the latter organization tend to congregate around a different sort of watering hole), who curse the bad food, curse the sandstorms, and curse the women whose fickle hearts brought them to such despair that they sought refuge in this culturally-destitute outpost of civilization.

I invite readers who find themselves in Colby to borrow from my movie-based fantasy, even to the point of sporting on their John Deer cap a havelock, the neck covering that is part of every Legionnaire’s headgear, though doing so might draw a few stares from local tradesmen. However, I recommend against going with the Lawrence of Arabia look, since Kansas is, after all, a Red State, and if you are seen wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional headdress of Arab men, someone is likely to call Homeland Security.

“Goodland: We’re Waiting for You.” I know that this motto is offered in the spirit of hospitality, but perhaps because by the time that I read it I have been driving for ten hours, or maybe because I watched too many cowboy movies as a youth and am consequently subject to High Plains-induced paranoia, it sounds more than a tad sinister, especially since, among its many contributions to American lore, Kansas was home to both the Dalton gang and Boot Hill.

Even though my only confrontation to date in Goodland has been with a balky gas pump, I still find myself growing restive as I approach the town: my eyes dart from side to side of the Interstate, as I search for places of concealment from which I could be ambushed, but happily, this being wind-swept Kansas, places of concealment are at a premium. I nonetheless find that I almost invariably speed up just before the Goodland exit, lest I suddenly discover myself in the vehicular equivalent of “High Noon.” In any event, I put the citizens of Goodland on notice: You might be waiting for me, but I know that I’m coming, or that you’re there, whichever is more pertinent.

I am teasing in these matters, of course, for Kansas is a fine place with a rich history, and I promise to write about some of the manifold delights of the Sunflower State in future postings. However, it is still a decided comfort to know that, whether in fact or fancy, I can find whatever I need in Hays, discover respite and sanctuary in Colby, and anticiapte a welcome of sorts in Goodland, and what soujourner on America’s highways could possibly want – or imagine – more ?

And now, my dear readers, a quick survey. Please respond in a comment.

In my opinion, Kansas looks best in:

a. the verdant glory of spring, when flowers blossom along its roadways.
b. the golden bounty of summer, when its fields are luxuriant with ripening wheat.
c. the glorious splendor of autumn, when its six trees are ablaze with colorful foliage.
d. the rearview mirror of my car.

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12 Responses to Imagining Kansas

  1. queenofjuicy says:

    Hey Dr. Neralich! I bet you can guess who this is… Victoria facebooked me about the blog and I had to check it out! Hope everything is going well!!!

    Sewell

  2. lwflora says:

    Once I drove through Kansas…on my way to Colorado. I remember passing through several corn fields and thinking that at any moment I might be swept up in a tornado like in the movie Twister, or that just on the other side of that row of trees at T-Rex would jump out and crush the car I was in.

    Also, Mr. Neralich, just wanted to say you inspired me to become a high school literature teacher. Thank you! -Whitney Flora ’99

  3. ewjohnston says:

    I never thought I’d see the day! No doubt all of this blogging is due to your new iPhone… They all sell out in the end!

    While I always loved the crack about Kansas in the rear view, I must say with answer [vote redacted] you’ve outdone yourself! I look forward to your next posting.. Maybe as a podcast?

  4. Amannamedsam says:

    Dr.Neralich, I am both extremely pleased and shocked that your battle with technology as come to a seize-fire long enough for you to bring us this wonderful blog.

    Also, although you never inspired me to become a teacher. You have been one of the most influential people in my life and i know if not for you and all you did for me all the other young scholars you touched i would be a lesser man.

  5. Lesser Pevehouse says:

    Dr. Danger,
    I would like you to know that I laughed out loud many times while I read this. I always had great appreciation for your humor. I have to admit, when I heard about your site, I didn’t think it was possible that you had mastered a computer. I was obviously wrong! I am so glad that you are doing this, listening to you kept me motivated to “get out of bed” each day, and you taught me how to “get out of bed” on my own. I am sad to report to you that I am no longer a cheerleader and “poor Hollenbeck” isn’t so poor anymore since he moved to Washington. We are still good friends and I told him about your site. Tommy will be graduating this Spring and he will either be in Grad School or interning. It seems like just a little while ago I was in your class, anxious to hear every thing you had to teach me. Now I find myself once again, anxious to hear from you.

    And I think Kansas looks best:
    e. In The Wizard of Oz when it gets blown away by a tornado

    Yours forever,
    Katie “the lesser” Pevehouse

  6. sammilligan says:

    It seems like every time I have been through Kansas it was to get to Colorado. However, there was one time that I took an architecture “field trip” to Kansas to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (our project was to design a new center for the preserve). Now, I almost hate to admit it, but there is a sort of solace to the emptiness of the prairie. It has mostly been lost due to the unsustainable farming techniques used by most farmers in the region, but the little prairie that is left does have some beauty to it.

    I know you prefer the fall and winter, but I think Kansas looks best in the “verdant glory of spring” with newly budding wildflowers splashed across naked velvet hills of bright green grass. The preserve is one place that you truely might want to check out sometime in Kansas.

    While the website doesn’t seem to do the prairie justice ( http://www.nps.gov/tapr/photosmultimedia/virtualtour.htm ), national geographic did a story on the tallgrass prairie not long ago and the pictures from their website give a better image of Kansas. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/04/tallgrass-prairie/richardson-photography

    Thankyou for the blog, I have enjoyed reading it very much.

    Sam Milligan

  7. The Red-Headed Razorback Fan says:

    Ner-Bear!

    Unfortunately, you probably know of whom this is by now.. Stumbling upon this website has really made my entire month as I usually end up thinking about the many very useful things you taught me while at that dreaded High School on a daily basis.. Life has been pretty well for at least myself these past 6 or so months.. I’ve learned to perfect the art of being a complete bum as I took a semester off from school and haven’t committed myself to finding a job. I am scheduled to attend the U of A for the Spring semester and there on out..

    I’m sure you’ve kept up with the Hogs at least to a small portion, I wasn’t suprised at the 5-7 season but I would blame it on having a senior QB who played like a freshman, a god-awful O-Line, and a Jr. High defense.. Since the Razorbacks played pretty mediocre this year, I’ve become quite the Dallas Cowboys fan (As my “Deadbeat Sister” is as well) and they’ve turned out to be a bit overrated..

    I’ll post something else tomorrow in response to your blog and a little bit more of an update on how my life is going, but as it is 2am and I’ve had no sleep for a few days, well I’m sure you can figure it out.

    -Twyford

  8. Tukten says:

    Father,

    I hate to “spill the beans” so to speak, but I cannot sit by idly while you get so much praise for your implausible and seemingly impossible leaps in the realm of technology, a realm that I have heard you berate my entire life.
    For the ransom of deporting my older brother to Zanzabar, cutting your own hair into a mullet, and an admonition that you love Kansas above all else, I will say no more.
    You have 24 hours.

    D

  9. Son:
    I am deeply touched by the filial sentiments that you expressed in your e-mail, and I am of course terribly intimidated by your threat. On a completely unrelated subject, I am currently scanning several of your baby pictures into my computer, for possible, though as yet undetermined, use on this website. In all of them, your youthful character is, well, let us say revealingly apparent.
    And here’s a general warning for all of my former students who keep questioning my technological competence: I might be just a tad less than techno-savvy, but I still know enough about the more baleful uses of the computer, and I am quite capable of changing your grade. Let me put this into a simple mathematical formula: changed grade = revocation of diploma; revocation of diploma = rescinding of college degree; rescinding of college degree = unemployment.
    Some of the greatest joys of technology, at least in my view, involve abusing it in creative ways.
    Dr. Cyber-Evil

  10. oh_inverted_world says:

    Greetings Robert =)

    Driving through Kansas was one of the most horrendous experiences I’ve ever had on the road. It’s flat and depressing and really rather boring as there is nothing but dust and cow shit to look at. However, sunsets in Kansas are absolutely breathtaking. There was one that I watched at a gas station on the way home from Denver one summer that i remember perfectly. It was apple red with a little sliver of orange underneath. A cardinal flew toward it and was the very same color. I love moments like that.

    My peers’ responses to my going to Kansas for college (in Lawrence) was kind of comical…they all showed the exact same expression when i mentioned it. What i like about Lawrence is what i like about Fayetteville. There are people from both far left and far right of the political spectrum, and there are many people with completely opposite ideas from my own. I enjoy sharing my space with the hypocrites and the unkind and the men who hide in their houses like moles. It took me until i was 17 to appreciate our town for this reason. Life would be boring if we all thought the same, and so I pity those trying to go as far east as they possibly can. Though the east is my original home, i feel i have unfinished business here in the south and west.

    And please, for god’s sake, don’t change my grade. If my rambling doesn’t make you want to, that smiley face at the top certainly will. Have mercy.

    -Laura (that Jewish chick related to Robert Siegel)

  11. mbryan01 says:

    I don’t care what anybody says I am proud that you’ve reached out to spread your word not to be confused with “the word”. Technology is only a means to provide such gifts. A tool that is thoroughly abused. Personally and i’ve discussed this with many other folk, Kansas and N. Texas is a fee we must all pay on this side to see something trully majestic. I sometimes imagine I’m seeing mountains in the distance just to keep me going. I was once told that there are only three things that come from Kansas but i’ve yet to stop to find out. Once again great site and I hope you keep posting some insightful, intriguing works.
    M. Bryant

  12. sks704 says:

    Dr. Neralich, aren’t haikus supposed to be 17 syllables long?

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