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.