It entered our imagination through an open portal – the 1970s sitting room landscape of Saturday afternoon black and white cowboy movies. People won’t remember much other than the names, Rawhide, Dodge city, and the landscape, an image that you can’t escape as you drive across the vast plains of the state of Kansas.
The countryside rolls like the theme music used by all the cowboy movie soundtracks, roads snaking and turning here and there in the greenery. There are four such landscapes in the world, the Serengeti, the Pampas, the Steppes (from where the music was borrowed) and this prairie. The Hummer has replaced the horse as a status symbol on this run. But the image of cowboy days never goes away.
At the tiny one street, one bridge town of Council Grove they signed the treaty with the Indians (1825) that opened up the Santa Fe trail and travel on to the Mexican border.
Dan Doerge, a New Yorker, now runs one of the inns where the wagon trailers stopped for refreshments filled with hopes and dreams of prosperity amid the lush prairie grass, the Hays House 1857 Restaurant.
After the meal was served the guitar and fiddles came out and the locals joined in Home on the Range. In the twilight, filled with some of the best hospitality this writer has ever experienced in either hemisphere, you could imagine that nothing had changed in 150 years.
We too were in search of the lush grass, and the following day we found it.
The road winds through almost treeless rolling land where bison once roamed; they have been replaced by prairie chickens, great blue herons, coyote, deer, collared lizards, bobcats and the ubiquitous cattle.
They say that if you put a marble on the north east corner of Kansas it would roll all the way down the south east corner, but don’t believe them. The landscape is intricate, and falls according to its mood in different places. The farmers who came to sow the land have changed it forever.
The virgin plains have been deflowered, the prairie ploughed, except for one small pocket. There is one significant piece of the ancient prairie left, and we set off from Council Grove to find it. Because of the flint of their name, the Flint Hills home to the last significant piece of prairie in the United States.
The big picture, the first you see, is of a group of famous low hills, subject of a spectacular photo-shoot in a recent National Geographic, that fan out across the eastern part of the state over 183 miles from north to south, stretching 30 to 40 miles wide in parts. The landscape throws up isolated images, a wind-whipped cottonwood tree, a rusted cattle pen, a spindly windmill, an abandoned limestone schoolhouse, the metal-gated entrance to a hilltop cemetery.
The small picture if anything is more intriguing. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in an unploughable part of the hills, where the flint has saved the ancient landscape, offers nine separate eco-systems. You can’t tell from the windscreen, “80pc of what is out here is grass,” Park Ranger Lynda Brown says. “There are 60 different varieties – some species grow really tall, some don’t, but the real diversity is the huge number of species of insects that lie between them.”
Years ago, says Lynda Brown, there were 100m buffalo out here. By 1880 there were 1,000. They were slaughtered on an industrial scale, to clear the prairie for the white man’s plough and, darkly, to deprive the native Americans of a supply of food.
The preserve has over 16 miles of walking trails or you can take a bus tour or roam around the 1881 hilltop ranch with its limestone mansion and an impressive three-story barn.
Light is the word the light that changes and reflects and creeps over the green grasslands. There is precious little of it left.
And a discovery. A glance at L Frank Baum’s biography shows he never went near Kansas in his travels, so why did he set the Wizard of Oz there?
“He didn’t want to give South Dakota a bad name,” Betsy Riblett the director of the Oz museum in Wamego says. “It proved good for us in the end.”
Anyone who has watched Transylvania trying to market Dracula will know the difficulties of laying claim on a work of fiction, but Oz (and spin-offs such as the current musical megahit Wicked) has been good to Kansas. In Wamego, the unpretentious museum introduces you to the memorabilia of the movie. Other collections, including the marvellous Museum of World treasures in Wichita also show the near accidental transformation of the Baum book into a cult. Judy Garland bears no resemblance to the original in the book but the Kansas they created in Hollywood looks a lot like the landscape here.
Prairie and rodeo, romance and tornadoes has long defined the way they think and talk. The landscape has changed and left something very potent to endure.
- Wichita Museum of World Treasures, is home to a $50m collection of antiquities, including one of only four battling dinosaur exhibits in the world, the tailcoat worn by Alexander Hamilton during the Revolutionary War and an extensive collection of ancient art and artifacts. www.worldtreasures.org
- Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: www.nps.gov/tapr/ Hwy 177 Strong City, KS 66869 P: 620 273 8494
- Kansas Underground Salt Museum 100 S Walnut Hutchinson, KS 67501 P: (620) 662-1184
- Maxwell Wildlife Refuge and Buffalo Tour 2565 Pueblo Rd Canton, KS 67428 P: (620) 628-4455
- Grand Central Hotel and Grill 215 Broadway Cottonwood Falls, KS P:(620) 273-6763
- n Hays House 1857 Restaurant & Tavern, 112 W Main St Council Grove, KS 66846 P: (620) 767-5911
- Cottage House Hotel / B&B 25 N Neosho St Council Grove, KS 66846 P: (620) 767-6828
- OZ Museum, 511 Lincoln Ave Wamego, KS 66547 P: (785) 458-8686
- Eldridge Hotel 701 Massachusetts St Lawrence, KS 66044 Phone: (785) 749-5011
- Eoghan Corry flew to Kansas via Chicago with Aer Lingus www.TravelOk.com
- n www.TravelKs.com or www.TravelKsOk.co.uk cfor guides and information
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