Ask people from outside Kansas to describe our state and many would state definitely, “It’s flat.” A drive across western Kansas on I-70 or Highway 54 would support their idea of monotonously level terrain. What folks passing through don’t realize is that highway planners intentionally select the easiest route to turn into an interstate. It’s cheaper to build and easier to drive. Travelers who never travel the two lane black tops that weave one little community to another don’t have a clue about our river valleys and rolling hills. Ours is a geography of highs and lows with gentle to rugged design.
The third week in September is a great time to cruise Highway 36 in search of bargains and unusual collectables. But the real discovery for anyone starting at one border and journeying to the opposite end are the innumerable hills that make passing slow moving vehicles a challenge. If that tourist decides to explore Oberlin and stay long enough to walk around town, he or she will quickly discover flat isn’t on the radar as a descriptor for this town. It’s a great place to work those glutes and strengthen the cardiovascular system. I’m guessing winter sledding is prime fun in this village.
My little town of Logan shares this quality. Getting from my house on the east to the western border requires focused climbing that has me huffing and puffing ¾ of the way up. The bonus is that coming home is downhill. As I’m angling my body to slow myself down on my return, I fantasize how I’d have let my bike build speed on the one long hill that leads to the main street. Unfortunately, it’s usually busy, which doesn’t bode well for any child silly enough to pull a stunt like that.
People visiting Ellis can explore the Irion Hills north of town. Talk about rugged and remote. Eroded channels that shelter coyotes, deer, and bobcats cut through this rise frequently. Sheer drop offs guide the eye sharply down to a tranquil valley bisected by a meandering stream. Visiting here in the fall is like taking a trip to Maine or Vermont to see brilliant gold and russet leaves. Every time I drive through this area, I wonder what the early settlers thought when they had to pass through. I’m guessing they wished it were flat.
Last weekend, a friend gave me a tour of southern Phillips and Northern Rooks Counties. Nowhere did we find extended expanses of level land. As we drove narrow one-lane roads, I worried about meeting another vehicle head on at the top of one of the many hills we climbed. Then I wondered how early residents navigated this land in the winter before four-wheel drives dominated the auto market.
As we looped our way around a descending hairpin turn, my companion told me how she’d ridden a horse by that site as a child. She said her mount ran away with her and headed directly toward the cliff we were driving past. She was certain she was about to die. Looking at that drop off, I agreed. At the very last moment, her beast wheeled in the opposite direction, saving both lives. I’m sure she gained a deeper appreciation for even ground after that experience.
None of the places I just described are visible from the Interstate. That particular passer-by would question my sanity if I tried to tell him or her about our rugged landscape. However, there’s no excuse for anyone who calls Kansas home not to explore a bit and find out exactly how unflat our state actually is.