We’ve driven across Kansas many times on our way to Colorado, always on I-7o. It’s a grueling trip and one that we usually just endure. This time, however, we decided to take our time, only traveling about 200 miles or less per day and staying off I-70 for the most part.
Our first stop was Clinton State Park in Lawrence. We had camped there in 2010 and knew it was an affordable and nice park. Plus, it was right outside Lawrence, the college town for the University of Kansas. (Rock Chalk Jayhawk Go KU!) Last time we were in Lawrence our only stop in town was at the urgent care for my shingles, sooo, not a favorite memory. This visit, we found Lawrence to be a wonderful place, full of beautiful old homes, large shade trees and a terrific downtown full of trendy little shops and restaurants. We had a delicious lunch at The Mad Greek, a Greek and Italian restaurant. Then we took advantage of the free wi-fi at the Lawrence Public Library, a bustling location for patrons of all ages.
Clinton State Park surrounds the Clinton Reservoir, has two camping areas with 383 sites, several hiking trails, and lots of wildlife. Just outside the state park, the Army Corps of Engineers has a lovely little day use park with picnic tables, shelters, a playground, and the trailhead for Sander’s Mound, a very easy hike that gives you a bird’s eye view of the reservoir.
Like I said, we decided to forgo the I-70 route and instead dropped down to US 50, a toll FREE road which took us through the heart of the Sunflower State. What a delightful drive! We felt as though we got a true taste of the real Kansas. I’m not sure why Kansas gets such a bad rap. I’ve heard it referred to as a “fly-over” state, a no-man’s land, boring, etc. True, it doesn’t have the spectacular coastal scenery of Big Sur or the mountain views of Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, but it has something else. It has the grit and determination of the early settlers, those brave souls who were willing to say good-bye to everything easy and familiar and embark on a path toward the unknown. I’ve always found stories of early explorers and settlers captivating. Could I have done what they did? Could I have left my home, my parents and siblings, my friends,…knowing I would most likely never in this lifetime see them again? Could I have said yes to a journey wrought with danger, Indian attacks, storms and tornadoes, sickness and loss of life? Could I have forged ahead into what is the greatest fear of all,…..the unknown? Every time I travel through the prairies I am filled with awe and admiration for those early pioneers, especially the women. Those gentle ladies who sometimes found themselves alone, having buried their husbands and children. How did they do it? Where did they find the strength to carry on? As we stood on the bluff overlooking the Arkansas River valley west of Dodge City, (yes, THE Dodge City) we could see the wagon wheel tracks of the Santa Fe Trail, still visible after more than a hundred years. Now, thanks to irrigation, there are splashes of green where crops are thriving, but back then? It was just miles upon miles of waving grassland. Surely the travelers from back East who grew up surrounded by woodland forests were amazed by the endless vista. And then there is the wind. The constant, unrelenting wind. The wind that can dry laundry in minutes, but a wind that can turn deadly as tornadoes rip through the state unimpeded by mountains. And that wind blows and blows and blows. As we sat in the camper eating our lunch with the window cracked open, the wind howled and whistled non-stop. I could hardly bear it for 30 minutes. It’s no wonder the wind drove some of those early settlers insane. To be so isolated from everyone with only the wind for company,…I’m not sure I could have coped.
We spent one night in Halstead, a small community northwest of Wichita. Up to that point, we still felt like we were in the Midwest. But as we traveled west from there everything began to change. The rolling hills began to flatten. Trees looked scruffy and stunted. We noticed a few cacti. And then began mile after mile of irrigated fields of wheat, large pastures for cattle, and a few acres of cultivated sunflowers. When we noticed the giant windmills, our mileage starting dropping. We’ve observed that if there are windmills, that means there is wind, and more than likely the same wind that is supplying power for someone is blowing us all over the road.
With each little community we drove through we were struck by a some thoughts. First, the silos. Each county or town has several silos that were constructed some years ago that are used by the community as a co-op for storing their grain. It’s farmers all pulling together, similar to the area in Columbiana County we called home for almost 30 years. Second, this is the breadbasket of America. It’s where people work to put food on our tables. And they work hard. We drove through countless small towns and never saw anyone idly wasting time. Everyone was working at some task. And third, each little town contained many houses, schools, and businesses which are populated by people. People that have their own stories of life, love, work, hopes, and dreams. How can anyplace be called a “fly-over” state, implying that it is unimportant or unnecessary? Each town, each person, each place has some part to play in the grand scheme of life.
If you choose to take the road less traveled, i.e., US 50 through Kansas, here are a few pointers. It is a well-maintained, paved road, mainly 2-lane, but it turns into 4 lanes through some towns and a few times is a divided highway. Lots of semis use this route and there are passing lanes strategically placed so the big boys can get going. There are rest areas, the old-fashioned kind, not large, but they can accommodate any size RV. But they always seemed to be on the south side of the road. Hmm, go figure. Locating a gas station that we can easily maneuver in and out of is always a challenge. But there are a couple of Pilot/Flying J’s and there is a terrific Sinclair in Las Animas just over the border in Colorado with plenty of room and a large parking area attached which was perfect for a lunch break. As I mentioned above, we spent a couple of nights at Clinton State Park in Lawrence. Our next overnight was at Spring Lake RV Resort in Halstead, touted as being the largest RV park in Kansas. There are lots of long term seasonal spots with a few rows of pull-thru’s for overnighters like us. We then tried out a county park in Lakin, Beymer Water Recreation Park. It is a very basic park with water and electric for only $10 a night. It’s 3 miles south of town, but felt pretty isolated. It’s a bit shabby, but we didn’t see any evidence of it being a “party spot.” The sheriff did a drive by which put us at ease and we enjoyed a very peaceful night. As far as places to eat, I can’t recommend any since we ate out of our own kitchen, but I did notice many chain restaurants and local establishments in most every major town.
I have a new admiration for Kansas and its people. Kansas may not have the glamour of a big city, but it has its own beauty with miles of uninterrupted horizons and a population whose work ethic is unmatched.