Kansas — living the dream

Today’s Kansas is not the one that Dorothy and Toto might easily recognize. The winds still blow hard across the state’s prairies. No doubt they still have the power to swirl some dirt around and can occasionally cause tall grass to bend almost horizontal to the ground. The state has endured its share of hard weather and hard times over the years, and not only in fiction.

Today, however, Kansas has its eyes on the future, and that future is bright. The past two and a half years of pandemic closures and uncertainty have in some ways been a catalyst for the growth and development that began before the shutdown. Change is “impatient” in the state today.

The focus is forward-facing and the vibe everywhere is hopeful and energetic.

In late September, I participated in a whirlwind three-day tour of southeast Kansas. As the region’s Travel Guide proclaims: “SOUTH of the stars, EAST of the sunset, smack dab in the heart of America.” This is not a part of Kansas I had previously visited, and I didn’t know quite what to expect.

From the air, the state resembles a patchwork quilt of color, with sinewy ribbons of rivers and roads winding across the prairies. Kansas is filled with small farming communities, each with a unique personality. There are many; we flew into Kansas City, visited Fort Scott, Humboldt, Chanute, Galena, Pittsburg, and Baxter Springs, and drove through others without stopping. Although all towns in Kansas are classified as “cities,” only five boast populations of 100,000 or more. Everywhere we went, we met locals who are in the process of redefining their past history and their future in distinctive ways. Make no mistake, history is intertwined with dreams here in southeast Kansas, and that contributes to the region’s infectious vitality.

To be fair, I was not completely unfamiliar with Kansas, known as the Sunflower State. I was grounded at the Kansas City Airport during a snowstorm many years ago — not one of my happier memories. But the flatland prairies calm me, and road trips always are interesting. The Cosmosphere in Hutchinson is not only fascinating but well worth an extended visit. Four years ago, I enjoyed an all-too-short visit to Wichita. I knew about Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, but Fort Scott was new to me.

However, I didn’t arrive for my recent visit to this “flyover state” anywhere near as enthusiastic as I was when it came time to leave. The trip was eye-opening, the people welcoming and the sights impressive in unique ways. It was invigorating to spend time on the ground in the heart of America.

I want to return. Sooner rather than someday!    

Today’s winds of change are especially strong in some of the state’s traditional farming communities. The New York Times chose Humboldt as one of its 52 best places to travel for 2022. After being there, I know why! The land may not have changed much, but its inhabitants have. It’s hard not to fall in love with this part of the state. Southeast Kansas is full of pleasant surprises and some quirky attractions, and its people seem to be moving at full throttle into a future even they cannot yet quite imagine.

Travel with me . . .

Over the next several weeks I’ll share more of my thoughts. We’ll start in Fort Scott and the jewel in its crown – the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. Then, we’ll move on to the 13 miles of Route 66 that still cross this corner of the state and explore other Kansas byways, ending in Emporia, now the acknowledged center of two thoroughly modern sports – disc golf and gravel bicycle racing. We’ll visit the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, a small city also known for its ties to railroading and early aeronautics.

All along the way, we’ll explore Kansas eateries, sampling traditional “comfort food” and new taste treats served by innovative chefs and restaurateurs. This was a trip that kept us on the move. Despite a rental van glitch that required a delayed start and an initial itinerary adjustment, our group of journalists crammed a week’s worth of experiences into the time we had, thanks to the extraordinary planning of Kansas Tourism and our local hosts.

Join me to learn more about the food we enjoyed along the way — it may surprise you! Then, if you should decide to see southeast Kansas for yourself, know that residents of its many charming communities will show you around and make you feel at home — visitors to Kansas don’t remain strangers for long!

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