Kansas: My Journey to the Past

By David Cogswell

Sometimes it seems like a trip back home is the wildest, most remote trip of all. That may be more true for me than some because I grew up in Kansas, not many peopleís idea of a tourist destination. Iíve been gone from Kansas longer than I lived there, but Iím still used to hearing practically the only thing anyone can think to say about Kansas: ďWeíre not in Kansas anymore, Toto.Ē

That is all almost anyone knows about Kansas. Almost anyone, but not Kathy Sudeikis, the former president of ASTA. She is based in Overland Park, Kansas, and sheís traveled the world and reached the highest reaches of the travel industry. Her son Jason became a high-flying comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and has gone on to do movies. Eisenhower grew up in Kansas, and of course Bob Dole. In fact Dole and my dad were buddies back when Dole was county attorney of Russell County, Kansas. Gordon Parks was from my home town of Topeka. Bill Kurtis started out as the news anchor on Topekaís WIBW TV station. And of course Barack Obamaís mother and grandparents were from Kansas. I could go on, but the list would still be meager compared to a similar list for New York or New Jersey. Oh, yes, I mustnít forget. ďIím an old Kansas boy myself,Ē said the Wizard of Oz. You never know who youíll run into.

But for most people, Kansas is still just that blank space in the map between Missouri and Colorado. Most people who have ever been to Kansas have only driven through in the middle of a long cross country road trip. And driving through is no way to experience Kansas. Itís 400 miles wide, and not a very fun driving experience. On the east coast I can drive through six states from New Jersey to Maine, and itís only 300 miles. People remember Kansas as eight hours of flat, nondescript country, though thatís not quite accurate. The western two-thirds of the state are in the Great Plains of America, or what was once called The Great American Desert. Itís flat and desolate. It calls to mind the images of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which took place in Holcomb, Kansas, in the southwestern part of the state near Garden City. (A friend of mine actually knew the ill-fated Clutter family, and my father saw Hickok and Smith, the killers, when they were brought to court on a writ of Habeus Corpus. Howís that for proximity to celebrities?) But the eastern third of the state becomes gradually more hilly as the land transforms into the hill country of the Ozarks in Missouri. Anyone who has visited the University of Kansas in Lawrence, has seen that some of the streets around the college are practically vertical.

But few people know about any of these features, and with the cornucopia of travel choices in the world, few are eager to find out. In this world of full-time full-blown media, itís hard for a place like Kansas to break through to the consciousness of the world. Kansas has an image problem. Even with its rich Civil War history and all the Civil War buffs out there, Kansas gets overlooked. Kansas was where the first bloody skirmishes that led to the Civil War took place. Shebby Lee, who operates historical tours out of Rapid City, N.D., has tried to market her Bleeding Kansas tour a few times and canít get any bites. As the Shebby Lee website ( says, ďTerritorial Kansas was where the Missouri Compromise came unraveled, and the seeds of civil war took root. The era known as Bleeding Kansas pitted neighbor against neighbor and created legendary characters like John Brown and William Quantrill.Ē Lee had scheduled the tour for Oct. 4-10, but had to cancel it for lack of interest. She is hoping there may be more interest as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in 2011.

Kansas also happens to be where the center of the Lower 48 States is located, in Smith County near Lebanon, Kansas. The center of North America is also said to be in Kansas and from 1927 until the establishment in 1984 of the World Geodetic System, Meades Ranch, Kansas, was used as the reference point for nearly all land survey measurements in the U.S. It truly is the heart of the heartland, and there is a budding tourist industry centered around the center (see

But few of these things seem sexy enough to cause thousands of people to drop everything and book flights to Kansas. For me itís different. It was where I grew up, where I lived out my boyhood fantasies. When I read Tom Sawyer, Kansas was the setting for me, and was probably not very different from Sam Clemensí Hannibal, Mo. When I read Tarzan of the Apes I was able to live it for myself in the jungle-like environment of Shunganunga Creek during the blazing hot Kansas summer. And of course Walt Disney, the Beach Boys and the Beatles came through our TVs and radios in Kansas just like they did everywhere else in suburbia USA.

One of the oddest travel experiences for me ever was when I traveled to Kenya with Micato Safaris in the late 1990s. I was set to experience the most exotic environment of my life. I thought to myself, wow! Now I am really getting out there. This is the most remote destination I have ever experienced. But when I shook off my jetlag, unloaded my things in my cottage at Amboseli National Park and walked outside, it all felt uncannily familiar. The grass under my feet was a tough, gnarly species identical to the grass we had on our lawn in Topeka. The smells were powerfully nostalgic and I had to laugh to myself when I realized that they were reminding me of my grandfatherís farm in Silver Lake, Kansas. Instead of horses, I was smelling zebras, and instead of cows, I was smelling buffalo. But the smells were practically identical and rang those bells deep in my memory. I thought I was going to be going to Africa to experience the jungle, but Kenya is plains, remarkably similar to Kansas.

Of course we didnít have elephants, rhinos and giraffes in Kansas, not when I was there anyway. But going back to Kansas for a visit was fascinating. I drove around Topeka extensively, revisited the houses I had lived in. It seemed as if the scale of everything was reduced. The hill we used to roll down from the neighborís yard was barely a bump. The broad expanse of lawn that I used to mow looked rather small. The houses I lived in were vast and cavernous during my youth, now they were like little boxes.

Burnettís Mound, the high point that towered over the southwest corner of Topeka, with the mysterious Indian burial ground on top, looked much smaller than I remembered it. It was named for Chief Burnett of the Potawatami Indians. It used to deflect the tornadoes that came from the southwest before they hit the Kaw Valley where the city was built. The Indian legend was that if the burial ground was defiled, a curse would fall upon the city. But the city did defile the mound with a water tower and rows of ugly apartment buildings, and a few years later, a giant tornado rose over the mound, and raked through the city, leaving a wide trail of rubble where hundreds of houses used to be. It always seemed to me like it really was the vengeance of the Great Spirit, but what do I know?

Thomas Wolfe (and later the Shangrilas) said you canít go home again, and I suppose itís true because what I saw in my visit was a mere shadow of what I remember so vividly. When I finished my vacation, life got going again at full speed and the memories of Topeka receded again into my memory. And thatís not such a bad thing, because now all those things are big again.

-- David Cogswell

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