It happened one afternoon in a museum in Washington D.C. I was with my Scottish husband in the elevator when two women from the East Coast got on and began conversing with him. They were rather enthusiastic about learning more about someone who had traveled so far to experience something of the United States. When they then asked me about myself and learned that I’m from Kansas, their eyes visibly glazed over and all conversation immediately stopped. My husband was bewildered.
Later, I explained to my better half that Kansas is not a typical tourist destination and has often been referred to as a ‘flyover’ state. While the reaction of the two women was admittedly rather extreme, the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve realized how little people really know of the sunflower state.
It’s easy to examine the stereotypes that drive people’s dismissal of a state often remembered for being flat, agricultural, landlocked, and full of cowboys, cattle, and tornados. The greater challenge is to unlock its hidden charms.
Kansas is a quirky place for tourism, when one contemplates the reputed ‘largest ball of twine’, ‘Big Brutus’ (largest remaining electric shovel), the ‘haunted’ tours in Abilene, the horse and buggy rides in Amish/Mennonite Yoder, the ‘world’s largest hand dug well’ in Greensburg, and more.
Nonetheless, for history buffs, there is the obvious appeal of the ‘wild west’. In fact, the first place my husband wanted to visit upon his first trip to Kansas was Dodge City. Many Europeans grew up on ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ and love to see these brought to life in the preserved remnants and reenactments of the landscape, living history museums, and the like. One of the defining traits of early American history was the pioneering spirit of the great westward expansion, and Kansas was very much a part of this.
In Wichita, a 44’ high beautifully crafted statue of a Native American Chief housed near the Mid-America All-Indian Center (American Indian educational/cultural museum) sits where the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers meet, and is lit up at night by a ring of fire that surrounds it. It overlooks Old Cowtown, one of the finest recreations of an 1870s midwestern cattle town. Many of the (original) buildings have been moved from various sites in Kansas and include a saloon, farm, train station, church, and even an undertaker’s. The Cowtown site gives an authentic experience to those interested in this part of history.
For air and space enthusiasts, the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson (population 40,000 to 50,000) boasts a surprising array of memorabilia. Few people know that post-Apollo, the Cosmosphere quietly accumulated many wonderful leftover artifacts. Today, it is a leading educational center, and holds a truly impressive space collection. One can view aircraft and collections from several American and Soviet space programs. In addition to the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Wichita (once known as the ‘Air Capital’) is home to the Kansas Aviation Museum, several aircraft companies, an Air Force Base, and has an extensive aviation history.
The Flint Hills in Kansas boast beautiful landscapes and land that most closely resembles the original prairie. The tall grass, wild life, flowers, and sweeping vistas are an inspiration to both artists and ecologists alike. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a great place to hike. In the Flint Hills one can experience the rustic living of both today and a bygone era through touring a ranch and viewing bison that once populated the hills en masse. For a less rustic, more artsy, but no less stimulating experience, one can even attend the annual symphony in the Flint Hills.
To kick it up a notch, one can also enjoy the annual Walnut Valley bluegrass festival in Winfield. Or, for the jazz lover, there is both the historical and the modern to be found in Kansas City. Though it does straddle both Kansas and Missouri, Kansans proudly claim its museums, barbeque, nightlife, art, and many other enchantments as part of their own.
There are so many more attractions too numerous to list and often hidden in open view of the discerning eye. However, the abiding memory my Scottish husband carries of Kansas is that of its people, who just want to talk to you, learn about where you come from, and are just plain good folk.