Square in the middle is where you’ll find Kansas
I don’t think Kansas gets the respect it deserves.
I believe that the vast middle of our country has been long overlooked. The land that is our breadbasket, our prairie, the result of Manifest Destiny and the immense watershed of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is for most Americans, invisible. Mostly unseen is the territory that stretches from the freezing Dakotas to the swampy Gulf bayou.
Kansas represents so many things I didn’t know about the country before I drove through it, and I believe I still don’t.
That big, rectangular state, smack in the middle of the coast-to-coast flyover zone, is flat as a pancake and endlessly open, and home to Dorothy Gale, whose quest to be anywhere but there landed her in Oz. We imagine Kansas in black-and-white, or at best, sepia tone.
And it is. Kansas is vast and featureless, and assertively brown. Not a tree, not a building for miles. And unless the wheat is swaying or the sunflowers are in bloom, it’s empty fields of prairie dirt. When its hundreds of acres of windmills appear, spinning on farms dedicated not to food, but to energy, the terrain is so wide, they seem miniaturized.
Driving through Kansas on Interstate 70 means traveling at posted speed limits that permit going 80 mph, and still taking seven or eight hours to see anything more at an exit than another vacant two-lane road. Not a McDonald’s, not a convenience store. Not a single thing that distinguishes the majority of interstate America.
Travelers must make sure to stop in Kansas City for fuel or food before heading west, because there’s no place for a long time to stop after that.
I passed through Kansas last week, on a cross-country driving trip with a lifetime friend who was relocating from the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Just the two of us, in a car so overstuffed that her two dogs slept on top of our suitcases.
We subsisted on junk food and drive-through meals, and relieved the dogs at truck stops. We imagined ourselves Thelma and Louise, but without the murder, armed robbery, dramatic cliff jump or overnight with a young Brad Pitt.
Instead, we were just two middle-aged gals who have known each other since summer camp. We have seen each other through marriage and divorce, professional school and careers, children and grandchildren. More than four decades ago, we met in Bunk Fourteen. More than three decades ago, she was the bridesmaid to whom I threw my wedding bouquet. About 20 years ago, the only spare bed for me on an overnight visit to her house was in a diaper-smelling bedroom with her youngest. Ten years ago, we could envision our empty nests ahead. This year, when she decided to pick up her entire life and move it west, she called me to ride shotgun.
I have always wanted to drive cross country. I have wanted to watch the terrain flatten and become sandy in the eastern Carolinas, then turn marshy in Florida. I have wanted to rise through the Smoky Mountains then descend again. I wanted to eat Memphis barbecue from a carryout shack and blue-ribbon pie at a roadside diner. I wanted the vagabond experience of a highway pioneer. I was a complete romantic.
Those expectations evaporated with every mile of interstate. From home to Columbus to Kansas City, through two long days of putting the miles behind us, we might as well have never left home. The landscape repeated itself like one long video loop.
Every exit was announced with signage for fast-food, gas stations, chain hotels and Starbucks. Place names repeated. The immense, diverse country that I expected to see was nowhere to be found.
By the time we reached Kansas City, I had replaced my desire for a fresh look at America with the desire to simply put the requisite miles behind us. Perhaps interstate homogeneity was going to be the only view available from sea to shining sea.
And then we put Missouri in the rear view mirror. Within a few miles, the suburbs thinned, then disappeared. The land spread out, emptied and turned monochrome. The sky met the ground in an unwavering horizon.
What had been familiar geography became otherworldly terrain. Fields of windmills appeared as alien armies deployed across the landscape. Without a single buffer to deflect it, prairie wind rocked the car on its wheels.
This was the America I was looking for. Immense and productive, bearer of grain and seed, windswept and pregnant with promise. Kansas is a place that doesn’t look like anyplace else, and certainly not like the congested corridors that define where most Americans live. Travelers generally bypass Kansas at 30,000 feet, seeing only a stratum of clouds out of the airplane window, if they’re looking at all.
On the ground, the emptiness of America in the middle is connected by arteries of highway to the cities and suburbs and shopping centers and chain restaurants and billions-of-burgers-sold. Coming out of Kansas on the other side was a quick transition to the cheap motels, liquor stores and check cashing joints on the outskirts of Denver. Within minutes, exit signs marked a tangle of off-ramps populated with the familiar chains.
America is a nation so large that it takes long days at superhighway speeds to get across. Most of it looks the same. One Exxon sign looks the same as another; every KFC has the Colonel’s face on the sign.
And then, square in the middle, is Kansas.