Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kansas Heritage

Eastern Kansas is as flat as all my images and memories of the state. Maybe that comes from driving on I-70. The last couple of legs of this journey we haven’t been on I-70, but we have seen the lush, flat farmlands the state is famous for: dark green corn fields, golden acres of wheat being harvested this month, small towns, and grain elevators. If there is a tree, it is a cottonwood. Western Kansas is experiencing drought, but the eastern part or the state is having much the same weather as Texas, which means rain. It was sooo green. We have never seen it look so beautiful.

As we came west along Kansas 156 on Wednesday, we were amazed to see water on both sides of the road. We wondered if there had been a flood, since we knew that Kanapolis Lake, which we had just left, had been flooded in May. We discovered we were driving next to the Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve, held by the Nature Conservancy. The 7,300 acres of marsh wetlands host nearly one-half of all North American shorebirds migrating east of the Rockies. We didn’t see any birds, but we sure did see a lot of water. In Kansas? We were amazed.

Why all this time in Kansas in late June? It isn’t the typical tourist destination. John’s ancestors were pioneers in Kansas, settling just across the state line from Missouri in Olathe in 1860. Those were the years of Bloody Kansas, when the prelude to the Civil War brought border raids between Kansas and Missouri as it was being decided whether the state would have slavery or not. Two decades later, his great-grandfather and mother homesteaded in southwestern Kansas in Kearny County. This week we found the land they settled on—where combines were just harvesting the wheat. It is very rich farmland.

It has been an interesting journey. We try to feel connected to America’s heartland, since we learned of the family connection here. Our stay at the Venango Corps Park, and earlier at Lake Stockton State Park in Missouri, put us in contact with local farmers enjoying their weekends at the lake. For many people in these states, their fate is in the hands of weather and the market for farm products. From the looks of Garden City (where we stayed in an RV Park) and Lakin, the county seat of Kearny County, where John’s family lived, farming can be fairly prosperous at times. We know that drought and hail and other factors make it very risky at other times. Many of those staying in this RV Park are part of a harvesting crew out of Minnesota, traveling throughout the plains cutting grain. Traveling across this country and into Canada helps us to understand a little of how other people live.

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