May 16, 2011 – Just two days before Lisa and I were to take all of our stuff out of our house in Kansas to Tallahassee, we decided to take a jaunt through the most beautiful parts of Kansas. We began the afternoon with a drive to Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas. Upon arrival we discovered that our favorite little tea shop, Teapourro, had succumbed to the poor economy. After debating on where to eat, be it Dempsey’s, the Free State Brewery, or a host of other fantastic restaurants, we decided upon La Parrilla, a Latin American Restaurant.
Gorged, we decided to take a walk around Lawrence one last time to visit some of our favorite shops, like Brits and Au Marche – both of which are European markets. We also dropped by the Phoenix gallery, which sells items created by local artisans.
After our walk through Lawrence we decided it was too early to head back to Overland Park, so we decided to take a drive toward the Flint Hills. We headed north of Lawrence and connected with US 24 heading west. In minutes it seems all of civilization falls away, and you are surrounded by hills and trees. On some days when I drove these same roads when I did marketing in the area I found this peaceful and relaxing. On other days, I found it maddening because the communities seemed so few and far between. On this day I enjoyed the natural panorama and the conversations with my wife.
It was along this road that we began to see nature unfold and the critters come out to play. You cannot drive 10 minutes in Kansas without seeing a hawk peering down from a tree limb or telephone pole looking for a meal. That continued to be the case on this trip. Along the leg of this trip was when I saw an eagle. It was not a bald eagle, but rather a golden eagle, something quite a bit more common in this area than bald eagles. I was glancing out the car window facing north when I noticed a large, dark bird sitting on the limb of a tree 8 or 10 feet off the ground. It seemed content and relaxed. It would have been very large for a hawk, and when it turned its head to the side I noticed the prodigious beak, which was what told me this was an eagle. It had the same appearance as a bald eagle, but with different coloring. Instead of the white head and tail, golden eagles have a dark brown color throughout their entire body. Golden eagles should be easier to spot in Kansas than their bald cousins, but because they blend in so well, or can look like other Kansas raptors, they are often much more difficult to discern.
The great thing about this trek is that it was only beginning. We had not yet made it as far as Topeka, and already I had seen an eagle. Once we moved past Topeka, the populations greatly decrease, the hills begin to roll more, and the topography changes. This is where we enter the Flint Hills.
The Flint Hills are often described as subtle in their beauty, but really that is not the correct word. I think their beauty is rugged and harsh, which matches the climate of this part of Kansas. The Flint Hills are also home to the one of the last vestiges of tall grass prairie in the US. The roots of this tall grass can go as far as 15 feet into the ground, which makes this plant extremely resilient. The hills served as fantastic feeding ground for American bison before they were virtually wiped out. Today, ranchers from Texas, Oklahoma, and other surrounding states bring their cattle to graze on the rich grass.
The Flint Hills are also susceptible to wild fires which can spread as fast as a car can drive. Because of this, people living in this part of Kansas go through the ritual of burning their fields each spring. Again, because the roots are so deep, the grass is able to spring forth again within a matter of days. The site of burning fields is awe inspiring.
There is not a major differentiation in elevation from top to bottom of these hills – only a few hundred feet. Still, on the occasion when you can crest a hill which offers a panoramic view, the site is arresting. The first thing you notice is that there really aren’t any cities around. You see variations of green and gold, depending on what part of the year you are in, but you can see for miles and miles all around. You simply cannot help but imagine what the pioneers and settlers who traversed the land in the 1800s must have thought. Other than barbed wire fence and roads, much of it is the same today as it was then.
We drove along the Native Stone Scenic Byway, which is a section of the Flint Hills known for its limestone. The little towns along this byway have made excellent use of the stone, but you can also see in the craggy hills all around examples of the rock breaking through the prairie grass to announce itself. The stones give quite a contrast to the green of the grass.
After passing several cattle and buffalo ranches (I could hear the Kansas state song, “Home on the Range” in my head), we decided we better start heading back towards Overland Park, which at this point was a full two hours away. It was while driving down one of the back roads in search of a main thoroughfare that we came across a cattle ranch. While we hit the south side of the ranch we noticed something that looked like a large husky trotting in the general direction of the cows. As we passed the animal, it paused and turned its head in our direction. That was the moment Lisa noticed that it wasn’t a dog, but a gray wolf. Its coat was full and immaculate. This was a beautiful creature, and something I had never seen before in the wild. It acted as though it didn’t have a care in the world, and after seeing we were not a threat, it turned its head back and started toward the cows again.
The sun was steadily declining in the west, so we were making our way home. Before the sun went completely down we reached more populated areas, which vastly increased the number of power lines, and subsequently poles holding up the power lines. As we were passing one, I noticed a large bird on it, so I focused more closely on it, and saw that it was a horned owl. During the 2 years I lived in Kansas, I never so much as heard an owl, and now I was staring at a horned owl. Not ½ mile later, I saw another one, also perched on a power pole, gazing down at the open fields all around. Not long after this, we noticed this must really be the time when predators go our looking for their prey, because a red fox ran out in the road, acting as though it wanted to be run over. Fortunately, it skittered out of the way before we made a mess of it.
After the encounter with the fox, it quickly became too dark to see anything. We were back in Overland Park within about 30 minutes. We had driven a total of about 4 hours looking at the sites, but had seen numerous things I had not seen in a full 2 years of outdoor activity in Kansas. The trip was well worth it.