Tuesday, October 17, 2017
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Road trip through the rolling hills of the Sunflower State

Best known for being the home of Dorothy in the iconic Wizard of Oz, ANDREA McVEIGH headed to the wide open praries of Kansas in search of her own adventure...

"COME on in and take a bale". That’s Kansas talk for “take a seat”. Jan Jantzen gestured towards a bale of hay in the barn of his ranch in Emporia, Kansas, as he told us what we could expect on our horseback ride through the Flint Hills. Jan’s argi-turism business, Kansas Flint Hills Adventures, is just one of the gems you’ll find in this part of America. Better known as the home of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, Kansas, with it’s wide open prairie land and big, big sky, has so much more to offer visitors than Toto and tornadoes.

Jan’s ranch, Grandview, named after the first homestead in the area to be owned by white settlers - the original ‘Little House on the Prairie’ in these parts - is one of those welcome surprises. He takes guests on horseback treks around his land, pointing out wild flowers and native birds, and telling tales of the first pioneer settlers to make the land their home.

“One hundred and fifty years ago,” said Jan, as he swept his arm out over the landscape, “you would have been Native Americans and those cows would have been buffaloes.” Even though it was my first time on a horse, I soon bonded with Sonny as we trotted through tall prairie grass dotted with wild echinecia flowers.

It was my first real insight into the serene and understated beauty of the Flint Hills area in east Kansas - one of America’s last real prairies. The Great Plains tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres, and, although less than four per cent remains today, that still makes for a huge space, where the grasses can grow taller than a man on horseback and ancient flint pieces fill the soil. My husband and I were embarking on a road trip through the rolling hills and long, empty roads of Kansas - what many call 'the real America', the heartland of the Midwest.

Later that afternoon, after I said my goodbyes to both Sonny and Jan, we drove into Cottonwood Falls, a town in Chase County - population 3,000 and known, as is much of Kansas, for its farming and ranching - and checked into the Grand Central Hotel, which bursts with all the charm of the Old West. Opened as a hotel in 1884, if the walls of this hotel could talk, they would tell tales of the post-Civil War economic explosion and the migration west of farmers, ranchers, prospectors, killers and thieves, all seeking their fortune as cattle towns turned boom towns and famous figures such as Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok rode through Kansas history.

Up in the grounds of the old Chase County Courthouse - the oldest working courthouse in the county - we felt like we could have bumped into old Wyatt himself, we certainly saw plenty of folk who looked like him. We’d stumbled upon the Flint Hills FolkLife ‘living history’ festival, which has been running for 12 years and features devotees dressed in period clothes from the mid-1800s; playing instruments, offering craft demonstrations and selling traditionally-made goods.

With just one main street, boasting a Post Office, shops and restaurants, this is authentically small town America, full of folk who love to hear an Irish accent and who were as keen to hear about our home town as we were about theirs.

What had drawn us to Cottonwood Falls was the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert, which takes place in the middle of prairie land. Such is the lure of this annual event, all five thousand tickets sold within an hour of being released. An extra thousand volunteer workers and a thousand patrons helped to swell the numbers who had gathered to listen as the guest singer, Lyle Lovett, and the Kansas City Symphony orchestra performed beautiful melodies that floated into the air, ensuring that concert-goers remained enchanted as cowboys herded cattle in the surrounding prairie land, while the sun went down over the hills. There were wagon rides to enjoy, educational talks, traditional food and, of course, all the majestic abundance of nature to experience. Our road trip had begun after we flew into Kansas City airport, Missouri, on a Continental flight from Belfast via Newark, and picked up our Alamo hire car, immediately setting off for two nights in the Marriott Springhill, and a full day in Lawrence, 41 miles west of Kansas City. This cosmopolitan university town is filled with arty shops, busy bars and the popular Free State Brewing Company, and the Downtown area buzzes with a youthful, friendly vibe and a lively music scene.

It’s the modern face of the Midwest, a liberal tribute to its roots as an anti-slavery centre in the mid-19th century. After sampling four of the locally-brewed Free State beers, we walked to Local Burger, for a grass-fed buffalo burger and couldn’t believe how at home we felt in Kansas, despite only having been in the state for less than 24-hours. It has that effect on folks.

After saying goodbye to Lawrence, Grandview and Cottonwood Falls, we set the Sat Nav to Wichita, with, first, a detour north, past the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, to the well-preserved Old West town of Council Grove - an original stopping off point on the Santa Fe trail, which took settlers southwest to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

Here, we unhitched our wagon (a Chevvy HHR, much less romantic than the covered wagons of old) and enjoyed lunch in the Hays House restaurant, which was built in 1857 by the town’s first settler. With our appetite sated, but our interest piqued, we set off to find some of the town’s 20-something historical sights, including the historic Last Chance Store, originally the last place to buy supplies between Kansas and Santa Fe, and the Custer Elm, the tree that, legend has it, General Custer once camped under.

Back in the car, we drove towards Wichita, the largest city in the state and the ‘air capital of the world’, thanks to its aircraft-making industry. Despite its nickname of Cowtown, locals like to boast that you can do everything in cultural Wichita that you can do in New York City, except take a boat ride. There’s musical theatre, opera, art galleries, a film festival, concert venues and quirky shops. Our destination in the city was Old Town, a collection of architecturally-preserved and renovated brick warehouses, some dating from 1870, that now house restaurants, shops, clubs, theatres and micro-breweries.

The perfect blend of old and new, our hotel, the Hotel at Old Town, was formerly a warehouse for a chain of hardware stores, and now boasts original artefacts lining the walls and 1920s music playing in the lobby.

Across the square from the hotel was the fascinating Museum of World Treasures. No ordinary museum, this is a non-profit organisation, privately-owned and filled with a variety of exhibits including the skeleton of a T-Rex dinosaur, two Egyptian mummies, a portion of the Berlin Wall, a section devoted to military history, including a replica of a World War One trench, and a Hollywood stars exhibit with clothes worn by John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. We also visited the conic 44-foot tall Keeper of the Plains statue, which pays tribute to the Native Americans who lived here long before the settlers arrived. And just blocks away is the Old Cowtown Museum, where you can relive the 1870s in the company of re-enactors.

The following day, as we drove over the state line from Kansas into Oklahoma, I couldn’t resist turning to my husband and uttering those famous words, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”


Continental airlines, www.continental.com

Alamo car hire, www.alamo.com

For details on the 2011 Symphony In The Flint Hills concert, visit www.symphonyintheflinthills.org

Kansas Flint Hills Adventures at Grandview Ranch, www.kansasflinthillsadventures.com

Marriott Springhill Suites, Lawrence, www.marriott.com

Cottonwood Falls Grand Central Hotel, www.grandcentralhotel.com. Built in 1884 and renovated in 1995, there are ten large guestrooms

Hotel at Old Town, Wichita, www.hotelatoldtown.com

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