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You Know You’re in Kansas When…..


There’s no place like home.

Trying to limit Kansas to 101 quintessential things is like trying to transport the entire Brady Bunch in a Volkswagen Beetle. Can’t be done. You could blindfold me, tie my hands behind my back and make me dance while I’m doing it and I could still come up with 101 historical events, 101 places, 101 customs and certainly 101 interesting dishes. How many states makes wheat nubs, for instance?

But my illustrious editors at Globe Pequot, who have to worry about such petty details as the cost of paper and ink, were forced to rein me in, to insist I do my level best to whittle down the list of Kansas fascinations to a mere 101 And I tried, I really did.

I had to cut out, “You know you’re in Kansas when people wear bib overalls to funerals and weddings.”  And I had to leave out major details about the dozens of grassroots artists who make Kansas such a remarkable place. I didn’t mention Herman Divers, the retired hospital handyman who made a full-size Harley-Davidson out of 179,200 pop can pull tabs, even once. Wouldn’t have been fair to Steve Gray who made one of of 10,000 bones or Inez Marshall who carved one out of of a giant slab of post rock limestone. And the tourist attractions I had to omit…well, the Kansas Travel & Tourism Department will probably demand my head.

In short, I can only apologize to everyone who didn’t get mentioned. Greg, Marcia and Alice, I’m sorry I couldn’t squeeze you into the VW Bug. If it makes you feel any better, I did think about you. Obsess might be a better word. I lost sleep over which 101 quintessential “things” to include.

Not to rationalize, but limits have always posed a problem for me. In sixth-grade art class, when all the other kids did stencils with one color of paint, I opted for a whole kitchen scene with a potbelly stove, a Christmas tree, presents and eight different colors of paint. I figure a holiday scene deserved nothing less.

And neither does the state of Kansas. It’s by far one of the most interesting of the 50, yet it has never, like Rodney Dangerfield, gotten the respect it deserves. If people had any idea, they’d be flocking here in droves. We might even have to pave some of our roads to our tourist attractions.

I tried tracking down the source of the ugly rumors, the ones that insinuate Kansas is drab, flat and boring. But like the person who outed Valerie Plame,  the CIA spy, I fear getting to the bottom may well be beyond my reach.

I do believe I’ve narrowed it down to two, maybe three suspects.

The first, out of state motorists on Interstate 70, can’t really be blamed. They’re just trying to get to grandma’s house in time for her 86th birthday. Or out to the ski slopes before the snow melts. It’s a shame they can’t see beyond those green-and-white interstate signs announcing the vast miles to St. Louis or Denver, but that’s just human nature.

Our boys in Topeka, now they didn’t start the rumors, either. They’ve seen the sunsets, tasted the rain, experienced the spring watercolors wash over the Flint Hills. They know good and well how glorious our state is. They just don’t see the point in hitting other people over the head with it. I mean, nobody knew who Kelly Clarkson was, either.

Which brings up the last suspect for the genesis of the rumors: the mass media. Specifically, Life magazine. On September 21, 1959, the iconic magazine published an article contrasting the values of middle-class Americans  living in Hutchinson, Kansas and bohemians known as “beatniks” from Venice, California. The article, titled “Squaresville U.S.A. vs. Beatsville”  showed the clean cut citizens of Hutchinson gazing at family photo albums, visiting grain elevators and swimming in the local pool. Sure, we do all those things in Kansas, but so do people in California, Florida and New York.  Followup letters to the editor had the nerve to suggest Kansas was “enervatingly dull” and “inherently mediocre.” My hunch is they’ve never been here.

I guess the Life articles proves two things. One, the media is extremely powerful.  And two, they don’t always get things right.

In the case of Kansas, Life couldn’t have been more wrong. Kansas, to those of us who’ve taken the time to look, is stunning. Its landscape, its skies, its rich history could never pass for either dull or mediocre. Except to an idiot who jumps to conclusions.

For awhile, I was one of those idiots. I couldn’t wait to get out of “Squaresville, U.S.A,” to see parts of the world the big  travel magazines touted. I lived in a ski town, joined a commune, met people from all over the planet. Like I said, limits are not my thing.

But what I came to realize, what finally drew me back, is something a famous Kansan once said:  There’s no place–and I do mean NO place–like Kansas.”

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