Driving through Kansas: Pioneer Bluffs, Cottonwood Falls, and The Tallgrass Prairie

Posted on
Oct 4, 2011

Note: Since my posts are generally too wordy, I decided to see what happened when I made something a little too photo-y. Enjoy.

One hot summer’s day, seemingly a lifetime ago, when I was in Kansas, we drove and drove.

We drove through a part of the country most people only fly over. We drove until there was nothing but sky and grass. It didn’t take us long.

Occasionally we’d encounter a spare tire by the side of the road. Or a bit of barbed wire, separating I don’t know what from I don’t know what else.

It was quieter than any place I’ve been in my life. No hum of the freeway. No honking of horns. No distance sound of the waves crashing on the beach, of family members having the same argument they’ve had for decades. Not even a screeching crow, or the rapid beating of an insect’s wings. Nothing. I kind of liked it.

We were heading to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. There’s not much between there and Wichita. Just lots of road stretching out into nowhere, and the sort of landscape that I’ve always envisioned when I thought of Kansas. It didn’t disappoint.

We stopped at the Pioneer Bluffs – a ranch house that’s now home to a community center and non-profit organization. It was a scorching hot day, and we were the only visitors.

The inside of the farmhouse was comparably cooler, and impervious to the passage of time.

On that afternoon, I learned that children do not suffer from heat, and that tractors are not merely ornamental. For this childless city girl, it was a revelation.

From there, we headed to the town of Cottonwood Falls. It was 102 degrees out, and there was not another soul to be found on the streets. In the event that you do not believe me, here’s proof:

Missing: everyone but us.

We had lunch there, at the Emma Chase Cafe. The food was good, but not great. The fried chicken was a little dry, the beans a little overdone, the mashed potatoes dished out with an ice cream scoop. But the service was polite and the proprietress was a patient yet formidable woman who you wouldn’t want to mess with.

Though there were more options on the dessert menu that the actual menu, it was actually too hot for me to have much of an appetite. I know. I, too, was alarmed.

Raisin pie. Color me intrigued.

Cottonwood Falls a beautiful place, even when the heat has driven everyone from the streets. The population hovers at just below 1,000, and with an attitude like mine, I’d be sure to alienate most of them within a day. I’m not cut out for small towns. I like to visit them, and then I like to go home. We left, and continued our journey towards the Tallgrass Prairie, stopping at a cemetery along the way.

I’ll spare you the jokes about it being dead quiet.

Some of the tombstones were teeny tiny.

We got back into the car, and after the wandering around the tombstones in the unrelenting heat, I was dizzy. By the time we arrived at the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, we had pretty much had it.

Amen, little brother.

Some of us (ahem) weren’t even awake to see the tall grass in the distance, for which we’d driven all that way.

The Tallgrass Prairie once covered more than 140 million acres of North America, but today less than 4% remains. Most of what’s left is under protection of the National Park Service. The visitors center is not yet constructed, and renovations are under way for some of the other buildings in the park. I’m sure it’s lovely to see on a cooler day, but we just didn’t have it in us. So we turned and headed back. I suspect we missed more of this:

On the plus side, now I have an excuse to go back to Kansas.

I’m sad we didn’t get to explore more, but … did I mention it was 102 degrees? Besides, though I may have missed the Tallgrass Prairie that day, I got to see Kansas. Considering how many people merely fly over the state, that, I suppose, was enough.


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