It takes a long time to drive diagonally across Kansas. Our starting point, upper east, was rolling prairie, river breaks, and even—according to my accompanying geologist—a couple of outcrops of genuine rock. By the time we got to the lower western part of the state, however, we could see clearly—for miles and miles and miles—why the first word that comes to mind when you say “Kansas” is “flat.”
Dodge City, that Wild West legend, was initially a bit of a disappointment. The famed Boot Hill is now paved over and occupied by a substantial city hall building. It was only used as a cemetery for six years after the town was first founded. Even in its active period—if “active” is a word one can apply to a cemetery—it only contained about 20 graves.
Even though its name evokes the Old West, Dodge City today looks startlingly industrial. The first and strongest impressions it makes, on the nose as well as the eyes, come from the huge feedlots and meat processing plants on the edges of town. Actually, though, the feedlots are probably more authentic representations of the town’s past than the replicated store buildings at its museum. After all, it gained its fame as a cow town. All those wild cowboys only went to Dodge because of the huge herds of cattle they were hired to drive there. In the town’s wild and wooly days (Why “wooly,” anyhow? We’re talking about cattle here, not sheep.), the loading pens packed with cattle, waiting their turn to be loaded onto the trains, probably looked and smelled a lot like the feedlots do today.
Then there is Liberal, Kansas—named, apparently, for the area’s first homesteader, Mr. S. S. Rogers. In a vast, dry prairie where creeks were few and far between and most people who had water charged travelers for it, Mr. Rogers shared his water for free and gained a reputation for liberality.
The main highway through Liberal has been renamed “Pancake Boulevard.” That’s pancake as is “flat as a,” apparently. For the past 50-some years, Liberal has engaged in a friendly rivalry with Olney, England, staging every spring what claim to be, and probably are, the world’s only international pancake races. Women in aprons, flipping flapjacks in skillets, run through town in observance of Shrove Tuesday.
Still, despite having driven across three-fourths of the state the long way, we can’t honestly say we have seen everything of significance in Kansas. We missed the landmark that could have been the highlight of our trip. We were a mere 40 or 50 miles away from Cawker City, and we drove on by, oblivious to our missed opportunity. This is what can happen when you travel without a proper map. We didn’t get to see the world’s largest ball of twine.