When I first told my friends I was going to Kansas, most of them said: “Why would you ever go there?” and to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of an answer. The simple answer was to shoot some motorcycles, but that didn’t explain taking five additional days to drive around central Kansas looking for pictures and stories. The more complete answer was because I didn’t know what I would find. I like being in new places, ones where I don’t know what’s around the corner. And I didn’t know a thing about Kansas.
I went to Kansas without much of a clue. Well, not exactly. I had done some reading and looked at maps to plan my trip but without a clue for the feel of the land, the warmth of the people, and the differentness of it all from the myths of Kansas in my mind. For a week, I spent my days in the small towns of central Kansas, places like Wilson and Dover, and I drove the two-lane roads between them, making pictures all the while. I learned things, and if you’re patient, I will share them with you, showing you pictures and telling you stories about them as we go. Come along with me, and let’s talk about Kansas.
It started out when I chased down a guy who owned five Vincent motorcycles. In case you don’t know about Vincent’s, in the fifties, they were the fastest bikes in the world and for my money, among the most beautiful motorcycles ever made. They are also extremely rare. Hearing there was someone who had five Vincent’s; I had to find out who they were and see if I could photograph them. Who I found was Dale Keesecker, a farmer who lived outside the tiny town of Washington, Kansas, and when I’d made his acquaintance, he invited me to come and photograph his collection of bikes, about sixty in all, each one more perfect than the next. I started making plans to go.
The first person I called was Bob Harvey, my longtime friend and often travel companion. Bob loves to drive and has the patience of Job. He sits there endlessly every time I say “pull over; I have to make a picture of that field” or whatever has caught my attention. When I told Bob that I wanted to spend a week exploring rural Kansas, he jumped right in. Knowing I could concentrate on pictures, I started looking for places where I might find them.
Here’s the thing, what’s the last time you saw pictures of Kansas? Been a while, right? And that’s a shame because rural Kansas is unique and beautiful. It holds the still living heritage of hundred and fifty-year-old small towns and the stamp that farmers put on the land long ago. But I didn’t know that yet; I just knew it wasn’t going to be LA.
Our first destination was a vintage motorcycle show, but to get there, we first had to find our way to a ghost town called Volland. What remains of Volland is about eight miles down Old K10 Road from a town called Alma. But because Volland is gone, there are no official road markings. When Dale first told me about the show, he said to be sure and bring a map because depending on a GPS could get you into trouble. If you Google the directions from Alma to the Volland Store, you can see it’s a long way down a skinny little two-lane road. You keep on going, further than it seems you should until you come to an unmarked turnoff onto a dirt road. Then, you take that, go a little bit further and finally you come to what used to be Volland, a long time ago. Of the town, only a handful of buildings remain, and most are shuttered, but one, The Volland Store has been lovingly restored and turned into an art gallery.
So, following the directions, we had found our way to an art gallery eight miles from the nearest town and a hundred miles from a sizeable city, but still, people had shown up, and there was a party going on. Hmm, things might be different here. We wandered around, basking in the warmth of a fine Sunday afternoon, and we wondered about this place we had found ourselves.
There were beautiful bikes to be seen everywhere, and you could hear great blues playing under the trees. Feeling hungry? Kansas BBQ was waiting for you at Smokin’ Willes BBQ Truck. If you didn’t look past the immediate, you might imagine you were at an art event in the middle of a city. But no, this was all happening smack dab in the middle of the farms and fields of Kansas, a place lots of people call “The middle of nowhere,” but some people here have started calling “The middle of everywhere.” Hmm, that’s worth thinking about.
A hundred yards further down the old dirt road was a railroad crossing and tracks that stretched away for miles. In the distance, I could hear the sounds of a diesel locomotive. Intrigued, I wandered closer. In the city, train lines are guarded well by fences and grades, but here there is only the crossing gate and then the tracks, unwatched as far as the eye can see. The little boy in me woke up with a grin. It was my chance to stand close to a locomotive as it thundered by, to feel the ground shake, and watch the tracks bend under the weight of the wheels. Yes!
I stood in the middle of the tracks as the train approached, making pictures till the engineer sounded a long warning blast on the horn. Then stepping off to the side, I let the train rumble by just a foot or two away, so close the rushing air pulled at my clothes, lured me closer with the smell of Diesel and hot metal. She hurtled on, shaking the ground, a cacophony of motor sounds and thumps and squealing wheels, all sounding in a thunderous voice, all going on forever until it was over, then fading away, a tiny dot disappearing down the track headed east.
I was done. Whatever else happened on this trip would be a bonus. I had stood with a mighty thing and shared communion. Welcome to Kansas.
The next installment will be here soon, stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you want to see more pictures of Kansas here’s a link to all the towns and roads and people I shot on the trip — Kansas, Roads Less Traveled, Towns Passed By