In the early morning light, Wilson is mythic. Limestone buildings, coal sheds, and the railroad tracks cutting through the town all connections to an earlier time.
We spent the night at the Midland Railroad Hotel, a beautifully restored place just a few yards from the tracks. A hundred years ago, a walk had led from the tracks right up to the hotel, and for travelers tired from hours of riding across the prairie, the hotel must have been a welcome sight. For us too. We had spent the day driving towards Wilson, knowing that the Midland would be our destination and knowing one other thing; that we had to eat before we got there. For all the beauty of the hotel, I knew its restaurant would not be operating that evening, and when I asked where we could eat in town, the desk clerk had replied, “Nowhere.” “So, what do people usually do?” “They usually eat before they get here.” Good to know. We had eaten in Ellsworth, about twenty miles away before arriving.
Early the next morning, I walked down the broad staircase that leads from the rooms to the lobby, the old wood steps creaking softly under my feet. The sounds reminded me of other places where people have walked for a long while. The bending timbers connecting me to old buildings that have kept their purpose and endured long enough to absorb some history. It made me happy to be here.
So this is what the middle looks like. From here to the geographic center of the continental US is only about an hour’s drive.
It’s the heart of flyover country, a place most of us don’t know, and many of us don’t want to learn about. Its people are older, whiter, and more conservative than the American median, even though a hundred years ago, this area was a flaming hotbed of American socialism. I’m not certain how that change came to pass, but I’ll tell you one thing, these people are our people too. As the American pendulum swings back towards youth and the ideals of the left, they are going to feel ever more misunderstood by “us.” as we will by them. Meeting them on their home ground was good for me, and I think it was good for them too. It’s always good to know your neighbors.
Back on the road, we came to Kannapolis and the Fort Harker Museum. Fort Harker was built to protect settlers, and the wagon trains headed west, a complicated story truth be told. Luckily we found the perfect person to tell us that story, Greg Heller, the interpretive guide at the guardhouse museum.
Greg doesn’t tell his stories, he lives them, enacts them as if he had been there for every twist and turn of the tale. I half believe he had been. We’d planned to spend fifteen minutes with him and stayed for an hour, drawn close by the strength of his conviction as an actor. I’ve seen a lot of actors in my life. Sitting on a camera dolly making movies, you get to do that. You get to watch someone embody someone else while sitting so close you can see … everything. This was a spellbinding performance, done for just the two of us sitting in a small room. It was close up magic of the best kind. Oh, and the admission was three bucks. Oh, and one more thing, before he moved here, Greg was a cop in Houston.
Before the interstates, there were smaller roads you took to travel across America. You drove one as far as it went, then another that was headed where you wanted to go, and so on until you got to where you were going. When the Kansas road system was being planned, the state decided there should be a road every mile going both north/south and east/west. As a result, Kansas has almost 130,000 miles of roads, of which 78,000 are dirt or gravel. Locals know this dense network and dive off the highways to bump along on the gravel, saving miles and experiencing the joys of driving in the world instead of next to it. We did too. The first time it happened, we were cautious. When the GPS said turn this way, we stopped and checked our paper maps concerned that it was confused. But no, the GPS knew there were miles to be saved by leaving the pavement, so we turned and headed off into the unknown. And leaving the paved roads behind us, we discovered the long gone charms of driving slow through fields and farms.
Kansas is best seen slow. Driving fast, it’s far too easy to think there is nothing to see. Driving at 35 MPH, the contours of the fields come into sharp relief. Driving on dirt, the shape of the land, the little ups and downs, the cambers affect your ride. You tip and tilt and sway a little as you move along, and the motions become part of your understanding, you get the contours of the land in a way that never happens when you are on paved highway.
Paved highways smooth out the land. They make high-speed travel possible but only by distancing you from the place you are traveling through. I wouldn’t want to live in a world with only dirt roads, but I’m happy to live in one where I can travel them when I want to feel where I am. More tomorrow.
Ready for more? 100 Pictures of Kansas Part 4
If you want to see all the pictures I made in Kansas here’s a link to the towns and roads and people I shot on the trip — Kansas; Roads Less Traveled, Towns Passed By