October 12, 2006

Across the Great Plains

There is no more boring a drive in the world than cruising for hundreds of miles on an Interstate freeway in the Midwest. These roads are bad enough in the West where there’s at least topography off in the distance. But a Midwestern Interstate is nothing but a chore.

Illinois Cornfield 1.jpg

Midwestern back roads can be pleasant and even charming in a Norman Rockwell sort of way. I did get off the freeway in Illinois for a few minutes just to get a little variety.

Illinois Grassfield.jpg

But I wanted to get from Chicago to the Rockies in a reasonable amount of time. So for the most part I hurtled down Illinois and across Missouri just slightly faster than safety and the law would allow, yearning to drive through small town Middle America, hang out with ma and pa at the diners, and photograph the Fall colors.

Missouri Interstate.jpg

The only time I got out of the car in Illinois was at a random Starbucks with wi-fi in a small town that I can’t remember the name of. The only time I got out of the car in Missouri was just outside Columbia where I slept at a trucker motel at one of the junky corporate asteroid belts around an off ramp.

I have no doubt Missouri has something to offer. Every state does. There has to be a cool blues bar in St. Louis that would have kept me better entertained than the cookie cutter Denny’s where I had breakfast at sunrise.

Missouri Offramp Sunrise.jpg

The St. Louis arch, at least, would be worth looking at for a minute. But I didn’t have time for any of that. Pavement, trees, cornfields, traffic and suburban/Interstate smarm was all I had time for in Missouri.

By the time I reached Kansas I was getting a little bit twitchy.

Kansas City from Interstate.jpg

Kansas is a l-o-n-g state.

Kansas Interstate.jpg

Even once I reached Colorado I would still be out in the flatlands for one-third of the way to Utah. So I took the Parkway to Emporia and got the hell off and onto the back roads.

Emporia isn’t exciting. But at least it’s actually Kansas.

Emporia Kansas.jpg

An Interstate freeway is nowhere in particular. There’s no there there, as the old saying goes.

The thing about Kansas is that it’s actually a little bit interesting once you can see it. It’s tranquil, somewhat endearing in places, and at least seemingly innocent. Dorothy’s lament that “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” has a certain resonance and heft to it when you’re actually in the safe and secure environment the girl longed for when she found herself all of a sudden in Oz.

Kansas Creek.jpg

Kansas Field and Shed.jpg

Barbed Wire Kansas.jpg

Green Hill Kansas.jpg

But there’s a dark side to Kansas, as well. The state is (just) barely growing in population. But rural Kansas is hemorrhaging people.

You can see it from the road. I found a ghost house so old it’s a ruin.

Kansas Ruins.jpg

And right next to it, perhaps fifty feet to the right, was a ghost house from a more recent era.

Kansas Ghost House.jpg

Down the road from the ghost homes is an old stone bridge on a ghost road that no longer exists. It ends in somebody’s field.

Stone Bridge Kansas.jpg

Some of the people who live in ghost towns to-be feel the ominous dread of looming collapse and depopulation. So they will give you free land. That’s right. It’s free land homesteading all over again. All you have to do is build a house on the land. If you like living in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind harsh weather and a lack of topography, and you’re looking for the cheapest deal in the country, Kansas just might be your place. Go to Kansasfreeland.com and take a look.

I pulled the car off the highway and drove into downtown Peabody when I saw a sign that pointed to a 19th century Main Street. I found it after driving past some lovely Victorian homes, some of which look perfectly homey, others which look like they’re starting the death spiral already. The rot in the house below is further along that it appears in the photo.

Victorian Kansas.jpg

Downtown could have been nice. It did have the Main Street layout, which is infinitely preferable to Taco Bells and Wal-Marts surrounded by parking lagoons.

Peabody Kansas.jpg

But vibrant is not how I would describe it. Even in the middle of October, it was, weirdly, 95 degrees and humid outside. Hot cloying air blew in from the south. Empty old buildings, stripped of their former grandeur, leaned and moaned in the wind.

Boarded Windows Kansas.jpg

The only resident I saw on the streets was an old man well into his seventies. He did a double-take when he saw me pull up alongside him with my sports car and sunglasses. Obviously I was not from around there. But it wasn’t just that. It seemed (and I’m sure I exagerrated this in my mind) that he was shocked to see another living human being in an outdoor museum piece.

Sure enough, Peabody is one of those towns that will give you or anyone else some free land. They desperately need people. Here is the application for a free lot. If you’re 25 and want to have kids you’re most likely a shoo-in.

They say the three most important considerations when purchasing real estate are location, location, and location. The middle of Kansas sucks at all three. There is nothing wrong with the land. It’s quite pretty in many places, and in the eastern half of the state it is perfect for growing crops.

It’s just too far away from everything else.

I didn’t see any part of Kansas that was completely abandoned. It’s not like the Nevada desert where no one lives for swaths of acreage larger than Belgium. There were always some people around pretty much everywhere. It’s just that the density is so painfully low. Distances between places are enormous, and it’s lonely wherever go you.

The roads are so long and lonely I got to thinking some rather strange thoughts. Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the stateless Palestinians have one of them. Let the Kurds from eastern Turkey move into another one if they want. How about letting poor Mexican laborers in on the homesteading action? Let them come and build their own farms in the state if they want to.

None of these things will ever happen, of course, and I’m not actually serious. (Except, perhaps, for the Mexican homesteading. Why the heck not? It’s a lot less crazy than moving Gaza to Middle America. And Mexicans keep coming here anyway.) I just kept thinking: krikey! There’s a lot of good land out in Kansas that is not being used. And there is nothing physically wrong with it. If Kansas can’t give it away for free to other Americans, surely there is someone in the world who would want it.

Geographically speaking, the Midwest ends (or begins) at the Rockies. Culturally, that isn’t the case. Culturally, the West begins (or ends) at the tree line.

The Rocky Mountains cast a rain shadow hundreds of miles into the Great Plains, deep into Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Trees will not grow by themselves. Instead of National Forests, there are National Grasslands. The region is a semi-arid sort-of desert, eerily flat to the horizon like you’re adrift on an ocean of land. Only occasionally will you find the barest suggestion of hills.

This part of the country is not good for farming. You can’t just plant crops. You have to irrigate. Water is scarce and expensive. So it makes more sense to ranch than to farm. The John Deere culture of the rural Midwest gives way to the cowboy culture of cattle.

Ranch Kansas.jpg

Diners give way to saloons. Fall colors in October give way to cacti struggling in the grass.

Cactus Kansas.jpg

There is oil in the transition zone. Not a lot of it, but some, certainly more than you’ll find around the Great Lakes.

Oil Well Kansas.jpg

You know what you can “farm” in the great plains, though, without water? You can “farm” wind. The biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen is in Kansas. Kansas, for a brief stetch of road, looked futuristic.

Wind Farm Kansas.jpg

Wind Farm Kansas 2.jpg

It’s weird and eerily beautiful when the trees vanish and you can see horizon to horizon in every direction without any obstruction. You can watch the sun go down over land. It doesn’t set behind mountains or hills. It sets behind utterly flat ground miles and miles away.

Kansas Sunset 1.jpg

Kansas Sunset 2.jpg

Kansas Sunset 3.jpg

My camera works in the dark, so I kept taking pictures after the light went out in the sky.

It’s easy to snap pictures at dusk.

Oil Well Kansas Night.jpg

My headlights are good enough, too.

Highway Kansas Night.jpg

Other places in the back-of-beyond are lit up at night.

Kansas Hotel Dark.jpg

Farm Kansas Night.jpg

Other parts of Kansas are lit only by starlight. Starlight is still, just barely, enough for my camera. Below is what the Great Plains look like at midnight.

Field Kansas Night.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 12, 2006 04:04 PM


Wow, what a gfine post about the wastelands of Kansas.

I've driven from California to Nova Scotia and back and I have to say I greatly enjoyed the drive through Saskatchewan and Kansas and the emptiness of each. Not ready to homestead in either place, though...

Posted by: Robert Gable at October 12, 2006 06:41 PM

Things get a bit more picturesque in Missouri as you head south toward the Ozarks where I was born long ago. Still you can't see a whole lot. Too many damn trees in the way. Not leaving my San Diego weather any time soon despite free land offers in lovely Kansas. Will never forget one trip through there in a 20 degree snowstorm, wind at 30 plus. Ugh. Pretty sure the first group in from Guadalajara experiencing one of those would learn their first complete English sentence real quickly..."we're outta here!!"

Posted by: allan at October 12, 2006 07:14 PM

"The roads are so long and lonely I got to thinking some rather strange thoughts. Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the Let the other one if they want. How about letting poor Mexican laborers in on the homesteading action? Let them come and build their own farms in the state if they want to."

I drove across the country with my daughter from Cape Cod to San Francisco a few years ago, and we took route 80 all the way. I had exactly the same thoughts. Why can't we build a few lakes and some interesting hills and small forests with our tremendous technology? All I could think was that poverty is political. There's no other excuse for it. Personally, I'd like to pick up Israel with a huge spatula and move her over here where we could protect her. We could still help the Middle East work out their own political structures toward peace, but we wouldn't be as worried as we are now that they would annihilate poor Israel in their anger at us.

Beautiful pictures! Thank you for putting them on the Web site.

Posted by: mjnugent at October 12, 2006 10:45 PM

Out of curiosity, why'd you head south to 70 when you then had tom come back north? Why not just head across 80 until the 84 cutoff which takes you up to Portland?

Idle curiosity only, but. . . seems odd that you'd say you were in something of a hurry and then would add hundreds of miles to your trip like that.

Avoiding Nebraska?

Posted by: JC at October 13, 2006 03:11 AM

At first I was kind of scratching my head about your travel report. What does a Middle East Journal have to do with a rushed road trip across the continent? But later it dawned on me that you are doing foreign readers a great service by reporting on your home country, too. It helps them learn a bit more about America from an American's perspective. Not your average American, but one who has lived abroad and, might I suggest, sees his country with different eyes because of that experience and maybe can report to those kinds of readers in a way that will reach them.

Too bad you didn't have a bit more time to stop and smell the, er, corn.

Posted by: Karl B. at October 13, 2006 05:41 AM

There’s a lot of good land out in Kansas that is not being used.

I believe the Amish and Mennonites are moving in. They are adapted to rural living and can use cheap land. But it isn't just Kansas where the countryside is being abandoned, large swaths of Pennsylvania and Missouri are also available, and no doubt the same is true of many other states. New Mexico, for instance, lost its rural population over fifty years ago. Folks told me that centralization of schools played a role in the latter. Anyway, lots of countryside in this land of ours.

BTW, my mom grew up in those empty parts of Kansas down near the Oklahoma border. And the old house, new house, falling down house, all next door to one another can be seen all over in the area.

Posted by: chuck at October 13, 2006 06:30 AM

I lived in Kansas in the mid-1960s and early 70s (1965-1973). When I lived in Topeka, the capital, the population was 140,000. Now it's 122,000. Not much recommended it then and that hasn't changed much. The only interesting thing in Kansas is the weather, which is often quite violent (and marvelous, assuming you aren't a victim of it). During the tornado season, it was impossible to watch TV shows because nearly every night, the weather channels would break in annoucing sightings sometimes several times an hour. Summer weather was miserable; humid like being under water; violent thunderstorms. Winter was brutal.

When I lived in Topeka, the roads in the rich areas of town were paved each year. The road in the black areas, even though the houses were often rather grand, were dirt (literally).

Lawrence KS (where I went to school: KU) had one of two Indian colleges in the country. But, by law, Indians were not allowed to buy alcohol.

I left in 1973 and never looked back.

Posted by: seymourpaine at October 13, 2006 06:40 AM

What does a Middle East Journal have to do with a rushed road trip across the continent?

Nothing. But I drove across the continent, took hundreds of pictures, and am writing about it because I can and want to. That's all.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2006 07:19 AM

Oh, and I headed Southwest to Santa Barbara to see a friend of mine and give him a ride back to Portland.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2006 07:20 AM

Man the most valuable thing in America and probably the world is isolation. 300M Ameicans and growing as fast as the worlds immigrants can get here.

I live in Houston, the greater area is 4m plus and within the county you cannot go anywhere without being joined by thousands of your fellow citizens. Sometimes that is too much.

So MJT when are getting back to the Middle East, Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran or someplace intresting. The US has to be the most homogonized boring country in the world, your readers need some adventure. No peaceful places like Israel either.

Posted by: John Beard at October 13, 2006 07:25 AM


I'm a Missouri-Kansas native, having grown up in Kansas City, Missouri, and moved to Overland Park, KS in 1993 after finishing school at KU. The slow population growth you speak of is almost entirely due to the booming population of Johnson County, just over the border from Missouri, which is still one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Sprint, Garmin (the GPS guys), and several other major industries all have their headquarters there.

Personally, I love going home to visit, the area will always be home to me. But, the rural decay you speak of has been observed by other travel writers, such as Robert Kaplan, who didn't just write about the rural flight in Kansas, but in Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska as well. Everyone is right in that western Kansas is probably one of the most boring drives in the world, but no more boring than driving through the wastes of southern Iraq and eastern Jordan, where I have been. And I have to admit, I take a little umbrage at someone calling Kansas "the wastelands". As boring as it was, I found many parts of Kansas beautiful and comforting, and the sunsets were spectacular in the summertime. That said, the sight of seeing the Rockies rising suddenly out of the Plains is something that still never fails to leave me in awe.

Great writing, Michael. I read your stuff with much interest, because you and I have been to some of the same stomping grounds. I speak Arabic, and have been throughout the Middle East, to include Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Oman. And yes, I'm extremely jealous that you've been to Lebanon and I haven't! At any rate, your material is a must read for those looking for a balanced viewpoint about the region. Keep it up, and glad you made it to Portland safe and sound.


Posted by: Chad at October 13, 2006 07:57 AM

The Midwest may be awful during the winter, but there's nothing nicer than a drive past the cornfields in the late summer; in the evening stopping by a diner for ice cream or some damn fine pie.

Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the stateless Palestinians have one of them. Let the Kurds from eastern Turkey move into another one if they want.

The badlands of South Dakota seem to be a lot like Afghanistan, and they need people to move in. I had often thought that it would be a good idea to set up an underground railroad to smuggle women out of sharia-run areas and let them settle in the US. If something like that was set up I wonder how many women would take advantage of it?

Posted by: mary at October 13, 2006 10:13 AM

And I'm glad you posted the pictures. BTW, I recall your saying that you have a new camera. The pictures are quite sharp. What kind is it and would you buy it again?

Posted by: Karl B. at October 13, 2006 12:13 PM

Camera is Nikon D-200. It is amazing. It takes clear pictures at night without a tripod, which I did not think was even possible.

Yes, I would buy it again. But it's expensive, so be sure you really want a serious camera before plunking down that kind of cash.

I have made a small amount of money (less than 2,000 dollars) selling my photos. And I figure I can make more with a better camera. At least enough to pay for the camera. Otherwise I would not have spent this much money.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 13, 2006 12:16 PM

first time commenting. I grew up in Kansas (Topeka, Kansas City for college) and now living in Portland I dont miss the heat or the cold. I do miss the weather and the dramatic changing of the seasons though. Would I move back? HECK NO!!! but I have driven from Portland to Kansas several times and enjoy it every time. Great pictures btw.

Posted by: sean at October 13, 2006 03:53 PM

What you saw is the result of the highway beautification program begun by Lyndoon Johnson. The program made new billboards illegal within 1 mile of the interstate and forbid repairing old ones. Some states went further and simply removed all billboards.

All that is left is soul-numbing beauty. The mom-and-pop diners, gas stations, motels, honky-tonks, caves, upsidedown houses, rattlesnake farms and Buffalo shops have all disappeared because they could not survive without roadside advertising. They were replaced by national cookie-cutter gas chains, restaurant chains, and motel chains all looking the same as every other unit no matter if you are in New York or New Mexico.

The small towns whithered and died because their local businesses depended on road side advertising. When business dies, the town dies.
But the road is sure beautiful now that there aren't no people to clutter ir up.

Good deeds always have some nasty side effects which is why government should never be in the good deed business. Private citizens can correct a good deed gone bad, but government never can.
Witness the Palestinians in Gaza and Mexican immigrants, both victims of good deeds.

Posted by: sol vason at October 13, 2006 09:23 PM

I have a somewhat different perspective. I went to high school and college in Lawrence, Kansas, (62-71) and enjoyed it a lot (but sure don't want to live there now). Lawrence is growing rapidly, as are many Kansas towns, just as others are dying or dead. This is not new - there were towns near Lawrence on old maps of which we could find no trace at all, and abandoned graveyards now in the forests.

Every year my daughter and I spend a couple of weeks
storm chasing
in tornado alley , and frequently go in or through Kansas. Because we are targeting storms, not big cities, we end up driving far from the freeways - usually on the many US highways criss-crossing the whole midwest.

We see lots of dying towns and some vibrant towns. It is not clear to me why some go one way and some another. It is certainly not boring when traveled this way.

Kansas is a surprisingly diverse state:forests in NE KS; gypsum caves in S Central, Kansas; the Flint HIlls in the east, while flat as a pancake in the center and southwest; Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands in the middle; high tech Lawrence-Kansas City, and in Wichita, and farming everywhere.

On the other hand, when I was younger we used to drive frequently from Albuquerque to Iowa, and Kansas seemed like the most boring place on earth.

It just depends on how you experience it.

Posted by: John Moore at October 13, 2006 11:21 PM

My sister's geography professor told her that it is easy to love the mountains, but it takes real connoisseur to love the plains.

Trust me there are many who don't want to see lakes and hills break up the giant sky and the endless horizon. Driving through the midwest (which I have done dozens of times) is like being adrift in an ocean.

Posted by: Esther at October 14, 2006 06:34 AM


Posted by: Fabian at October 14, 2006 03:57 PM

Michael, thanks for this. Very beautiful and very interesting.

Posted by: Maggie45 at October 14, 2006 06:03 PM

I can't believe of all the places in Kansas you went to, you went to Peabody! One of the few places there I've been, my family is from there. I found your canton comment to be interesting because that's essentially the story of my family. When the German Mennonites that lived in what is now the Ukrainian Crimea (then the Russian Empire) came on hard political times, nearly the entire community got up and left for - you guessed it, Kanasas (and a few other states). That entire area you passed through near Peabody used was - and still is to some extent - German Mennonite country. In fact, there's a plaque in downtown Peabody at a park commemorating them for bringing their winter-resistant wheat over and making it prosper...

Posted by: Rommel at October 15, 2006 06:43 AM

Michael: Check out the beauty (I'm not kidding) of Nebraska's Sand Hills or it's panhandle, or the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Posted by: John Ruberry at October 15, 2006 01:05 PM

Nice to read of your trip though Kansas. I live in Lawrence, which is the university town in the northwest corner of the state near Kansas City. The city's politics and culture are closer San Francisco then to Topeka, even though the later (the state capital) is only 20 miles away.

There is a savage beauty to the flat desolate parts of our state, though, which I think you saw. I don't know who said it, but a famous quote comes to mind...the moutains and the ocean, they shout to you, anyone can hear their beauty, but the plains, they whisper, and you must be quiet in order to hear them.

Posted by: Mike Silverman at October 15, 2006 06:59 PM

Why don't you keep your sorry ass on the East and Left coasts if the best you can muster is -well, the Midwest is sorta interesting, in a barren sort of way and I s'pose it would be better if there were some people here (sigh), but anyway soon I'll be out of here and that's good....

Posted by: Kevin at October 16, 2006 08:51 AM

I'm a Missouri-Kansas native, having grown up in Kansas City, Missouri,

...maybe you can answer a question I've been wondering about for a couple of years now...

Why is it called Kansas City when it's 1) in Missouri, and 2) the name has already been taken by a city in Kansas?

Posted by: rosignol at October 18, 2006 04:06 AM

Yeah, Michael, why don't we move in a bunch of people who hate Western culture and crave its destruction and the enslavement of its citizens? And, why don't we spoil the few parts of the United States that are free of the taint of Mexico?

Posted by: L at October 18, 2006 09:04 PM

I am way late in this post to add anything too terribly meaningful, but I was born and raised in a small town in Kansas, Liberal (which it is not). It is in the southwest corner of the state, 10 miles from the Oklahoma Panhandle and 65 miles north of the Texas line. I still have significant family there and go back often. The nearest airport city is Amarillo, TX. I hated growing up there. It was dusty, barren, wind driven and generally a hardscrabble life. I recall walking to school often having to lean into the driving wind in order not be tossed over. Many was the time that my mother put damp towels around the doors and windows to keep the dust out in storms. You literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face and it was dark at noon with the swirling dust (I grew up in the 60's). My family (and my husband's, whom I met in the 6th grade in Liberal) were farmers in the Panhandle and while they had a lot of land (1,500 acres) it was a tough living. They call it "dry land" farming. As someone alluded to earlier, irrigation is the only route you can go and it is quite expensive in an indistry where there is already little margin built in.

As is typical these days, when my grandparents died, none of the children wanted the land so it was sold to a conglomerate of some type, which made me a little sad.

When I go back now and drive the agonizing trip through the Texas and OK Panhandles to Liberal, I see a kind of stark beauty. The sunsets are unfettered with extraneous things such as topography or trees, and there is a ruggedness that makes me think that this is exactly how the land looked for centuries. I am cool with that!

One last final note on this verbose post:


Posted by: Kathy from Austin at October 21, 2006 01:00 PM


Perview is my fren.....

Posted by: Kathy from Austin at October 21, 2006 01:05 PM

very well done with the photo shots the house and nature backgrounds

Posted by: Olivia 15 at July 1, 2007 10:07 PM

very well done with the photo shots the house and nature backgrounds

Posted by: Olivia 15 at July 1, 2007 10:08 PM
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