From the windswept prairie to gourmet street food, a swing through Kansas a.k.a. the Sunflower State, dispells the myth that Kansas is nothing more than wheat fields and the setting for all those old John Wayne movies where our hero beats the outlaws at their own game. A study in contrasts, the Flint Hills is part of the legendary prairie with a spiritual pulsation and a population of a few people per square mile while Wichita is a lively cultural hub with a youthful vibe where 600,000 call home. One of Wichita's passions is food and art while the Flint Hills has made an art out of ranching.
Home on the Range
At the Flying W, you can check in for a holiday of fishing, hiking, riding or join the cowboys for a hard day's work driving cattle. Either way, you get the bona fide ranch experience, especially with owners Josh and Gwen Hoy, who represent five generations of ranchers and ties to the inventor of the chuck wagon. There's no razzle dazzle here, rhinestone cowboys or staff running around in designer boots that was sometimes the case at other guest ranches I've visited in the past. This was the real deal. It's what recently drew a 70-year-old Irishman, searching for a place to herd longhorns, to fly here from the Emerald Isle, Josh said," to realize a life-long dream of his."
A cattle drive on the 7,000-acre spread would have to wait for another visit, I mused, when I had excess energy to burn, but for now, I opted for something less strenuous like a two-hour ride on a retired ranch horse. Josh and his rambunctious young daughter, Josie, led the group at a steady clip through meadows filled with wildflowers, stopping now and then to give us some ranch history like how he cares for his 1700 head of cattle.
Later that evening, an intense, orange-pink sunset, the kind the Flint Hills is famous for, began to light up the sky as I rode in a bumpy, horse-drawn wagon that probably doubled as a feed carrier during the day. Just sitting quietly along a country lane watching the rise and fall of the colors was a true prairie experience. (The county has only 4 inhabitants per square mile so there's endless prairie as far as the eye can see, which means the lucky souls who come here have it practically to themselves.)
There was more on the agenda back at the ranch as, Jim Hoy, Josh's father--cowboy poet, storyteller and university professor--sat around with guests speaking on one of his favorite subjects: the conservation of the shrinking Kansas grasslands, which the cattle depend on for food, for one. A vivid example is "Flames in the Flint Hills," he said, named for the massive, controlled wildfire set each spring to prepare the soil for the next season's growth. A strong local tradition, it's also become a tourist attraction at the ranch over the years.
When it was time to turn in for the night, I had the choice of the lodge, bunkhouse or cabin, a trio of one-story structures built within walking distance of one another. Meals were prepared by Josh, a certified chef as well as cowboy, who's equally adept at turning out chuck wagon grub as gourmet dinners. www.flinthillsflyingw.com.
The Sound of Music
When rancher Jane Kroger in the small community of Matfield Green wanted to celebrate her birthday in 1994, what did she do? She only put on the biggest bash the county had ever seen with over 3,000 guests and a symphony orchestra. Once the county officials recovered from the party and mulled it over, they decided it wasn't such a bad idea after all and, thus, a decade later, the non-profit Symphony in the Flint Hills was born.
The annual event, the high point of any visit to the state in the month of June, benefits the preservation of the Flint Hills, the largest tract of Tallgrass prairie on the continent. Named after the eroded rocks of flint near the surface, these rolling hills cover millions of acres in east-central Kansas, a good portion of which has already been turned into a protected ecological reserve.
And the current celebrations would do Kroger proud. This year alone, the 80-piece Kansas City Symphony Orchestra took center stage along with country singer Lyle Lovett as vocalist on a stretch of open prairie near Strong City, not too far from Kroger's ranch. I joined more than 7,000 fans lining up for art auctions, covered wagon rides, barbeque dinners and to listen to lively fiddlers fiddling away under tents. Created in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, the theme of this year's concert : Grasslands of the World. It included speakers focusing on issues of the major grazing areas of the five continents.
Just over two hours long, the musical score included Death Valley Suite and Themes from Silverado as concertgoers surrounded the outdoor stage sitting on field chairs or hay bales. As it wound down, a team of outriders—hospitality rangers for the concert—orchestrated a well-choreographed cattle drive over the nearby hills, paying tribute to Kansas' ranching roots. The concert closed with Lovett leading the crowd in the very apropos, Home on the Range, written by a Kansas native and altogether befitting the scene.
Each year, a different location is chosen for the concert but it's always in the Flint Hills. A word of caution: mosquitoes are fierce this time of year so pack plenty of repellant. For more information, go to symphonyintheflinthills.org.
Not Your Mother's Cooking
Wichita foodies take to Facebook each day to track down the whereabouts of the Flying Stove, named one of the top 25 food trucks in the nation by Forbes.com. Owned by Jeff and Rob Schauf, the 30-something brothers parlayed a culinary degree from the University of Texas in Austin, another one in film making and their love of L.A. street tacos into the award-winning kitchen on wheels. It was also one of the first of its kind to hit the road in their hometown.
A surfing trip to Australia nine years ago introduced them to food trucks, Rob said, and wetted their appetite for doing something along the same lines. Meanwhile, both were working in Los Angeles as a chef and movie studio executive, respectively. Back and forth they went a few more times across the ocean until the idea crystallized into a business plan. Soon after, they moved from California and launched the Flying Stove in their native city.
The menu, which changes every four weeks, is "heavy on Asian", he said, which the brothers love. Calling it "gourmet street cuisine," it's just as likely to list Thai chicken and chickpea salad as truffle fries ( fries sizzled in truffle oil, which was my personal favorite), a "Pobre Hombre" Mexican shrimp Po' Boy or a Bama Slama Pork Sammy, which turns out to be a super-sized pork sandwich inspired by the state of Alabama. Diners are able to pair the food with craft beer when the truck is conveniently parked next to a brewery. www.theflyingstove.com.
A century ago, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for Henry J. Allen, a well-known Wichita newspaper publisher and future governor of the state. A striking example of Wright's "Prairie House" style with a long, low-slung facade, it also has a few surprises like a sunken Japanese garden and teahouse out back, reminiscent of his Japanese period. The real joy of a tour, though, is to see the architect's genius at work, too, inside in his custom-designed furniture (which cost a whopping $6,500 back then), adjoining rooms with no walls much like today's designs and stained glass windows filtering in lots of natural light. The home also raised a few eyebrows in its time with such innovations as an alarm system and gas fireplace logs. www.fllwallenhouse.org.
There was no doubt that the more I saw of Kansas, the more of Kansas I wanted to see. For more visitor attractions, see TravelKS.com
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