Watch out — we’re free and we’re headed (south)west! Given the new rule that we don’t drive more than a few hours a day, rather than blasting across Kansas we approached the state with an open mind and a ready foot on the brake.
The first stop was a little park called Cheney State Park, located on a reservoir that is Kansas’ number one sailing destination. The boats (along with all of the people and the campground’s running water) are home for the season, but the migrating birds are out in full force. We heard and saw lots of frogs, ducks, songbirds, and swans, and were treated to a little spooky night music, courtesy of the local owls and coyotes.
Refreshed, we made our way to Dodge City, which was high on Paul’s list of things to see. Dan Mangan says in his song Road Regrets: “so find Dodge and then get out of it.” We’d recommend skipping the finding part in the first place. This is the first big disappointment on the first real day of our journey, and it hits Paul hard. Rather than a city dedicated to historic pioneers, it’s now home to a new kind of pioneer: immigrants who have come to work in the gigantic meat processing plants.
I’m not sure how much my mind has been changed about Kansas. Kansas is monotony. It’s blasting wind, open flatland, grain elevators, anti-abortion signs (Paul: “how many pregnant women can there be around here?”), and odoriferous cow feed lots and chicken houses. Most towns are set up in the same way: come in from the east and you’ll see a grain elevator to the right of main street (along the train tracks), a few streets running perpendicular to the left of main street, one or two gas stations on the west side of town, and not much in between.
Hoping for a respite from the monotony, we rolled in to Cimarron National Grassland. This is the only piece of federal land in the state of Kansas, so my hopes were up that it’d be something special. But now it was my turn to be disappointed, as we learned that the campground had burned down six months ago and they somehow hadn’t gotten around to fixing it yet. Technically we could primitive-camp anywhere we could drive one car length off the road, but Rocky, with his low suspension and two wheel drive, isn’t made for the sandy, cactus-filled off-roads. The park ranger handed me a map and said the official map was $10, but this one was pretty good — it had most of the roads, but they hadn’t gotten around to marking them all down yet. The only thing it seems like they can get around to here is maintaining the many oil and gas wells in the park. Fine, but let’s have a little balance, please.
After considering the alternatives and taking a look at the very cool Santa Fe Trail, we decided to look for camping Plan B. We had planned to blow through Oklahoma, but close by there was an interesting looking park, Black Mesa State Park. We raced over there just in time for dusk, and here the disappointment ended. Flocks of mule deer, countless galaxies of stars, running water (showers!!!), silence, and finally, a change of scenery. Black Mesa is Oklahoma’s highest point, and it just squeaked in — it’s almost in New Mexico or Colorado. It’s beautiful. It reminds us why we’re doing this.