I woke at 6:16 Wednesday, August 24th. I got an egg for breakfast, finished packing, and remembered to retrieve the cellphone car recharger. It was 7:24 when I left the house… and went to the gas station to fill up. I put it all on Visa. I was trying to not use credit cards, but I figured one last time heading out of town wouldn’t hurt. I drove down Aspen and got on the Broken Arrow Expressway. Traffic was busy that morning when I turned north on Highway 169. The Mingo Valley (officially the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway) is always busy, and reminds me of the expressway everyone avoids in that Matrix movie. A sign said it was already 84 degrees out.
It was shortly before 8 AM when I crossed under the Crosstown Expressway overpass, and traffic immediately thinned out as I headed north out of Tulsa. It was straight up 8 AM when I went through Owasso, the Sun bright off to my right side. On the radio, Hurricane Irene was headed for the Carolinas. In Oologah, I slowed down for the public school. In Nowata, the speed limit was 45 when I passed the Rudd Motel (How rudd!). The highway widened to four lanes north of town, but it didn’t last. There were lots of trucks on the highway, north and southbound. It was 22 miles to the state line. Ten minutes past Nowata I passed Pyramid Corner. The air was breezy and clear. I got stuck behind a truck for several miles. It was just before 9 AM when I crossed the border into Kansas and went through Coffeyville (“Come Grow With Us”). Coffeyville was where the infamous Dalton Gang tried to hold up two banks on the same day in 1892, to disastrous results. That was where I passed the Bushwackers Café and Quicker Liquor, and then went over the Verdigris River.
It seemed like there had been construction on the highway out of town for years, and it was still getting worked on. Past the construction, I was able to speed up on the wide 2-lane road. Acres of dried corn lined the highway. I was in the green part of Kansas, the part with hills, sort of. I kind of had this idea I could work my way across Kansas casually, but the land had other ideas. It was almost 9:20 when I turned west on Highway 160; a sign said it was the Quartermaster Corp Memorial Highway. I was 7 miles from Independence. The Marsh Arch Bridge was a really neat old bridge outside of town where the highway crossed the Verdigris River.
Highway 160 put me on Main Street going through Independence, birthplace of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright William Inge. A sign for a local church advertised it was a place “Where Friends Meet God.” (I thought, Yikes!) I passed the Montgomery County courthouse and saw some workers cutting down a tree in front of the historic Booth Hotel. Riverside Park on the north side of town had a life-size Corythosaurus statue.  A bridge took me over a bunch of railroad tracks to the west side of town. I passed a couple of Chinese buffet places I usually pass when I go through on my way to Omaha: I always imagined them feuding like friendly Tong soldiers. I passed the familiar Highway 75 intersection and continued on 160. It was 39 miles to Winfield. Outside of Independence, the road emptied out, and I pretty much had the highway to myself. The wind picked up.
The road took me past low, pretty green hills. I crossed the Elk River and followed the road towards Elk City, which took me across the Elk County line. That was where the road narrowed: the shoulders disappeared. Just before 10, I went through Elk Valley, which was little more than a handful of houses. They sure like elk in Kansas. Acres of cornfields passed by. The road got twisty going through some hills, and the phone kept going in and out of service. 
The speed limit was 40 in Longton, “the white tail deer capital of Kansas.” It was starting to be a hot day when I passed the Silver Bell Motel. I crossed the Elk River again outside of Elk Falls. Going out of town, a turn in the road revealed a historical marker dedicated to Prudence Crandall. She was an educator who opened the first black female academy in Connecticut in 1833. This got her arrested, of course, but she spent her life fighting for equal rights. She passed away in Elk Falls in 1890. Decades later, legal arguments used in her 1834 trial were submitted as part of the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case.

Down the road, dust from some kind of industrial plant rose off to my left. I crossed Wildcat Creek and entered Moline, Kansas, a sleepy farming town, “home of Kansas’ Oldest Swinging Bridge.” The bridge is still there, off on a side street, swinging beside the narrow neighborhood road. There was a jet plane on display in the city park. I’d been through there before, on my was to North Dakota. I remembered the main street. From Moline, I headed west. It was just after 10:30 when I passed the Grain Elevator Museum in Grenola, Kansas. I passed a truck with a dog riding in the back. I crossed the Big Caney River, and over a steep hill the land drastically flattened out. A handful of horses grazed in a wide field near the Cowley County line.

Going through Cambridge, I passed the Stockman’s Café, and slowed down for a garbage truck doing a rural pick-up. I crossed more railroad tracks and quickly went through the little town of Burden. A few minutes later, the road turned towards Winfield. Shortly afterwards, I figured out I’d made a wrong turn at Burden. I had intended to turn north before I got to Winfield, but missed the turnoff somehow. I wasn’t worried. It was my first day on the road and I had plenty of time. I found Winfield to be a bustling town with lots of traffic. There were lanes of big, old houses. I turned north on Main Street, and drove past the musicians memorial outside of Island Park. The statues commemorate the city’s long history of music.

I crossed Timber Creek heading out of town on Highway 77 and found myself on the Robert B. Docking Memorial Highway. Docking was governor of Kansas from 1967 to 1975, and was only 57 when he passed away in 1983. It was 30 miles to Augusta. I’d had clear skies all morning, but now white clouds appeared all around me. At the Butler County line, the Docking Highway became the 89th Army Division Memorial Highway. I think it was in Douglass where I spotted a shady city park, down the road from Marvin Sisk Middle School.

Although I had time on my hands, I was trying to avoid any unnecessary toll roads, so I kept consulting a torn United States map as I drove along, my eyes going back and forth from the map to the road. Suddenly, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a police car right behind me, lights flashing! Phooey, I said to myself, pulling over. I had my driver’s license and insurance verification ready by the time the sheriff’s deputy got to my window. (This is a good place to note it's always a good idea to think about what you're going to say to a police officer before you actually say it.) The deputy said I was going 56 in a 40 MPH zone “in the town back there,” and the first thing that came to my mind --what I did not say out loud-- was, I went through a town? He did a record check, and when he came back he just gave me a verbal warning: “Watch your speed and drive safely.” Please and thank you really are magic words, I decided.
 

Just before noon, I crossed the Walnut River and soon entered Augusta, Kansas, founded in 1868. The town seemed to have lots of RV dealerships. 

At 7th Street, I turned west on Highway 54. A few minutes later, I was going through Andover, and outside of town I turned onto Highway 96. By 12:15, I was in Wichita. I managed to avoid the toll roads.I did not stay long.

The landscape was wide and the sky was high as I headed west out of Wichita. It was 12:42 when I went through Mt. Hope, passing lots of cornfields. Highway 96 was a wide, comfortable 4-lane, and traffic was light. At the Haven exit, I passed a huge grain elevator. Five minutes later, I passed the Yoder exit, where I would have gotten off for the Underground Salt Museum or the Hutcheson Cosmosphere. It was on that highway that Satori clicked over 260,000 miles. It made me think of the Utah mechanic that was amazed a Caravan could go over 250,000 miles. I made a pit stop at a big truck stop in South Hutcheson just after 1 PM. After getting some directions from the convenience store clerk, she pointed me down Highway 50 west. I was also on Highway 61, and when 61 split off the highway turned into a wide 2-lane road.

It had turned into a hot day. Southwestern Kansas has hills (sort of) and trees, but west of Wichita the hills and trees kept getting further and further apart. At Mile Marker 213, near the turnoff for Sylvia, Kansas (established 1887, “Faith in the Future”), I passed a pair of double-wide trailers parked alongside the road. The semi drivers seemed to be talking things over. It was 1:48 when I got to Stafford, which bills itself as the gateway to the Quivera National Wildlife Refuge. The town had a tidy, well-kept cemetery. Heat rose from the pavement, creating mirages on the road ahead. A few miles past Stafford, I turned north on Highway 281. It was straight up 2 PM when I went through St. John. Miles of cornfields lined the road. Highway 281 was a long, straight road, as north-and-south as you can get. I crossed a dry creek, and at an empty intersection turned west on Highway 19. It was 20 miles to Larned. Seven minutes later, I passed the turnoff for Radium, just before the Pawnee County line. I could see a cluster of buildings about a mile away. Highway 19 turned north and crossed the Arkansas River just before entering Larned. It was a town of wide streets, and a huge courthouse. I’d traveled 372 miles since leaving home. I drove through town and turned west on Highway 156.
 

Just past the Larned Cemetery, I pulled over at the Santa Fe Trail Center. It was a well-kept, comprehensive museum of Kansas homesteader history; not a big museum, but you could tell it meant a lot to the folks keeping it up. There were many exhibits about life on the prairie. Around back, were some restored historic buildings and reproductions of  how early settlers lived. The wind was dry and constant. At the gift shop, I bought a buffalo cookie cutter (so I could make buffalo cookies back home) and got some directions from the museum clerk.
 
Most of the Santa Fe Trail is gone. It’s Kansas, after all, farming country, and most of the original trail is plowed up or paved over. In the case of the Larned Cemetery, it’s “dug up with dead people.” Backtracking to the cemetery, however, I followed the fence line back to where it dipped down suddenly: that was where the Santa Fe Trail came through. 
I got back on the road, and drove down the highway to Fort Larned National Historic Site. Fort Larned was just one of a bunch of forts set up along the Santa Fe Trail, unique in that it had no wall around it. At the time, there was a creek with steep banks on three sides of the site, and since there was no wood to make a wall, anyway, they figured they were safe enough. The fort is very well preserved, with all the buildings intact, along with period furniture, clothing and weapons.
 
By the time I was through looking around, it was well after 3 PM, and I still had miles to go. Heading west on 156, I passed a pair of grain elevators that rose so dramatically over the Kansas prairie they looked like the statues guarding the gates of Gondor. It was after 4 PM when I went through Burdett, which was where I knew I’d made another wrong turn. I had intended to head north on Highway 183 to Rush Center, but I never saw any turnoff. Highway 156 turns southwest past Burdett, which was not the way I wanted to go. At Jetmore, I pulled off and circled the town square before I found a convenience store called the Kangaroo Stop, where I got $10 worth of gas and a Dr. Pepper.
From there, I headed north on Highway 283. It was 26 miles to Ness City. By that time, I was carefully watching the track of the Sun in the west. The wind over the prairie was just howling, a force to be reckoned with. The land was very flat, but I started to see rocky outcroppings (limestone?) along the highway. In the fields, cows clustered around almost-empty ponds.
It was just after 5 PM when I arrived in Ness City. I stopped to get some pictures of the famous "Skyscraper of the Plains," a beautiful 19th century office building. Built in 1890, it was called at the time "The finest and most imposing structure west of Topeka." The ceilings are 13 feet high. 
I took a moment to check the weather reports on my smartphone. The Weather Channel said the Sun didn’t set in Oakley until after 8 PM. I figured I could still make it before dark. The Sun was on broil when I pulled out of town. I was back on Highway 96. One mile east of Dighton, I passed a cemetery that had lots of empty flagpoles. From there, it was 23 miles to Scott City. The road ran due west in a straight line. At Scott City, I got nervous and got another $10 worth of gas. From there, I headed north on Highway 83. About 12 miles down the road, I pulled off the road for Lake Scott State Park. There were some ruins I wanted to see. I was the only person on the road, which wound along some low hills. There was a main gate, but nobody was there, and since I wasn’t spending the night in the park I drove on through.
 
The shadows were very long when I found the ruins. I parked Satori and walked the 100 yards or so down a slight incline to the site. The El Cuartelejo pueblo was built in the 1600s by Taos indians forced out of New Mexico by the Spanish.It remained occupied for over a hundred years. At the bottom of the slope, it looked like just a set of foundations, meaningless to anyone who didn’t know how important the site was. It also seemed important because of all the hawks flying around. I had never seen so many hawks in the air at once before. It was like Nature knew it was a special place. I had not encountered another car, another person for an hour when I pulled out of the park. It was just before 7 PM and the Sun was getting low in the sky when I made it back to the highway. At the Logan County line, it was still another 31 miles to Oakley. Squinting westward, it seemed like I had about an hour of sunlight left. A small herd of buffalo grazed in a field, silhouetted against the setting Sun.

There was still one more site to see. I wanted to see: the pyramids. I did not have far to go. Not far down the highway was a sign pointing east down a dirt road. Orange rocks poked out of the earth as I bumped down the road. A clump of trees loomed over the road as I crossed a dry creekbed. Four miles in, a sign pointed me south. I crossed a cattleguard, and navigated myself around a herd of free range cattle. I came over a hill, and there they were: the Chalk Pyramids!
 

Also called Monument Rocks, I thought they should be called Chalk Office Buildings, because that’s how big they were. Contrasted with the miles of vast, surrounding prairie, they must have looked like signposts from God to traveling homesteaders. I pulled off the dirt road for the first cluster of 70-foot outcroppings, just in time to get out of the way of a big truck hauling farm equipment, a huge cloud of dust trailing behind. I walked around, taking pictures, and except for some cows grazing a couple hundred yards away, I was completely alone with the rocks. The only plants were some scrubby grass and dry bushes. Lonely oil wells pumped in the distance. The setting Sun gave the rocks a unique color, and I was glad I got to see them like that. It was the Sun that reminded me I needed to go.
When I stopped the van, I remember hearing an odd hissing sound. I worried there might be something wrong with the van, but I couldn’t find anything, and it started back up just fine. Did I make a snake mad? It was just after 8 PM when I got back on the highway.
The Sun fell behind some clouds on the horizon, and I had to turn my headlights on. Highway 83 turned west, and then back north again as it jogged around Oakley, rolling past a big statue dedicated to Buffalo Bill. I crossed some railroad tracks and faced Interstate 70, but immediately to my left was High Plains Camping, the RV park I’d been shooting for. There was a $20 camp fee, and I would’ve had access to the hot tub, but somebody turned it off and it wasn’t so hot. That was okay. Twilight was setting in as I ate a hard-boiled egg and an orange for supper. The hot shower was wonderful. The place was about half-full of RVs and trailers. Most folks kept to themselves; it was after dark, and I was the only person walking around. There was a truck stop across the highway, but they didn’t have any beer. It looked like Oakley might be in a dry county. That was okay.

I called home, made a voice post to LiveJournal, drank water, and relaxed. There was a big barn-like building that anybody could use for reading or whatever, but I was too tired. I’d driven 567 miles that first day on the road. It was a little after 10 when I curled up in the back of Satori. It was a fitful night, but I managed to get some sleep.

  
Prologue Aug. 24  Aug. 25 Aug. 26 Aug. 27 Aug. 28 
 Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday
Sept.6 Sept. 7 Sept. 8  Sept. 9 & Epilogue
Original content (c)opyright 2011 by Tim Frayser
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Links: The Chalk Pyramids  Prudence Crandall  Coffeyville, Kansas 
The Santa Fe Trail Center  Fort Larned  Skyscraper of the Plains 
Lake Scott State Park 
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