What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with George Frazier

We had the honor of meeting George Frazier, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas at the Kansas Book Festival, and we reached out to ask him a few questions about what he feels is just so special about Kansas.

On a side note, his book is fantastic and highly recommended!

What inspired you to write your book The Last Wild Places of Kansas?

George: My entire life I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Kansas.

In school, when we sang “Home on the Range,” I wondered how we could countenance a state song that celebrated the buffalo when we had once tolerated their annihilation. Later, when I eventually started to notice the unique landscapes of northeast Kansas and decided to dig my heels into our prairie firma and learn about my home bioregion, I immediately ran into a (mostly figurative) wall of barbed wire.  98% of Kansas is privately owned, so getting access to wild places became my main problem.

Like a lot of people who grew up in or near a city and because no one in my family owned land, I realized I’d spent my life without much direct knowledge of this place I called home. I was knew the wildernesses of Colorado, Montana, and California. But not the wild places of home in Kansas. I felt like a stranger.

So I spent three years travelling all over the state, researching our forgotten environmental and Native American history, “rediscovering” some little known wild places, looking at some of the more familiar ones with new eyes, and meeting hundreds of private land owners who took me into the hidden interior of Kansas.

I wrote the book for people who, at some point in their lives, suddenly “wake up” and smell the sunflowers, people who want to experience the real Kansas – not the placeless farm country Kansas of wall calendars and coffee table books.

What are some of the biggest Kansas misconceptions you think people have?

Kansas has always been an extreme place – politically, weatherwise, and in the phenomenology of wild places. It seems like people are either completely clueless or, strangely enough, almost Pollyanic (is that a word?) in their knowledge and opinions about the state’s wild landmarks and remaining fragments of native ecosystems. The lack of access has indeed come to mean non-existence for most Americans and many Kansans, but wild Kansas champions don’t have to rubber stamp every weedy wildlife area or scrub forest nature trail as fantastic. The truth is more complicated.

From left to right: Jonathan Conard, Kristin Conard, and George Frazier at Cedar Crest.

From left to right: Jonathan Conard, Kristin Conard, and George Frazier at Cedar Crest.

In the book, I’m very generous with what I find, but compared to other recent works on Kansas geography I tried to paint a picture of the state of our wild lands in the early 21st century.

We have much to be grateful for – our rivers are the cleanest they’ve been in a century, extirpated species are making comebacks, there is renewed interested in hiking and paddling, and local communities are getting behind efforts to promote their wild places.

I tried to focus on the good that I found, while pointing out areas for improvement. More than anything I think most people need a pair of glasses fitted with Kansas “lenses” to appreciate our bioregions. My book is hopefully a prescription.

Out of staters often think of Kansas as “flyover country” – what would you say to change their minds?

When I was a kid, as soon as you flew into Kansas airspace the flight attendants had to stop serving booze. I think my parents and most other travelers would have preferred “fly around” country.

Do you find inspiration in Kansas for your writing?

My book took years to write – almost nine all told. I worked on it not only in Kansas, but in California, Florida, Missouri, Mexico, Fiji, Colorado, and Canada.  When writing about nature, I’ve found that being removed from your subject sometimes helps distill a refined perspective.  Walking through the prairies in your mind can help more than walking through an actual prairie in terms of the craft. But my favorite Kansas writing space was the old Glass Onion loft above Yello Sub that used to be on the KU campus. I thanked them in my book’s acknowledgments, but by the time it came out, campus Yello Sub had been razed to make way for the Oread Hotel.  This probably means I need to writer faster!

For someone who’s never been to Kansas, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

For prairie immersion there is no better place than Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve outside of Strong City.  Bison and bluestem.  Head north through Council Grove to Manhattan after your hike.  There you can do more hiking at Konza Prairie or drink beer in Aggieville – both are true Kansas experiences.

For someone who grew up in Kansas and feels like they’ve seen everything there, do you have any recommendations for where to go or what to see?

Hike the Breidenthal tract near Baldwin City, the ancient pecan forest at Fort Leavenworth, the trail than connects the main highway at Big Basin in the Gypsum Hills to St Jacob’s Well, the Santa Fe Trail (20+ miles of it) at Cimarron National Grassland, or canoe the Kaw from the point where the Smoky Hill (our ancient buffalo river) meets up with the Republican in Junction City to the bridge in Manhattan. My book goes into great deal about all of those experiences.

Tour the Capitol Dome

Of the 50 states, Kansas is the only one with a capitol dome where visitors can climb all the way to the top and go outside, 10 feet or so beneath the bronze statue of a Kansa warrior that tops the 304 feet tall dome. Oh, and that 304 feet places it 16 feet taller than the United States Capitol dome.

It’s 296 steps all the way up, though this is broken into parts where you can turn around if it’s becoming a bit too much. For the first few stops, you’re headed along stairs hugging the wall. The last 100 or so steps take you up into the middle of the dome, up into the small cupola, and then out onto a circular walkway.

And yes, it’s a bit nerve wracking if you’re scared of heights (as I am!) as you head away from the wall and into the middle, but I made it through, so I’m sure you can.

Tip – If you go in fall, the changing colors of the trees will make the panoramic view even more stunning.

A Kansas State Historical Society volunteer will take you up and give you some information. You start out on the fifth floor and get info about the restored frescoes (one of the state’s first “selfies” can be found in them!). Then you head up to above the interior dome and get a view of the steps up into the unfinished part of the dome.

The dome itself was a part of a nearly $325 million revamp of the statehouse completed in 2014.

If you go:

Cost: Free!

When: Tours are run by the Kansas State Historical Society Monday through Friday: 9:15, 10:15, 11:15 a.m., 12:15, 1:15, 2:15, 3:15 p.m. If it’s too hot, they’ll cancel the tours as the dome itself isn’t air conditioned. Not sure if it’s cancelled if/when it’s too cold…

Where: 300 SW 10th St, Topeka, KS 66612. Visitor’s entrance is on the ground level, North Wing, on 8th Avenue. Parking information here.

More info: Kansas State Historical Society, 785-296-3966

Kansas Chocolate Festival in Topeka

A delicious day is coming your way in Topeka on September 24

kansaschocolatefestivallogo_rendered_3f539611-cee1-4104-8a90-f41be5bf4e9eStart the day at 8am with the 12th annual Winged Foot 5k/10k run and 4k walk. Once you’ve finished the race, you’ll get some chocolate treats to keep you going the rest of the day!

From 10am to 5pm, wander along Kansas Avenue to find food trucks (all of which will have at least one specialty item featuring chocolate), live music, and vendors. Watch demonstrations of taffy pulling, chocolate clay, and fudge.

On the main stage, presentations throughout the day will give information on where chocolate comes from, a history of chocolate, pairing chocolate with other foods and spices, and more.

On the Statehouse lawn in the evening, you can watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring the late Gene Wilder.

If you want to show off your cooking skills and get a chance to win $300 – enter the Kansas Chocolate Competition.

Get more details and information about the schedule of events here.

Celebrate the National Parks 100th Birthday in Kansas

2016 is the centennial celebration of  America’s National Parks, and nationally recognized historic sites can be found throughout the state of Kansas. Our favorites are those with trails to explore, like the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City (keep an eye out for the bison herd!) and the Brown V Board of Education National Historic Site which is the start to the Landon Nature Trail.

Here are two places to join in the celebrations for the National Parks on the official parks birthday weekend (August 27 and 28).

Baseball game at Fort Scott, early 20th century. Don Miller. NPS website.

Baseball game at Fort Scott, early 20th century. Don Miller. NPS website.

August 27, 2016 at Fort Scott National Historic Site – Vintage baseball and picnic in the park

From the NPS website:

Bring your family and a picnic basket full of your favorite food.Eat on the grounds of a frontier 1840s fort while listening to period music.Music will be provided from 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.

Then at 1:00 p.m., you are invited to watch a Civil War era baseball game that will be held on the grounds of the historic site. Two vintage teams will square off against each other;the Topeka Westerns will take on the Wichita Bull Stockings in a rousing game using 1860s rules, uniforms, and equipment.

August 27, 2016 at Fort Larned – Picnic in the park

A prairie dog show and talk starts the day at 10am at the visitor’s center, and throughout the day will be presentations on the history of the area along with a concert by the revived Fort Larned Post Band. Find out more details of the day here.

 

We’ll keep you updated on more centennial park events throughout the rest of the year.

Planning to go to one of these? Let us know in the comments!

3 Kansas restaurants to celebrate National S’Mores Day

So it’s National S’mores Day. I’m not sure when the tradition started of making national days began – already in August, according to NationalDayCalendar.com, there’s been a National Raspberry Cream Pie Day (August 1), National Root Beer Float Day (August 6), and National Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day (August 8).

Photo by Derek E-Jay

These days are a bit strange, yes, but why not join in on the fun!

While s’mores are the classic end of a camping/trail day treat, toasted over a fire, here are three places in Kansas where you can get your s’mores fix without the campfire.

The Donut Whole (1720 E Douglas Ave, Wichita) makes their donuts from scratch with locally sourced ingredients and along with other unique flavors like Maple Bacon and Peanut Butter and Grape, they’ve got a S’mores donut. Oh, and they’ve got a 24-hour drive up window.

The vanilla marshmallows are made in house at Pinstripes (Prairiefire, 13500 Nall Avenue, Overland Park) for their s’mores dessert. You can counter some of the calories by playing bocce ball or going bowling.

At Sheridan’s Frozen Custard (stores around Kansas City and in Topeka) you can get a cone filled with fresh made vanilla frozen custard and topped with marshmallow creme, graham cracker, and chocolate chips.

 

World’s largest Czech egg now upright in Wilson

Kristin by the Czech Egg in Wilson

Kristin by the Czech Egg in Wilson

Built in 2012, painted in 2015, and now standing proudly in its own pavilion in the tiny town of Wilson, Kansas is a 22 foot tall Czech egg.

Wilson, a town of around 800 people, is the Czech capital of Kansas due to the large number of immigrants from there that settled in the area.

Now about that egg. The tradition of painting eggs with intricate designs at/around Easter is centuries old, and these eggs are called kraslice. And this 7,000 pound hollow structure was hand-painted with motifs and designs symbolizing good fortune and new beginnings. It’s world’s largest status isn’t yet technically official as Guinness World Records still has to measure and sign off, but I’d defy you to name a larger Czech egg anywhere!

If you go:

Exit 206 off of I-70

Corner of 27th Street and Avenue D

 

A Walk With Grandma – book review

A Walk With Grandma – book review

In the rich history of the Appalachian Trail, a more unlikely hero will not be found.  In the spring of 1955, a grandmother from Ohio decided to walk the trail from Georgia to Maine “on a lark” and captured the attention and adoration of a nation.  “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery recounts the story of the hard but captivating life of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, a now iconic hiker of the Appalachian Trail, whose walk along the trail characterized her life of determination and grit.  While many hikers today obsess about the latest gear, technology, and trail amenities, Gatewood had little more then a napsack, umbrella, and the kindness of strangers to see her through a 2000+ mile journey.

Gatewood Picture

Grandma Gatewood on the Trail

At a time when only a handful of people had hiked the entirety of the AT, she started walking at the age of 67 and just kept on going.  The challenges that she overcame on the Appalachian Trail alone would make for an exceptionally inspiring read, but the book also artfully recounts Gatewood’s earlier walk through a marriage filled with adversity and abuse leading up to her first epic trail journey.  Gatewood’s long walk is just the start of her remarkable hiking career and the book will certainly inspire people of all ages to dream big and hike on.

Grandma Gatewood Trail

Hikers on the Grandma Gatewood Trail in Ohio

“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery is published and available through the Chicago Review Press