What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with Marci Penner

People are missing a lot if they don’t spend time in Kansas, especially if they like hiking, eating in locally-owned cafes, finding architectural gems, running in to grassroots art.  There are so many excellent things about Kansas but a person has to do a little exploring.

For the second in our What’s so special about Kansas series, the first interview was with Rolf Potts, we reached out to Marci Penner. Award-winner for tourism promotion and being an all around great leader for the state of Kansas, she wrote the 8 Wonders of Kansas guidebook and is updating the Kansas Guidebook for Explorers. She kindly wrote a foreword for our upcoming trail guidebook, and she’s getting geared up for this year’s Kansas Sampler Festival.

Kansas Trail Guide: You and your father founded the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which puts on the Kansas Sampler Festival, and you’re currently the director – can you give an overview of the event for those who may not have been of it before?

festivallogo2Penner: We are in our 25th year of the Kansas Sampler Festival.  It started out as a book signing party for our first Kansas Weekend Guide and turned into a full-fledged festival to provide the public a sample of what there is to see, do, hear, taste, buy, and learn in Kansas.  It was held on our farm near Inman for eight years and now the event moves around the state.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation was started in 1993 to help preserve and sustain rural culture.  We educate Kansans about Kansas, like with our guidebooks, the festival, the Kansas Explorers Club, e-blasts, and programs

WenDee LaPlant, assistant director, and I are currently going to every incorporated city in Kansas again to research for the update to Kansas Guidebook for Explorers.  It’s due out in early 2016.  It takes awhile to go to 626 towns!

The Foundation also works to network and support rural communities.  We do things like the Big Rural Brainstorm, We Kan! Conference, the PowerUp Movement, Rural Kansas: Come & Get It (getruralkansas.org) and many other things.

Kansas Trail Guide: When and where is this year’s Kansas Sampler Festival, and what can people expect if they visit?

Penner: This year’s Kansas Sampler Festival will be held in Wamego’s City Park on Saturday, May 3 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.) and Sunday, May 4 (10 a.m.-4 p.m.).  $5 adult admission, $3 for kids 7-12.  You’ll find representatives from 150 Kansas communities on the grounds to help you know about everything from trails to restaurants, historic sites to events.  Kansas musicians, historic performers, photographers, and entrepreneurs will be there along with a kangaroo, packgoats, Mammoth Donkeys, and a Kansas fish aquarium.  Come buy, sample Kansas wines and microbrews, or just enjoy the entertainment.  In one weekend you’ll get a year’s worth of day trip ideas.

Kansas Trail Guide: You’ve written some guidebooks of your own for Kansas – what place do you feel a trail guidebook would fit into the mix of information out there about Kansas?

Penner: A trail guidebook will be an awesome addition for glove compartments, coffee tables, and backpacks.  You’ve done a great job finding all the trails and going to them so you could deliver firsthand information.  I’m so excited about your book.  The diversity, quality, and even number of trails in this state are overlooked.  We appreciate you drawing attention to one of our best assets!

Kansas Trail Guide: Our book with University Press of Kansas is all about trails in Kansas for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Many of the trails are in state and county parks. Do you have a favorite park or favorite trail in Kansas? If so, what is it that makes it special for you?

Marci Penner on the trail

Marci Penner on the trail

Penner: I really love the trails at Cross Timbers State Lake in Woodson County.  You almost feel like you are in a different state with all the rock and woods but this is Kansas, too!

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

Penner: As Jason Probst says, “Kansas is in the details.”  You have to want to get to know Kansas and when you’ve come to that point then the state becomes a huge playground with infinite nooks and crannies to explore.  Until you are willing to get to know the state there will be misconceptions between east and west, between urban and rural, between young and old.

The joy is when you toss aside expectations and judgments and just get out there to meet people for who they are and try to understand each place for what it is.

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

Penner: First we have to change the minds of Kansans.  Once we are proud of our own state then attitudes will start to change everywhere.  Guidebooks like yours and photography that is shared online are two good ways to help reset the way people see Kansas.  People are missing a lot if they don’t spend time in Kansas, especially if they like hiking, eating in locally-owned cafes, finding architectural gems, running in to grassroots art.  There are so many excellent things about Kansas but a person has to do a little exploring.

Kansas Trail Guide: Some Kansas natives think of Kansas as a place to move away from once they’re old enough or after college – what would you say to change their minds?

Penner: I don’t think it’s our job to convince them.  I think it’s our job to work daily at making Kansas a place that is vital to young people.  The first step is to enlist the young people that are here and to make sure their voice is heard in discussions about sustaining communities.  I’m all for young people going out to see the world and then if they want to come back to Kansas we’re better off with all the experience they bring with them.  There are many things we can do to make our state a great place to live for all ages.

Kansas Trail Guide: When you think of Kansas, what’s the image that comes to mind?

Penner: One of my favorite images is sitting on the porch of my barn house and watching an electrical storm sweep across the sky.  The vast horizon is the pallet for those huge lightning strikes that run across the sky.. and then it all goes pitch dark until the next one erupts.  Sometime we get lucky when a rainbow shows up the next morning. It’s all in the details.

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with Rolf Potts

Get off the paved roads and wander.

One of my favorite pastimes is hosting friends from the East or West Coast (or overseas), driving them through the landscape, and watching them react with joy to what they’d have missed had they been in a hurry.

As someone who dabbles in travel writing, I’ve known about Rolf Potts for a long time. He grew up in Kansas, and he’s spent time traveling the world and writing about it. His work has appeared in Salon.com, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic Traveler, Outside and more.

His books include Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer.

He’s also been in front of the camera for National Geographic Travel and the Travel Channel, and he teaches writing for Yale University and The Paris American Academy.

I reached out to him, and I have to admit a bit of a fangirl moment (I’ve read your books! I’ve wanted to do what you do!) when he replied quickly and was psyched to help with something Kansas related.

Kansas Trail Guide: Our book with University Press of Kansas is all about trails in Kansas for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Many of the trails are in state and county parks. Do you have a favorite park or favorite trail in Kansas? If so, what is it that makes it special for you?

Potts: I’m a fan of Kanopolis State Park. It’s not far from Saline County, where I keep a home, and I love the craggy, Smoky Hill landscape there.

Kansas Trail Guide: You’re known for your travel writing, particularly your book Vagabonding. I remember reading it when I was in college, and I remember being inspired to travel and to “get out” of Kansas.

With your experience as a travel writer, you could settle anywhere, but you still maintain a home in Kansas, which doesn’t seem as though it would be “exotic” or interesting for someone who’s seen the world. What brings you back to the state?

Potts: I’ve always had strong affection for my home state, and some of my best memories from childhood involve driving around to little-known corners of the state with my family while my father was doing biology research.

Interestingly, travel influenced my decision to come back to Kansas. In seeing how families drew strength and meaning from one another in distant corners of the globe, I made a decision to find a place close to my family. About nine years ago, my sister and her family had moved to a rural part of north-central Kansas, and she suggested I invest in some property and make my home base near her.

Less than two miles from her place we noticed that 30 beautiful acres of grassland, complete with two houses, was for sale. I couldn’t afford it myself, so I went in on it with my parents, who had recently retired. They moved into the big new house, while I spent a year and a half renovating the doublewide as my own prairie office.

Initially I think I saw this house as a place to linger between travels, but the more I invested in fixing it up, the more I spent time there, the more it began to feel like home on an intuitive level. The experience of vagabonding is something that deepens with experience, I think, and one way to give your travels added meaning over time is to cultivate some sense of home.

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

Potts: People tend to think that it’s flat and boring, or culturally backwards. But I think this is the opinion of people who either haven’t been here, or haven’t traveled slowly enough to appreciate the subtler gifts of a place like Kansas. One of my favorite pastimes is hosting friends from the East or West Coast (or overseas), driving them through the landscape, and watching them react with joy to what they’d have missed had they been in a hurry.

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

Potts: My advice for non-Kansans is the same as my advice for Kansans: Get off the paved roads and wander. In most any county in the state, the best way to find landscape — and a sense giddy solitude — is to just find a dirt road and drive (or bike, or walk) until you find some completely surprising moment of beauty and epiphany.