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.