Home on the Range | Midwest Living

Home on the Range

Looking for what's left of the Old West, a family hits the Kansas prairie in today's covered wagon: an RV.

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Hitting the Open Road

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MAY/JUNE 2004)

The first fat raindrops hit the windshield, but my husband, Jim, ignores them. His hands grip the steering wheel, his eyes riveted on this central Kansas highway.

Though I've always loved the building of late-spring thunderstorms, my perspective has changed a bit as the co-pilot of a 31-foot-long recreational vehicle. Especially with the words of a cowboy we met at our last stop ringing in my ears.

"Keep your eyes peeled for ghost riders," Jim Gray, the owner of Drovers Mercantile in Ellsworth told us, his eyes only a little playful under his wide-brimmed hat. "Ghost riders" is cowboyese for dust clouds rolling across the prairie, giving the appearance of phantom horsemen pounding by--and warning of a bad storm brewing.

The green hills, lazy cattle and stone fences outside the picture-window-size windshield should be lulling us into a vacation reverie, but Jim's eyes flick over to meet mine, as thunder rumbles through a distant smattering of heavy gray clouds pierced by a few dramatic beams of sunlight. In the back, my mom, Paula, and my 1-year-old son, Sam, relax in the comforts of the modern-day covered wagon we rented in Abilene for our loop through the heart of the state in search of cowboy kitsch, small towns and subtle prairie beauty.

But Jim and I stay focused on the road as we head to our first overnight destination, Kanopolis State Park, 30 miles southwest of Salina, with its sandy beaches, prairie dog town, and hiking trails winding past sandstone caves.

As we roll into the campground, rain pocks the 3,000-acre Kanopolis Reservoir that our site overlooks. I try to wave Jim into our parking spot, fail miserably, then sigh with relief when flanne-shirt-clad campers emerge from surrounding Jaycos, Winnebagos and Scamps to help Jim navigate his frist, wet landing.

"Crank it this way! Little more! Good! Park it!"

Thirty minutes later, with all the hoses, tanks and doohickeys connected, Jim grumbles, "So this is why people camp in the same spot for weeks."

That night, rain clearing, neighbors float us driving tips--avoid sharp turns, turn square corners, double your stopping time, drive hills slowly. They also explain the art of campground flair. We should've brought jalapeno lights or at least a windsock. We don't even have drink holders on our folding chairs.

Our temporary neighborhood redeems the first damp day of a weeklong trip, welcoming us into the fold with cold drinks and easy company. The RV park grapevine offers hope: the forecast is clear of storms.

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