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

By By Jennifer Wilson; Photographs by John Noltner

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.

Settling In

The next morning dawns sunny, and we head east toward Lindsborg, called Little Sweden USA for the many immigrants who settled there in 1869. Bales of hay dot the emerald canvas of the land, and wheat stalks not in our wake. The RV's sheer size forces us to slow down and take in the rhythmic low hills. We can't help but feel relaxed, and Sam, who had a fretful night in a new place, snoozes in his playpen, where he stays with a mountain of toys when we're driving.

Creeping along with 10 or so cars trailing impatiently behind, Mom and I study every mosaic pattern on every old silo just a bit longer, lingering over every sagging barn and windmill in the distance.

"If you're not driving, this is the way to travel," Mom says. Then she folds her glasses and falls asleep on one of the sofas in back, until she's awakened by the buzz of Lindsborg's cobblestone streets under our tires.

As we park on a Main Street that's all Swedish flags, small shops, and pretty Victorians, I ask Jim if he heeded our campground neighbors' advice and walked around the RV three times before we left this morning to make sure everything was buttoned down and appropriately full or empty.

"Well, I only walked around twice," he says. I hope this is not an omen.

Lindsborg is the kind of town that serves those who want to stop, shop and eat. Tired and unsteady in our RV prowess, we need Lindsborg. Wandering into the gift store in the blacksmith shop that once repaired wagons off the Santa Fe Trail, we see an original forge and anvil. It's a message: We have it easy on our ride.

We break for lunch at Swedish Pastries & Emporium, filling up on sandwiches and life-altering Swedish pancakes. Dawdling over a good meal puts our travel legs under us. We leave in high spirits. I check the map for our options, as we drive south.

Hutchinson's Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center is the nation's only Smithsonian-affiliated space museum. Wichita boasts a line of attractions including Botanica, the Wichita Gardens; the Wichita Art Museum; and Old Cowtown living-history museum.

Of course we go for the cowboy stuff and spend a few hours with the re-enactors playing blacksmiths and buffalo hunters spinning stories of 1800s life.

We're gaining momentum. The map shows Benton just northeast of Wichita, where the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper offers a Western dinner show.

"Lets go paint our tonsils at the chuck wagon supper," I suggest, as Jim navigates out of city traffic.

The dinner bell rings at 6:30 at the Prairie Rose, signaling visitors at this working ranch to come and get it. Wandering in from the kiddie passenger train, Hopalong Cassidy Museum and the Indian Village, they fill an echoing hall crosshatched by plank tables piled with barbeque and beans. The rangy, kerchiefed cowboys serving us are nothing like the elusive, callous-palmed characters who worked this land through the decades. No, this is a glamorized version of what we've come to expect from American lore.

The evening's soundtrack unfolds in stunning three-part harmony after dinner. The Prairie Rose Wranglers cover Old West tunes in a harmonizing honeypot of sound. As they hit the last note of Marty Robbins' "Man Walks Among Us," the room is silent. I swallow back the lump in my throat, as Mom dabs at her eyes.

Charley and the Hootenanny

The next morning, we head northeast to Cottonwood Falls. The day's main event is the drive along State-177, a two-lane affair perfect for the kind of lollygagging we realize is inherent to RV travel.

Scenic overlook markers point out the bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass that characterize this land. Cattle graze in fields busted apart then knit back together by surprisingly pretty barbed wire. The bold emerald of the landscape is courtesy of late spring burns practiced by ranchers to kick-start new growth.

City people like these wide-open spaces, local weaver Charley Klamm tells me later when we meet in Chase State Fishing Lake and Park in Cottonwood Falls. "In the city they're elbow to elbow with people. Here it's just...space," he says, blue-green eyes on the verge of a grin under his sparse gray hair.

I'm rhapsodizing about the drive, and Charley tells me with a native's pride about the tallgrass prairie that surrounds us. This is the heart of the Flint Hills. No one knows where this sprawling geography starts or stops, but we know we're here when the road clefts through a hill to reveal the dark line of the mineral.

The cattle ranching prosperity that began in the 1880s left behind a legacy, though some of the area's grand old spreads now to serve as bed and breakfasts for travelers. The courthouse of native limestone in Cottonwood Falls is much quieter than during rowdy railroad days, when the barred backroom held prisoners who'd yell or clink cups across the bars, as townspeople passed by.

Absentee owners control most of the county these days, Charley says. But cowboys, essentially independent ranch hands, remain. I wonder aloud how closely yesterday's singing characters resemble the real deal.

"Well, cowboys still wear boots," he says, and laughs gently. "But they're going more to these four-wheelers these days. You can leap off and come back to a four-wheeler, but sometimes a horse wanders off."

Later, Mom shoos Jim and me off for a date night, and we catch a ride into town, the meet-up point for a tour of Charley's beloved grassland.

The Prairie Drifter Sunset Tour is about as close to a daydream as Jim and I can get right now, because we don't have to drive it. Dan Riggs lines his 1958 wheat truck with cushions and woolly blankets, so we're lazy and cozy bumping over the back roads.

Once in a while Dan stops to spin local lore, like how Knute Rockne's plane crashed by an area church in 1931. One fellow who lived nearby used to scatter debris on the site so that pilgrimaging fans wanting to view where the fabled University of Notre Dame football coach met his end could take something home.

Jim wraps me in a wool blanket to the sound of crickets, and the all-girl laughter of a family from Kansas City and St. Louis. They're memorizing the native flowers and repeat the names like a litany. Butterfly milkweed. Wavy-leaf thistle. Catsclaw. Yarrow.

When Dan drops us off, a loud racket emanates from the Emma Chase Cafe on the main street in Cottonwood Falls. We peek inside to find a local hootenanny in progress. Standing behind the jamming fiddler, guitar player and singers, Charley Klamm clatters a pair of buffalo bones together as percussion, grinning and nodding, welcoming us to prairie life.

Earning Our Spurs

The toilet is backed up. So is the shower. Sam is road-cranky, and Mom is worried we'll miss the Wah-Shun-Gah Days parade and celebration in Council Grove, one of the biggest festivals in the state. Jim and I recall the advice about "three times around the RV," as we remember we haven't emptied our used water tanks yet this trip.

By the time we've cleaned things out and headed north to Council Grove, we're looking for a little peace of mind. We find it at the Wah-Shun-Gah Days Powwow. Here, we're personally welcomed, like every one of the few hundred guests, by Julie Maker, the Kaw Nation Pow Wow Princess.

The Kaw were forced from this land to Oklahoma years ago, but now they're returning, having just bought a tract in Council Grove that is to serve as a historical site and museum.

Earlier, at the festival's blissfully long and candy-filled parade, Julie mentioned that we might want to pay special attention to the Fancy Dance, her favorite. "It's the ballet of our tribe," she says.

And indeed, when we settle into lawn chairs to watch the powwow, we find the athletic jump and spin of the Fancy Dance quite beautiful. The drum pulses nearly as the beat of our own hearts, and the bright rainbow of movement enchants us. The drum circle seems to send us off on this, the last night of our trip. Even the opening blessing resonates.

"Those of us who traveled to be here, give us travel mercies," the announcer says, and Mom, Jim and I exchange smiles. "For those of us who are seeing these dances for the first time, may they enjoy sharing in some of our tribal culture."

The evening's enchantment lingers, as we pull away from our site at Council Grove Lake the next day. The skies begin to sputter rain just as we're safely inside the RV. We're the ghost riders now, the newfangled pioneers, taking the prairie by storm.

Plan Your Roadtrip

Kansas Department of Travel and Tourism (www.travelks.org).

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