Love can be strange. It can arrive at the most unexpected moments, and can catch you longing for the most unexpected things, people and places.
For me, home is mountains and rivers. It’s dry stone walls or lush green hedges along winding country lanes. It’s moody grey skies and lots and lots (and lots) of rain.
So it might seem odd that I fell in love with such a flat, dry, hot place.
But then, Kansas and Cumbria have a lot in common, despite their very different weather patterns. Although of course there are cities, they’re both largely rural places. They’re both about farming. And in both there’s a real focus on community and neighbourliness: the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else.
1: FROM THE AIR
My first sight of the Sunflower State came as we soared over it on our flight from Chicago. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I could quite literally see for miles.
Below me, fields spread out to the horizon like a gigantic patchwork quilt. Between them were paved roads and dust roads, all of them running straight as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of how this part of the country became what it is today: through 40 acre claims farmed by early settlers.
At home, I’m used to curves and contours. I’m used to winding streets where you lose all sense of direction. All of these neat, orderly straight lines fascinated me. From thousands of feet in the air, it was a thing of geometric beauty.
Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was something I was pretty nervous about. What if I got it wrong and accidentally ended up driving on the left?
But it turned out that the bigger difficulty was the size of the car, which was about twice the length of my compact little Suzuki Alto which I drive at home. To begin with, it felt like driving a bus. I had absolutely no idea where the thing started and finished. Thank goodness for helpful parents to tell me how far away I was from walls and things!
I soon got used to it, though – with only one mounted curb to show for my steep learning curve.
I think I clocked up about 200 miles in the end, which on Kansas roads feels easy as pie. Another change from home: wide roads with very (very, very) few bends. Much easier driving, and a great way to soak up the landscape as I steered us through it.
I’m not particularly into sport. With the exception of the Wimbledon final, I tend not to watch sport on TV. I find it a bit boring. But put me in a stadium with thousands of other people, and I love it.
I love the atmosphere, the crowds, the excitement of rooting for a team and actually being there to see whether they win or lose. I also love people watching, and live sports matches are a perfect place for that.
We went to see the Kansas City Royals play the Detroit Tigers. (Ok, so the stadium is actually just over the state line in Missouri, but I’m counting it anyway.)
The whole stadium was awash with blue. The noise was constant. If it wasn’t cheering or talking, there were blasts of music and chants from the speakers. Everywhere there were people selling drinks, candy floss, hot dogs, caps, fans…
The actual game was uneventful and low-scoring, but the whole experience was awesome! And luckily, I had a 7-year-old explaining the rules to me, so I even followed what was happening in the baseball game itself. Win!
Ok, so Kansas isn’t exactly renowned for its gastronomic prowess. It doesn’t instantly make you think: gormet.
But I love home cooking and tasty not-too-fancy meals. And Kansas does those really really well. Here’s a example of some of the delicious food I ate during my trip:
- lots of corn on the cob
- doughnuts (or donuts) for breakfast
- plenty of guacamole
- crispy fried chicken
- pickled beets (courtesy of my great aunt)
- BBQ’d meat
- ice cream from Braum’s
5: MORNINGS ON THE BACK DECK DRINKING COFFEE
First thing in the morning and last thing in the evening were the only times that it was cool enough to sit outside for more than about two minutes. So, being British people who don’t get to see the sun very often, we made the most of it.
Sitting on the back deck of my great aunt’s house and drinking my morning coffee was one of my favourite parts of the day. It was such a relaxed start to the morning, just looking out across the grass to the neighbours’ yards, watching the orioles and cardinals on the bird feeder. It set the pace of the day: so different to my hectic days at home.
6: LIGHTNING BUGS
My other favourite time of day was dusk into the evening. This was another idyllic time for sitting out on the back deck, listening to the crickets and watching the fireflies, or ‘lightning bugs’ as they’re called locally.
I remember going to Kansas as a child and catching fireflies in a jam jar to make a lantern. But this time, we just sat under the stars and watched them glow.
Because they only come out as it starts to get dark, and they’re visible only as flashes of luminescence in the dusk, I didn’t get any photos of the lightninght bugs. So here’s a picture of a monkey stealing peanuts instead:
7: THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Rural Kansas is all about being neighbourly. In that respect, it’s a bit like the hamlet I live in at home, although here it seemed to be at a whole new level.
On our first morning, we ended up helping my great aunt’s neighbour to plant up some flowerpots to go outside the front of her house. (I say ‘we’ – really I just made friends with her dog, Sophie.) Later in the week, the neighbour popped in to say hi to my great aunt, whose family were coming over for dinner. So the neighbour stayed to prep veg. I thought this meant she’d be staying to dinner as well, but no, apparently she had to get back, so she just helped out and then went home again.
I’m probably not painting a very good picture of the sort of hospitality and generosity that I found in Kansas. But the thing is, there were no big stand-out moments to illustrate it. It was all just little gestures here, a bit of kindness there, a genuine open-hearted welcome from someone else.
It was the sort of place were it was easy to feel welcomed and included. Even a place to feel at home.
I suppose in a way I fell in love with Kansas years ago. Not just from visiting family there as a child, but from the books I read: primarily, The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie. The Wizard of Oz has been a long-standing love of mine. (You could almost call it a long-term relationship.) As for Little House on the Prairie, although I’d read it before, it’s only recently that I’ve really come to love and appreciate it.
Both of these books are at least partly set in Kansas, and both have physical links to the area where a lot of my family live. So when we spent a day visiting the Little House on the Prairie itself and then driving out to Sedan to see the town’s real-life yellow brick road, I was buzzing.
Despite all these wonderful things that I love about Kansas, the real reason for visiting the Sunflower State was to see extended family.
I have quite a large branch of family in the south-east corner of Kansas, and every summer they have a big family reunion. I hadn’t been to one since I was 10, so I was slightly nervous. What if I didn’t recognise anybody? Would people be offended if I couldn’t remember them from over fifteen years ago? What if we were left standing on the edge of the party like wallflowers at a 50s school dance?
Turns out that I needn’t have worried at all. Remember that welcoming neighbourly hospitality that I was talking about? When it came to family that was amplified. Going to the family reunion felt like slotting into my place in a jigsaw puzzle.
This is often my favourite thing about visiting any place: learning its stories. I love hearing about its history, what made a place and its people the way they are. I love myths and legends, the local folklore, the rumour and the hearsay. I love talking to people and finding out what makes them tick.
And Kansas was a place where I heard so many stories.
Like most small rural towns where nearly everybody knows each other, there were lots of stories about people. I heard what felt like the entire life story of men and women I’d never met, and probably never will meet. I got the backstory of generations for some of these people.
I also heard family stories, as I sat with my great aunts and listened to them talk about their childhood and their adolescence. These were my favourite stories, because they were stories that I could fit myself into. I could carry on their telling right into 2016 and my own trip to the USA. I was a character in these histories, albeit a bit later along the narrative.
Do you have anywhere you’ve unexpectedly fallen in love with? Where was it? What made you love it so much? Comments below. 🙂