On the first Saturday of May, Jim and I roused ourselves early and drove two hours to the Kansas Sampler Festival. It’s a curious festival—more a statewide meet-and-greet than your typical artsy-craftsy affair. I don’t know if they have festivals like it in other states, but it was the first of its kind I’d ever attended. The big, leafy park in Winfield, KS blossomed for two days with large white tents, and the tents, separated by regions, contained representatives from nearly every populated community in the state. Walking through, you’d meet someone from Cawker City, home of the world-famous ball of twine; someone from Atchison, the most haunted town in the state; someone from Abilene, waxing poetic about Dwight D. Eisenhower. One tent was specifically set aside for historical re-enactors from all four corners of the state, a group of whom emerged once an hour for a gunfight on the grassy knoll nearby. As we walked by, all the departed happily rose from their deaths to get lunch.
When we wandered near to one of the four open-air stages, the general twittering chatter of festival-goers faded into music. I recognized a couple of the names on the program, and we enjoyed a few sets before wandering into the food trucks for some Kansas City-style barbecue. (There’s no other kind, really.) It was a gorgeous, green Spring day. And I was filled, truly, with a sense of being a Kansan through-and-through, if not born-and-bred.
Everyone manning a booth was charmingly non-professional. I can’t forget the woman who talked to us for a good five minutes about the versatility of Sorghum grain, and offered up cookies to support her cause. The sweet, young, red-headed Park Service Ranger who was passionate about Nicodemus, the last remaining town in Kansas settled by freed slaves who had fled the South. Person after person sharing with other Kansans about their historic downtowns, their lakes, their yearly Meatloaf Festival. This wasn’t for the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country. The purpose, as far as I could tell, was make Kansans feel proud their towns, their state. To remind us how much there is to do and see nearby. To set aside, for a weekend, the shared inferiority complex that leaves a lot of us constantly split between defending our home and also apologizing for it to outsiders.
It gets old, talking about Kansas when you’re traveling. I’m remembering the cashier in Colorado who said, “Sorry,” with a laugh when we said we were headed back to Kansas. The scrunched-up grimace of a waitress in California as she said, “Kansas? No I’ve never been there. God, aren’t you so bored all the time?” Or the common, “Yeah, I think I drove across Kansas once. But I’ve already forgotten it.” Hardy-Har. Yessir, that’s hilarious. And, sure, there are aspects to Kansas that aren’t great. The politics are an absolute mess. The budget’s in the toilet. Our schools are barely holding it together. And once a year or so, someone’s house gets carried off in a tornado. But, despite all that, it’s a great idea to take off one weekend, just one, to forget the bad stuff and remember why it’s so nice to live here.
And it is nice, after all. It’s easy, living here. There’s never any traffic. If Jim and I have to wait for more than one car to pass by at an intersection, we’re likely to exclaim to each other, “What is this? The Santa Monica Freeway?!”
And because the scale of the communities is so small, the rules are usually relaxed and malleable. One of our favorite stories to tell about moving to Kansas is about planning our wedding. We had only lived here a year, and so we had no clue what the process would be like. We walked into the city office and explained that we would like to use the city park pavilion for a wedding reception.
“That sounds nice,” said Crystal, who is always the only person in the office.
“Do we need to sign anything? Or get a permit?”
“What?” Crystal looked truly confused.
“Well, there will be alcohol there.”
“I should hope so!” She laughed. “Don’t worry about it.” And, because we seemed to want her to do something official, she wrote down our names and the date of the wedding. “Just have a nice time,” she said. And she waved us out, shaking her head at our crazy ideas about permits and permissions.
Another story. It was Christmas Eve, 2010. Jim and I had just flown out to California after the sudden death of my father. We were at the funeral home with my Mom, planning the Wake, when Jim’s phone rang. Apologizing, he ducked into the hallway to take the call, and when he returned, a couple minutes later, it was with a look of befuddled amazement. “You won’t believe it,” he said. “It was the Postmaster. Back home. We have a package that arrived after we left, and she was worried we would miss a present on Christmas Day.”
“She called you”–I looked at the time– “at closing time, Christmas Eve, to make sure we wouldn’t miss a present?” He nodded, and I chuckled, sadly, “What is this place we’ve moved to?! That’s incredible.”
“I’m so glad we live there,” he said, pulling me into a hug.
“No kidding,” I agreed.
There are about a million things other people would hate about our town, but we love. Like the fact that it takes years to get a pothole fixed. Or that the city got halfway through fixing a drainage problem in the middle of Main Street a year ago and then stopped, and haven’t returned, leaving behind a massive muddy trench in the street. The smell of burning leaves in the Fall. The confused roosters crowing at 3am. The fact that you can’t find a single city or county official on the job during the noon hour. And, especially, the fact that, in a contest between the sidewalk and massive tree roots, people around here let the tree win.
It’s inefficient and that’s the way we like it. People here are still just people, and not officious or slickly professional. The regulations bend themselves when the situation warrants it. And folks are fond of looking the other way. Those can all be bad traits in a community, and I’m certain they have proved destructive a number of times in the history of our town, but most of the time they create a live-and-let-live spirit that makes life feel a bit more manageable here than it does anywhere else.
That’s not to say it’s always a picnic. Sometimes I have to be reminded why we moved to the middle of nowhere. There are days when I feel hemmed in by our small town, with its one small grocery store, its one restaurant, its one-screen movie theater that’s probably playing something I don’t want to see. I get antsy and irritable with my lack of options. The hour’s distance between us and the nearest Walmart seems to stretch the length of a continent. The two hour drive to the nearest airport, the nearest Indian restaurant, or professional baseball game, might as well be a transatlantic flight. And even that distance doesn’t take me to a real “city.” When I want to sink into the luxurious anonymity of a real, bustling metropolis, I have to plan for a 5-6 hour drive to Kansas City.
And there are moments, when I’m in Kansas City, or visiting my mom in Oakland, or visiting my best friend in Minneapolis, when I wonder whether I’m not better suited to a city life. Whether I wouldn’t prefer to be surrounded by movement and lively activity. Whether it wasn’t a mistake to settle down into a life in a tiny little dot on the plains.
But those moments pass.
After a few days, the noise becomes overbearing. Everything is expensive. The streets are heaving with crowds of people, and you have to wait an hour to get a table at a restaurant. And the traffic. Good Lord, the traffic.
Safely returned to my home, I luxuriate in the quiet. The open roads. The ease.
Jim likes to say that this is the last true vestige of the Wild West, and he’s right about that. The Internet Age hasn’t quite penetrated this last swath of the country. Google Maps hardly knows half the businesses in town. Websites, when they exist, tend to look like a throwback to the early 2000s. One of our dear friends here only confessed to me a couple days ago that she can never keep straight the difference between CD’s and DVD’s.
You could really detach here, if you wanted. It’s easy to push away news of the outside world; to just pick up the snippets from the local news out of Wichita, unfollow all the politics on Facebook, and call it quits on all the larger, more complicated global issues. And, though I haven’t quite made that leap to a full, blissful opting-out, I’m keeping the option in my back pocket. Give me another decade or so of all this nonsense and I’ll be ready to hit mute on anything outside a 200-miles radius. I’ll make my whole world out of this town, this state, the people who understand how nice life can be.
“You think this is considered an open container violation?” I asked our neighbors Terry and Evan recently, as I walked back and forth across the street between our houses with my half-drunk beer in hand. Everybody laughed.
“Maybe somewhere else, it is,” Terry replied. “But definitely not here.”
Tonya Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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