If you’ve ever met me in person, it’s no secret that I’m not a native Kansan.
I drop way too many “y’all’s”, own way too many sundresses, and spend too much time researching the ultimate fried chicken recipes to be considered a natural born child of the Sunflower State.
So how’d I end up living on a recently revived homestead nestled in the Flint Hills? By quite the circuitous route.
It all started in Memphis, TN – our nation’s most dangerous city. I was raised in the shadow of Elvis, half a dozen Evangelical (or Fundamentalist, depending on your political leanings) cult leaders, and the ultimate sweet sauce BBQ.
I spent a couple years in Washington, D.C. – my all-time favorite big city – where weekends involved Smithsonian exhibits and Kennedy Center performances, along with lots and lots of running. I thought northern Virginia was where I’d park it and set up a home, but the Universe had other plans.
While in college, I met a smooth-talking cavalry officer who’d spent his summer working at a D.C. think tank. We hit it off after discovering our mutual interests in cattle, running, and Memphis BBQ. In fairly whirlwind romance (you gotta watch them army boys), I found myself following the path many a military family makes – FT Leavenworth.
Maximum Security Prison and Gentlemen’s Club
Leavenworth’s one the U.S. Army’s officer education hubs, so it was must-do on my spouse’s career checklist.
The base is super historic (lots of cool buildings) and our military friends assured us the neighboring Kansas City wasn’t all that bad (i.e.: good food, nice stores, decent traffic). I was willing to give it a shot. You learn early on in army life that any duty station offering something more than strip clubs and pawn shops adjacent to a base is a big plus, and Leavenworth seemed to offer more than the typical line-up.
I drove into Leavenworth late one night, and coming off the interstate exit, the first thing I saw was the giant, insanely-well-lit federal prison. It’s quite the sight…you may recall talk of moving Guantanamo Bay prisoners here a couple years ago (Kansans weren’t on board).
Passing under the prison’s looming shadows, all I could think was, “And I used to think strip clubs were bad base neighbors…”
“Baby, I bought a farm!”
Like many military families, we didn’t exactly have a “home”. The places both my husband and I hail from aren’t exactly booming metropolises teaming with opportunity for B-school grads. So finding a nice place post-service was always high on our list; I just had no idea Kansas – of all places – would meet our home base requirements.
To make a long story short: we found a piece of undeveloped land listed on Craigslist. It was so overgrown with thorny Osage trees (essentially Kansas’ state invasive plant species) that we couldn’t access the entire property to view the property lines. We cut a deal with the seller over an old Ford truck hood at a gas station and bought the place.
The property acquisition made our next anniversary gift shopping easy – we bought two chainsaws and went to work. In one insane winter, the majority of the property was cleared (all manually – no big equipment), barns went up, and we (attempted) to start a house build (current project status: SNAFU).
We ended up digging a snake-infested 1970’s era camper out of some of our bottomland, salvaging the trailer, and building an off the grid tiny house. Not exactly what I had pictured as our “forever home”, but hey, when it’s -10 degrees F on the Great Plains 200-square feet of insulation beats nothing.
A Reluctant Acclimation
Adjusting to Kansas wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. I missed my Saturday soirées, Ole Miss football games, weekend beach trips. I’d gone from rocking J.Crew suits to wearing the same pair of Carhart coveralls for five straight months; it seemed as everything in Kansas was totally different than any of the cultures I’d previously lived, and I, admittedly, wanted to move back east more than once.
My Midwestern acclimation process wasn’t all bad: I ended up being able to fulfill my long-held dream of starting a farm, was invited to join two colleges as a business instructor, and grew my marketing company into something with greater scope than I’d previously envisioned. Buying the overgrown farm added another element of satisfaction; it was so neat to see a forgotten piece of wilderness restored to its former glory as a cattle operation, especially given the rarity in which first-generation farms are financed and sustained in our modern economy.
Reflecting over the whole “becoming Kansan” process, here are a few observations regarding my new home state and her unique culture:
It’s January, and in the past week, I’ve experienced a 70-degree temperature span: from -20 degrees F (yes, you read that right) to 50 degrees F. We’ve had snow, sun, rain, sleet, hail, insane winds, and more wind.
Sometimes, we get snow in May. Other times, it’s summer temps at Thanksgiving. I’ve gotten to where I just leave a pair of coveralls and snow boots in my car – you never know when you’ll leave the house in one season, experience another during lunch, and yet another come 5 o’clock.
Welcome to Kansas.
My southern colloquialisms didn’t do me any favors when attempting to grow my Kansas network.
Kansans are super polite, very responsible, and incredibly pragmatic. They don’t want to hear your life story on the first handshake and will feel quite invaded if you ask them for theirs. It takes longer to build rapport with Kansans than I’d experienced in other regions; but they are incredibly loyal and very, very reliable, so makes for a nice social tradeoff.
I’ve had to adapt my cultural references to life in the Dust Bowl, er, Midwest, as no one here knows what Hotty Toddy means or thinks my Jerry Clower renditions are funny.
Kansans love, love, love their guns; in fact, Kansas is currently home to some of the laxest gun laws in the entire nation (no permit required for concealed carry). Coming from Memphis, a city where armed robbery occurs with more frequently than snow, I was a bit taken aback by the frequency of handguns pretty much everywhere (doctor’s office, produce section of Wal-Mart, Baby’s R Us).
My first instinct when seeing the handle of a .45 peeking out from someone’s suit coat is to call security. I’m slowly adjusting to the prevalence of side pieces in a firearms culture, it takes a while to get used to seeing guns pretty much everywhere (is this a Gunsmoke episode?).
You may have heard Kansas described as being “flat” (it’s actually #7 on the national list – Florida is way, way, way flatter than Kansas), yet a quick trip across the state will reveal many different landscapes.
We live near the Flint Hills – they are beautiful and home to several bison herds; other regions offer diverse ecosystems including extensive cropland, rolling prairie, and hardwood forests. It’s quite pretty. Non-Kansans always comment about how surprised they are at the Sunflower State’s landscape aesthetics (myself included). If you ever have a chance to drive thru Kansas and experience the unique geography, I recommend doing so.
Just a heads up: what they say about Kansas being rural is true. Plan your road trip pit stops accordingly.
Thanks to several high-profile right-wing political entrepreneurs, Kansas has gained quite the reputation as the “(failed) Tea Party Experiment”. Several of the main industries in Kansas have a reputation for strong GOP ties (agriculture, anyone?)
While historically designated a red state, population-saturated parts of the state (Douglas and Johnson County) routinely vote blue, so there is actually a lot more bipartisan representation that I’ve encountered in other historically conservative states like Texas and Mississippi.
The 2017 Women’s March had a strong turnout of men and women from all over the state of Kansas, and a 2018 event is currently on the books. Experiencing the political climate in Kansas has helped me recognize the potential of bipartisan initiatives and avoid party-affiliation stereotyping.
Home Sweet Home
While it’s taken a few years to get my bearings, Kansas is finally beginning to feel like “home”.
Kansas City is GREAT, Dallas and Chicago are just about equidistance, and the Rocky Mountains aren’t too terribly far away (hello, snow skiing!). There aren’t many places that allow you to live within an hour of an international airport, but still have more cows for neighbors than people.
It’s nice to step out the back door every morning and own everything as far as the eye can see, and not have to constantly track the latest trends in home invasions or domestic terrorist attacks. Kansas isn’t perfect (did you catch that part about snow in May?); however, it’s (in my very biased opinion) one of the United States’ best-kept secrets.
The state motto: “Ad Astra per Aspera” (translated, “to the stars through difficulty”) has proven to be an applicable description of our Kansas experience. While you may find me cussing out both sides of my mouth when it is -4 degrees F and cattle have to be fed, I am forever grateful to the good Kansans I’m proud to call my friends and the opportunities I’ve been able to pursue in what most consider just another flyover state.
Plus, after years of transient military life, it’s so just nice to finally have a place to call our home.