Manhattan, Kansas was a neatly wrapped present whose contents, when opened, turned out to be a treasure. The heart-stopping natural beauty of places like Yosemite, and the Tetons, and Yellowstone are like the 1812 Overture of scenic beauty. But the miles of lush, rolling green grasslands around Manhattan, punctuated by the outcroppings of limestone of the Flint Hills were more like a Shaker hymn.
This is a land of the humble beauty of the heartland, deeply satisfying and profoundly moving. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am not so sure but the prairies and plains … last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller … and make North America’s characteristic landscape”.
Manhattan sits in the Flint Hills, which stretch roughly north-south from Kansas into the Osage Hills of Oklahoma. This area is the last major stand of the tall grass prairie, which once covered the greater part of the mid-section of the country. It is a land topped with a thin layer of soil sitting on a deep base of limestone where dense grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, and little bluestem, grow in abundance. It is a land kept largely treeless by the delicate dance of nature between the ever-present grazing animals (most famously the bison) that live on the nutritious and abundant grasses, which sprout after the fires that kept the prairies cleared out. Today, it is the grazing of cattle and planned burns that keep the ecosystem as vibrant as possible given the encroaching interests.
We drove to town wanting to learn about the campus of Kansas State University, the original land-grant college of Kansas, founded in 1862. At the Chamber of Commerce, we learned about the botanical gardens at K-State (a must-see which was amazing with iris and roses in full bloom). We were directed to the dairy (this is after all an aggie school) and some yummy homemade ice cream with really high butter fat. And we each enjoyed our own dish.
The Chamber person recommended we visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center. This is a kind of natural history/science/museum dedicated to telling the story of the geological phenomenon known as the Flint Hills. It was hands down one of the most compelling places we have seen on our entire trip. We learned about the 250-million year history of the area, once the bottom of the inland sea, the formation of the limestone and mudstone that created the base of the soil and the grasses that distinguish this part of the tall grass prairie. Because of the limestone, just beneath the surface, this prairie had a natural defense to the plow and was never plowed over, as were other parts of the prairie.
The grasses here have dense root systems, often as deep as they are tall. So the six to eight foot tall grasses of September are anchored by a root system (vertical and horizontal) as deep. The roots grow through the cracks of the limestone beds, searching for water and extracting minerals from the limestone, converting them in the grasses’ internal chemical factory to a minerally-rich and nutritious food source for the grazers.
Hunters and gathers have been here for about 13,000 years and few organized communities were ever established by the native Americans until the mid-1800s and by then, the western expansion had begun and those left in the area by the closing years of the century were moved to reservations.
From the geological to the botanical to the human history, the place is great. The orientation film, “Tides of Time” is a well-done 15-minute film that includes really cool special effects that open up the experience of tall grass prairie. The sound track to the film was stunning and I tried to track down a copy but to no avail. We quickly surpassed our usual three-hour built-in time clock for museums.
While in Kansas, we visited the Eisenhower Presidential Library in nearby Abilene, Kansas, a powerful visit for us both. “Ike” is the first President I really remember and this pilgrimage brought up memories of the 34th president that I could visit for the first time from the present. They are mixed with equal parts of sweetness and sorrow.
My Dad held the rank of Sergeant in the U.S. Army in World War II. He was fond of telling his story of actually bumping into the General at the headquarters in France where both were stationed. Throughout his life, Dad would tell us of his admiration for the General as a man of principle. In 1955, when Eisenhower had his heart attack, I wrote him a “Get Well” card and I still remember the note card I got back, signed by the First Lady, and written on official Presidential stationery. I treasured that note.
One of the surprise highlights of the Library for me was seeing Mamie’s dresses. One of them, a short black tulle and lace cocktail dress, reminded me of one my mother had in the mid-1950s. I still remember her walking into our Long Island living room as she and Dad were heading out and thinking it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen. She carried a little beaded black evening purse which decades later she gave to me. And then there was the realization that Mamie’s haircut, with her famous bangs, apparently was the inspiration for my haircuts in the mid-1950s. I was styling!
After leaving Kansas we headed east into Missouri and went backwards in our American history to the Truman Presidential Library and the service of the 33rd president. I got to “meet” the man from Independence, walk the downtown streets that were part of his famous morning routine, and see the town which formed him. I was impressed by the humility of the man, his devotion to his wife and his only daughter, and his dislike of the formality and ritual imposed on him by the weight of the office. Peter was impressed with his ability to make very difficult decisions during his presidency based on his strong values and not out of political expedencies.
One of my favorite parts of this Library was the impressive Thomas Hart Benton mural from the entrance hall, which Truman loved. It was commissioned in 1957 when Truman began the planning of his library and he is reported to have actually contributed a few brush strokes to the sky in the upper right hand corner. We actually made a second visit to the Library in order to view the documentary with David McCullough which told the story of his life and the significant challenges of his presidency which he navigated from the platform of his conscience.
From the western part of Missouri, we head east to Jefferson City and then we are going to figure it out from there, no plans until we head to the Airstream factory on May 18.
Sending all you Moms out there blessings for a wonderful Mother’s Day from the heartland.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, traveling east through the heartland of Kansas and Missouri, as they travel the U.S. in their Airstream.