Driving the 411 miles across Kansas in summer is like paved eternity. It’s hot. Not quite as hot as hell, but hot nonetheless.
The only change in scenery is a tree. The only change in the weather is a tornado. Why, oh why, you ask, would someone make that drive?
The obvious answer is like the chicken crossing the road: to get to the other side. Or, as in my case, you’re going to a family reunion in Missouri.
You could take I-70 all the way across, dodging sleep-deprived drivers in semi-trucks, radar-toting Highway Patrol and road-raging tailgaters.
Or, you could take the road less travelled, in this case, Highway 18 that parallels I-70 most of the way across. Nobody goes that way because it doesn’t have any McDonald’s Happy Meals or Applebee’s Blooming Onions.
Trust me, you’re gonna need a rest stop halfway across Kansas, whichever route you take. We opted for the quiet and solitude of Highway 18 because I go all John Wayne when I’m tailgated and we wanted to be calm and collected to greet the relatives. Lucas, Kansas, is about halfway and home to the most stupendous rest stop you’ll ever encounter.
By anybody’s count, there’s about 140 ghost towns in Kansas, places that literally dried up and blew away. In the early 1800s, Kansas towns popped up like marijuana sprouts (Hey! It’s Colorado after all) as traffic picked up along the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was passed after a lot of heated rhetoric between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in Congress. The act prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory except in Missouri, but the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed it and left the question of slavery up to white males in the individual towns.
The intention of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to provide a transcontinental railroad by granting them huge tracts of land to choose their route, breaking up the remainder into farms and ranches. History buffs know there’s always a fly in the ointment. In this case it was allowing voters to decide the question of slavery. Proponents of both sides flooded into Kansas, seemingly intent on shooting their opponents. The pro-slavery advocates envisioned huge farms worked by slaves. The anti-group saw opportunity for lots of small farmers.
The vote was held in March of 1855 and 1,500 qualified Kansas voters cast over 6,000 ballots, overwhelmingly in favor of slavery. Suspecting voter fraud, the territorial governor declared the ballots invalid, but he was ignored and the new pro-slavery legislature convened in July 1855.
In response, the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed 1,200 New England Yankees with Sharps rifles and sent them to Kansas. The situation became very tense. A committee appointed by Congress determined that, after invalid ballots were discounted, the anti-slavery faction had handily won the election and declared the pro-slavery legislature illegal.
War broke out first on the Senate floor when pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks nearly killed Senator Charles Sumner with a heavy cane for his vehement advocacy of Kansas as a free state. Meanwhile, the war in Kansas had taken such a violent turn that the phrase “Bleeding Kansas” was coined. But the Kansas battles were only a foretaste of the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.
And 154 years after the election of Abraham Lincoln, ethereal peace reigns in Kansas, the endless horizons, the rolling plains and the seemingly unending fields of corn, wheat and soybeans yield no evidence of the troubled birth of this state.
There are at least three good reasons to stop at Lucas. The public restrooms at the center of town are simply magnificent works of art. They sit right next door to the Grassroots Art Center, a collection of folk art that ranges from merely stunning to truly astounding. Neither least nor last on the list is S. P. Dinsmore’s Garden of Eden, an oddity that defies description in the limits of this column. See what I mean at: http://www.kansastravel.org/gardenofeden.htm
You just thought you’d seen it all.