Seeking Magic in the Heartland of Kansas

Photo by Nathan Ward
Photo by Nathan Ward

by Nathan Ward

A person can’t escape the sky in central Kansas. The bubble of space around you dominates every angle of view. The horizon line, the thin crust of Earth traveled by humans, feels stretched and fragile in contrast. But one can see a long way out here, and under this vast sky, a slow moving black dot drew my eye.

The sky was mirrored on land by the miles of water all around us as we cycled toward the dot down a washboard dirt road in the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, one of the biggest and most vital wetlands left in America. A steady wind pushed the open water into small waves, but in the sheltered sloughs, thousands of birds frantically fed and the air almost quivered with their calls.

The black dot almost escaped us, easing into the roadside grass, but when we finally pulled beside it, the western painted turtle sucked its legs and head into its shell and froze. Now, seeing a turtle on the road wouldn’t normally be considered a highlight of a bike tour, but now imagine you’re bike touring with a one-year old in the trailer, and a turtle in the road becomes providence, a miracle, a reason to stop and picnic right there.

I unstrapped my son Kian from the Chariot and stood him beside the turtle. He looked in rapture, fast dancing his feet up and down, pointing and exclaiming “Daddy! Tootle!” When you talk to Kansans here, they often say things like “Kansas has its own special beauty” or “the beauty is in the details”, and for us, it was absolutely true. In this immense wetland, one of the world’s most important bird migration stopovers, a simple turtle made our day. Like Kansas itself, sometimes the beauty of bike touring is in the details.

The Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway runs 77 miles between Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, two of the 12 large marshes that once graced central Kansas and provided sustenance for the millions of birds that stopped here in their annual migrations. Today, only five of the wetlands still exist, and these two are among the largest wetlands systems left in the world.

For us it provided an ideal bike tour route with our child in tow. We planned to ride the Wetlands and Wildlife route, add miles by exploring the roads within the wetlands, and take side trips along the way. We’d skip camping and spend the nights sampling the local fare and sleeping in cool air-conditioned rooms. It’s a winning combination.

I can hear a few of you right now saying “Bike touring in Kansas? What were you thinking?” In fact, I think I’ve said it myself. However, in truth, there is great riding almost anywhere on the planet as long as you approach the open road with an open mind. It’s a decision to craft your reality. Expect heat and headwinds and they’ll blow your way. Or simply seek magic and you’ll find it. We set out to seek gold in the Golden Belt of Kansas.

Near Great Bend, the anemic Arkansas River juts north and then curves like a scythe south again. When we crossed it in early May, years of drought had sucked it down to an ankle-deep trickle that one could almost jump across. The thin trickle gave no clue to the immense wetlands just north of town.

We headed north and took a left at the new Kansas Wetlands Education Center. Here, the 64-square-mile Cheyenne Bottoms basin stretches out, a mix of natural wetlands and manmade waterways separated by raised causeways that are perfect for bike riding. Admittedly, in a dry year under overcast skies, it’s not a view that made us fall off our bikes in wonder at first sight. It’s more like a red-headed woodpecker egg that incubates and hatches as you pedal deeper into the basin, erupting in unexpected natural wonder that makes you hit the disc brakes and say “Wow! That’s cool.”

Map by Nathan Taylor?
Map by Nathan Taylor

“Let’s bike the driving tour!” proposed Andrea, my wife. I agreed, and we set off, driver’s brochures in hand, on a loop winding between the waterways and providing about a thousand opportunities to watch birds. Unfortunately, though we’d planned our trip to coincide with the spring migration, no one told the birds and they’d already flown in and out of Cheyenne Bottoms.

This migration is one of the great animal movements on the planet. Experts estimate that 45 to 90 percent of North America’s shorebirds travel through here twice a year — once in spring and once in fall. Imagine the sheer numbers. Locals say the birdsong is so loud they can’t hear each other talk.

Although we missed the big show, Cheyenne Bottoms is still home to around 100 bird species that breed and nest here, so we still spotted more types of birds than we could identify. This is due in part to the fact that we are only recreational birders, and in part to the fact that birdwatching with a one-year-old child is a laughable fantasy. Touring with a young child is very much of a gamble. Sometimes it’s bliss and sometimes, it’s just the opposite.

Just when meltdown one appeared on the horizon, the “tootle” appeared to save the day. As we sat in the middle of the road watching the turtle and stuffing snacks into Kian, we read about Cheyenne Bottoms in our driver’s brochure. It told a tale of a wetland in peril and how the government had to step in and buy land back from locals to protect the wetlands. It’s hard to believe early settlers saw the beauty here in the same way since they named the two creeks that feed the wetlands Blood Creek and Deception Creek. Not exactly warm fuzzy names.

We also learned that a world of worms wriggled through the miles of muck and mud all around us — blood worms. Despite their ominous name, apparently they are the power food of the ecosystem and the millions of migrating birds each year stuff themselves full to fuel up for the rest of the journey. We stuffed ourselves full of sandwiches instead and continued the ride.

Huge carp patrolled the waterways, their backs breaking the water’s surface, mouths loudly sucking. Our heads swiveled right and left hoping for a view of a double-crested cormorant, fulvous whistling duck, whooping crane, american avocet, or any of the other fantastic birds that spend time here.

We were so focused on birds by this point that Andrea almost ran over a thick stick in the road that suddenly turned into a rattlesnake. Legs backpedaling cartoonishly, we expected the snake to snap into a coil and rattle its warning tune, but it just lay there like a passed-out drunk on Sunday morning. It wouldn’t even slither off the road when I tossed pebbles. Apparently, massasauga rattlesnakes are laid back. But this didn’t stop the Great Bend locals from making me paranoid. A lady at breakfast told me “Ohhh, Cheyenne Bottoms. You watch out for rattlesnakes out there. They’re thick as thieves.” This rattlesnake in the road was so mellow, I was tempted to bunny hop it for kicks.

Back in Great Bend that night, we searched for fine local food, but at this former hotspot along the Santa Fe Trail, franchise fast food filled the roadsides and things looked grim. Then a guy on the street asked, “You like barbecue? There’s a world champion right down there,” and he pointed into the darkness.

After a couple of miles, the lights from 4 Legs Up BBQ & Steakhouse shone like a beacon made of brisket. Inside, you order meat by the pound. There’s no waitstaff, silverware, or fancy plates — everything is served on styrofoam, which, when our meal was over, they simply shoveled off the table into a trash bag. Having come from an organic-oriented mountain town in Colorado, this was culture shock within our own country.

But I’ll tell you what, we ate some dang good barbecue. We were soon stuffing sliced brisket, burnt ends, baked beans, freedom fries, and cheesy potato casserole into our faces. Kian had a quarter pound to himself. In carnivore heaven, Andrea and I looked at each other, our fingers dripping with grease, and seriously debated whether to get half a pound or a full pound more — each!”

At breakfast the next morning, mainstays of Kansas conversation were on the menu. To my right, a generous farmer led his friends into guaranteed conversation with the opener, “What’s the biggest fish you ever caught?” But the conversation on my left really caught my ear. “I hear we might set a record today. Saturday weren’t bad, but yesterday it was hot.”

Photo by Jerry Seagraves?

Leap to the sky. Sandhill cranes in the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway.

Photo by Jerry Seagraves

In early May, the temperature had rocketed up to 103 and the wind ratcheted up to match. “Is this normal?” I asked the waitress. She replied “This is a hot pocket. It gets real hot for a few days when it’s not supposed to.” Out in the hot pocket, we spun slowly around town looking for two interesting public art projects. The first was a mural on walls throughout the city. The second was the Quilt Project, where artists built historic Kansas quilt patterns into the sidewalk around Courthouse Square. Favorites include “Kansas Troubles,” “Rocky Road to Kansas,” and the ever-popular “Farmer’s Daughter.”

“That wind has really come up,” a woman at Delgado’s Mexican Restaurant said at lunch. “We’ve had wind over 30 miles an hour for three or four days this week,” added Todd at the Golden Belt Bicycle Shop downtown. Since it was hot and windy, we decided it was time to ride out to visit Heartland Farm in nearby Pawnee Rock.

A far cry from the barbecue heaven of the night before, Heartland Farm is 80 acres tended by a few Dominican Sisters of Peace dedicated to spirituality in the form of organic farming, green energy, holistic health, and the integration of body, mind, and spirit. Sister Jane welcomed us and walked us through their work areas, gardens, and labyrinth before introducing us to their inquisitive herd of alpacas. Like humans, each seemed to have a distinct personality. One was quite brazen and sniffed us roughly, while another hid in the barn, peeking out like a child behind a mother’s skirt.

“Heartland Farm was started in 1987 to exhibit solidarity with the local people here who make their living from the land,” explained Jane. Having seen this wonderful place, we wished we could’ve stayed a night with them in the country, but we had to move on. She welcomed us to stay with them next time we passed through.

The next day found us pedaling eastward on perfectly paved roads to the town of Ellinwood. We passed only one car, a few cows, and smattering of windmills in 20 miles, so the pristine road seemed a bit out of place. Then we learned that petroleum prospectors found black gold here in the 1890s and, by the 1930s, coffers were flush. Flush government purses translate to smooth roads.

There wasn’t much more traffic in Ellinwood as we rode around on the town’s brick streets. Time seemed slower here. We stepped into the Wolf Hotel, a building on the National Historic Register but now occupied by Starr-Elliot Antiques, and asked about the “Underground.” Bill Starr, the shop owner, replied, “I can take you there.” He runs daily tours that feature a unique aspect of the town — shops below street level. 

Photo by Nathan Ward?

High plains cruiser. Pedaling through the wetlands of Kansas on the way to wine country.

Photo by Nathan Ward

Bill opened his tour with two statements to set things straight: “The river over there is called the ‘Our Kansas’ and yes, the wind blows every single day here.” Then he led us down a short stairway into an underground set of period-furnished rooms that once housed a harness maker, barber, and bathhouse. According to Bill, who was smiling and wiggling his eyebrows up and down, “You could get more than just a bath.”

As my son crawled around in a metal bathtub once used by wild pioneer hookers, Bill regaled us with the tale of the underground and sadly told us that all the other rooms along the street had been filled in, so it was a quick tour. But he left us with a statement that made us smile “Remember, Ellinwood was known as a party town — in the late 1800s that is.”

We later learned that the real story in Elinwood may be the Wolf Hotel itself, a place with a checkered past and three known ghosts, one of them not friendly. The malicious ghost is believed to be that of a black man gunned down in that despicable era when officers of the law enforced sundown town rules, which meant things would go poorly for an African-American if they remained in town after the sun set. I could understand why he’d come back to wreak havoc and seek some sort of revenge.

Back on the bikes, we turned down the sandy road to the Dozier Vineyard & Winery where we relaxed under the shade of murmuring cottonwood trees. Kian drank juice kept ice cold by the cooler in our bike trailer. (Yes, we actually rode with a cooler in the kid trailer. No one said we travel light.) Andrea and I walked into the old Santa Fe train depot, which now serves as Dozier’s tasting room.

“It doesn’t really look like wine country around here,” I commented to the founder, Bruce Dozier. But apparently the abundant sunshine ripens grapes to succulent sweetness. Bruce said before prohibition, Kansas produced the second highest volume of wine in the U.S.

As we sipped little cups of Prairie Dew, a Syval Blanc, Kansas apple wine, and my favorite, Sandhill plum wine fermented from wild plums along the river, we learned that Dozier had a ghost of their own. She wanders the area around the old depot in a wedding dress, waiting for a lover who died in a foreign war and never returned to wed her. Many people claim to have seen her, and you can read their stories on Dozier’s website (dozier-winery.com).

We thought that continued cycling in the 100-degree heat with our child strapped into a plastic-sided trailer might be construed as abuse, so we drove south to the edge of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge before again swinging our legs over our steeds.

Unlike the freshwater of Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira is a mosaic of salt marshes, sand dunes, trees, canals, and prairie grass. The varied landscape creates a wealth of habitat for wildlife and birds, and we were rewarded almost immediately when a bald eagle flew by close overhead.

The story behind Quivira’s name is worth the visit alone. In 1541, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado traveled here on a quest to conquer the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. They searched the plains of central Kansas, traveling for several weeks with Quivirans, a people who likely were later known as Wichita. They found no gold and headed back south, but not before strangling the man who led them here with promises of a land so rich that gold cups hung from the trees.

The real wealth here, among the bull thistle and broom snakeweed, is the incredibly complex environment that has sustained millions of creatures for longer than humans have even existed. Along the 14 miles of roads through Quivira, one particular experience made us pause in wonder.

On a side creek, along the popular Wildlife Drive near the Big Salt Marsh, we braked suddenly and stared down into the water with mouths agape. Dozens of turtles bobbed up and down surrounded by dozens of snakes who repeatedly swam up to the turtles and struck them in the head. The turtles seemed oblivious to the snake strikes, as though they were immune. I’d never seen anything like it. I stood there wishing I knew what was going on. I still don’t know.

Quivira is one of those places where you need to spend many seasons to get a feel for the land. It reminded me of East Africa, where I once lived, the land rough and still laced with primordial veins. But soon the hard-packed clay road turned to loose sand and all introspection drowned in the simple act of pushing pedals against increasing friction.

In the town of Stafford that evening, we met Jerry Segraves, a man who has spent many seasons in these wetlands chasing a photographic passion to capture the brilliant moments along the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway.

He showed us photos of stunning sunsets where the flaming ball looked so big that it was surely about to collide with the Earth, huge flocks of birds rising as one off the water, and coyotes in their element. Then he jumped up and cooked a mess of fish for us before we pedaled around Stafford’s quiet streets in the day’s last light. We rode by the old depot, beyond the grain elevators, and past the Curtis Café along wide, tree-lined streets dotted with rambling old Victorian homes reminiscent of a time when the town wasn’t a highway detour but a destination.

Catch the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway at just the right time, when millions of birds are migrating through and shaking the air with their voices, when the wind is still and the temperature doesn’t spike weirdly in tune with the planet’s increasingly unpredictable weather, and this could be one of the most incredible bike tours of your life.

There are fascinating rides to be found and the towns are full of stories waiting to be told. The beauty of Kansas may sometimes lie in the details, but it’s not buried deep. It’s just waiting for someone to pull up a chair and ask for it.   

Nathan Ward is a freelance writer and photographer living with his family in Colorado. He is a regular contributor to Adventure Cyclist. More can be learned about his writing and photography at nathanward.com.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Adventure Cycling members receive 9 issues of Adventure Cyclist each year and have full access to digital editions. Join today!