Thanks to the Wizard of Oz, most people have heard of KANSAS even if they have very little idea of what it’s like beyond the movies: vast fields of corn, twisters, Little House on the Prairie and the boyhood home of Clark Kent (aka Superman). Indeed, Dorothy’s immortal words “we’re not in Kansas anymore” has made the state a sort of bellweather ever since, and what Bill Bryson called “the most quintessential of American states” has recently been the scene of much liberal hand-wringing in books like What’s the Matter with Kansas? (the state is overwhelming conservative).
Be prepared for a few surprises; there are certainly vast, flat bits of Kansas, but the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills are beautiful, wild and rolling, and college towns such as Lawrence are crammed with galleries, restaurants and cool bars. Around the middle of the state you leave the Midwest behind entirely – Dodge City is all cowboy boots and Stetsons.
About 150 miles west of Wichita, DODGE CITY is perhaps the most famous of all America’s frontier towns, its blend of cowboys and kitsch a must-see for any Wild West aficionado. Dodge actually had a relatively brief heyday, from 1875 until 1886. Established in 1872 along with the Santa Fe Railroad, which transported millions of buffalo hides, by 1875 the town of traders, trappers and hunters had to find a new economic base – the buffalo had been practically exterminated. The era of the great cattle drives was underway, but even then Dodge City’s gambling, drinking and lawlessness – which kept busy charismatic, if morally suspect, lawmen such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp – were much exaggerated, and every gunfight meticulously chronicled by the local press. In the 1980s Dodge began another boom, with TV shows like Gunsmoke helping to create the tourist industry that thrives today.
One of college basketball’s best-known traditions, the “Rock Chalk Chant” has belonged to KU since 1886, though it’s changed a bit since then. Hearing several thousand fans in the Allen Fieldhouse slowly intone “Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk, K-U-u-u-uuu!” before home games is spine-tingling. Check kuathletics.com for the latest schedule. The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, came to teach at KU and died here in 1939; his original rules of basketball will be displayed in a specially built gallery near the stadium (probably from 2015).