Kansas’s Symphony in the Flint Hills: A siren song for the tallgrass prairie
By Annie Gowen,
As a native Kansan, I’m used to hearing outsiders’ stereotypical perceptions of my home state.
“It’s so flat,” people always say. This is because probably the most they’ve ever seen of Kansas is the view glimpsed out the window on the stretch of Interstate 70 that takes travelers through endless farm fields to the ski slopes of Colorado.
But in truth, I hadn’t experienced much more of Kansas myself. Until recently, I’d traveled very little in the state outside the suburban slice of the northeast where I was raised. That all changed two years ago, when I heard about what sounded like an enchanting summertime event: Every June, the Kansas City Symphony totes its concert shell way out onto ranch land in the middle of the Flint Hills and performs a special concert there. The event has sold out every year since it started in 2006. Last year, when tickets went on sale in March, organizers say they sold 5,000 in 37 minutes.
I did some investigating and found out that the Symphony in the Flint Hills that year was to be on a ranch not far fromTallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the newest national park sites and another place I’d always wanted to visit.
I was in a good mood when I hopped online and made plane and hotel reservations, even after I was squeezed out of symphony tickets by a constant busy signal and had to turn to an overpriced pair for $208 on eBay. I was going home!
Although I’ve lived in Washington for more than 20 years, I like to think that I’m still a Kansan at heart. I root religiously for the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team. I country line-dance without irony. And I’m still forced to suffer the Wizard of Oz jokes. (My standard response: “Yes, I’m from Kansas. And the Yellow Brick Road runs through my back yard!”)
But it wasn’t until I traveled home that I realized just how far from my cowgirl roots I’d strayed.
I landed at Kansas City International Airport in the middle of a thunderstorm, the plane bumping and grinding its way out of the sky like the downward plunge of a roller coaster. Rumors of a tornado touching down nearby spread through the airport as I disembarked.
“Will we be blown away?” I asked the clerk at the shop where I stopped to get a bottle of water.
“You’ll live,” she responded, her eyes twinkling. I’d forgotten the casual way locals coexist with the fierce storms that are a regularity in this part of the country, known as Tornado Alley.
My friend David from college, who’d flown in from Denver to accompany me on the trip, picked me up at the airport. We nervously eyed the ominous rose-and-gray sky as we drove, but what we thought was a funnel cloud turned out to be a plume of smoke from a far-off power plant.
We packed the car with a cooler, lawn chairs, bug spray and decent bottles of zinfandel and pinot noir from the Cork & Barrel wine shop in Lawrence, the university town where I grew up. (We snobbishly — and correctly — assumed that there would be no decent wine where we were headed.)
But we had forgotten two key items, which would become vividly apparent in the hours to come. The first was sufficient gas.
As we traveled south from Topeka and turned off the turnpike onto a two-lane highway toward Council Grove, the small town where we would be spending the night, the land flattened out and felt lonelier. We were entering the Flint Hills, a region famous for its rocky soil and prime grazing land for beef cattle. The tollbooth seemed abandoned.
Then the gas light on the dashboard began to flicker ominously. We passed acres of ranch land dotted with black Angus beef cattle, and then a pioneer cemetery, but no gas stations. We city slickers hadn’t even considered gassing up before leaving home.
“It’s desolate here,” David said, switching off the air conditioner to preserve fuel. I started getting nervous; our cellphones didn’t work, either.
We ended up hyper-miling for the last 17 miles, coasting down hills and just barely making it, sailing by the welcome sign for Council Grove — which read “The Past Is Always Present” — on fumes. The engine rattled off at the pump.
Crisis sidestepped, we had a glass of wine on the front porch of the Cottage House Hotel Bed and Breakfast, the restored prairie Victorian where we’d be staying. Then we made our way to the Hays House 1857 Restaurant and Tavern around the corner. Council Grove — historically a stop on the Santa Fe trading trail — has a small downtown that has somehow survived when others haven’t, with the Farmers and Drovers Bank and shops still thriving. To add to the ambiance, a livestock trailer barreled through town, wafting its earthy perfume.
I was looking forward to dinner, because I’d read online that the Hays House had been named one of the eight culinary wonders of the state. The restaurant was founded by a great-grandson of Daniel Boone in 1857, and the outlaw Jesse James once drank there, or so legend has it. (After our visit, the kitchen suffered a fire and the restaurant has been temporarily shuttered, although the owners have continued to serve lunch at their bakery up the street.)
We were ushered through the picturesque wood-paneled dining room to a table upstairs, outfitted with modern leather chairs and boasting the sterile ambiance of a DMV. When our server arrived, she informed us that the kitchen was out of two house specialties: Beulah’s ham (bone-in ham marinated in fruit and wine) and fried chicken.
After a bit of apparently testy (on my part) questioning, she said that they could make the chicken after all.
“Don’t get all city girl on me,” David said, studying the menu. In the end, he got the chicken, and I got the filet mignon.
As we waited the 30 minutes it took to cook the skillet-fried chicken, we plowed through two baskets of tiny loaves of homemade bread and creamy butter, which meant that by the time the food arrived, we were stuffed.
David pronounced his chicken “tasty” but not memorable, whereas I found my filet to be a disappointment, gray and wan. We were sitting in the middle of ranches that raised some of the best beef cattle in the world, but Hays House could do no better than Applebee’s. I was surprised. I’d been expecting something glorious, like the filets at Ray’s the Steaks (in Arlington!).
We staggered out into the warm evening and walked on the promenade along the Neosho River, which we had to ourselves except for a pair of teenage lovers on a bench. We passed rustling cottonwood trees and a bellowing bullfrog and made our way to a ghostly building where Methodist missionaries had once run a school for the local Kanza Indians for whom the state is named.
Something about the still, balmy night and the teenagers on the bench sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole to memories of my own aimless summer nights as a youth, when there was nothing better to do than to make out with your boyfriend or drive around for hours with the radio blasting Squeeze and Boston and Elvis Costello, feeling at once jittery, closed-in, suffocated and alive.
The next morning, awaking in our antiques-filled hotel room, I realized that I’d also failed to bring decent shoes. Even though I own cowboy boots and well-worn (yes, really!) hiking boots, I had left them at home, thinking that I’d be fine on my long trek through the prairie in jeweled flip-flops.
“Oh my God!” David said. “It’s almost like you’re not from Kansas. I would expect this from somebody from” — he paused, trying to think of an appropriately remote place — “San Diego or something.”
In the end, I ended up hastily purchasing a pair of ugly secondhand nurse shoes from a consignment shop on our way out of town.
I was glad to have the shoes when we were standing in the middle of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve a couple of hours later, and park guide Jeff Rundell warned us to watch out for “buffalo chips” and massasauga rattlesnakes.
“If anybody gets bit, we have a nurse here,” David said loudly to our tour group, razzing me about my shoes.
“I’m not a nurse. I’m a journalist,” I squeaked, a claim the group probably doubted later when I asked Rundell, “Are bison the same as buffalo?” and everybody dissolved into titters. (The answer is that true buffalo live in Africa and Asia; buffalo is a colloquial term for North American bison.)
The park was created in 1996 to preserve nearly 11,000 acres of the remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystem in North America, which once stretched from Canada to Texas but is now scarce. The National Park Service owns about 34acres of the preserve, the Nature Conservancy the rest.
We tramped around in the bluestem and switchgrass for a while, keeping an eye out for snakes and admiring the butterfly milkweed and other wildflowers, the wide horizon and the far-off bison, a small herd that now numbers about 16. The place had a serene, understated beauty about it, quiet but for the meadowlark calls and other bird songs I recalled from summers I’d spent on a ranch.
“You can definitely find solitude out here, if you’re looking for it,” Rundell observed.
In the afternoon, we headed to the pasture, near a tiny town called Bazaar, where the concert shell had been set up for the event.
We could have taken a wagon ride or a wildflower walk before the music began, but it was so hot, we opted for a barbecued beef sandwich and beers in the shade of one of the tents overlooking the venue.
I watched enviously as true cowgirls sauntered by in their starched Wrangler jeans and straw hats, their hair plaited into braids. I felt dumpy by comparison. Everywhere, I saw faces I thought I knew: Was that an old college professor? Nope. The basketball hero four years older than me? No, it wasn’t.
Then, serendipitously, I did run into some people I actually knew: two high school classmates, Lance and Adele.
I don’t think they’d ever been an item in school, but they had recently reconnected. Lance had flown in from Denver to meet Adele in Kansas City to drive to the symphony for one of their first dates. I thought it was all wildly romantic.
It had cooled off by the time the music began at dusk. The hollow of the valley made a natural concert arena, and as the orchestra launched into Morton Gould’s “Cowboy Rhapsody” and then some Aaron Copland, the sun began its descent behind the ridge, where real ranch hands were still working the cattle.
After a while, the herd drew closer, as if it, too, wanted to hear the music.
The governor came out to proclaim the evening a “pure Kansas night.” Lyle Lovett sang a song called “Which Way Does That Old Pony Run” and read a passage by the state’s native-son playwright, William Inge.
“A person lives in this mid-country with an inherent consciousness of the sky,” Inge had written. “One is always aware of the sky in these states, because one sees so much more of it than in the mountainous regions where the horizons are blocked and the heavens trimmed down like a painting, to fit a smaller frame.”
Then, for the big finale, the ranch hands gathered up the cattle and drove them across the ridge as the symphony played the theme from “Lonesome Dove” and the audience burst into applause.
Afterward, we climbed the hill and listened to a Western acoustic band, watching Lance spin Adele around the dance floor, the white gauze of her skirt twirling as she went. Before we could join in, however, word came that another storm was brewing. We had to evacuate.
Everybody traipsed through the fields to their cars as lightning flashed on the horizon. But instead of feeling alarmed, as I had when my plane had landed a few days earlier, I was calm. This was familiar terrain after all, ingrained in me as a child through tornado drills, sirens screaming on the telephone poles and a professor father who preferred to watch the angry funnel clouds through binoculars from the front lawn than from the storm cellar.
Any sense of estrangement I’d felt evaporated at that moment. I was home.