Right after breakfast I left Tucumcari, New Mexico, headed northeast on U.S. Highway 54. By lunchtime I had crossed parts of three states and was in Kansas — atypical for a trekker of the West, where a day of travel is often in just one state. It wasn’t being in four states between breakfast and lunch that was significant — but I admit it doesn’t take much while traveling this country to impress me — it was the dramatic change of locale. I had gone from America’s “Wild West” to the prairies of middle America, from the desert and red-rock cliffs of New Mexico to the grain fields of Kansas. I had left the home of Geronimo, green-chili salsa, the atomic bomb and sites of “crashed” UFOs, and in the span of a short drive was in the territory of “Wild” Bill Hickok, the Dalton Gang and Bob Dole.
On the seat next to me, with her chin on the armrest, my dog, Rusty, slept through it all. I don’t think she ever opened her eyes. She is not a dog that likes to look out the window, unless she knows that we are about to stop. Of the pass-through states — 60 miles of the Oklahoma panhandle and 95 miles of northwest Texas — I can’t say much … there’s not much to see. Feed lots, however, stick in my mind. They covered so much land that it was impossible to see where the far ends were. The lots were crowded with fat cows, of course. They appeared to have given up trying to move, except to the feed troughs. The iridescent stench that surrounds feed lots — big and small — makes it obvious why they never have neighbors. Minutes after crossing into Kansas, I was in Liberal, a table-flat town of about 20,000 people.
Perhaps you remember: It was a hot day of that summer long ago when the cyclone hit here, flinging a young girl and her dog “over the rainbow” and into a land called Oz, a place of Technicolor beauty, unforgettable music and fairy-tale characters. Of course, the whole thing was a fairy tale, but you don’t mention that on East Cedar Street here in Liberal. That’s where they have Dorothy’s house and even the yellow-brick road, and every year in October the munchkins come to celebrate. Leaving Liberal, I continued north for the afternoon until I got to Interstate 70. I followed it east a short distance to Salina, where my day ended. Salina is the sixth-largest city in Kansas, with a population pushing 50,000. For those traveling between New York and Los Angeles, when they are in Salina, they are half-way. It’s 1,490 miles from both cities.
The business in Salina is wheat — shipping it, storing it and supporting the growing of it. At one time, this was the fourth-largest milling center in the country. That ended in the 1950s, when the government removed cost parity between flour and grain. The marketplace shifted for the millers. They moved away from where the wheat is grown, closer to where the flour is consumed. Only one of the original four mills still operates here. At that mill, a truck driver told me why the tall, concrete grain silos are called elevators. I’ve always wondered. “It’s because the grain is lifted from the truck by a series of buckets — an elevator. At the top, other buckets move the grain to different silos.” So, take your pick — silo or elevator. As RVers, we probably identify more with Charlie Walker’s business here. He washes trucks or, more specifically, runs a chain of truck washes.
In the early 1980s, he bought a section of Kansas prairie seven miles west of town to raise Belgian draft horses. He built a barn for them, but as barns go, it was more like a showplace. For a decade, kids by the school-bus-load took field trips to his Rolling Hills Ranch to see his Belgian horses. Charlie decided to spice up the school tours in the late ’80s, so he added two black bear cubs, a few llamas and a lioness. Charlie continued to add animals, especially endangered ones, to the now-beautifully landscaped area. The tour groups grew from school kids to school reunions to groups of all kinds. And the word soon got around about Charlie’s wildlife oasis in rural Kansas, where animals come as close as they will come to having their own resort and spa.
Today, Charlie’s Rolling Hills Zoo is visited by close to 100,000 people a year. With 85 species of animals from all over the world, it is one of the few privately funded zoos in the country. Off a rural road, its entrance would be appropriate for a private country club. I parked and let Rusty out to explore before I went in the zoo. A lady tending flowers around the parking lot said that she was going to be there until lunch time. She said the zoo offers a kennel for pets, but if Rusty wanted to be outside, she would watch him. So I gave her the leash and they spent much of the morning together. Where else, but in Kansas? These 65 acres are more a zoological garden than an exhibit of animals. Although the zoo has all the public amenities, including a narrated tram ride for those who prefer riding to walking, the emphasis here is on the residents, not the visitors.
Bill’s e-mail: [email protected]