When my grandmother died, my mother and my uncle decided the best thing to do with her 1970-something Plymouth Scamp was to give it to me. The questionable body style and the indescribable color, somewhere between swamp green and dirt brown, made it one of the ugliest cars in my high school parking lot. But I made my peace with it because it provided freedom. The only real problem with it was its lack of FM radio. Confined to AM, my choice was news or country and western.
So I listened to C&W radio for two years and acquired a respect for it. There have been times since that I've tired of whatever else I'm listening to and I'll go back to it. When I drove down to the Kansas Flint Hills last weekend I opened the sunroof and turned the radio up and reacquainted myself with what some people call "both kinds of music."
Mr. Blandings and I were staying with our friends from town who also have a ranch just outside of Alma. They had invited us to stay with them and attend the Symphony in the Flint Hills. For the last three years a group of folks committed to the pure beauty and majesty of the area has organized a concert with the Kansas City Symphony in the Tallgrass Prairie of the Kansas plains.
It's important to note here that the Kansas of The Wizard of Oz is the Kansas of the Dust Bowl. I've driven in the northern part of the state from the Missouri border to the Colorado boarder and on a diagonal route from Kansas to Texas and I've never seen the nuclear wasteland that that black and white classic would lead us to believe is Kansas. (And by the way, if you meet someone from Kansas or Kansas City, please don't make a Wizard of Oz/Dorothy reference. We've heard them all.)
This is Kansas and as you enter the middle part of the state you enter the largest remaining tract of tallgrass on the continent. Coming in from Kansas City, you come over the crest of a hill and the wonder of Manifest Destiny spreads out before you.
This is Kansas with its low rolling hills and an expanse of blue sky that brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. I'm speechless at the thought of the settlers who traveled these hills on horseback and in wagons. It's a magnificent setting for the Symphony. The event site moves from year to year to allow the small towns in its proximity to benefit from the 6,000 visitors who journey to see it.
We went with our friends and two other couples to see this year's event just outside of Council Grove. Some of you have expressed concern about the Blandings' safety and our unpredictable weather, but the weather that day was perfection. Barbecue is our traditional meal, of course, and the food was delicious.
After the concert we stayed for a while to listen to the country and western band that followed, not in the amphitheater but under a tent. We talked instead of two-stepped, but it put us in the spirit of where we were.
The walk to the car was a long one, exponentially longer than the walk from the car had been. Our host informed us that we were going to the campsite of his friend Geff Dawson, a ranch hand and cowboy poet. Geff and his family were camping at nearby Council Grove Lake, and while they were in a camper and not a tent, the site was complete with all the cowboy trappings. Tin cups, oil lanterns and a guitar were joined by sunscreen, bug spray and a Yorkshire Terrier. The setting echoed the message of his poetry and music, the blending of the rural tradition and the influence of the city, forever moving closer, if not physically then technologically.
Geff still works cattle with his horse and avoids the Kawasaki four-wheelers that have become so popular in working the herds. I asked him the first time I met him how he felt about these city dwellers setting up their weekend homes in the Flint Hills. Grateful. Grateful that people can still appreciate the beauty of the land while some of the folks who grew up there are making their way somewhere else. "They are saving the Flint Hills, " he told me.
Geff's songs and his poetry make you want to be a part of it, even me who is so devoid of pioneer stock that I can't sit in the back of a SUV driving on a twisty road because it makes me so queasy. But like Jeff, I respect my friends as they are discussing the impending delivery of a calf that they fear will not go well. I envy their children's experiences as they recount the hilarious stories of castrating bulls and their son's reaction and the tales of camping out in one of the outbuildings with a pot-bellied stove. Their work and their life is real and their accomplishments are concrete.
As you drive across the state you pass billboards that say, "One Kansas farmer feeds 129 people plus you." Don't talk to me about Dorothy, but make any corny comment about the heartland that you like. This is Kansas.
Next year's event will be June 13th near Florence, Kansas. Check the website for ticket sales information; this year's event sold out in a day. Mark your calendars now.