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Adventure on the Tallgrass Prairie

by Rachel L. Miller

There is More to Kansas Than We Think

The Kansas prairie
The Kansas prairie as seen from Coronado Heights. RTM Photo/Rachel L. Miller

There's just something about Kansas that makes me want to trade in my black platform city-girl shoes for a pair of well-tanned cowboy boots. There's just something in the simplicity of the scenery and in the sincere smiles of Kansans that make me want to pack up my belongings and head west.

Now, I never would have believed that a city slicker (more accurately, a Detroit suburb slicker) like myself would have thought that just a week ago that I would actually entertain this idea of relocation. But then again, I never pictured myself as the type of person who would be riding across a prairie cattle pasture on the back of a gentle horse named Sunshine. I never thought I'd be salivating over dinner plate-size belt buckles and more importantly, over the men who wore them.

So, after discovering the beauty of this Midwestern state firsthand, I think I'll have to do the one thing I truly loathe: admit I was wrong. I was mistaken in having underestimated Kansas, in having the preconceived notion that it was nothing but flat land covered with farms. Sure, I know I was extremely na´ve to think so little of Kansas in the first place, but I'd be lying if I said that the majority of Americans didn't hold the same opinion. So how was I proven wrong?

Let me show you.

The first impression one gets while traveling by plane is the initial view of the land from thousands of feet in the air. And let me tell you that my experience was no different - through the wispy white clouds on the plane's descent I saw a lot of green and a lot of farms. From this vantage point, I didn't see anything of much importance, which worried me, especially since I wanted to be completely wrong about Kansas. But once I had both feet on the ground and started exploring, everything was different.

For example, I had no idea that the Flint Hills area in east-central Kansas even existed, much less how breathtakingly beautiful it is. I was literally stunned when I first saw the rolling landscape of bright emerald green prairie grass, waving gently to me in a manner that reminded me of how an elderly woman would kindly greet her grandchild from afar.

The view became even more incredible once I was on horseback as part of the Prairie Women Adventures run out of Homestead Ranch in Matfield Green. Ginifer Maceau, the ranch's program manager, hosts a group of women from two days to a week in the ranch bunkhouse. Women who participate in the program become part of working cattle ranch, learning how to burn pastures, brand cattle, spot wildflowers and care for horses.

The Homestead Ranch horses

The Homestead Ranch horses relax before we saddle up. RTM Photo/Rachel L. Miller 

"Being a part of the program does a combination of things for the women," she informed me. "They're bonding with other women, which is something most of us don't have a chance to do, and they get a sense of accomplishment, a real feeling of 'I did something I didn't know I could do.' It's good for the soul."

The programs (which also include corporate retreats and youth programs) began about 10 years ago when Maceau's business partner Jane Koger, who owns the ranch, decided she wanted to share the beauty of the Flint Hills with others.

"She was also doing a non-traditional job by working a cattle ranch and wanted to introduce it to other women," Maceau said. 

Business has been steadily building since Koger began hosting groups at the Homestead and I can see why. While I was riding in the open prairie, I felt much more connected with the land, with every facet of nature and with myself than I have in the longest time. As I gazed out over the landscape,  I forgot about the work that was waiting for me back home. Once my worries were stripped away and all I could see for miles was prairie dotted with cattle, something clicked.

And that's when I started thinking that this is the same view America's pioneers saw 150 years ago - the tallgrass prairie - a view that has gone virtually unchanged over time. When I was on that horse, I felt even more in touch with those who initially explored Kansas as the American frontier and with the Native Americans who had lived there before it was considered the frontier.

Even though I was wearing a pair of hiking shoes instead of cowboy boots, a protective helmet in place of a ten-gallon Stetson and an incredibly goofy smile, I felt like a cowgirl - a pioneer - a prairie woman. 

The bar of the Grand Central Hotel's

The bar of the Grand Central Hotel's Grand Grill. RTM Photo/Rachel L. Miller  

If you want to do the whole horseback riding thing during the day in the Flint Hills and return to a luxurious hotel room and dine in an upscale restaurant, then head out to the Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls. Built in 1884, the inn has been in operation as such ever since. The building, which was restored in 1995, has been given AAA's Four Diamond designation and is a prime lodging choice for those traveling to the Flint Hills. Every room has a distinct feel to it, even though each one has the standard amenities of two fluffy bathrobes, hair dryers, Jacuzzi showers and the best duvets I've ever seen (or felt). The dinner menu in the inn's restaurant, the Grand Grill, is eclectic, and I must say (in all honesty) the best steak I've ever tasted in my life was the perfectly-seasoned filet served at the Grand Grill.

Even though the Grand Central Hotel started out as a business retreat, "it's a destination," general manager Suzan Barnes told me. "That is exactly what we've created here."

In continuing with the pioneer vibe, later in the day I hopped aboard a covered wagon for a ride across the prairie. Despite the urge to romanticize the experience, I must say it wasn't exactly smooth sailing. There were times it was bumpy and others when it was downright bone-jarring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. And after all, prairie women didn't ride inside the covered wagons (which were packed full of the family's belongings), they walked alongside them. 

he Flint Hills' Overland Train Tour stops for a break.
The Flint Hills' Overland Train Tour stops for a break. RTM Photo/Rachel L. Miller
The two companies that provide these rides also offer overnight stays at their respective campsites, along with delicious pioneer grub and entertainment. Both Country Boys Prairie Adventures (in Newton) and Flint Hills' Overland Train Tours (in Cassoday) offer educational programs that inform its participants about the rigors of pioneer life.

But even cowboys have to have fun, right? I experienced Old West entertainment at its finest on a cattle ranch located outside of Wichita. The Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper runs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (from January-October) and includes an all-you-can-eat barbeque meal (the brisket was mouth-wateringly tender) and after-dinner entertainment by the Prairie Rose Wranglers. 

The Wranglers, who specialize in three-part vocal harmonies, impressed me enough to make me feel like I was sitting around a campfire on a summer night after driving cattle all day (but minus the sweat, exhaustion and sore muscles).

"People come from all over the world to the Prairie Rose to experience our Western heritage," owner Thomas Etheredge said. "We offer a wholesome experience that appeals to people of all ages."

The Prairie Rose Wranglers
The Prairie Rose Wranglers perform for a capacity crowd of 300. RTM Photo/Rachel L. Miller 

Etheredge and his wife, who also own the cattle ranch, found cattle prices so low a few years ago that they were looking for a way to make ends meet. The couple ended up creating the Prairie Rose, which now brings tourists out in busloads (literally) and results in a smile on every face of their 300 dinner guests by the end of the night (including yet another goofy smile plastered on the face of yours truly). ..)

Like Etheredge said, the Prairie Rose is a well-rounded entertainment experience perfect for everyone, even cynical city slickers like me, who had never before breathed a note of a Roy Rogers tune. Now, I must admit, I'm hooked on cowboy tunes. I've scoured the Internet for a cowboy radio station, which I happened to find at, so I can listen while I work. If you'd rather have a CD to pop in your car for the commute to/from work, the Prairie Rose Wranglers have made three CDs, all of which are for sale on the Prairie Rose website (see below for link).

If you decide to visit the Prairie Rose, be sure to make reservations, because, according to Etheredge, they sell out almost every night. And after having experienced firsthand the homemade biscuits and brisket (and the entertainment), I can see why.

And I couldn't have fit in so nicely at the Prairie Rose if I hadn't of purchased proper western wear (although one is not required to wear western clothing at the Prairie Rose). The best place in Kansas to start your shopping excursion is Sheplers in Wichita, which claims to be the world's largest western store. After stepping foot in the enormous store, I found it hard to imagine a larger western wear retail establishment. Being a city girl, I know how to shop...but let me tell you, I didn't know where to start. However, once I did start, I did not stop for quite a while. 

And the compliments I've received on my Sheplers cowboy belt buckle have been numerous. In fact, just last week I was at a party where someone asked me about where I had gotten my glorious belt buckle. And as I began telling my story about visiting Kansas, the person asked, "I think I drove through Kansas once, didn't look like much. You mean there's actually stuff to see there?"

I replied, "No. There's not much to just see, but if you're looking something to really experience, then you should visit Kansas."

That may sound corny, but I really do believe it. Sure, you can see anything from behind the glass of a car window...but Kansas has more to offer. Kansas has a whole other world waiting for those of us who are willing to give it a chance.

K A N S A S    T R A V E L   P L A N N E R