First published in The Emporia Gazette January 28, 2003


by Cheryl Unruh

"Look at this. Doesn't it look so hopeful? You don't see Kansas portrayed like that now," said Mike Kelly, curator of Special Collections at Wichita State University.

His Web site displayed a bright and cheery 1912 Kansas Day postcard.

On the card, a woman in a yellow gown sits on a throne and holds a monstrous bouquet of sunflowers. Behind her smoke rises from smokestacks and a farmer works his field.

The text reads: "Kansas calling you! Every industrial opportunity, every agricultural opportunity, every social and educational opportunity, room for a million!"

Ninety-one years later, although battered by a financial storm, Kansas is still a good place to live. On the 29th, Kansas celebrates 142 years of statehood.

As I write this column, many of my words will be about Kansas. Emporia. Small towns. The Flint Hills. About the weather, the landscape, the people. About a sense of place.

I've leaned into the Kansas wind for 43 years. My life began 150 miles west of here, in Pawnee Rock, a dirt-street town with familiar faces, loose dogs and few opportunities. At 18, I fled.

But, as you may have noticed, I didn't get far. Yes, Toto, I'm still in Kansas, along with 2.7 million other people.

Why do we stay? What keeps us in Kansas? Is it family ties? Do we really love the place, or are we just too stupid to leave?

A little over a year ago, Dr. Jay Price, a history professor at Wichita State, gave a Kansas Humanities presentation in Emporia, entitled, "Reading Roadside Kansas." I spoke with him afterward and we've continued an endless discussion of regional identity by e-mail. (Jay, incidently, had only lived in Kansas for two years.)

One of the first questions he sent was, "What's your take on what it means to be a Kansan?"

What does it mean to be a Kansan? That was too big of a question. I dodged it by responding, "To consider myself a Kansan, I am defining myself with lines drawn by someone else."

True, perhaps. And those invisible state lines do make us different somehow than Okies. But being a Kansan is more than residing within its borders. How can you take a lifetime of living here and condense it into a paragraph?

And when you explain your appreciation of Kansas to a non-Kansan, it all sounds so silly. ("Yes, we like the nothingness. No, really, we do.")

I don't know what it means to be a Kansan, but I can describe the days. Sometimes we wouldn't have clouds if not for the jet trails that mark the sky.

Our eyes travel miles ahead in western Kansas, catching sight of the grain elevator in the next town, the only vertical distraction.

In the Flint Hills, the grass and sky may look plain and simple, but once you step onto the land and take a deep breath, it can change you forever.

Not all Kansans have had the same experiences, but quite a few have tasted the stringiness of cottonwood fluff.

Some know the soft dust on harvested wheat and the quicksand feeling of stepping into a pile of grain loaded in a farm truck.

Many of us hear trains whistle through town, calling to the night like coyotes.

Memories and experiences become part of who we are. Kansas seeps into our cells, reconfigures our DNA, claims us as its own. If we leave, it follows. William Inge, a playwright from Independence, said, "It wasn't until I got to New York that I became a Kansan."

What does it mean to be a Kansan? I'm not sure. Maybe I'll never figure it out.

But I do know that if we look beyond the jets that stripe our sky, we learn all the shades of blue. If we gaze deep enough into that blue, we understand infinity.

That's why we stay.

Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh


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All Content Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh
Text by Cheryl Unruh | Web Design: Dave Leiker
Photography by Cheryl Unruh & Dave Leiker