Grass is king is Kansas
Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission to become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the United States, having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian Border at Niagara Falls and made her way to her home state of Minnesota. She’s still catching up on some of her journals from the summer. She is expected to reach Vail at the end of July. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site, http://www.globalwalk.org.COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. – Saw my first cowboy today. A real live one with spurs on his boots and a swagger in his step. I couldn’t help but smile when he held the door for me at the convenience store. He tipped his hat and gave me a “Howdy, ma’am.”By Jove, it’s true, I thought, just like the map says – when you’ve entered Chase County, Kansas, you’ve officially entered the West.I’ve been pootling through small Kansas towns like Baldwin City, Ottawa, little Lebo and Emporia. I’m in my happy place enjoying the twilight miles of my GlobalWalk. The cottonwoods are sprouting, confirming that springtime is here. I love the longer sunny days and the sky that seems to be getting bigger and bigger stretching out over the undulating hills that everyone swears don’t exist in Kansas.I sat down at the Emma Chase Café in Cottonwood Falls and thumbed through the Chase County Visitors Guide. If the sudden influx of Wrangler jeans and billboards advertising the Flint Hills Rodeo wasn’t a big enough cue, here is confirmation that you’ve officially entered the West. There’s an ad for a local restaurant bragging about its recent Beef Backer Award as Best Beef Restaurant, and local cafes have names like Belle’s Hitchin’ Post and The Prairie Parlor. It makes me want to strut right over to the local tradin’ post, get me some boots and spurs and start doin’ some wranglin’.
Movie setCottonwood Falls is as cute a Western town as you can find. Founded in 1872, it’s a small-town gem nestled into the Flint Hills of Chase County. Their little main street is a 200-yard cobbled brick road flanked by Old Western buildings and gas-lit lampposts. The patriarchal courthouse sits at the foot of Broadway anchoring the town like granddad at the dinner table.The 800 or so Cottonwood Falls townsfolk have taken good care of their town keeping it standing proud as a tribute to the Old West – not like a lot of other small towns across America that have been crumbling into ghostliness with little left but a senior center and a funeral home.What a treat it was when Suzan, who runs the Grand Central Hotel, offered me a two-night stay. She bought this 115-year old hotel on Broadway and threw her heart into renovating and redecorating it with an Old West theme. Talk about charming – my door knockers are spurs.The best part, though, is that they serve salads – real salads with fresh romaine and mixed greens, not the half head of iceberg lettuce with a cherry tomato on top that you get at the truck stops. This is a real salad with crumbled blue cheese and cranberry vinaigrette. It’s like a salad oasis in the middle of meat and potato country.But Chase County is best known for the Flint Hills and the brand new Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. And because I’m in Kansas, heck, I gotta do as the Kansans – I gotta get up to par on my grasses. ‘Red Buffalo’If you talk to anyone in Chase County, they’ll chew on a blade of grass and tell you all about the new Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. “It’s the last of it left, ya know. Of allllll the original tallgrass prairies in North America, only 4 percent still exists. Over half of that is found right here in Kansas. Right here in the Flint Hills.”They’ll chew on their blade some more, tip their hat up and add, “Yep, she’s quite a site wavin’ in the wind like a sea of grass.” Then they’ll fade off into a dream state, “Yep, she’s mighty perty.”In all my life I could never have imagined giving two hoots about grass. But that’s before I got to Kansas. Did you know there are over 250 species of grass in Kansas?The enthusiastic ranger at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve told me that the grass here in the Flint Hills is special – it can grow up to 10 feet tall.He says when the pioneers came plodding through on horseback and covered wagon they could barely see over the grass when it hit its peak height in mid-summer. He says the covered wagons were nicknamed prairie schooners, because they looked like big sailboats bobbling above the tallgrass of the plains like sailboats on a grassy sea.He says too bad you’ve missed it though, you’re too early. In fact, he says, mid-April is when the prairies are being burned off altogether preparing for new growth. He tells me I’ll have to buy the postcard.For the past couple of weeks I’ve heard people talking about the prairies being burned. I’ve been walking past prairies of rich black soil with no grass whatsoever – just a charred smell in the air. The photos of the prairie burns look spectacular with the skies filling up with a bright red glow. The Indians used to call the grass fires “The Red Buffalo.”Bad timing for me though — just days late for the burnings, and months early for the 10-foot sea of grass. I bought the postcard.Happy cows
The nice ranger sat me down in front of the 10-minute film entitled something like, “So, You Think Grass Is Boring?” I listened intently, suddenly enthralled with everything there was to know about grass.The movie says the prairie fires have been going on forever, sparked first by lightening and then the Indians starting setting them on purpose. The Indians discovered that buffalo and antelope were attracted to the new grass that emerged after the fire, making animals easy prey while they grazed. Now it’s proven that the growth of the grass is actually stimulated by fire, and in fact, is a very important part of the ecosystemThe movie announcer asks, “Why is so much of the tallgrass prairie found in the Flint Hills?” and I lean forward with my tongue sticking out the corner of my mouth, notepad ready like I’m on the verge of discovering answers I’ve been searching for my whole life.The Flint Hills region has limestone rock that lies right under the topsoil. Great for building all these buildings in Chase County, but it makes the ground impossible to plow. Turns out the tallgrass prairie grasses don’t mind the limestone at all, they just wind their roots downward into the cracks and crevices of the rocks. So the pioneers used this area for cattle grazing, not crops. And the cows love it. There’s a grass here called eastern gamma grass that reportedly is so tasty that the cows of the Flint Hills dive into it like a toddler at the Dairy Queen. Those big fatties weigh on average two pounds more than cows from, say, Ohio. It’s no wonder you don’t find many greens on the menus here in Kansas.