How to appreciate the beauty of Kansas like an out-of-state tourist

June 20, 2021 3:33 am

A view from the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad’s excursion train from Abilene through the Smoky Hill River Valley to Enterprise, Kansas. (Jenny Towns)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jenny Towns is an adjunct professor in strategic communications at Kansas State University, where she is pursuing a master of music degree in music education. 

Our host told a story as the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad excursion train pulled away from town: Years ago, a local young woman turned down the offer of a date from a local young man — he was not counted among the area’s most desirable suitors, and pressure from her family to say no was too great to risk saying yes.

That young man was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For those hitching a ride on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, President Eisenhower is ever-present. For me, with childhood roots in Kansas and a previous trip to his Presidential library under my belt, the local admiration for Ike was not new. For my group of friends visiting from the East Coast, the history was captivating. For all of us, the entire experience dug deeper than the history. This was not a simple historical tour. Instead, it illustrated what this region of Kansas has to offer.

I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, from the East Coast in March 2020 to be closer to family at the start of the pandemic. I settled here quickly, with an acceptance to graduate school and an opportunity to teach at Kansas State University. For my friends from New York City and Washington, D.C., this recent visit was one of their first “big trips” since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and their first trip to Kansas for any extended period. I wanted them to experience the expansive beauty of the Flint Hills.

Formed in 1993, the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad restores and operates historic railroad equipment with an all-volunteer crew. The trains have a long history, using components of the original 1945 ALCO S-1 Railroad and a diesel-electric engine that was originally designed for World War II submarines. The railroad’s site includes the historic Rock Island Depot and Old Abilene Town.

My group took the Enterprise Train, which departs Abilene eastbound for a 10.5-mile round trip through the Smoky Hill River Valley to Enterprise, Kansas.

It’s no secret that our state has a reputation.

“It’s flat, right?” one friend said before the trip. “And brown? Without trees?”

Each of those descriptors is partly true, but like any generalization, this one lacks the necessary nuance to capture the truth. While Kansas certainly has its share of cropland and treeless ground, the state is not entirely flat. Here in central Kansas, the hills are rolling and the terrain is wide-ranging, drawing a portrait of shapes and colors along a sky line that houses stunning sunrises and sunsets.

“They should do sunrise train runs,” a friend noted. “Because I would definitely get up early for that!”

From aboard our afternoon train, we found ourselves awash in a palate of greens, blues and purples, with shining pops of red, yellow and orange.

We glimpsed the Flint Hills, which are a natural marvel — rolling hills of limestone strata housed in a tallgrass prairie that is the largest continuous area of such prairie left in the world. I want to emphasize this: Kansas houses the largest continuous area of tallgrass prairie left in the world.­ This marvel was directly in view, right here on the train.

Our tour was led by Steve Smethers, a volunteer guide and (by day) the director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University. In an email after she returned to NYC, my friend Sommer Mathis reflected on our trip: “The train ride was such a charming way to orient myself to the area’s history and geography. Steve Smethers’ enthusiasm for and knowledge of local history made me feel like an informed traveler.”

One visitor from the East Coast described the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad train ride as “a charming way to orient myself to the area’s history and geography.” (Jenny Towns)

Others echoed this, remarking that they just knew the place better after this trip. They kept asking about the landscape and community as we drove back to Manhattan, searching phones for local restaurants and other attractions we could stop and see. The consensus was clear: They had simply not known just how beautiful this part of Kansas is.

I’m a native of the Washington, D.C., area. I am well-versed in tree-lined streets and the strong lines of government buildings. The beauty of Kansas is in its wide openness. Its varied layers of terrain. The ebbs and flows of sound, air and light. Kansas is a geographical region that welcomes you with open arms, and kindly encourages you to get comfortable and stay awhile.

Coming out of a devastating year in quarantine, it was a gift to share this time on the railroad in the company of friends and strangers breathing fresh air, learning something new and marveling at the beauty that nature has given us.

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Jenny Towns
Jenny Towns

Jenny Towns is an artist, educator and communications professional. She is a school choir director and is pursuing her master's degree in music education at Kansas State University. She holds a B.A. in dramatic literature from The George Washington University and an M.F.A. in theater from Florida Atlantic University. She lives in Manhattan, Kansas.