Come out, come out, wherever you are
and meet the young lady, who fell from a star.
She fell from the sky, she fell very far
and Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
* * *
Who can resist the serenity of the open space, the allure of the rolling prairie, the hopefulness of the endless horizon, the potential for twisters and thunderstorms …
No? Well, maybe Kansas is an acquired taste … and I love it.
I grew up in Kansas, went to college in Kansas. But I got out just as soon as I could. When you can see all the way to the horizon and everything in between, it makes you wonder what’s beyond it. I developed — or inherited — a strong wanderlust. Maybe that’s why I have moved seven times since college, and why I’m enjoying this trip so much.
I planned the leg through Kansas as a zigzag jaunt meandering from the Northeast to the West to the Southeast. We had some time to kill before arriving in Winfield for the Walnut Valley Festival, so we (I) decided to explore places I never did as a kid. I didn’t intend to prove to anyone that Kansas is not (only) flat. But, it does in fact have a wide variety of geographical and geological features found nowhere else on Earth.
We entered the Sunflower State by following the Missouri River, which takes a bite out of the northeast corner, crimping what would otherwise be a perfect rectangle. This section of Kansas was once covered by glaciers, which carved deep valleys and piled deposits of fine silt into high hills. The Missouri River along here is lined with limestone bluffs. On one such bluff in the teeny-tiny town of White Cloud is Four State Lookout. On a good day, you can see Kansas under your feet, Missouri across the river, Nebraska up north a bit and Iowa off on the horizon. Unfortunately, we were there on a rainy day, so it’s doubtful we saw Iowa.
Chanting with the monks
Atchison, Kansas, is a town on a bluff above the Missouri River. Founded in 1854 when the Kansas Territory opened for settlement, it later became a stronghold for the anti-slavery movement and the eastern terminus for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. The city is the home of Benedictine College and St. Benedict’s Abbey, where monks chant the liturgy four times a day. The services are open to the public.
We entered the sanctuary of the abbey and a brother approached us.
“Just looking around, or are you interested in the service?” he asked.
“The service,” we replied.
And he took us to the front of the sanctuary and sat us in the choir section with other monks, students and members of the public. We weren’t just going to hear the chanting — we were going to be a part of it!
Luckily, there was a hymnal and a bulletin. It was a short service, just a couple of call-and-response chants and prayers. Very uplifting and so unexpected!
Atchison is also the hometown of Amelia Earhart, and her childhood home is now a museum. The museum foundation has painstakingly preserved family furnishings, dishes, paintings, photos, etc. A resident caretaker lives in part of the upstairs in the upscale wood-frame, Gothic Revival cottage perched high on the west bank of the Missouri River.
As a pioneering female aviator, Earhart was one of the most famous people in the world. She met with kings and presidents, wrote newspaper columns and even designed fashion and luggage. The museum displays photos and clippings and dresses and suitcases.
Of course, a good portion of one room is dedicated to Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. Newspaper clippings, photos and telegrams about the final flight adorn one wall. Maps of the search area and possible fates for Earhart and her co-pilot adorn another.
The elderly caretaker, a dear old woman, left us pretty much alone to explore the house, although she explained that she would normally show us around, but her Crohn’s disease was acting up. She caught up to me in the kitchen and told me a tale.
Several years ago, an elderly woman arrived in a black limousine, accompanied by two men in suits and dark glasses. The woman spent a long time looking through the house and examining all of the artifacts and objects.
She came into the kitchen — “right where you’re standing,” according to the caretaker — furrowed her brow, left through another door and came back in, still looking perplexed.
“I know it’s here,” she reportedly said. “I just can’t find it.”
After some more time looking around, the two escorts told her it was time to leave. They got in the limo and drove off.
A few weeks later, the caretaker got a call from an author who was researching Earhart’s disappearance. He asked her if she has received a visitor — an elderly woman in a limo. The caretaker replied that she had. The author said the woman thanked her for maintaining the house and wanted him to pass along a message: “It was I.”
The author and caretaker maintain that the woman was none other than Amelia Earhart herself, that she had faked her disappearance with the help of the U.S. government, which gave her and her daughter a new identity. In her old age, she wanted to visit her childhood home once more. And what she could not find was the dining room because a rewiring project had blocked off the door from the kitchen.
I asked, what about the teams of researchers who still search certain Pacific islands looking for clues, wreckage, etc.
“They’ll never find anything, because there’s nothing to find,” she said.
I didn’t challenge her further. Far be it for me to argue with a woman who has dedicated her life to preserving the Earhart legend. I smiled, thanked her for the story, and left it at that.
End of Kansas, Part I.