A few years back, my parents bought a cabin at Kanopolis Lake, and Trish and I have been truly grateful beneficiaries of this purchase. Not only has the cabin allowed us to spend a lot more time with my folks, but it has gotten me back in touch with a part of the world, and a part of myself, I had forgotten I loved so much.
We go there year-round, and there is always something cool to see. There are crazy rock formations, like the table rocks on the Alum Creek trail or the red sandstone spires of Red Rock Canyon or the bluffs and caves of Horsethief Canyon. We routinely see a lot of wildlife, ranging from herons and turkeys and barn owls, to deer and coyotes and beavers. On Thanksgiving weekend a few years ago, we saw a mountain lion bounding out of Red Rock Canyon (though most people don't believe it).
Prairie wildflowers blanket the canyons in spring. In summer, purple thistles bloom, and lizards skitter along the sandy trails. In September, the sumac starts to turn red, and the river delta fills with gulls and pelicans and all sorts of shore birds. In winter, the prairie grass turns gold, and the natural springs in the canyons freeze up, turning crystalline and treacherous.
It is truly beautiful -- and it's the one place on earth where I have a real connection to the land, a real sense of belonging.
East of the town of Kanopolis at Faris Caves, you can still find "petroglyphs" I stupidly carved into the sandstone 30 years ago while camping as a Boy Scout. I hunted the public land and fished the Smoky Hill with my dad and uncles when I was a young boy, back when I still had something to prove by hunting and fishing. In high school, I drank beer and Boone's Farm wine with friends, on sandbars at river bends with names like "the tubes," "trestle," and "eagle's nest."
Even today, history confronts me there everywhere I turn. My grandpa Ostrom lost his life maintaining the gravel roads I now drive on my way to hike and bike in the Smoky Hill Wildlife Area. The muddy headwaters I now paddle with Trish in a yellow tandem kayak, my maternal grandpa used to paddle in an aluminum canoe he painted with eagle feathers and christened the "Satanta."
(Satanta was a Kiowa chief who, as legend has it, escaped the Fort Harker brig in what is now Kanopolis, by bending the bars of his cell window, squeezing through, and jumping from the second story. The bars of the guardhouse are still bent to this day.)
My mom's dad -- the skipper of the Satanta -- like me, dreamed of getting out of Kansas. As a young man at war in Europe, he was a decorated 155mm Howitzer Battery Chief for Patton's 45th Infantry Division. In his wartime letters to my future grandma (his high school sweetheart), he mapped out his master plan to head west after the war, to Washington or Oregon or California. And he did it too. He returned from Europe late in 1945, married my grandma, bought a black Buick, and went west…. But they weren't gone long. Within a few years, they were back in Kanopolis, fishing the Smoky Hill and building a house (a "girls' dormitory," as grandpa liked to say) for their four daughters.
The realist philosopher, Manuel de Landa, says that we, and everything around us, are just complex "accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history." If he's right, there's no escaping our past or the places that occupy it, because we are our past. The older I get, for better or for worse, the more right I think he might be.
Many of my forebears, on both sides of my family, lived lives here that were hardworking yet fulfilling, difficult but uncomplicated, and now they rest in small plots within a few miles of the Smoky Hill River. When it's my time to go, with any luck, there will be someone around to do me the favor of scattering my ashes there as well.
Anyway, having just spent a much-needed weekend at the cabin, I felt compelled to post a few photos. Enjoy…