The Geologic Wonders of Kansas: Post Rock Scenic Byway


| ashˈ lər |

(noun) Hewn or cut stone.

As we wrapped up our delightful stop in Lucas, we had come to realize that art was simply everywhere in this little Kansas town ~ from back yards to public restrooms to telephone poles ~ even ‘neath Lake Wilson. It was accessible art, art that showcased grit, determination and the inherent need to create … using whatever materials were handy. So it was no surprise that some intrepid soul had transformed the region’s ubiquitous stone fence posts into sculptures.

Even without the handful of posts-turned-sculptures, the 18-mile Post Rock Scenic Byway is worth seeing. The route winds through the Smoky Hills along K-232 from I-70 to K-18, connecting the towns of Wilson and Lucas. The rolling hills provide scenic vistas, and Lake Wilson has several overlooks and trails.

The area’s early settlers used what was available when they built their farms here. In the largely treeless prairie, that just happened to be native limestone, which proved to be both functional and enduring. And while the area’s rich deposit of folk art was an added bonus, it seemed fitting to finish our “Geologic Wonders of Kansas” tour where it started: with a geology lesson.

The ancient Cretaceous seabed that once bisected the continent helped create the impressive chalk formations and badlands we had already explored in western Kansas. But here, further east, the Dakota Formation sandstone is what remains of beach sands and sediments dumped by rivers draining into that early sea. The Smoky Hills and other surprising rocky outcrops are part of this geologic formation.

The next outcrop belt is Greenhorn Limestone, which is made up of narrow chalky limestone layers alternating with thicker beds of grayish shale. Part of this deposit contains a bed called Fencepost limestone, a chalky limestone of fairly uniform thickness. The immense layer is about three feet beneath the surface, which prevents tree growth. Thus it is both the problem and the solution when seeking a building material. When freshly quarried, it is soft enough to be cut, notched or drilled; however after prolonged exposure to air, it hardens and becomes weather resistant.

But since this is the folk art capital, ordinary fence posts aren’t going to stay that way for long. Enter Fred Whitman, a dentist turned sculptor from California. Fred’s began carving stone when a bad back ended his dental career. This was a common thread among the folk artists we discovered: injury or illness forced an unexpected change, giving artists the time to develop their creative outlet. 

Fred carved seven fence posts in and around Lucas. The prairie was his studio, and the posts are still serving their original purpose, standing tall for you to enjoy. Finding some of them will require pulling onto side roads and walking. They blend in well, so you will miss them if you are driving past. And a couple are on private property, so be respectful. The subjects are supposedly Lucas residents.

Here’s where they are located:

  • (little boy looking up) Grassroots Art Center Courtyard
  • (little boy “taking a break”) 120 S. Duwe Ave.
  • (man with top hat – not pictured here) 604 First St.
  • (airplane mechanic) Highway K-18, Lucas Airport fence line, six posts east of the metal red apple sculpture).
  • (man with cowboy hat) Highway 232 between mile marker 16 and 17, three posts south from drive on the east side of the highway.
  • (woman with rabbit) Highway 232 between mile marker 14 and 15, five posts south from Saline Road on the west side of the highway.
  • (woman with sunflower) Highway 232 between mile marker 12 and 13, six posts south from Decker Road, east side of highway.

Fred has carved a vast array of other works as well as a bust of one of Kansas’ most famous native sons, Bob Dole, which resides in front of the Russell County courthouse in nearby Russell. 

As we bid a fond adieu to Lucas, we were headed home with just one stop left on our Geologic Wonders of Kansas trip: Rock City (not the one advertised on all the barn roofs).

Lucas Kansas Grassroots Art


| may rahˈ kee |

(adjective) Greek word used to describe doing something with soul, creativity or love. Putting something of yourself into what you are doing.

Our folk art inspired tour of Lucas continued with stops at the Grassroots Art Center and Switchgrass Artist Cooperative. We started at Switchgrass, which is an eclectic space that features the works of grassroots and local artists for sale, as well as art supplies and kits and a small resale shop. We picked up some locally made wares and a small tabletop Christmas tree/advent calendar that looked like a magical object from a Hallmark Christmas movie. We stashed our treasures in the car and wandered next door to the Grassroots Art Center.

The folk artist’s passion shines through their work.

The Grassroots Art Center opened in 1995 and houses a dazzling array of outsider art, primarily from self-taught Midwestern artists. While they have rotating exhibits, the permanent collection features works made from pull tabs, trash, wood scraps, limestone, concrete, metal and even gum. Some are whimsical, some are creepy, but they are all impressively unique. And they all embody the passion and creativity of their makers. Many of the artists spent years on their works, creating an environment which is meant to be viewed as a whole, using whatever materials were at hand. Often these environments are difficult to preserve, especially after the artist dies, so the Grassroots Art Center’s mission is to document, exhibit and preserve this unique art form. 

I was particularly interested in Ed Root’s art, ever since reading the cryptic “Ed Root ‘Neath Lake Wilson” on Lucas’ welcome sign/travel plate. Sure enough, a large collection of his glass and metal encrusted concrete works were on display.

Ed and his wife Lydia raised 10 children on their farm south of Lucas. In 1937, he suffered a broken hip which ended his farming career. For the next 20 years, he spent most of his time transforming his farm into a sculpture garden with hundreds of cast concrete pieces studded with rocks, broken glass, metal, ceramic and jewelry. The durable pieces were designed to last, but as fate would have it, Ed’s farm was slated to be flooded when nearby Lake Wilson was built. Ed was one of the last holdouts, but after he died in 1960, his farm and much of the sculpture garden was covered by the rising waters of Lake Wilson. Time and tide wait for no man, as they say.

Fortunately, Ed’s children were able to save a large number of his works, many of which are now owned by the Grassroots Art Center. What of those that were left behind? I envision the bottom of Lake Wilson, strewn with stone castles and bobbing metal flowers like some giant’s forgotten aquarium. Fanciful? Maybe … when I asked the museum curator if divers ever searched the bottom for any remaining artwork, she said, “No, they’re probably all covered with zebra mussels by now anyway.” So much for my romantic visions.

Every artist’s story was as fascinating as their art. I can’t cover them all, but a few of my favorites included Inez Marshall who started carving Kansas limestone in the late 1920s while recuperating from an accident.

She continued carving intricate dioramas, full-size vehicles, detailed miniature buildings and figures out of solid stone for the next 51 years. If you didn’t know it was carved from stone, you would swear it was sculpted from clay — it’s that detailed. At one point in time, she opened her own museum to house her works, but it is long closed, and I am grateful her works were saved for posterity and are displayed here.

John Wood
John used buried “treasure” from a dredged lake to create intricate sculptures.

John Woods opted for an easier to work with medium — salvaged trash. He came to Kansas from California where he had collected objects found at the bottom of a drained lake in MacArthur Park. The layers of mud yielded trinkets, toys, tools, cosmetics, dice, rings and all manner of objects lost by generations of lakeside revelers. There is a large ship on display created by the found objects — it’s like a three-dimensional seek-and-find game. The more you look, the more you see. 

Herman Divers: Pull Tab Artist

Along the lines of trash-to-treasure art, Herman Divers opted for pull-tab engineering. He built full-size vehicles, clothing and even a bedspread out of pull tabs, working on the chains until one broke, sometimes after an hour, sometimes after two or three hours. What was his motivation? In his own words, “Just to know I got something that somebody else don’t have, that’s one thing that makes me feel good.”

The Art Center’s admission also includes a tour of Florence Deeble’s rock garden and home, which is definitely worth the time. Florence lived right down the street from the Garden of Eden, and created a smaller scale scene in her own backyard. The inside of her house, however, is over the top, transformed into a futuristic dollhouse vision by a more recent artist, Mri-Pilar.

Pilar’s mixed media works fill the average clapboard home from top to bottom, creating what she titled “The Garden of Isis.” I think it’s a feminine power response to the “Garden of Eden” down the street. Pilar’s Garden empowers the female form with more than 1,800 recycled material sculptures in total. They all reside in a foil lined dreamscape, created from computer motherboards, dolls, kitchen utensils, game boards, clock gears, farm machinery, mannequins, toys, metal, plastic remnants and more. Most of the works are also for sale. We picked up a steampunk-inspired post apocalyptic “ReBarb” (for recycled Barbie) who looked like she was ready to audition for the next Mad Max movie.

After absorbing so much unique art, we were ready for something a bit more pastoral. We opted for a quiet drive in the country seeking the hidden works of art that are part of the post rock scenic byway.

The Grassroots Art Center is located  at 213 S Main St., Lucas, KS 67648. Hours and days of operation are somewhat limited so be sure to check before you go. The Switchgrass Artist Cooperative is just down the street.

Rocktown Trail and Wilson Lake


| əˈmēn ə bəl |

(adjective) Open and responsive to suggestions.

As we continued our exploration of roadside attractions in Lucas, Kansas, it looked like we were going to have to adjust our loose itinerary right off the bat. Although I was disappointed that the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things (I really love typing that) was closed, Jeannie’s helpful suggestion for sandwiches and hiking the Rocktown Trail at Wilson Lake sounded promising.

My curiosity was already piqued about the lake after seeing the cryptic “Ed Root ‘Neath  Lake Wilson” on Lucas’ iconic welcome sign/oversized travel plate. More to come on unraveling that mystery. But beyond the lore, Wilson Lake was stunning. It’s often listed as the most beautiful lake in Kansas, and I’ll have to say I agree. 

Wilson Lake was stunning on a brilliant December afternoon.

Its crystal clear waters are flanked by rolling hills, canyons, rocky outcrops and sandy beaches. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation originally authorized construction of Wilson Lake for irrigation, flood control, recreation and ecology. However, the Saline River, which would feed the reservoir, made the water too salty for irrigation purposes, so the Bureau turned over management and operation of the project to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers completed construction of Wilson Dam in 1964 and continues to manage the reservoir today. 

In addition to swimming, boating, fishing and camping, there are miles of hiking and biking trails. We had one of those sunny, surprisingly warm, midwinter days at our disposal as we hit the trail.

Quiet secluded beaches were tucked among the craggy rocks.

Since Jeannine had recommended Rocktown Trail, and we were seeking “The Geologic Wonders of Kansas” after all, we figured it was destiny. Like most of our socially distanced trip, we encountered only one other human and her very friendly dog the entire time we were there. The three-mile trail started out through typical Kansas prairie, but as we got closer to the lake, it gave way to red Dakota sandstone vistas and eventually massive rocky formations that rose out of the water. Between the towering rocks, charming inlet beaches were formed. Even on a busy summer day, I could imagine finding some quiet solitude here.

The lake is nestled in the Smoky Hills region which occupies the north-central part of the state. The sedimentary rocks here are comprised of sandstone from the Dakota Formation, different from the Niobrara Chalk Formations we had explored earlier. This is also different from the Greenhorn limestone, deposited a bit further north. The Greenhorn limestone proved to be very functional to early settlers and is the reason this area is also known as Post Rock country, which led to another travel rabbit hole as we were headed out of town the next day.

Always looking for the next big thing.

But for this day, we finished the trail, a bit peckish and with a little time to kill before checking into our AirBnB in nearby Russell. I am always seeking oversized things … so we closed out the day in Wilson, Kansas, home of the World’s Largest Czech Egg. Wilson was desolate on a Wednesday evening in December, so we wandered the streets enjoying the quiet and the various smaller (still pretty big) Czech eggs placed throughout town. Lured by the promise of a cold beer, we entered the historic Midland Railroad Hotel and had the hotel’s staid walnut-lined dining room all to ourselves while we planned our next day’s agenda, which would include the Grassroots Art Center and Garden of Isis.

Wilson Lake is located along the Post Rock Scenic Byway about five miles north of I-70, west of K-232. The city of Wilson is located approximately two miles south of I-70.

Roadside Attraction Mecca: Lucas, Kansas


| o͞oˈtrā |

(adjective) Unusual and startling.
Welcome to Lucas!

I’m going to briefly diverge from our “Geologic Wonders of Kansas” theme and spend a little time on some man-made wonders. As a big fan of roadside attractions, folk art and weird things, I have wanted to visit Lucas, Kansas, for decades. Whenever we passed it on I-70, we always seemed to be in too much of a hurry to stop. Not so on this trip. In fact, I made sure Lucas was one of our destinations. We actually ended up spending an extra day there, and I want to return soon because we barely scratched the surface of the town’s quirky treasures.

We started the quirkiness off with an AirBnB stay at the “Hippie Chic Oasis in the High Plains” near Colby, Kansas. It was a cool, weird, peaceful respite after a dusty day exploring the varied rocky remains of the western interior seaway. The next morning, we headed east and peeled off at the Lucas exit with plans to see the famous Garden of Eden and the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest Things (I was really excited about this).

I should have known one day would not be enough when the town’s welcome sign was an oversized souvenir travel plate. I was particularly intrigued by the fleeting inscription on the plate about “Ed Root ‘neath Lake Wilson,” but more about that later. When nature called and we visited the Bowl Plaza first thing ~ public art + public restroom ~ I was smitten with the town.

We wandered up the street from Bowl Plaza and saw, to my dismay, the shuttered storefront of the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest things. “Erika’s out of town,” called a woman who was locking up the Grassroots Arts Center across the street. While we were disappointed, we still had the Garden of Eden, and Jeannie (of the Grassroots Arts Center) gave us some great tips: 

1) The Grassroots Arts Center and nearby gallery would both be open the next day.

2) Since it was such a nice day, we might want to check out the Rocktown Trail at nearby Wilson Lake (Rocktown? We most certainly did!).

3) The local convenience store had great sub sandwiches.

We thanked Jeannine and headed to Conoco for a couple of sandwiches and started our self-guided tour of the Garden of Eden with a picnic lunch on the handmade concrete tables S.P Dinsmoor had built for his guests almost a century ago. 

Born in 1843, Ohio native Samuel Perry Dinsmoor grew up in a very religious home, but, like many who witnessed the horrors of the Civil War (he served as a nurse for the Union Army) he began searching for other ways to understand humankind after the war ended. 

At this time, the free-thought movement and a number of secret societies proliferated throughout the United States. These influenced Dinsmoor considerably, and when he retired from farming and built his retirement “cabin” in Lucas, he decided to use it as a political statement/tourist attraction.

It’s hard to imagine the Garden of Eden without seeing it in person. First of all, it’s huge, rising stories above the nearby homes in an otherwise ordinary residential neighborhood. Larger-than-life Adam and Eve statues flank a welcome tunnel leading to the back yard while various other sculptures tower above, like ship’s masts, populated with a wide range of hand-sculpted figures and animals, with themes ranging from religion to politics to everyday life and the human condition.

It is hard to fully appreciate the Garden of Eden unless you see it in person.

Dinsmoor constructed the structures and art at the Cabin Home and Garden of Eden between 1907 and 1928. According to his own writing, “The porches, side walks, fence, strawberry and flower beds, fish pool, grape-arbor three US flags, Adam and Eve, the devil, coffin, jug, visitors’ dining hall, labor crucified, two bird and animal cages, and wash house are all made with cement … over 113 tons or 2,273 sacks of cement have (sic) been used. The Garden of Eden is on the west; the front, or north represents present day civilization. There are fifteen cement trees from 30 to 40 feet tall. On trees, mausoleum, cages and dining hall are forty-eight electric lights. The most unique home, for living or dead, on earth.” 

Dinsmoor still resides at the Garden of Eden.

True to his word, Dinsmoor resides forever at the site, in the mausoleum he built for himself … in a glass-front coffin of his own design. Tourists still flock to see the Garden, and perhaps Dinsmoor smiles whenever someone stops by to pay homage to his creation.

Next door to the Garden of Eden is the smaller, but still impressive Miller’s Park, a roadside attraction built by Roy and Clara Miller in the 1920s. They created dozens of miniature buildings and structures, fashioned from a dazzling variety of rocks and shells they had gathered on their travels. It has had several homes over the years and fell into disrepair, but it has been lovingly restored and placed back in Lucas where it belongs.

Millers Park is adjacent to the Garden of Eden.

I think what struck me most about the Garden of Eden and Miller’s Park is the sincerity and genuine passion of their creators. True to the roots of folk art, they just felt compelled to create something meaningful with the materials they had readily available. I love this about folk art. It strikes a chord and makes art accessible.

There is much, much more to see in Lucas, so stay tuned for more about our Rocktown hike, Ed Root’s ill-fated folk art collection, tucked-away fence post art and the psychedelic and somewhat creepy Garden of Isis.

The Geologic Wonders of Kansas: Little Jerusalem Badlands ~ Social Isolation at Sunset


| lith·o·gen·e·sis |

(noun) The formation of sedimentary rock.

Continuing our exploration of the geologic wonders of western Kansas, we peeled away from the sunset “crowds” gathered around the keyhole at the Chalk Pyramids and headed a short distance further west to Little Jerusalem Badlands. We expected to see a few more sunset seekers there. After all, it was pretty close, and the sunset views were supposed to be even more magnificent. But as we drew closer, we discovered we had the 300-acre park to ourselves. Talk about social distancing. We even parked outside the timed entry gates just to make sure we didn’t get locked inside. It was pretty desolate, really the middle of nowhere. It might take days for someone to find us …

The Nature Conservancy operates the Little Jerusalem State Park, and claims “These badlands are Kansas’ most dramatic Niobrara chalk formation.” This isn’t hyperbole; we had just visited two of the other formations. And while Castle Rock and Chalk Pyramids were dramatic in their own right, they could not compare with the massive scale of Little Jerusalem. 

We arrived at sunset and had all 300 acres to ourselves.

Hundreds of acres of canyons and spires stretched before us, striped gold and red in the fading light. We have been to the Grand Canyon, watching the sun set from various overlooks on different nights. I will have to say that Little Jerusalem was just as impressive, especially when you consider we had the whole park — the whole park — entirely to ourselves. 

The easy-to-access trails skirt the edge of the badlands, giving you impressive views, but keeping you away from the delicate structures. This is a conservation area after all, and maintaining the unique habitat is a priority. In addition to providing food and shelter for native reptiles, amphibians and birds, we learned that it also boasts the largest growth of Great Plains wild buckwheat, a native plant found in the chalk bluffs prairie of western Kansas and nowhere else in the world. Who knew?

We thought Little Jerusalem was as impressive as its more famous counterparts in South Dakota and Arizona.

If you haven’t heard of Little Jerusalem Badlands, it’s probably because it was just opened to the public in the summer of 2020, having been part of the privately owned McGuire Ranch for five generations. It supposedly got its name because, from a distance, it resembles the ancient walled city of Jerusalem. By the time The Nature Conservancy acquired the property, most locals and geologists knew it as Little Jerusalem.

The park has two hiking trails and is open every day of the year, including holidays, from sunrise to sunset. It does stay open late some nights for special events like viewing the Perseid meteor shower.

No one but he and me … as far as the eye can see.

It’s located about 30 minutes south of I-70 and Oakley. If you are traveling west on I-70/US 40 past Grinnell, take US-83 south to Gold Rd. Go west on Gold to CR 400 and turn north. If you have time to spend in Oakley and are interested in the inland sea and its wealth of fossils, you may also want to explore the Fick Fossil and History Museum.

The Geologic Wonders of Kansas: Chalk Pyramids in the Golden Light


| ˈkäkəˌliTH | (noun) A minute rounded calcareous platelet, numbers of which form the spherical shells of coccolithophores.

After visiting Castle Rock, the next stop on our “Geologic Wonders of Kansas” tour was the famed Chalk Pyramids and Monument Rocks, just a little further west. Since our goal was to get off I-70 as much as possible, we opted for the backroads between the two destinations, winding our way along Highway 4 through small towns like Healy (where we found a surprisingly good cup of 50¢ coffee). Similar to the meandering trail to Castle Rock, the roads to the Chalk Pyramids got progressively wilder, transitioning from paved to gravel to dirt, and we encountered only two other vehicles as we bumped along the desolate stretches of road. The landscape became rockier, more arid, and the flora more spiky and desertlike.

The powerful plains winds have carved narrows and windows in the soft rock.

It certainly didn’t feel like we were in Kansas anymore.

Like its sister formation, the Chalk Pyramids resulted from the effects of wind and rain on sediment deposited in the Western Interior Seaway, the ancient inland sea that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic ocean, dividing North America in half. Layers of the abundant calcareous planktonic algae helped form the chalk and limestone structures that we see today.

Although the sea is long gone, this part of Kansas is replete with fossils it left behind. Tiny fossilized shellfish are embedded in stone almost everywhere you look. You can see some fine examples of larger species at the nearby Keystone Gallery, including a 20-foot Mosasaur and a 14-foot Xiphactinus. The gallery also features a gift shop and works from local artists.

The famed “keyhole” is a popular place to watch the sun set.

In more recent history, Native Americans hunted buffalo here and viewed the towering structure as a spiritual site. Later, explorers like John C. Fremont noted the formations in his writing while hopeful pioneers traipsed past them on their way to the Colorado goldfields in the 1860s. Fort Monument was established to protect settlers in 1865, about a mile southwest of the site, but nothing remains of the fort today.

The arches and buttes of Monument Rocks are separated to the east and west by the dirt road, so you can park along it and explore both sides. Like Castle Rock, this is on private land, but the owners graciously allow guests as long as you are respectful and don’t climb the rocks.

The golden light just before sunset colors the white chalky layers.

Since we were arriving at the Chalk Pyramids a little before sunset, there were a couple of other visitors, waiting for the show. A photographer was setting up his tripod east of the iconic “keyhole” while preteens took selfies. I don’t blame them. There is something irresistible about the quality of light in the hours before sunset. The “golden light” breathes life into inanimate objects, transforming the stone with undulating waves of color and lengthening shadows into the stuff of nightmares. I couldn’t peel my eyes away. Every pebble and blade of grass became a photo op. We wandered around the rocky terrain, taking photos and watching the shadows grow longer.

Now, I wouldn’t say the Chalk Pyramids are touristy per se, but it was certainly a more obvious destination than Castle Rock. Or maybe we had just gotten used to social isolation. Either way, we decided to forego the crowds (three cars had arrived by then) and see if we could make it to Little Jerusalem Badlands in time for sunset. From what I had read, it was a pretty spectacular sight, and the photographer’s tripod was obstructing our view of the sunset through the keyhole, so we headed out to see if we could beat the sinking sun to Little Jerusalem Badlands.

Chalk Pyramids/Monument Rocks are located about 28 miles southeast of Oakley, KS. From US Route 83 south of Oakley, turn east onto Jayhawk Road at the Monument Rocks sign, go 4 miles east, then 2 miles south on Gove County Roads 14 and 16. These roads are gravel, so take care in wet weather unless you are in a 4X4 vehicle.

The Geologic Wonders of Kansas: A Rocky Start


| Lithol´atry | (noun) (Greek) The worship of a stone or stones.

As we headed west from Kansas City across I-70, the landscape was typical Kansas — flat as far as the eye can see. I don’t know what I expected when we turned south at Collyer, but maybe it’s that unrelenting flatness that makes geologic wonders like Castle Rock so impressive. Plains soon gave way to rolling hills, then after a few more miles, surprising layers of colorful rock appeared sporadically amongst the bored-looking cattle and prairie grass. We could see Castle Rock rising from quite a distance, but we couldn’t figure out how to get to it; it looked like it had been plunked down in the middle of a farmer’s pasture land, fenced in without a road leading to it.

Try as we might, we could not figure out how to get to Castle Rock without serious trespassing.

Google Maps kept urging us to turn right to get to our destination, but we were loathe to slip through the barbed wire and trek across the field. We took some side roads, passed some surly farmers with a grain truck and idled past a farm. We were tempted to cross a cattle gate into what was clearly private property because we could still see the castle, but we thought better of it and consulted my phone.

Luckily Atlas Obscura had some good old fashioned directions, so we retraced our route and entered from the west rather than the east. For future reference, exit at Quinter on … Castle Rock Road … for a more direct route. Fortunately my driver and intrepid travel companion was patient and didn’t mind the circuitous route to get to our destination.

It would be pretty easy to miss this sign.

We followed paved, then gravel, then dirt roads, and didn’t encounter another vehicle after the grain truck, until we spied a nondescript welded metal sign for “Castle Rock.” We had seen Castle Rock from several (distant) angles already, but as we followed the bumpy road, watching it rise as we drew closer, we were pretty impressed.

Finally! We got our close-up.

Castle Rock served as a landmark for early travelers on the Smoky Hill Trail. As a standalone, Castle Rock may not be as expansive as some of the other sedimentary remnants of the western interior sea. But I’ll have to say its isolation makes you feel like one of those early settlers, like you have discovered this alien landscape yourself. We didn’t see another soul the entire time. We picnicked in the shade of the Castle, then hiked up the nearby Kansas Badlands. Carved by water and wind, the massive layers of chalk and limestone have been transformed into steep spires, hoodoos and sweeping ridges. We circled the expanse of the badlands on the rutted dirt path, watching the shadows shift and change and wondered again why we never explored this area, so close to home, before.

The sun and shadows played beautifully on the colorful limestone and chalk badlands.

Despite some navigational hiccups, Castle Rock was a great kickoff for our Westward Ho trip to see some of Kansas’ geologic wonders. We continued our adventures moving west, following the sun, with a golden light stop at Chalk Monument.

If you visit Castle Rock, please keep in mind this is a fragile landscape. In fact, the tallest spire of the castle toppled during a thunderstorm in 2001. It’s also located on private land, and while the owners allow visitors, remember to be respectful. The roads to Castle Rock are unpaved, rutted and may be impassable in wet weather. It was a bit bumpy with my car; a truck or SUV would be better. Or you can park and hike in if your vehicle isn’t designed for offroading.

To get to Castle Rock, take exit 107 off I-70 at Quinter, turn south on Castle Rock Road, go 15 miles, turn east at county road 466 (Gove K), and follow the signs.

Silent Night


| kȯrˈ-ə-ˌskāt’ | (verb) To give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes; sparkle.

We chose Wakeeney as our first overnight stop on our west/central Kansas road trip based entirely on geography. It was the nearest town of any size to the famed Castle Rock and Kansas Badlands, which we planned to explore the following day. We didn’t even know it was the self-proclaimed “Christmas City of the High Plains” until we pulled into town through a tunnel of sparkling lights and into the extravagantly decorated square.

The centerpiece of Wakeeney’s Christmas light display is a 35-foot tree made of real pine boughs.

Like most small towns, the sidewalks rolled up pretty early, so we were able to explore the winter wonderland to our hearts content with no worries about social distancing. It was nothing short of magical wandering the deserted streets accompanied by a soundtrack of tinny Christmas carols, sipping cocoa, laughing and spinning under the twinkling lights. It felt like our own private Hallmark Christmas movie.

Even the story behind the tradition, which began in 1950, is reminiscent of a holiday movie plot. It started as a marketing scheme hatched by local hardware store owner Art Keraus and banker Jake Heckman. The decorations were designed and built by hand in the basement of Keraus Hardware. Heckman was also an artist and Keraus was known for being able to build anything. The whole community pitched in, working together for hundreds of hours to create the unique display.

Real pine boughs are attached to a welded metal frame and illuminated by thousands of hand-dipped vintage lightbulbs.

When complete, the metal-framed 35-foot tree was adorned with fresh pine greenery, more than 2,000 lights and topped with a 5-foot white star. Additionally, handcrafted wreaths, bows and bells rounded out the festive scene. In all, more than 6,800 lights and 3 miles of wire transform this small town into a holiday spectacle each year, starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving and continuing to sparkle until after the new year. The display was enhanced throughout the years, including the addition of a permanent “North Pole” where Santa’s Workshop is located as well as animated lights outlining the downtown buildings added in the 1990s.

Wakeeney, KS, the “Christmas City of the High Plains”

As we wandered the deserted town on a crystal clear December night, we peered in decorated storefronts like the hardware store and drugstore, complete with an old fashioned soda fountain. It was easy to imagine we had stepped back in time. The vintage decorations helped.

My Santa found the North Pole.

The next morning, fortified with a pumpkin maple muffin from the local bakery, I finished up some holiday shopping at the hardware store and learned that there had been a big celebration planned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the town’s holiday lights. Of course, the pandemic put those plans on ice, but they’re planning to do it up big next year. I think I’ll come back next year and immerse myself in the wonder and beauty of a small town Christmas.

Our trip was already off to a surprising start, with many more delights to discover as we got off I-70 and debunked the “Kansas is boring” myth.

Feeling Restless


| Fern’ wuh | (noun) German word that translates literally to “far sickness,” the opposite of homesick, and describes an aching for far-off places you’ve not yet visited.

2020 has forced a lot upon us. It’s been a reminder to appreciate what we have and not take things for granted. While I’m thankful for so many things personally, the necessary limit on travel has been challenging, especially since 2020 marked my retirement from the corporate grind, and travel and writing had been on my post-retirement bucket list. Trips to both coasts were canceled early in the year. Plans to spend several months traipsing around Europe during the fall were scrapped.

Castle Rock and Kansas Badlands

Undaunted, in an effort to travel responsibly, I embraced a more solitary, close-to-home approach to travel. This included purchasing a self-contained camper, which we enjoyed throughout the summer, and limiting destinations to those closer to home — off the beaten path and uncrowded. Like so many things in 2020, a quieter, more introspective approach has yielded surprising delights that might have otherwise been missed.

We enjoyed several trips out with the camper, but colder weather meant winterizing our cozy Wolf Pup, so I felt like my wings had been clipped once again. I began to feel the familiar restlessness that had been temporarily assuaged by hitting the road with our camper. I knew what it was, and I knew I needed to find some way to safely and responsibly discover something new.

Kansas City is my home base, so I didn’t have to look far to find remote, yet interesting locales within driving distance. Western Kansas seemed a likely candidate for a socially isolated trip. Early December brought one of those surprising midwestern gifts — a week of unseasonably warm, sunny days. A Sunday weather check led to a Monday departure, and a quick AirBnB search yielded contact-free stays at a cottage, a barn and a cabin in, frankly, the middle of nowhere.

Chalk Monument

The primary theme of the four-day road trip was the geologic wonders of Western Kansas. But I discovered so many more wonders beyond the towering chalk monuments, limestone formations and colorful Badlands. There’s too much to cover in one blog post, so I’ve broken it down into several segments. Stay tuned for more as we discover what lies just beyond the “boring” white lines of I-70 spanning central and western Kansas.

Lost in Space and Time


| länˈjiŋkwətē | (noun) Remoteness in space or time.

The reason I go out of my way to stop at roadside attractions in general, and Route 66 attractions specifically, is not necessarily the destination itself. Deciding to take the exit slows you down, it pulls you away from the generic expressways and fast food chains and into the small towns that dot the Mother Road. It’s just more interesting, and you never know what you will discover in the parts of our country that time has forgotten.

Road trips were different when Route 66 was established. Roomy gas-guzzling sedans required frequent stops, as did their passengers since driving was a bit more of an athletic endeavor before cruise control, power brakes and power steering. As America’s burgeoning middle class discovered freedom and hit the open road, the small towns along the way boomed with restaurants, gas stations, motels and diversions, both varied and unique.

Atlanta, Illinois’ Historic Public Library

Our recent road trip to Michigan was our longest trip to date with the new camper in tow, so we planned to stop overnight even though it was only a 13-hour drive. Like the travelers of old, we have learned that pulling a camper is a slower, more fatiguing, proposition. Thanks to Harvest Hosts, we ended up boondocking in Atlanta, IL, in the Atlanta Public Library parking lot. If you have a camper or RV and haven’t checked out Harvest Hosts, I highly recommend it. There are hundreds of free places to park overnight, most of which are wineries, breweries, farms, museums or tourist sites. A library, however, was a new one for us, so we decided to check it out (pun intended).

Thanks to the dedication of the “Keepers of the Clock,” the hand-crank mechanism still chimes regularly on the hour.

Built in 1908, the library is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of Illinois’ few octagonal-shaped public libraries. Since it was after hours (and the age of COVID), the library was closed, but we could glimpse its gilded rotunda and oak woodwork by peeking through the front door.

The most interesting feature, however, was the 36-foot clock tower located in front of the stone library. The clock tower was built in the 1980s to house the original 1909 Seth Thomas hand-wound clock that was moved to the library grounds from Atlanta’s high school. It sounds the hour with an ancient, and pretty reliable, mechanism. But it is only reliable because of the local volunteers who comprise the “Keepers of the Clock.” They take turns on a weekly basis hand-winding the historic timepiece. It takes 55 cranks three times per week to keep the clock chiming on schedule. That’s dedication.

Have you ever visited a Grain Elevator Museum? Neither had we.

The library and clock tower are located across the street from the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum, proving there is truly a museum for just about everything. As the sun set over the town’s smiley face water tower, we wandered the museum’s self-guided walking tour and learned a little something about grain elevators and grain transport.

The former “Bunyon’s” Muffler Man awkwardly holds a hot dog.

But wait; there’s more. Atlanta, like most other small towns along the Mother Road, has sought to capitalize on its Route 66 roots. Overlooking main street, like a mid-century sentinel, stands a 25-foot tall Muffler Man, awkwardly gripping a giant hot dog rather than a muffler. He’s not originally from Atlanta, but rather hails from the town of Cicero, outside Chicago, where he stood outside a the “Bunyon’s” restaurant for nearly 40 years. When the restaurant closed, several towns vied for the processed-meat-wielding giant, but Atlanta landed him and has displayed him prominently since 2003.

Other Route 66 attractions in Atlanta include the Route 66 Memories Museum, Route 66 Arcade Museum and several Walldog murals painted on the sides of the quaint downtown buildings.

If history rather than nostalgia is your thing, Atlanta is also a stop on the National Park Service’s “Looking for Lincoln” trail.

For a town with only 1,600 residents, we thought Atlanta had a lot to offer and would highly recommend adding it to your next road trip destination!