I was lucky: I found a place that made a satisfying click when I set foot in it, and I knew.
It was April 30, 1982, I was living in Kansas City, MO at the time, and I had never been to Lawrence. In fact, the furthest west I had been was KCK (Kansas City, KS). With my friend Ira, I was heading toward the first Kansas Area Watershed Council gathering, just 15 miles west of Lawrence. Ira and I liked to talk, and at the time, we had some weeks of life details to catch up on, so trying to head out from Kansas City, we missed the exit to I-70. We went around the maze of highways to take another shot at the exit, but talking so fast and much, we missed it a second time…..and a third time. It turns out the fourth time was the charm.
“I want to stop in Lawrence on the way,” Ira told me. There was a great band playing in South Park, the fabled Tofu Teddy. So we did and we danced. It was relatively warm out, sunny, and the world felt light and easy. Then we were hungry, so: enchiladas. Then it was dark, and we decided to spend the night at a friend of a friend’s house, a bungalow in East Lawrence. There were a few extra bedrooms, and whoever owned it was out of town.
Climbing the stairs to the porch of that bungalow on that spring night, lilac, dirt, and wonder in the air, I felt the weight of a voice on my right shoulder. “This is your home for the rest of your life.” A click of recognition went through my body, and I slept soundly that night. The next morning, we would get to KAW, where I met some of the people who became my best beloveds for life, including Ken, who became a good friend, then the love of my life.
I also fell hard for Kansas, and I’m still falling. Not just Lawrence, which of course I adore with all its artsy, activist you-can-make-anything-happen-here (but you might not get paid much for it) energy, but often-ignored corners and crannies of the state. Having roamed Kansas widely, as a visiting scholar for Kansas Humanities since 1992, and later, as a Kansas poet laureate — not to mention all the KAW Council campouts in caves and fields, sleeping bags unrolled under Cobra Rock before it collapsed or in Hutchinson living rooms — I’ve seen a lot of this place. But not nearly enough yet.
Put me on a long drive through the Flint Hills or even across the much-maligned Kansas chunk of I-70 going through ranges of hills and high, dry places where you can see 100 miles or more, and I’m a happy camper (sometimes literally). Serve me what surely feels like the official Kansas dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn, and I’m thrilled. Add some fresh apple pie, and what could be wrong with this ailing world?
I’m often enthralled with the communities I’ve dipped into even if they sometimes/often contain people who vote in ways that are incomprehensible to me. I have yet to spend time in any small Kansas town without glimpsing some wild quirks and beyond-any-stereotype humans. “Here’s the master key — just go through every room you want in the hotel and choose whatever you want,” the receptionist at the beautiful, vintage, and haunted (as I soon found out) Midland Railroad Hotel once told me (turned out the whole third floor was once a chicken coop that supplied dinners served on the first floor). I can’t visit Pittsburg without discovering yet another bevy of poets, and I’m sure that town has has many poets per capita as any place in the world. I dig the leftover famous tree stumps in Council Grove and visionaries I’ve met in Garden City. I’ve encountered opera singers on the street, abstract painters who took over old bank buildings for studios, and I even stayed in a grain bin transformed into a bed and breakfast filled with kittens. I’m delighted with the infinity of birds that cross and roost in the flyway as well as all other other wilds ones I’ve seen — bobcats on rare occasion and wild turkeys and massive crows regularly, and once, even a cougar.
I love the expansiveness of this place, the big skies that felt and still feel like the perfect balm for my crowded mind, and after many years, 40 this spring, the exterior has infused the interior. My thoughts and thinking feel less compressed, frenzied, and way less tortured than when I first climbed the steps to that bungalow. I’m home here, and the thing about homecoming is that it’s a continual unfolding and practice, a life-long love affair with being where and who we are. Thank you, Kansas, and hey, Happy Kansas Day!