Aim for the Sunset

Travel east on the Saline River Road off U.S. 183 in far northern Ellis County, Kansas. You're in the heart of the Saline River valley, surrounded on the north and south by canyons and bluffs, some more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

Not Rocky Mountains, by any means, but it tops the mental list of places I draw from to debunk out-of-state friends' myths and preconceptions about Kansas flatness.

Past Horsethief Canyon and you're soon at a wide spot in the limestone road. (The local vehicles look as though they've been dusted with talcum powder.) This was once Turkville, Kansas. Founded by a handful of Tennessee Baptists in 1876 who perhaps just grew weary of Reconstruction, packed up and headed west.

A mile further into the valley and you'll head north. Uphill into the bluffs. The Saline is a meanderer. You'll cross the river six times in the span of two miles (talk about county infrastructure maintenance, that's a lotta bridge upkeep!)

You're on top of the bluff. Slow down. Take in the view. With apologies to Streisand, on a clear day, you can see Osborne County.

Before long, you're in Codell. Along the way you've crossed over into Rooks County. You're almost dead center between Denver and Kansas City. Codell's trend line is headed south and will one day join Turkville in 'limestone road wide spot' status. I give 'em one generation.

A couple years ago, I took a television crew to Codell for a documentary I wrote and directed on the impact of shifting Kansas populations. A wizened, craggy ol' lifer who ambled out to see what all the commotion was about, offered Codell's lament.

"We done shifted."

The population in 1910 was 175. A century later, it may be half that, if you count stray dogs. Codell's claim to fame is being hit by a tornado on the same date three years in a row: May 20, 1916-18. ("Where's the barn?" "Over there." Think about it.)

A kid named Victor Ordway was born in Codell in 1910. Three years later, Elizabeth Bemis was born in Turkville. They met on a double date. Got married in 1932 in Hays. Three kids. My mom's the middle one. Vic and Libby lived their entire lives in Ellis and Rooks Counties.

In the global scheme, so far, I haven't gotten much further. Wichita, Hays, back to Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan. Growing up in Rooks County and Wichita, I wanted Kansas in my rear-view mirror. I began planning my escape at an early age. L.A., Chicago or New York. It didn't matter. Bright lights, big city.

Of three siblings, turns out I'm the only one who stayed. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe, maybe not. But often, I find myself thinking about why I stayed in Kansas.

When I travel to or through Ellis and Rooks County, invariably I'll get off the highway and drive past the old home place or through the Saline River Valley.

Why?

Victor Ordway died 18 years ago this month. Elizabeth passed on in 2000. Our family's last human connection to western Kansas. That's typical of my generation of Kansans.

Everyone's family starts someplace. Trace ours to the Saline River Valley of northwest-central Kansas.

This land around Turkville and Codell, it's unlike anywhere else in Kansas and I've been in all 105 counties, several times each. Sweetwater Canyon is a few miles further along as the Saline twists east by southeast. I went to a party there once and had one been dropped in blindfolded, one would swear the place was in Colorado or the Black Hills. At least this one would.

From Codell, aim for the sunset. Travel nine miles. Now, you're about five miles north of the Saline, roughly paralleling it, on the northern slope of the valley bluffs. There's a rambling family farmhouse on the south side of the road. That's where Mom grew up.

Across an oil lease road and a pasture to the west is a ranch-style home with limestone siding. My earliest memory (age 2) is of sitting on a stack of sacks of cement, watching my father build that house, with the help of the one individual he will tell you had the greatest impact on his life.

His father-in-law, my grandfather, Victor Ordway.

Something tells me there are more blogs here.