Copyright 2009-2011 Lisa Waterman Gray

Monday, January 16, 2012

Kansas's Stunning Red Hills

(with apologies for technical difficulties that precluded the addition of images to this post - please visit

On January 10, the Kansas City Star described a new conservation effort designed to preserve Kansas's 'Red Hills,' a spot in the lower half of the state that looks like it was plucked from the nation's southwestern region.

Gypsum is a major mineral in these hills, which were formed about 260 million years ago - the last vestiges of an inland sea that stretched from north to south across a broad swath of the continent. Wide open spaces are perfect for harnessing power from gusty winds that sweep the area. The Nature Conservancy has created this new protective initiative, for a region where the lesser prairie chicken and other indigenous wildlife thrive, and unsullied waterways and bat caves abound.

What I remember most about my view of these gorgeous hills is driving open mouthed, for more than 15 miles, as I approached the town of Medicine Lodge and then grudgingly watching them fade in my rear view mirror. This had to be one of my favorite areas of landscape throughout the state.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Downtown Overland Park Renaissance

By the time the 2011 holiday season rolled around, Downtown Overland Park had plenty to celebrate. Local media have taken notice too, including a November report on Fox 4 News, in which several businesses talked about the significance of Small Business Saturday.

If you haven't visited there in awhile, you're in for a big surprise. There's much more to Downtown Overland Park than the farmer's market.
The original heart of this sprawling suburb hosts a plethora of thriving established businesses joined by enthusiastic newcomers. And DTOP (Downtown Overland Park) has recently become known as something of a 'foodie' destination. *The Tasteful Olive - offering gourmet oils, vinegars and food items - has become a culinary destination along with 'old-timers,' The Culinary Center of Kansas City and Penzeys Spices. Beside The Tasteful Olive, The Upper Crust Pie Bakery added a second location to its longtime original site, at Pryde's Old Westport, in Kansas City, MO, just in time for the holiday season.

Elsa's Ethiopian Restaurant has received high marks for its savory, exotic cuisine since its summer opening as has El Salvadoreno's family-made authentic fare, available since fall. They join old and new favorites that include Papa Keno's Pizza, The Other Place, The Clocktower Bakery, Great Day Cafe and t.a.s.t.e (currently for sale). 

Stop by for great food and then visit several galleries, a train shop, a store with handcrafted items from throughout the world, another dedicated to travelers and still another dedicated to bird lovers. Allow yourself a day to savor the joys of DTOP's Renaissance.

*I currently work here, part-time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gella's Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. - Hays

There's a sparkling brewing room near the perimeter of Gella's Diner and Lb. Brewing Co. Locals love the brew pub - and so does the brewing world. Their Liberty Stout won its second consecutive gold award at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, in the American-style Stout Category.
Gella's has a funky vibe, full of bright colors and vintage patio chairs. Through the open doorway, Lb. offers a cozy environment full of dark wood and brightened by large front windows.
There's a huge menu, with a nod to Hays's German heritage. For a German taste sensation, order the Bierock, a 'pastry' stuffed with seasoned beef, cabbage and cheddar. Creamy cheese sauce smothers the entire bierock. Freshly prepared kettle chips make a great accompaniment although those watching their figures can request a side of fresh, sauteed vegetables. Pale ale makes a perfect pairing.
You'll find plenty of other great menu offerings too, from beerwurst and schnitzelwich to a smoked turkey club, pesto pasta, or a huge, juicy ground steak burger.
Falafel pitas, bacon-wrapped shrimp filled with seafood stuffing, and a chicken tamale are but a small sample of the remaining eclectic and international menu. Don't miss this popular dining and watering hole when you visit the heart of Hays. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Chance Meeting and a Blog Exchange

                                                        Baxter Springs 'rainbow' bridge

As I traveled through Kansas while doing research for my book, An Explorer's Guide: Kansas one of my daily mantras was 'I am with the right people in the right place at the right time.' I was amazed when I reached a community museum just before a volunteer shut off the lights, or visited a burger joint where the now-retired founders just happened to be eating lunch, or missed an encounter with an F-1 tornado by 1 1/2 hours. But I guess that speaks to the power of visualization.

I still try to live by my travel mantra, so was pleased to meet a fellow Kansas lover, by chance, last summer. After Franklin Thompson's guest post appeared here, on Nov. 14, he asked me to return the favor. See my latest Kansas post on Frank's blog, for today, at While you're there, take a look around Frank Thompson's Kansas Journeys for great photos and cool musings.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Frank Thompson Visits Big Basin

Please join me in welcoming and thanking fellow Kansas blogger, Frank Thompson, who I met by chance in a local coffeeshop last summer. I asked if he would like to write a guest blog post for Crossing Kansas and he happily obliged. You'll find information about Frank's blogs and photography at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

"When I'm in the prairie ... when the wind blows a soft kind of sound almost like music, I think I hear big orchestras with lots and lots of people playin'... it goes on and one for a long time - comin' and goin' with the wind ..."

                                                            - Gordon Parks
I, too, love that wide-open prairie and need regular doses of “big sky” to maintain my equilibrium and personal identity, even if I never hear Parks' big orchestras “comin' and goin' with the wind.”

Few places remain in this hemisphere to experience these grasslands, but we have a couple of them here in Kansas, including the Big Basin Prairie Preserve, a designated National Natural Landmark, located near Ashland in the Red Hills region of south central Kansas.
Big Basin is a circular sinkhole (about a mile across and 100 feet deep) created by the dissolution of underground deposits of salt and gypsum.  The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism manages the 1818 acres of native mixed grass prairie where white-tailed deer, turkeys and a small herd of bison  roam freely.
When visiting Big Basin, allow for time to get out of the car and just sit. Experience the absolute, exquisite quiet, broken only by the sound of the wind rippling through the prairie grasses or the occasional lone cottonwood tree. Don't fail to take the short trail down to Jacob's Well, a deep pool of water that has never been known to go dry, and has been an important landmark for plains Indians, settlers, and cowboys driving Texas cattle to Dodge City. The day of our visit to Jacob's Well, two youngsters were passing the day by catching bullfrogs – giants on any scale.

Other regional attractions that you might include in your itinerary are: Medicine Lodge and the Red (Gypsum) Hills, Dodge City, Greensburg, and Mullinville (home to a historic round barn and M.T. Liggett's infamous whirligig sculptures).

Frank Thompson
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Monday, October 31, 2011

John Brown Museum State Historic Site - Osawatomie

John Brown was an organizer and lightning rod for the antislavery movement in Kansas. But his tactics were called into question when he led a massacre effort at Pottawatomie. Whatever his motivation for this heinous act may have been, there's no question that Brown made an indelible mark in development of the Kansas Territory.
Today, visitors can catch a glimpse of a spot from which Brown conducted many antislavery activities - the log cabin owned by the Reverend Samuel and Fiorella Adair - who was Brown's half sister. The cabin also functioned as a station on the Underground Railroad.
Once seriously damaged by fire, the cabin has been completely restored and enclosed by an outer wall, with a narrow corridor between antique logs and protective modern stone shell. Compared to many other log cabins of the time, the Adair's home was quite spacious, with a bedroom downstairs and a sleeping loft for the children.
A spacious kitchen and even a full dining room put this cabin's accommodations head and shoulders above others of the time. And the Adair's front room bordered on luxurious, with a massive stone fireplace and fine furnishings that offered the perfect spot for the Reverend to receive members of his congregation.
One can only hope this tranquil spot also provided Brown with respite as he fought the scourge of slavery.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita

When our daughters were little and we visited family in Wichita, one of our favorite stops was the Sedgwick County Zoo. The girls are now in their 20s, but I was equally impressed with the zoo during my book research trip to Kansas's largest city. Despite the cool, gray day, plenty of visitors strolled the wide, meandering and well-kept paths with me.
So many animals moved through wide open spaces or were visible through ultra-strong glass walls, creating perfect conditions for unadulterated images such as the massive tiger who relaxed less than a foot away from me, behind glass. This prairie dog was one of many who scampered across another wide enclosed area.
I also appreciated several 'villages' at the zoo, which offered glimpses of manmade surroundings in the animals' native habitats. But the zoo didn't stop with physical structures - the sounds of a lively Asian market surounded me as I walked through one village. 
And education was evident everywhere, with attractive informational kiosks scattered liberally throughout the property.
The next time you visit Wichita, set aside a couple of hours to spend at the Sedgwick County Zoo. You'll thoroughly enjoy yourself.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The National Fred Harvey Museum - Leavenworth

During the late 1800s railway travelers  on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad were indebted to Frederick Henry Harvey, who pioneered well prepared meals served in spotless surroundings across the United States.

Weary travelers no longer had to dine in eating houses and hotels where sanitation practices often fell short; instead they ate on fine china served by the 'Harvey Girls' - signature wait staff for this early restaurant chain. Southwestern Indian arts and crafts also figured prominently in the restaurant decor.
But Harvey's influence extended long beyond his death in 1901; by 1967 the 'Fred Harvey System' extended from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. And Harvey was admitted to the Kansas Business Hall of Fame in 2008.

Leavenworth hosts one of the Harvey family homes, where he lived from 1883 until 1901. After the last family member vacated the residence, it was transferred to the Leavenworth Board of Education in 1949.
A massive renovation is underway, which will restore the mansion to its 1865 grandeur. Visitors will see original parquet floors, lovely transom windows and uncharacteristically large rooms for this time period.
Every detail is receiving a makeover and limited free tours are available (call ahead). There's also a small museum on the property, where you'll find china and other memorabilia from this legendary restaurant phenomenon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cypress Bridge - Abilene

From the moment you reach the entrance of Cypress Bridge, it's clear that this is a classy and cozy store. It's also a huge place, with top-of-the-line kitchenware along one wall, including a rare retail display of items from the Culinary Institute of America. Additional household decor items appear throughout the shop.
At the back counter, visitors can choose from dozens of scents before shop owners create their custom body care products, from massage oil to body lotion.
Customers may also buy scoops full of potpourri, in scents such as Fresh Linen or Warm Sunflowers, for $1.99 per ounce (2010 price).
But this family-owned destination's greatest claim to fame is their hand-poured candles. The scents of their votives and chunky columns have included Lemon Grass, Apple Cinnamon and Eucalyptus Spearmint.

And it's not just retail customers who love Cypress Bridge's huge variety of longlasting candles; their Winter Warmth candles also found their way into gift bags, at the 2005 Billboard Music Awards.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kansas's Outhouse Festival - Elk Falls

When you live in a town that has only around 100 residents, finding ways to draw attention to yourselves can be a bit of a challenge. Such is the case in Elk Falls, which has been called by some, 'the 'world's largest living ghost town.'

But, beginning in 1996, this tiny hamlet launched its first Elk Falls Outhouse Festival. About a dozen creative types decorated individual outhouses, which were strategically placed throughout the town. Bright colors and whimsical appendages are just a few design features of these fun structures.
When was the last time that you saw an outhouse shell mounted on a bicycle?
An outhouse with all the charm of a Victorian painted lady home?
Or an outhouse interior complete with hand thrown pottery sink, wallpaper border and a Roman shade?
And you know there's a tech-savvy resident designer, when an outhouse christened Facepot features text-filled walls that bear a striking similarity to a popular online networking site. Will there be Elk Falls Outhouse Festivals in the future? Check the link above.

While you're in Elk Falls be sure to visit several more 'permanent' Elk Falls destinations. See the gorgeous Elk Falls and an 1892 iron bridge, near the edge of town. Or stop by Elk Falls Pottery, where Steve and Jane Fry have crafted stunning ceramics since 1976. The Frys will also welcome you to their cozy and serene Sherman House Bed and Breakfast. Your first meal of your day may feature a Wild West Breakfast Burrito, or Homemade French Toast with strawberry cream cheese filling. 

This living ghost town offers plenty of surprises. Enjoy your visit!