Across Kansas at 3 m.p.h.

A ride over the Flint Hills has it all - from prairie fossils to kettle corn bread

I confess. I'm a closet kid.

My mother figured this out one fragrant July night a few years back, after we took my three young children to a rodeo in Pretty Prairie, Kan.

"The real reason you take the kids all these places, " she said, eyeing my bandanna and jeans skirt, "is that you want to go!"

I thought about this last month, as I dressed up my now-four children in pioneer costumes (I wore one, too, of course) and headed off on another dubiously motivated adventure: a covered-wagon ride through the Kansas tallgrass prairie.

Zipping past cornfields and one-stop-sign towns on the way to our wagon-train rendezvous in tiny Bazaar, I secretly worried that I might not be able to pull this one off, imagining overheated cowboys and sunbonneted wails of "borr-ring."

But 30 hours, zero fights, and only one "when-are-we-going-to-get-there?" later, the trip had been a stunning success.

The kids, ranging in age from 2 to 12, loved it. Moreover, the ride was beautiful, educational, and leisurely enough for the several grandparents who went along.

Yessss! Mom's cover survives unscathed for another summer!

Our day-and-a-half-long adventure, led by Flint Hills Overland Wagon Train Trips, of El Dorado, Kan., began on a Saturday morning at a small, empty cattle pen at a local ranch.

About 40 of us parked our cars, tied on our complimentary bandannas, picked up our enamel cups, and climbed onto the wagons. Within a few minutes, we were riding through a gorgeous, green, rolling expanse of native prairie grass and wildflowers.

The Flint Hills are home to thousands of acres of some of the only remaining tallgrass prairie in America. Once covered by a prehistoric ocean, the region's thin soil lies over a thick layer of sedimentary rock that prevented farmers from cultivating it. Today, it is used largely for cattle-grazing.

We passed by the stone ruins of a trading post and sod house, where three stagecoach lines met in the late 1800s.

A retired rancher on the trip told us about the Santa Fe trading route as well as old cattle-drive and pioneer trails that crisscross the area, leaving still-visible wagon ruts.

The children took turns riding on the wagon seat alongside the driver, who thrilled them by letting them take the reins.

One of our drivers described how he had built the prairie schooners in the authentic design used by pioneers.

Pulled by teams of mules or horses, the wagons' only modern additions are pads on the wooden bench seats, which helped as the iron wheel rims jolted over rocks. The wagons' leisurely 3 miles-an-hour pace allowed kids or adults to walk briskly alongside if they tired of riding.

We stopped at a shady grove of cottonwoods (the Kansas state tree) for a picnic-style lunch, which the kids ate without complaining about having to shoo away swarms of flies.

Exploring afterward, the youngsters discovered their first "fossils," mostly ancient shells embedded in rocks, adding a "treasure-hunt" atmosphere to the rest of the trip.

"I think James is going to discover 'Flint Hills Man,' " my uncle quipped about my 12-year-old son, who dashed off to find "fossils" at every opportunity.

Later in the breezy afternoon, we stopped to learn about big bluestem, Indian grass, daisy fleabane, and other native wildflowers from Jeff Davidson, the agricultural extension agent for nearby Greenwood County, who was one of our cowboy guides.

He also pointed out old buffalo wallows, and explained the pasturing system for cattle in the Flint Hills.

Afterward, a curious thing happened as we watched the cowboys gently herd a group of cattle as the wagon train passed. A storm came across the face of my 2-year-old daughter, Kathryn, our family's biggest animal lover. "Stop hurting the cows!" she exclaimed. Then louder, "STOP...HURTING...THE...COWS!"

Momentarily stumped, I had to laugh when I realized that Kathryn had mistaken "herding" for "hurting." But we soon set her straight, and she calmed down, promptly falling asleep for a nap in the rattling wagon. Later she was gleeful when one of the experienced horsemen swung her into the saddle in front of him for a short ride.

We reached the campsite in time for the children to explore a nearby creek and hike up to a shaded oasis where a cold spring bubbled up between the rocks. We sampled spicy watercress growing in the spring water and ate ripe gooseberries from a bush nearby.

Meanwhile, the guides prepared a hearty supper of beans and stew, pioneer-style, over an open fire. We watched them bake corn bread and cherry cobbler in large, covered iron kettles with hot coals placed on the top and underneath.

Chief chef Kathleen Kelly, the retired food editor of the Wichita Eagle, oversaw the meals.

Wearing a jeans skirt, cowboy boots, and an apron bearing the words "straight shooter," she also offered a spirited commentary as she supervised the children (and adults) in washing their tin plates and utensils in tubs of hot soapy water.

"Hold that brush like you mean it!" she urged my 8-year-old daughter, Sarah. "OK," she approved. "That's about ready for rinsing."

That night we all gathered around the campfire, where Mr. Davidson and his rancher father, Ray, played the guitar and harmonica, and treated the group to a medley of Flint Hills history and cowboy lore, songs, and tongue-in-cheek poems.

Other campground activities on Sunday morning included games, a demonstration of bridling and harnessing, rides on a team of Belgian horses, bandanna crafts, and an informal church service.

We had only one small mishap on the trip. Scott, my 6-year-old, decided that a native cactus looked "cool" and got a paw-full of prickles before anyone could stop him. And some of us emerged with a few chigger bites to remember the trip by.

It was a perfect "pioneer" experience. We had modern comforts such as cold water on the wagon, a strategic stop for watermelon, as well as our fires started, meals cooked, and bags transported.

But we still had a real taste of what our ancestors endured as they traveled west to start homesteads.

After a brilliant prairie sunset, we spread out our sleeping bags in one of the covered wagons and listened to the bugs chirping. A cool breeze picked up, and one by one, as darkness fell over the campsite, stars formed a breathtaking sweep across the sky.

I think at least one kid will be back next summer.

For more information, contact: Flint Hills Overland Wagon Train Trips, PO Box 1076, El Dorado, KS 67042; (316) 321-6300.

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