January 13, 2004


By Cheryl Unruh

When my brother visited Emporia this fall I asked what he liked most about coming back to Kansas.

“It’s fun to be in a place where there are roads and roads and roads,” Leon said.
Alaska has only 11 numbered highways (Nos.1-11). My brother is the editor of Alaska.com and he also writes the daily Alaska trivia questions that appear on the Web site’s home page. A sentence in one of his recent trivia answers stopped me in my tracks. “Barrow has about 30 miles of road, but is not connected by road to any other village,” he wrote. “Year-round access is by air.” You can drive around Barrow all you want—but you can’t drive away. For those of us who love the open road, Barrow would be a prison.

Unlike Alaska, Kansas is rich with roads and highways. Our state ranks fourth in the nation in the number of public road miles. (Only Texas, California and Illinois have more miles.) We’re sure not the largest state in land size (14th), or the most populated (32nd), yet Kansas has approximately 135,000 miles of roads. Contributing to that large number, is the grid of roads constructed to support our agricultural base.

In 2001, the state counted 134,724 public road miles, with counties and townships maintaining 110,036 of them. We live on a huge piece of graph paper, a land of 90-degree corners. Everywhere you turn, there’s a right angle. The rectangle of Kansas breaks down into counties and townships and sections and quarter-sections. Squares, squares, everywhere. (Well, almost everywhere.) I love the mile roads. I think of them as options.

The other day I drove south on Kansas Highway 99. Gravel side roads stretched out like wings. At each of those intersections along K-99, I was free to make a choice: turn right, turn left, keep going straight, or turn around. Poor Robert Frost had only two roads in a yellow wood to choose from.

Kansas has so many back roads that it would be impossible to drive them all. But some people, drawn to the tranquility and the nearness to nature, take dirt roads every chance they get.

Recently I received an e-mail message from Emporian Greg Mitchell who told me about a group that he belongs to called Backroads Touring - Kansas. These motorcyclists prefer the unpaved roads to the paved ones.

“It is a loose-knit group of old and young guys (and a couple of gals) who still like to ride motorcycles, but prefer to ride the back roads of this beautiful state. We ride Dual Sport bikes that are street legal, but are built for off-road use also,” Mitchell wrote.

He suggested that I check out the Web site to read about the group and take a look at their photos, many of which are of the Flint Hills region. Areas they’ve toured include the Gypsum Hills, the Smoky Hills, the Arikaree Breaks, and the Chautauqua Hills.

At least 100 riders belong to the group, about 10 of them are from Emporia. On weekends anywhere from 2 to 20 of the motorcyclists take a planned ride on the dusty or muddy roads of Kansas. They often stop for breakfast or lunch at small town cafés.

“It’s a delight to study a topographical or historical map, then make the effort to see and experience those places firsthand,” wrote Roger Baugh on the group’s “Why I Ride” page. Baugh, of Wichita, founded the touring group in 2001. “The solitude permits us to stop anytime the time is right--and enjoy some impressive views. To those folks who live where we travel, we are pledged to tread softly and leave nothing behind,” the Web site states.

We have 135,000 miles of public roads in Kansas--and we’re not afraid to use them.

---Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh

Cheryl Unruh writes “Flyover People,” a weekly column for The Emporia Gazette. “You Can Get There From Here” was published in The Gazette Jan. 13, 2004. Cheryl can be reached at: flyoverpeople@hotmail.com

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