Among the many people I have met along my route, several of them have volunteered tips or recommendations on things to do or places to go. For instance, when Jimmy in Alabama heard that I was going to DC, he asked me to clean up the place while I was there.
While I was busy cleaning up DC, I mentioned to someone that I planned to visit all 50 states. “If you have to miss one state,” he suggested, “skip Kansas.”
A bit late for that, I’m afraid. I grew up just 4 miles from Kansas, so I am more than just a little bit familiar with it. Part of my family’s ranch was located in the state, and I spent one summer during college living and working in southeast Kansas. Other than Oklahoma and Texas, and perhaps Missouri, Kansas is where I have spent the most time.
It’s not so bad, really. Kansas is not quite as boring as you think—unless you happen to think that it’s exciting, in which case it is actually more boring than you think.
Kansas gets a bad rap for being flat and empty, when in reality a large portion of it is hilly and empty. I grew up at the south end of the Flint Hills, which you can see on a map as the sparsely-populated corridor that runs north-south through the state roughly between Topeka and Manhattan. The region may look empty—very few towns, no big attractions—but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I may be biased, but I think it is a rather scenic area; an ocean of tallgrass prairie, swelling over mountainous waves of soil and flowing over rocky bluffs into unnamed canyons. The miles of vistas, unscarred by man, can be beautiful, if you just allow yourself to see the beauty in hat-high grass.
As I passed through Howard, Kansas, I spied a bunch of junk in an empty lot along the highway.
I didn’t consider this to be unusual. Agriculture requires a good deal of machinery, and as old tractors and trucks and augers and cultivators break down for the final time, they are typically parked somewhere and used for spare parts or scrap metal. So, even in the middle of town, a block full of scrap did not immediately catch my attention.
But, then I recognized one piece of junk as Batman staring at me, atop a busted motorcycle. I turned back and realized that all of the rusting pieces were various art sculptures. A shovel-headed ox was pulling a small lawnmower cart. The Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz stood tall next to Snoopy and Woodstock from Peanuts. And a blower had been painted and transformed into—well, hopefully you can figure this one out from the picture.
A sign identified the gallery as “Hubbell Rubble”, and welcomed anyone who wanted to peruse the collection. The office and info center, which looked suspiciously like a 2-seater outhouse, informed me (via a faded newspaper clipping) that the junk art was the creation of Jerry Hubbell. Jerry likes to weld, basically, and his farming operation supplies him with plenty of outdated junk to weld on. He started building creatures as a hobby; a way to kill time and practice his welding skills. They are simply what happens when you have an active imagination and a lot of inactive farm machinery.
Jerry refers to his creations as “Pilgrims”, though I am not sure where he thinks they are going. They are the products of an active imagination and a lot of inactive farm machinery. The Pilgrims exist wholly for amusement—for Jerry’s amusement, and for ours. They don’t bring in revenue. They don’t draw tourism dollars to this tiny speck on the map. But, they do amuse.
In the middle of nowhere, a few miles from Cedar Vale, Kansas, a tiny church stands in the middle of a cow pasture.
The church building is about the size of your standard dorm room. It can comfortably seat 6 adults in its 6 pews—or 12, as long as everyone likes each other. Outside it stands a statue of Jesus, and a small pavilion that looks out over a pond.
The church is known as Wee Kirk, which I have heard is a Scottish way of saying “little church”. The building has no regular services, but stands at the ready for any traveling congregation that happens to stop by.
Not many people do. It is on a gravel road that gets very little traffic, and it is not exactly well-known enough to lure many visitors. The only reason I know about it is because it is not far from where I grew up. My family had visited it, many years ago, and I decided it had been such a long time that I should stop by and visit it again. If nothing else, I thought I should get a photo of the sign to bug my friend Kirk.
There is a sign in Cedar Vale pointing the way toward Wee Kirk, and other signs along the way that are intended to help you find the place. However, the route would need another sign or two for a visitor to be able to follow the arrows without already knowing where to go. If you do want to find it, here are some directions:
From the west, exit highway 166 on the first road that enters Cedar Vale
Turn right (south) on the first road—the one with the sign pointing toward Wee Kirk
Continue straight until the road forces you to turn either right or left, and turn right
Turn left at the next intersection
That road eventually makes a dogleg right. When you turn that corner and pass a house on the left, keep an eye out on the left for Wee Kirk. It sits about 100 yards off the road, and is not too far from the corner.
When I finally found the church, the wooden steps that allow one to easily cross the barbed-wire fence were blocked off by some boards. In the heavily-faded remains of a hand-painted sign, I was able to make out the message:
DUE TO VANDALISM
SORRY – STAY OUT
What a shame. Why would someone do that to such a small, sweet church building? And one that is hidden out in the middle of nowhere? Cowards.
As I deciphered the sign, a feed pickup drove up to a pasture gate just 20 or 30 yards down the road. I saw the two occupants eyeing me somewhat suspiciously, so as the male passenger got out to open the gate, I walked over to explain myself—to let them know that I was essentially a local, and that I had stopped by Wee Kirk only to find it closed.
“You can still walk in and look around,” the rancher replied, “if you go through that gate right there.” He indicated the main wire gate in the corner of the little pasture that Wee Kirk sits in.
“Oh—you mean this is yours? The pasture, I mean—and the church?”
“My grandfather built it”, was his reply, as he got back to his feeding chores.
I want to clarify here that I received special permission from the owner to go inside and visit Wee Kirk. The owner saw who I was, and quite possibly recognized my last name. I do not think it would be fair at all to assume that his invitation to me was intended to apply to my readers, whom he did not even know existed. So, if the sign says “stay out”, I would recommend staying out, unless you also get permission from the owner. I think that is the polite thing to do.
I walked through the gate, and then through the turnstile that separated the church’s small yard from the cattle grazing around it. Almost immediately, a dog appeared from who-knows-where and ran up to me, begging for attention. It was a little heeler, and was apparently the church dog, since there was no house or anything else nearby that he could have quickly run over from. I imagine the dog belonged to the man who owned the place, but it seemed quite happy to see me—a stranger—and not at all concerned about the feed pickup in the next pasture over.
I walked into the tiny sanctuary, and almost immediately heard the dog whining for me to come back outside. C’mon, dog, we just met. You can’t miss me already.
I walked around the grounds, enjoying the serene setting. Though perhaps a wee bit dusty or run-down, the church showed no signs of the past vandalism. The guestbook showed several visitors in the past month, despite its “closed” condition. I flipped through the guestbooks, finding entries as far back as the mid-1960s.
After giving thanks for making it safely back after 5,500 miles in three weeks, I headed off to finish the last few miles before Thanksgiving with the family.
Thus ends what I refer to as GART part I. There is a part II on the way, which will begin about the second week of January. After all, I still have the western half of the country to finish off my map.
I’m spending December fixing the damage from part I, catching up on this here blog, and being present for a wedding, a couple of birthdays, Christmas, and New Year’s. I’ll still be updating the site until January, so come back to see (hopefully) some photo galleries and other updates.