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Flat, and Just Plain Great

August 02, 2003

Kansas is a fabled place in the United States, full of wheat fields and cattle barns, straight roads, decent people who work hard and go to church, and did we mention wheat fields? Now, thanks to a new study by a team of U.S. geographers, we also know that Kansas is flat, very flat, indubitably flat.

This landmark finding, a serious one though published recently in a humorous journal, the Annals of Improbable Research, confirms what any living American who has ever been anywhere near Kansas has sensed: Kansas is truly flatter than a pancake, which, come to think of it this morning, still tastes pretty good regardless of contour or shape. Many places are flat; try West Texas, North Dakota or eastern Montana -- and no one's ever gotten carsick on Highway 58 between Mojave and Barstow.

Sadly, flat is often associated with boring, with no-longer-round tires and with bad beer. But outside of Hollywood casting studios, there is nothing inherently wrong with being flat, especially if that flatness is due to a vast prehistoric ocean that deposited detritus so rich that, once dried, the resulting fertile fields could grow crops sufficient to feed much of the world, not to mention create this morning's pancakes.

You can stand outside Dodge City or Nekoma, Fellsburg or Neola and squint forever. There may not be much to see, save clusters of trees around distant farmhouses, but if there were, you could surely see it. Flat is good for farm fields; slows the runoff en route to Oklahoma. Flat is good for air-clearing winds rolling off the Rockies bound for Chicago. Flat is good for sports fields. Flat is also good for speeding on I-35 or I-70. Unfortunately, flat is also good for radar guns.

Like many rural Midwestern areas, Kansas over the last century has seen much of its promising young future run off, like Dorothy and Toto seeking the Emerald City, leaving many communities gasping for younger leadership, ideas and energies, not to mention children and ambitious dreams. Many emigrants return. But with so much of the population and the media assembled in vast metropolitan areas, scant attention gets focused on the hollowing out of such areas crucial to feeding and financing national strength.

But all that disappears come dark when the crops pause to rest before dawn. As one stands outside these towns on warm summer nights, the stars in the black sky are too amazingly numerous to grasp, let alone count. The crickets are chirping by the millions. The yard lights of scattered farms and the next town, down the 19th century surveyor's arrow-straight roads, twinkle clearly on the horizon like a line of ground-bound stars. All this beauty and richness, thanks to flat.

Now about those morning pancakes.

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