It wasn’t a road as such, more a grass-choked two-track splitting off the cobbled dead-end street to rise onto what appeared to be a narrow levee separating the town from the railroad tracks. Beyond it an old unused grain elevator jutting into the view.
“I wonder if it’ll take us there,” I said.
“I wonder if we should,” my partner, Kim, said doubtfully.
I shrugged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I nosed the Malibu onto the ruts and went to see where the road would take us.
How many times had I driven past Florence? A dozen times, maybe more, each time glancing out the window at what could be seen from the driver’s seat at 45 miles per hour. A gas station off to the west, a small convenience store/bar to the east, a row of empty buildings, a tall thin needle of a water tower, a cluster of rusty pickups, a half-dozen tree-shaded streets branching off, a long bridge spanning the railroad tracks and the sluggish waters of Doyle Creek, the ubiquitous grain elevator jutting above the maples, elms and hackberries.
It didn’t appear much different than most other dying towns scattered across the plains. Drive enough backroads and they start looking alike, their individual characteristics blending into one homogenous constant. More than a few are in their terminal stages while others—welcome rarities—show signs of revival; most are on the far side of hope.
As a card-carrying Kansas Explorer, I try to look for qualities or attributes essential to each town, that set them apart from others. Finding them, of course, requires commitment and a willingness to slow down, to brake, to back up, to coast, to stop. As Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Explorers Club, said, “The secret to exploring Kansas is ‘you get out of the journey what you put into it.’” An open mind, a sense of wonder, the tingle of anticipation at what awaits around the bend or over the next hill, an unabashed inclination to get lost and not care, are the finer elements of rural exploration. Some do it to chalk up personal goals, such as one man who ate a cheeseburger in all 105 counties, or simply for the joy of discovery. If there’s one written rule about Kansas Explorers it’s this: we dare to do dirt. We do small towns, too. We especially do small towns.
This time, unlike those other times when the road took me elsewhere, my business partner and I had a few minutes to kill before joining a wedding party at a cattle ranch south of town. She had instructed me to follow the signs to the business district, a matter of only a handful of blocks, and along the way we stopped briefly to photograph interesting stone structures or colorful doorways. Several people waved. The downtown area was a mix of businesses and empty storefronts amid the typical 19th century architecture common to railroad hubs. Main Street was both wide and cobblestoned. At first glance it was all but indistinguishable from similar towns of similar sizes, past its prime and barely hanging on by its fingernails. In any of these towns it’s easy to look into the distance beyond the borderline fringe of cottonwoods and see the incontrovertible end coming when the last resident is wheeled off and the streets crack and blister and melt away into the prairie and the houses crumble and implode into their moldering basements. The question rural residents need to ask isn’t about when the end will arrive but how they will live in the interim, which is another way of saying you either give up or you don’t.
It wasn’t until we made our way along the levee to where it dropped down to parallel the tracks and hook around to Main Street that we got a real feel for the town, what the writer Cheryl Unruh calls its “personality.” Covering an entire two-story building was a huge painted mural of a bald eagle superimposed over an American flag. On the opposite side of the street planters of colorful flowers nodded beneath more flags. Between the brooding clouds, the limestone facades and the brickwork street there were enough textures to make even the most jaded photographer swoon.
“Oh, my God, look at that,” Kim said.
We did. We stopped and got out and walked into the middle of the street and stood there in awe.
“We have to,” she said.
I knew what she meant: we had to convince the wedding party to walk up the street for a group shot.
“Will there be enough time?”
“We’ll make time.”
And, as it turned out, we did, and they did, and the resulting images were everything we wanted and more.
But Florence stayed with me long after we were gone. I thought of those flowers and the flags, of the giant mural and what it represented, not just a colorful splash across a downtown building but of a town’s investment in itself. As Unruh wrote in her book, Flyover People, “I like to look for something original in each town, something residents have created, restored or put on display. Unique projects help reflect a town’s personality...you see what they value.”
Several days later I was discussing the future of small town Kansas with a man who expressed little hope in the viability of rural culture. He said many towns in his own county would disappear within his lifetime, that the tipping point had been reached and no amount of repopulation or stimulus dollars could stave off the inevitable. “We’re doomed,” he said. “There’s no hope.”
It was hard to argue the point, but I couldn’t agree without a tinge of doubt. Prairie towns will eventually go into that good night, and some will rage and some will whimper and some won’t care, but others, like Florence, will go with grace, but not yet, and not now, and not without a fight.
“That dog ain’t dead yet,” I said.