Atomic Oz on the Kansas Prairie

(Original version; an edited and vastly less trippy version was later published in 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die, Workman Publishing, 2007)

For being so verifiably “heartland,” Kansas is also an odd place, so flat and featureless that early settlers sometimes went bonkers from a kind of apeirophobia — the fear of infinity. It’s the center of the country (literally: the geographical center of the contiguous USA is in the town of Lebanon), was a central player in America’s Wild West myths (Abilene was the railhead at the end of the Chisholm Trail, and briefly had Wild Bill Hickok as marshal), and today it’s the country’s breadbasket (numero uno in U.S. wheat production, scything more than 315 million bushels annually). Come 1890 it was the birthplace of our thirty-forth president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and nine years later was stand-in for all of American home life in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was made into a Hollywood classic forty years later. During the Cold War, Kansas began to take on an additional identity as home to scores of huge, impregnable nuclear missile silos, positioned out among the wheat and sunflower fields, some not too far from a Cretaceous-age sandstone formation known as the Mushroom Rocks — or Mushroom Clouds, if you let your imagination run free. It was a different time, with different attitudes. In 1958, a story in the Topeka Capital bore the fortune-cookie headline “Missile Base Is Viewed with Joy.” Within a few years, Kansas was the nation’s number-one launching pad for intercontinental ballistic missiles as its citizens learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Today, with the Cold War behind us, all of those silos have been decommissioned, with many of them sold off to individuals and businesses. One, in the town of Holton, has been transformed into the local high school. As if to demonstrate how far we’ve come in our relationship with the former Evil Empire, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson tells the story of the U.S.-Russian space race through a collection of artifacts second only to the National Air and Space Museum in DC. It’s got the Apollo 13 command module (“Houston, we have a problem”), a Soviet Vostok capsule and Soyuz descent module, a U.S. SR-71 spyplane, and many displays on the human story of space. About sixty miles north, in Abilene, the Eisenhower Center tells the story of the man who was president during the first phase of the Cold War and the space race, with a museum and presidential library, Ike’s boyhood home, and he and Mamie’s graves. Keep going another fifty miles northeast and you’ll come to Wamego, home to the Oz Museum and its 2,000-item collection of Oz memorabilia.

So how does this all fit together, you ask?

Simple: drugs.

In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West plants a field of poppies in Dorothy’s path, seducing her to sleep before she can reach the Emerald City. Poppies, of course, are the source of opium, a drug of which none other than Wild Bill Hickok is said to have partaken. During the Eisenhower administration, a secret CIA mind-control project called MK-ULTRA introduced LSD to America’s youth, leading to the birth of psychedelic music. In 1972, the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd played Wichita’s Henry Arena as part of their seventh U.S. tour, and a year later released their seminal album Dark Side of the Moon. If one starts playing this album at the same time the MGM lion roars during The Wizard of Oz’s opening credits, strange and mysterious synchronicities will occur — one of the many reasons Oz is considered one of the great “head films” of all time. Tying it all up, in October 2000 DEA agents raided a former Atlas missile silo turned drug lab in Wamego and seized enough chemicals to produce about 60 million hits of LSD, enough to keep every man, woman, and child in the state high for the better part of a month.

And thus, it all becomes clear . . .

Where: Central and eastern Kansas. Best time to go: Before the big tornado hits and the cloud burst thunders in your ear.