Scaling Mount Sunflower

A sign of Kansas 27.

A sign off Kansas 27.

I set out a few weeks ago to conquer Mount Sunflower. I left the crampons and ice axe behind.  What I needed most was a military-strength GPS.

At an elevation of 4,039 feet, Sunflower is the highest point in the Sunflower State of Kansas.  And, as high points go, it ranks 28th among all 50 U.S. states.

Sickly cornfield along the road.

Sickly cornfield along the road.

I must admit it stung to discover among bordering states that even Nebraska, with its Panorama Point, ranks higher on the list.  Oklahoma, on the south, has its Black Mesa, and Colorado sports numerous peaks above 14,000.  Only Missouri has a lower high point.

My need to reach high-points had grown with age.  In my long-ago I’d done Mount Whitney in California and of course Mount Humphrey in Arizona.  On this same trip, I had hoped to do Black Mesa until the facts of the matter got in the way.  I didn’t want to sacrifice eight hours to do the hike.  But Sunflower was different.

Curious cattle look me over.

Curious cattle look me over.

It was an overly-warm Saturday mornng in July as I wheeled westward on Interstate 70 toward Goodland, homeward-bound after a satisfying 10-day road trip into a now-distant past.  I was born and raised, as they say, in Kansas, albeit a day’s jaunt to the southeast and a less-dry clime.

I pondered a map as I drove, the Civic’s engine purring at 80 miles per and the a/c at full-bore.  I kept a finger on the radio’s Scan button, not wanting to miss a treasure trove of local right-wing propaganda and religious fervor.  That’s about all you find out here in northwestern Kansas.  That and static.  And C&W music.  One station was urging mass prayer for ailing singer Randy Travis in one breath and madly attacking Obamacare in the next.  It was beautiful.

Bullet-riddled, Braille for rednecks.

Bullet-riddled sign tough to read.

One thing on the map seemed obvious.  Take a turn south on Kansas 27 at Goodland and drive 17 miles.  After that, good luck.  There was this little black arrow on my Rand McNally that said “Mt. Sunflower,” on the Colorado border,  and a series of gray-line dirt roads zig-zagging west.  And not one of them identified, not one of them touching the arrow that was my destination.

Thank the gods, I’d spent the previous night taking down directions from the Internet:

  • From Highway 27, turn W on WA-W-BB for 12 miles
  • S on WA-N-6 for 4 miles
  • W on WA-W-X for 3 miles
  • S on WA-S-3 for 1 mile
  • W on unnamed road for 1 mile and, voila! you’re there.

I grabbed a 6-incher at the Subway in Goodland and headed down the lonely 27 toward Sharon Springs.  At least it was paved.  At the designated turn-off, I found a sign.  Mount Sunflower to the right, 21 miles.  Nothing but dirt roads lay ahead.

Mount Sunflower, not a hill, not a mountain, just a rise in the land.

Mount Sunflower, not a hill, not a mountain, just a rise in the land.

This is lonesome land.  Long rolling hills, drought-ridden with the once-great Ogallala Aquifer dying beneath your feet.  It’s ranchland.  Big acreages with few farmhouses, no trees.   The car’s GPS was worthless.  The screen showed the direction-arrow but the rest was blank.

One good thing.  The roads out here may be dirt and gravel but they are well-maintained.  Someone’s paying off the Wallace County commissioners.   Another good thing.  No traffic.   I started out at slow speed and worked my nerve up to do 50.  I whizzed through the few intersections without looking, figuring I would see a dust warning from oncoming vehicles.  Dust, the great caution-light for desolate roads.

The monument.

The monument.

Of the five turns, only two had signs saying  “Sunflower.”  Two turns have no signs at all.  A fifth is so riddled with bullet holes I was forced to get out of the car and walk up close to see if I was turning on “WA-N-6.”   Braille for rednecks.

As I intimated, forget the GPS.  No computer genius has yet mapped the area.   You depend on your Internet notes, mileage and the odometer.  And, most of all, instinct.

I passed a herd of cattle, all black, possibly an Angus mix.  Considering the drought, they all looked ready for market.  They stared at me curiously as I stopped to take a photo but munched on.  Down the road a piece, I found a pathetic crop of corn.  Some rows were partly gone.  The tallest plants struggled only to knee-high.  They should have touched the shoulder this time of  year.  Well, this is western Kansas.  Not Iowa.

Metal sculpture of a sunflower.

Metal sculpture of a sunflower.

At last I closed in on Mount Sunflower.  But who could tell?  These are not really hills.  Just slight rises, and many of the rises seemed to be the same elevation.  How many of these spots, I wondered, did Kansas have to check before determining what was “the highest point?”  An unsettling thought struck home.  Is Mount Sunflower a hoax?  Well, it’s on the official maps anyway.

It was with a certain measure of pride that I turned into a pasture with a pole in the distance.  Obviously Mount Sunflower was about to be summited again.  More cattle, a man and a woman in a pickup nearby checked the small herd.  The male driver made a feint toward the gate but stopped to let me through.

“Didn’t want to scare you off,” he said, smiling.  No one, I thought, was scaring me off after such a monotonous drive.

Real sunflowers a few miles off in a ditch.

Real sunflowers a few miles off in a ditch.

“You really have to want to get here to go through all this trouble,” I said before driving on up to what is considered the monument for Mount Sunflower.

Ah, Mount Sunflower.  And I had it all to myself.  Not another tourist in sight.

It was not what I expected.  Nothing that hinted at official verification.  The hoax thought came back.  It was as if some farmer had gone out into the middle of his field and said, “I bet this is it”  and stuck a stick in the ground.  The monument itself is crude, as if put up by a 5-year-old.  There was a pole, an American flag flying, a nicely-done memorial to the Harold family which settled in this horrid region in  1906.  It is a land only a hermit could love.

There was an iron sculpture of a sunflower and a wrought-iron sign saying this was the highest point in Kansas and listed the elevation.

The register at Mount Sunflower reveals only a smattering of visitors.

The register at Mount Sunflower reveals only a smattering of visitors.

There was a mailbox with a notebook inside that served as a visitors register.  I took it out, carrying it to a little ramada where I signed it and leafed through the pages.

Only one other entry for this day, a family from nearby Oakley.  Here it was, the 20th day of the month, and  I counted 31 other entries for the month.  A trickle of interest.  But to the few, reaching a state’s high point is a big deal.  People from Illinois, Virginia, Tennessee, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nebraska, Indiana, Colorado, Texas, New York and of course Kansas had signed the book.  The Per Anderson family from Sheepelande, Sweden, had visited recently as well.

Someone in the Vermily family from Arkansas wrote on July 16, “5th visit here.”  That clan, I thought, deserves a medal.  The Paynters from Tennessee said, “On to Black Mesa.”

The bin in the distance is on higher ground, but in Colorado.

The bin in the distance is on higher ground, but in Colorado.

The couple in the pickup came by and I haled them over.  We chatted for five minutes or so.  The woman acted bored.  She peered out the passenger window head turned away.  But the man was affable.  Crops, cattle, drought, the Aquifer.  The latest of the Harold family lives back down the road a mile, the man said.  One of them, I forget who, taught school at tiny Weskan.  Stretching the eyeballs, you can see the community, population 300, on the southern horizon.

“See that bin?” the man said, pointing to a structure setting on a higher rise less than a quarter-mile west.  “That’s in Colorado.”

At last I’d had my fill of Mount Sunflower.  The stinging black flies were swarming over me.  And it was 38 miles and 45 minutes of backtrack to town.  I hoped I could reverse course without getting lost.

An underwhelming experience, for sure, this Mount Sunflower.  But I was glad to have done it.  You have to show perseverance to get there.  You have to be hardy and focused.

I puffed myself up.  It’s not a “high point” for just anyone, I thought.  At that I headed back to Goodland and I-70 where I could, in several hours, swing into some real mountains.

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