Rock Kansas: Two books dispel notion that Kansas is flat and boring

Echo Cliff, near Dover, in eastern Wabaunsee County.

Monument Rocks, in Gove County.

Osro Falls, on the Caney River in Chautauqua County.

‘Kansas Geology’ Edited by Rex Buchanan (University Press of Kansas)

‘Roadside Kansas’ Written by Rex Buchanan and James McCauley (University Press of Kansas)

A rock, it turns out, isn’t always rock solid.

Such was the case with Castle Rock in Gove County. One of the rock’s spires collapsed in 2001.

The collapse left a Western Kansas icon with a new look. It — and other events like it — also left Rex Buchanan with a pair of outdated books.

“Some people say geology doesn’t change that much, so what’s the big deal?” Buchanan says. “There are half a dozen geologic features that look quite a bit different than they did 20 years ago. You think of geology as needing long periods to change, but really a lot can change in a short period of time.”

Those changes helped lead Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey, to recently release updated versions of two bibles of the Kansas landscape: “Roadside Kansas,” which he co-wrote with retired KGS scientist James McCauley, and “Kansas Geology,” which Buchanan edited. Both are published by University Press of Kansas.

“Roadside Kansas” is the more tourist-driven of the two books. Like the original, the new version is a long list of sightseeing and topographical highlights along nine Kansas highways.

In addition to land features such as creeks and rock outcroppings, the authors weave in historical facts. For instance, they write, Coronado’s expedition reached the Arkansas River at what is now milepost 122.4 on U.S. Highway 56 near Dodge City in late June of 1541. Buchanan and McCauley also highlight places of cultural significance, such as the birthplace of actress Vivian Vance (in Chanute).

To update the book, Buchanan drove along the 2,600 miles of highways he and McCauley examined when the book first came out in 1987. Some of the highways had changed routes, and there were plenty of new features such as wind farms to add. That’s in addition to the changes in rock formations, which included the collapse of a petroglyph in 1995 in an Ellsworth County cave.

“The basic purpose of that book is to dispel the notion that Kansas is flat and boring,” Buchanan says. “I don’t think Jim and I make the argument that Kansas is the scenic equivalent of Colorado. But we’re saying people should slow down and appreciate some subtleties. The more you know about a place, the more you’ll appreciate it, and the more you’ll take care of it.”

“Roadside Kansas” is a good primer for anyone wanting to learn more about the state, says Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which promotes tourism and preservation in the state.

“The first ‘Roadside Kansas’ was one of the first guides to Kansas and is a treasured book in any explorer’s library,” Penner says. “It gives an exact location and description for things you likely wouldn’t notice otherwise. It also completely destroys the myth that there is nothing to see.”

And for those wanting to learn even more — and particularly more about the science behind the sightseeing — Buchanan has updated “Kansas Geology,” which originally was published in 1984.

That book walks readers through a more scientific look at the state’s rocks, minerals and fossils and includes a geologic log of I-70 for those traveling through the state.

Many of the changes to “Kansas Geology” were technical ones, Buchanan says, such as changing the names of geological eras to be consistent with current terminology. He also updated statistics, such as oil field production.

But some things on the geological outlook of Kansas have changed in 26 years, Buchanan says. For example, kimberlites — a type of rock that can contain diamonds — were once thought to be found only in Riley County but now also have been found in Marshall County. Also, carbon dioxide sequestration — the process of injecting carbon dioxide into the earth — has emerged during that time.

“There hasn’t been some sort of paradigm shift,” Buchanan says. “But we had one level of understanding in the mid-’80s, and we’ve refined our understanding.”

Buchanan hopes both new editions of “Roadside Kansas” and “Kansas Geology” generate new interest in the state’s features. Penner, from the Kansas Sampler Foundation, thinks the books might convince someone to get off the highway to take a closer look at Kansas.

“Rex’s books help us see our state differently, and deeper,” Penner says. “The layers of geology are where the true story of our state lies, and there is so much to know.”