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As we head into the primaries tomorrow in Kansas and Missouri, I wanted to step away from politics and talk about Kansas, the state that I grew up in, the state that I still love passionately.  It is perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever seen, with its spectacular skies and fields of wheat, its sunflowers and its prairie skyscrapers.

Although this is from my Missouri backyard, this sunflower is part of a stand that reminds me of my home state every day.
Last month, I drove from Missouri to Colorado to visit my brother, and I chose to take the straight route, on I-70, from Lawrence, KS, to Denver, stopping overnight along the way.  On my trip I saw three truly impressive museums, with fine displays, friendly and interesting staff, and very few visitors.  I had a great time, and I wanted to share it with you, so that you will know there is a lot that is right with Kansas, where the public education system was, until very very recently, top tier, the local communities support science education (honest!), and people take pride in their history and their state.  This is the first of three diaries, one on each of these places.  I hope they collectively encourage you to stay a while in a wonderful state.

Come with me below the fold for more.

The first stop on my trip across the state was Hays, about half way from east to west.  

It was a really good beginning to my adventure.  It was the first of three places I visited that provided me a real reason to stop.  This was not just a place to stretch my legs, but a reason to spend a significant amount of time in a spot way beyond the "roadside attractions" level of involvement.

The Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.
The first stop was in Hays, where the natural history museum was something I have heard about for several years.  This is something that is truly impressive for Fort Hays State University, essentially the number four university in a prairie state (after KU, K-State, and Wichita State).  It takes advantage of FHSU's location in west central Kansas, atop spectacular limestone fossil beds that date back to the Cretaceous Period.  They include the third largest collection of pterosaurs in the world and 38 type specimens of various types (a type specimen is the one that was first identified as being a distinct species, and from which others are classified).  They have 400,000 animal and 100,000 plant fossils, a truly impressive collection for any natural history museum.  They also have live reptiles and amphibians.  

But you don't see the huge collection when you are a visitor, wandering in from the interstate.  I was, after all, just a tourist.  But what I saw was well worth a drive of many hours.  

As you can see from the museum photograph above, the building is actually two put together.  You enter through a traditional rectangular block, where the gift shop, cafeteria (closed when I was there), and ticket desk are situated (admission was $8 for an adult).  The offices of curators and other museum staff are there, as is the education center, where you are greeted by a giant spider.  

The back part of the museum is a large dome, where the displays are set up.  There are displays around the outside of the space (the exterior of the interior of the dome), including taxidermied animals and fossils.  
The most famous fossil at the Sternberg, a Xiphactinus fish who swallowed a whole Gillicus fish, then died almost immediately, before digestion made any impact on the evening meal.
I was particularly fond of the polar animal displays (juxtaposing modern animals with their fossil ancestors), where in order to save money yet still communicate the snows upon which these animals walk for much of the year, they have used white paper, a really brilliant solution that works very well.  
Ice Age beaver skeleton with a modern beaver counterpart.
But the central core of the dome is a spiraling display you enter past a mannequin of George Sternberg, who was responsible for developing the impressive collection of fossil material, as he excavates a fossil in the limestone beds of western Kansas.
George Sternberg at work.
The room you enter into has dim lighting, slightly greenish, to indicate the light beneath the sea, and you are introduced to the first of several reconstructions of what the environment here was like, millions of years in the past.  
Giant clams.  From a long, long time ago.
Then the mososaur, the state fossil, swims by.  
The state fossil of Kansas, the mosasaur swam in Cretaceous seas that covered the state.
And you leave the seas to step onto the land, at a sign that separates Kansas from Colorado.
Leaving Kansas.  Come back soon!
And set foot onto the land, where you are greeted by terrestrial and flying dinosaurs.
Pterosaurs and a short-necked plesiosaur at the edge of the great inland ocean.
A view up at the pterosaurs.
There are a couple of duck-billed dinosaurs and a T-Rex (because of course there was).  I did not realize there was anything notable about the exhibits of life-sized dinosaurs until I was standing there listening to the tape of the quietly lapping waves and odd exotic calling animals and suddenly realized that the baby duck-billed dinosaur next to me was quietly eating his dinner.

(and yes, the Tyrannosaurus Rex roared and moved its head, too, looking over me on the path -- I don't know how it was tripped because I had been standing there looking up at it for a couple of minutes before someone else walked by and it started roaring and moved to look down directly at me -- that was rather impressive as well).  

I left the reconstructed seashore to see the modern living reptiles and amphibians, a cranky American alligator who tried to attack through the glass of his terrarium (hit his head against the glass and snapped his teeth together -- don't tell me he was being friendly!), poison dart frogs, and a display of a wide variety of rattlesnakes, most quietly sleeping but one staring out through the glass of his case and rattling his tail.  

A pissed-off American alligator.
A yellow-banded poison dart frog.
In all my time in the museum, late on a Monday afternoon, there were perhaps ten people all told in the exhibits with me.  And so I had time to really carefully look at the exhibits, read the labels, admire the brightly-coloured frogs and rattling snakes.  

I drove on from Hays to Colby, and their Prairie Museum of Art and History, which was a great surprise to me. While I had heard about the Sternberg Museum, I had not heard anything about the museum in Colby.  I was glad I ended up spending the night there, or I might have missed that experience.  Tune in to my next diary, which will talk about that museum and why it was such a wonderful surprise to me.

In the meantime, a picture of one of the prairie skyscrapers I mentioned above.  Kansas still is the number one wheat-producing state in the country.  Oh, and did I mention how spectacular the sky is there?

Grain elevator in Goodland.

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 08:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kansas & Missouri Kossacks, Kitchen Table Kibitzing, and Community Spotlight.

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