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The Battle Over How Flat Kansas Is

How flat is it? And should we make it even flatter?

The view from Mount Sunflower, Kansas's highest elevation.

The view from Mount Sunflower, Kansas’s highest elevation. (Image: CC0)

Geographer Jerry Dobson had barely started his new job at the University of Kansas when a realization hit. Whenever he told friends and colleagues about his gig, people would smile, congratulate him, the works. But then, almost inevitably, they’d make some crack about his new home state: specifically, how flat it was. Over his years-long tenure, this did not change.

“Everytime you meet someone, they say it—and it’s not true,” he says. “I always looked around and saw hills.”

But Dobson is a geographer, able to translate this frustration into motivation. A few years ago, he and his colleague Joshua Campbell—a born and raised Kansan—undertook a project. They set out to measure the flatness of every state in the union, using an algorithm designed to calculate how flat each one looks from different points in its interior—what Campbell calls “that feeling of total flatness.” When they got the results back, Kansas was in a respectable seventh, behind Delaware, North Dakota, and the clear winner, Florida. Since then, Dobson and Campbell have toured their results around, using them to argue against the flat-Kansas mythology.

 

Bluff along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. #gyphills Photo by @flinthillsboy Use #kansasaintflat to be featured

A photo posted by Kansas (@kansasaintflat) on

So how did Kansas get this reputation? Andy Stuhl, a musician who recently moved there by car, bets it comes from East Coast road-trippers, who spill out onto the plain after miles and miles of woods. Sam Huneke, a historian who grew up in Lawrence, points to a lack of particularly large hills, but insists that “the day-to-day experience is not one of flatness.” What is clear is that, like Dobson, they don’t much like it. “Of course it affects our reputation,” says Kelli Hilliard of the Kansas Tourism Board, pointing towards efforts to change that, like a set of scenic, rolling byways, and an Instagram account called “kansasaintflat.”

But Branden Rishel, a Washington-based cartographer, has a different, more radical idea: If everyone already thinks Kansas is flat, why not lean in? Why not just make it flat—totally, completely flat?

Rishel is very familiar with the Kansas flatness question. He was a student of Mark Fonstad, a Texas State geographer who, in 2003, set out with some colleagues and a laser microscope to determine which was flatter: Kansas or an IHOP pancake. The resulting study, titled “Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake,” likely added to the public misconceptions that rankle Dobson and Campbell. (They also point out that, if you use the particular mathematical approach of Fonstad et al, “there is no place on Earth that is not flatter than a pancake.”)

Despite his academic parentage, Rishel doesn’t disagree with Dobson and Campbell—“if Kansas is a sloped and hummocky lawn, Florida is a parking lot,” he says. He also agrees that perceived flatness is probably bad for the state’s reputation. He just thinks the best solution involves less fact-checking and more literal digging. “Kansans should reclaim and celebrate flatness,” Rishel says. “Kansas should become more flat than flat.”

Kansas, in Rishel's ideal future.

Kansas, in Rishel’s ideal future. (Image: Branden Rishel)

About a year ago, Rishel posted a mocked-up map of Totally Flat Kansas on his blog, Cartographers Without Borders, along with a skeleton of his plan. The image, in which a smooth, sleek Kansas sits embedded in the bumpy continent like a tooth in a gum, is immediately appealing. It gives the sense of a state that has taken charge of its own destiny and has ended up several thousand years ahead of the rest of us, in a state of David Bowie-esque aesthetic precision. It makes Kansas look cool.

The plan, which he elaborated for me, goes as follows: Start in the middle of the state and dig west, towards Colorado. Send that excavated dirt due east, and lay it out as you go, filling in all possible nooks, crannies, valleys, etc. By the end, you will have moved 5,501 cubic miles of soil—over 9 billion Olympic swimming pools’ worth, Rishel points out. To even begin to do this, you’d need a whole lot of technology that hasn’t been invented yet (moveable pipelines, huge nuclear-powered mining machines, all that jazz). But the state would end up flat enough to test a level on, separated from its neighbors by enormous cliffs.

Rishel is a great evangelist for this plan. Besides the obvious recreational benefits—interstate cliff diving, endless ice skating in wet winters—total flatness would make Kansas a geographically fascinating spot, he says. There would be new plant life under the giant cliffs, which wouldn’t see the sun until noon. The Arkansas River would plunge down from Colorado, free-falling into the western edge of the state. “Tourists could take an elevator into Kansas and play bocce,” Rishel imagines, his enthusiasm palpable. “The region would turn into a giant puddle after storms… Visitors would discover that flat is never boring.”

A northeast view of Lawrence from the top of Mt. Oread.

A northeast view of Lawrence from the top of Mt. Oread. (Image: New York Public Library/Public Domain)

I’m sold. But I’m not from Kansas—and, like so many aspirational developers, neither is Rishel. Even if flattening is the sincerest form of flattery, Dobson, Campbell, and the other real Kansans I talked to would be sad to lose their hills, which help them take advantage of the good parts of being on the level. From the top of Lawrence’s Mount Oread, for example, “the view reaches far enough to fade away,” says Stuhl. “It’s awe-inspiring to stand on top of one of our hills and see a squall line moving in,” adds Sam Huneke, a history student who grew up in the state.

That is, until the mining machines roll by, bringing the future with them. Then, you’ll just want to get out of the way.