Four of the nation’s most isolated towns are in western Kansas, according to an article published this week by The Washington Post.
Some of the residents in those towns beg to differ.
The Post listed what it said were the 10 most isolated towns in the nation, in an article titled “Using the best data possible, we set out to find the middle of nowhere.”
It measured a place’s distance “from any densely populated spot within a metro large enough to provide key goods and services,” setting the metro area’s size at 75,000 or more. The more isolated a community, the harder it is to access specialized health care, education and international airports, the article said.
Kansas had four towns on the list — Colby, population 5,400; Oakley, 2,000; Scott City, 3,800; and Holcomb, 2,100. The most isolated town in the nation, according to the Post, was Glasgow, Montana, population 3,363.
Not so fast, some of those western Kansans say. Don’t judge a Kansas town by its size.
“It’s so dramatic and ridiculous,” said Raelene Keller of Oakley, home to one of the largest sculptures of Buffalo Bill shooting a buffalo in the nation. Keller is a farm wife and is on the town’s Wild West Historical Foundation Board and the Logan County Community Foundation.
“From here, you can be on the edge of Denver in 3 1/2 hours or less,” Keller said. “Remember, you gain an hour when you head to Denver. (Travelers pass from Central Standard Time to Mountain Time about 35 miles east of the Kansas/Colorado border, so about Goodland change your clocks).
And those amenities, the big city paper talks about? Oakley is just 20 miles away from the closest Walmart, located in Colby.
“We may be 85 miles from the closest Target but we have a brand new wellness and rehabilitation center, a wonderful hospital, a surgeon in our little community and all the services that are needed. We have 10 restaurants. We’ve got the Interstate and US-183 intersects here. We got a lot of good action here.”
Vernon Hurd, director of the Thomas County Economic Development Alliance in Colby, says most travelers passing through remember it as the town that bills itself as “the Oasis on the Plains.” It even has a convenience travel plaza with massive metal palm trees and — until recently — one of the largest fire hydrants in the Midwest, located conveniently in the dog park but now under restoration.
Hurd says Colby is a comfortable place.
“I spent many years living in metropolitan areas,” he said. “And while other people might perceive Colby to be in the middle of nowhere, it is a comfortable place to be — where neighbors know one another. While we might not have all the exact same niceties that metropolitan areas have, in my experience those metropolitan people don’t take in all the amenities they have. So what is there to do?
“We spend time with family and friends. We do all the activities that might be popular in the metropolitan areas — we have bowling leagues and people that go to the gym every day. We have the Walmart, Dillons and a whole host of mom and pop businesses that add to the experience. We are smaller and it’s easier to find those things here.”
How isolated is Kansas?
Ninety percent of the towns in Kansas have populations of 5,000 or less, said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, whose organization is devoted to sustaining rural culture.
And the majority of the top 10 most populated towns in Kansas are in eastern Kansas, with Wichita and Salina in the central part of the state.
Western Kansas is best known for its regional hubs — such as Hays with 21,000 residents, Garden City with 26,700, Dodge City with 24,000, and Liberal with 20,300. It's in those communities you will find the Targets, Walmarts and retail centers.
“We don’t need to live near a city of 75,000 or greater to get everything we need,” Penner said. “To me, being in the middle of nowhere isn’t the criteria for living a happy, satisfied life. To me, we are in the middle of everywhere. The Post has a good story but that criteria is just simply not relevant to most of us.”
Kansas’ newest reservoir, with campgrounds and trails, is worth the drive. HorseThief Reservoir, owned by four western Kansas counties, is the state's newest public reservoir and is designed for all water sports, camping and hiking.
Rural Kansas towns often boast about their quality of life — a place to raise a family, earn a living, and carry on the traditions established by past generations.
Distance is inconsequential. A half hour to an hour drive is a way of life.
“I guess from a certain perspective some people would see us in this (isolated) realm but we are not really upset,” said Katie Eisenhour, director of the Scott County Development Committee. “What we love is the quality of life. We choose to live here. We choose to live in a town where we know our neighbors, where we help our neighbors and where small businesses can get a chance to thrive and be supported by our community.”
And although a town like Scott City may not have a Target or a Walmart in its city limits, it does have 17 places in town where people can buy food. In 2005, the town’s population dipped to 3,500 residents. It has grown back since then.
“My goal as an economic developer is to help us get back to the point where we can sustain our own shoe store again, and a clothing store where you can buy dress pants for a 10-year-old boy,” she said. “But for the most part, we have everything we need and with the internet, we sure know how to get what we want.”
Truman Capote wrote “Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.”
And while that may have held true in 1959, it no longer fits the town. In some ways, the Sunflower Electric Power Cooperation coal-fired plant dwarfs Holcomb, along with beef packing plants. Holcomb used to be five miles from Garden City. Now, it’s closer to two.
These days, it’s hard to find where Garden City ends and Holcomb begins, says Lona DuVall, director of the Finney County Economic Development Corporation.
“The fact that we are somewhat isolated from a larger population is a great benefit for our community,” DuVall said. “The fact that we are agricultural and are somewhat isolated from larger populations contributes to a secure food product that doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to be tampered with. We have jet flights daily from here that can take us anywhere. We can be in Dallas in an hour and that can connect us to anyplace we need to go.
“We have small pockets of communities out here that are inter-related. I don’t look at this as a negative. We may live in communities that have a small town feel but are still connected to all the amenities that anybody else has anywhere.”