Casey Cagle remembers picking up a copy of “PrairyErth” at a used bookstore in Georgia years ago.
The book, William Least-Heat Moon’s in-depth account of the people and history of Chase County, made him miss his southeast Kansas home.
Cagle was working as a cross-country tour guide and rarely ventured back into his home state.
Then, late last year, he decided it was time to put his efforts into promoting his own state, its heritage and its culture.
“I was going to go back to California and continue working there, but I needed a summer in Kansas to sort of get a reality check,” Cagle said. “By the end of that summer, I felt the time was right.”
Cagle’s new tour company, Prairie Earth Tours, is based out of Emporia and will offer guided tours of Kansas, specializing in trips through the Flint Hills.
“I think there’s a market for it if you approach it right,” said Cagle, 33. “People are always encouraged to experience the Flint Hills on their own, but I always try to throw something in that they would have never thought to do or that they wouldn’t have been able to do alone.”
‘The place I really love’
Cagle was a typical Kansas kid, growing up on a farm in the southeast part of the state that produced typical Kansas crops: corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat.
When he grew older, he developed a bit of wanderlust.
Much in the style of Least-Heat Moon, whom Cagle considers “a big influence,” he set off to travel the country in a camper.
“It turns out that looks really good on a resume for a tour guide for companies that do road trips,” Cagle said.
Cagle worked for different California companies that organize cross-country road trips – anywhere from one to nine weeks per trip, he said.
“It pretty much went everywhere but Kansas – cross country across northern states or southern states,” he said. “In the beginning, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Man, I wish I was in Kansas right now. ... I could really knock it out of the park.’ ”
Cagle also spent a year working for a couple of tour companies in the Australian Outback, he said.
But in the back of his mind, he always considered starting his own tour company in the Sunflower State, he said.
“The lifestyle working for those companies is very exciting and fulfilling, but it’s also very transient,” Cagle said. “I thought if I started my own, I could have the best of both worlds: The job I really love could be in the place I really love.”
Be a Kansas tourist
No tour with Cagle’s company is a large, “bus tour”-type experience, as his trips are usually limited to about 14 people.
That’s both a product of necessity – his van/bus cannot hold more than that – and principle.
“If you have a group that size, then you can go to the small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants or the stuff that’s a little trickier to get to – if you’re going to a small town, you’re not descending on this small town with 50 people and changing the experience,” he said. “You’re experiencing it like a local would.
“I feel like it’s important to not exploit these things but protect the integrity of the places you go. It can be really good for an area’s economy, but if you don’t do it right, you can ruin the thing you went to see in the first place.”
Public trips through the Flint Hills will likely start later this spring, Cagle said.
Until then, he’s offering Kansas brewery tours: one route from El Dorado through Wichita, and another soon to begin from Topeka to Lawrence.
“We get special treatment at these different breweries, and you have a brewer on the bus to ask all the technical questions if you like,” he said. “Wichita has really turned into quite the hot spot for Kansas craft beer. The itinerary is really good.”
He also plans to offer Kansas winery trips and outings specifically tailored for photography.
All of his current tours originate and end in Emporia, where Cagle is based.
Cagle said he’s been seeing increased demand for private tours of Kansas, which people can book for a group of up to 14 people. The routes can originate and end anywhere in Kansas, and people can either follow one of his established routes or make their own.
“As far as picking out the routes, I mostly just try to go to the kind of places people wouldn’t know to go on their own,” Cagle said. “A lot of organizations that have new employees or new staff, it’d be a good thing to do ... to sort of welcome them to the area and give them a cultural experience right off the bat.
“A lot of people in the area are really proud to be associated with the Flint Hills, and if you just moved here, there’s not a lot of information readily available to let you know what that’s all about.”
Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt
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