People
9:14 pm
Thu December 20, 2012

One Man's Walkabout In Kansas

In recent years, urban planners have renewed their focus on creating walkable communities. Walking is the most basic mode of transportation – and yet, in the Kansas City metropolitan area, it’s not as common as in other parts of the country.

One local man walks the roads less traveled...across Kansas.

The Kansas City Public Library hosts hundreds of events each year – and often, a familiar face, a man with glasses and a full beard, provides introductions.

But, not on this night, in early October, before a discussion featuring author Tanner Colby: "I have the honor of introducing tonight’s program because my boss, Henry Fortunato, is on one of his famous walkabouts," said Steven Woolfolk, Assistant Director of Public Affairs at the Kansas City Public Library. "He is actually traveling by foot from Johnson County to Wichita, Kansas.

That’s roughly 200 miles or a little over 3 hours by car. But, by foot...

"I walked out my door in Overland Park, Kan., and 13 days later, I was in downtown Wichita," says Henry Fortunato, Director of Public Affairs of the Kansas City Public Library.

"Satisfaction in locomotion over long distances"

Fortunato says there’s lots of planning that goes into his walkabouts – he’s done about 10 of them now. (Usually they’re 4 or 5 day walks, but this one, at 13 days, was the longest.) He uses Google maps extensively, magnifying possible routes along gravel, dirt, or slightly paved roads and trails.

"I will tell you that for me, there is a tremendous satisfaction in locomotion over long distances," says Fortunato. "It’s an achievement. It’s not like scaling the Matterhorn, but it certainly makes me feel like, at my age, and I’m 56, that I’m still in reasonably good shape and I can make things happen."

Fortunato does not drive and hasn’t since at least the late 1970's. He moved to Kansas in 1997, but he grew up on the East Coast, living in New York and then Washington, D.C., so public transportation and walking have always been a part of his daily life.

"For me, walking is a marvelous and restorative experience. I get to think about things, I get to solve whatever challenge is facing me at the time, and it’s really good exercise," he says.

Learning to appreciate the "subtle beauty" of Kansas

"And the landscape, people think it's flat and boring. But it changes every quarter mile one way or another." - Henry Fortunato

But walking across Kansas? Here’s how Fortunato puts it: at first, he was an accidental Kansan, now he embraces his role as - what his family calls - a naturalized Kansan. He and his wife took their children on yearly trips to explore the state. And walking, he says, allows him to appreciate its "subtle beauty."

"To me, walking through the Tallgrass Prairie (National) Preserve, or the Konza Prairie just south of Manhattan, those trails go through the prairie,"  he says. "And when you’re walking it, you see the gradations, you see a dozen or so different shades of brown and gray, and green, bits of red, and bits of purple.

"And the landscape, people think it’s flat and boring. But it changes every quarter mile one way or another."

Some towns slowly disappear, others thrive

Fortunato earned his master’s in history from the University of Kansas, with a focus on Kansas and the Midwest. He says it’s hard sometimes, walking past abandoned buildings in small towns, not to think of history in a melancholy way. But then he says, there are also those places that have found a way to embrace the current age and survive.

"One of the best things for me, was in a place called Marion, Kansas, where the old Santa Fe Railroad station had been transformed into a glorious public library," says Fortunato. "That was great to see." 

He hopes to collect his stories - and photos - in a book. That's still a work-in-progress.