The journey across the Great Plains has been intriguing, bizarre and disheartening. I would call Kansas the New Jersey of the Midwest, but I’m not sure the term quite fits. I approached Kansas with an open mind, expecting it to be somewhat like Nebraska or Iowa, with quaint, picturesque small towns that embrace a rural lifestyle. This vision is not Kansas.
We stayed in La Junta, Colorado over the weekend while waiting for shipping quotes to come back. I really liked La Junta, surprisingly. It was a really nice community, a cross between a turn of the century industrial town and a frontier settlement. While in La Junta, we went to a movie at The Grande movie theater in the adjacent municipality of Rocky Ford. The depression-era theater had recently been restored (complete with an amazing sound system) as a community theater.
We left La Junta and drove to Lamar, Colorado, a small town right on the border. The Walmart in Lamar is directly adjacent to the Lamar Trailer Park, allowing the lawn tractor to be a prime method of transportation between the two. While we were at Walmart, three different tractors drove across the street to park next to the bike rack. I had an excellent picture of this, but I can’t find it at the moment. We drove that morning from Lamar into Kansas. People say Kansas is flat, but Kansas is incredibly flat. You can see for miles in any direction. You can see a truck on the highway five or six miles away across the prairie.
There’s a group of attractions called The Eight Wonders of Kansas. Aside from sounding like a bad joke, the attractions themselves are more than lackluster. One of the Eight Wonders of Kansas is the “World’s Largest Hand-dug Well”, which is, in fact, the world’s third largest hand-dug well. The other two wells have been around for hundreds of years, and are much larger.Another wonder of Kansas is a restaurant north of Wichita that only sells fried chicken. I’m starting understand these ‘wonders’, because they literally make you wonder. If they’re whole goal is to inspire wonder in those who are visiting Kansas, I think they have achieved their goal remarkably well.
A presumable Wonder of Kansas pictured above, extreme flatness
The first place we stayed in Kansas, Garden City, had a massive feedlot right next to the city, and once the temperature dropped at night, a cloud of cow-fog rose from the plant and descended upon the town. From Garden City we went to Dodge City. The city demolished all of the historic buildings in the 70s, rebuilt them sometime in the 80s inside a museum, and now charges eight dollars to go in. Dodge City also had a University, something they proclaim on a large brass plaque affixed to a street light, which was highly successful until it’s destruction by tornado a century ago. This time period is coincidentally the high point of life in Dodge. There was literally nothing to do in Dodge save the $8 museum; there wasn’t even a coffee shop in town, and nearly every bizarre (in a bad way) store was closed at 3:00pm on a Monday.
Beautiful Dodge City, Kansas, note the diverse mid-70s architecture and the absence of people.
We left Dodge and drove across the prairie for a few more hours until we got to Mullinville. We pulled into Mullinville to make a quick stop, and ended up in front of the Kiowa County Library in an old brick house. I went inside with my mom to look for sale-books. The librarian was extremely nice and friendly, and it turns out that the library had boxes and boxes of books that were donated when the Greensburgh Tornado hit. I got several great books, two old Alaskana ones, a book of graphology from the 20s, and a nuclear physics book from 1947. The library was really nice as well, far nicer than I would’ve expected from rural Kansas. From Mullinville we drove ten miles to the county seat of Greensburgh. Greensburgh was devastated by an EF5 tornado in 2007 that destroyed 95% of the town of 1,500. Completely destroyed in the way that is only possible with a tornado. When the City of Greensburgh rebuilt, the built all of their buildings to LEED Platinum standards, and started to actively promote a greener image. A surprisingly forward thinking move for Kansas.
We drove into Greensburgh at sunset, and I got several great photos of grain silos and trees reflected in the lake that we were staying at. That night also happened to be election night, and we spent most of it listening to 1260am Provo on a battery powered radio around a campfire. At about 7:00pm, cars started to drive around the small lake we had camped at, didn’t seem like too big of a deal, nothing much happens in Greensburgh. Soon after, this one guy started to really circle us in his late 60s pickup truck. His car had a distinctive engine sound that was easy to hear in the dark, but it still didn’t seem that odd. About 9:30pm, the “Kansas Creeper” moniker stuck as the guy was driving by slowly every twenty minutes or so. We decided that we should leave as the situation had gotten really weird and camped about a mile away by a gas station. We were in our car listening to the fuzzy am signal when we got the news that President Obama had been reelected, definitely a unique way to follow an election.
Today, we got up and drove to Wichita. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from Wichita at all, but I had some hope that it would be nice. The city itself was beautiful. The City of Wichita has done an excellent job in every aspect of making it a livable, intriguing city. They refurbished all of the warehouses into lofts and mixed use developments in a very tasteful way, not too new looking, but not too old or worn down. Wichita also has really unique architecture, lots of brick combined with Beaux-arts and western styles. Wichita also has a really nice park downtown, probably the nicest I’ve ever seen, with two suspension bridges leading to a rock platform at a split in the Arkansas river that’s illuminated with gas torches at night.
The Opheum Theater in Wichita
Now, the bad of Wichita. While it’s a perfectly constructed plan in urban renewal, it appears to have completely failed. Wichita is no Portland. There are no hip, young people living in the lofts. The downtown was dead. Wichita was the first place I’ve been followed and had to duck into a store. Wichita felt empty and unsafe, not unlike a city in a post-apocalyptic world. There’s tons of public art, but the only people that I saw the entire time were either homeless or shady looking. When we were at the park, an older woman started talking to us about Wichita, in a way that it felt almost like a movie in how it seemed planned to tie everything together, complete with metaphors. Standing on a carved rock walkway jetting out into the drought-shrunken river, our conversation went like this:
“Have you been here before?”
“No, this is our first time, we’re just passing through, it’s beautiful”
“Oh, okay. Do you see the fish in the river? That’s what I’m looking at, I think they’re stuck in the shallow water. They’re trying to get out, but they can’t because it’s not quite deep enough”
“I see them, over there in that pool. Is the river usually this low?”
“No, it’s the droughts, it’s usually much higher, you can see the water line on the shore”
“Oh, I see it now, it must be really beautiful when it’s full”
“It is, this is where I come to relax. When life picks you apart and chips away at your spirit, this is where I come to fill my cup. I love it here”
Refurbished warehouse and factory lofts in Downtown Wichita
Those are direct quotes; it was a rather sad experience. We returned to our car in the glass-littered parking lot and drove to another park just on the other side of Old Town so we could let the dogs out to run. We were at that park for about forty-five minutes before it started to get dark. We went to our car to figure out what to do next (I wanted to drive through again at night because I really wanted Wichita to be nice) when three black SUVs followed by a mid-70s Cadillac drove by really fast and pulled into the field 150 yards ahead of us with their high-beams on. We pulled out and as we drove past we saw the SUVs in a circle around a man who was being held to the ground by a several guys (I hope police) in combat gear with automatic weapons. After that we drove through downtown swiftly (still sucked) and left.
Wrote this last night in McDonald’s in Wellington, Kansas, and I thought that after I added photos I’d talk about my McDonald’s experience last night. It’s about 9:00 and there’s a couple of people on staff. There’s one woman who keeps cleaning the floor and putting chairs up on the tables even though the lobby doesn’t close for two hours. An old, beat-up pickup truck pulls into the parking and four or five super hicky looking young guys get out. They come inside and start heckling to one girl who’s repeatedly mopping the floor. They decide to start yelling jokes through some sort of hillbilly drawl which they apparently think are really clever, such as:
“Someone betta call a hearse because a buncha deadbeats jus’ pulled in”
“I betcha smell like fries after workin’ at McDonald’s all day”
^That one didn’t quite come out as they intended, and must’ve been one of those “It sounded funnier in my head” type of moments because they weren’t intending to irritate the McDonald’s employee.
After ten or minutes of this, the woman was standing behind the counter glaring at them and kept telling them to leave. Eventually they went outside and made faces on the window for a few minutes (Kansas…) then got into their pickup truck and drove away, forgetting that they left one of their friends inside.