All I’ve Ever Learned About Travel Was Found in Kansas

Kansas all too often serves as the convenient stand-in for wide-eyed bumpkins star-struck by Manhattan skyscrapers or Beverly Hills mansions. Simple people living simple lives in simply boring landscapes. Often on the coasts, when the need arises for a dismissive pot shot at a perceived simpleton comment, one turns to Kansas to make the point (‘where are you from, Kansas?’). Does anyone know what that really means?

I used to be that way. Growing up in Oklahoma, our family road trips to Colorado required enduring hours of Kansas. I tried not to complain and stared restlessly out the window insulated by Rush’s 2112 blaring on my Walkman. I whined a little, but finally accepted a long day of Kansas wheat fields and bugs and wind was the price to pay for a week in the mountains.

Since leaving Oklahoma, I’ve lived in London, San Francisco, Melbourne and Vietnam. I’ve spent months abroad researching two dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks that have taken me to Siberia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Chiapas, Burma and the Bronx. The first thing you learn on the road is that outside perceptions are frequently way off – the Vietnamese like (nice) Americans, Colombia isn’t that dangerous, people in the Middle East are lovely, grim-faced Russians will treat you immediately like family in closed quarters.

One of these days that worldly radar, indie-travel inspection is going to turn onto our own backyards. (Maybe tightened budgets this year will help.) And, after returning to Kansas on a week-long research trip a few years ago, I figured Kansas could be the next Laos: a friendly land with surprising mystery and deepness. In my mind, simply to consider Kansas is to travel – meaning, both the state and the concept of places written-off or not fully considered. And you can find “Kansas” most anywhere you go.

The first ever utterance of “are we there yet?” probably happened on the Sante Fe Trail cutting across a place mocked for its flatness. A few years ago, some scientists actually tested the theory that Kansas was flatter than a pancake. And figured it’s flatter. (They neglected to mention that Delaware and Florida are actually more pancake-challenged.) But views from an abacus or a car window can lie. Crossing on I-70’s raised four lanes, as most do in a flash, you can see far-off horizons left and right. But every now and then, if you look, you’ll see one stretching headache flat for a mile. Then stopping. I wondered about that sudden change near Hays, and detoured toward it. After a mile, the bottom of the plains fell out, revealing a sweeping plain of rolling fields — carved by the prehistoric seas that covered the area.

–> Mountains don’t monopolize beauty. Detour to short horizons in flat lands, plains and prairie. Some give mountain-like views (without the altitude sickness).

Kansas is dotted with grain elevators. You can see them for miles, standing like skyscraper of the plains, marking a farm town, like tiny churches signal English villages on a walk in the Lake District. With time to burn while wandering Kansas’ two-laners across its western half, I got to thinking about these grain silos. I’d seen them for years, but never been in one. In Dodge City, I stopped at a particularly big one and asked if I could see it. ‘Talk to Glen,’ a guy said, pointing to another without looking. Glen waddled up – stuffed into an extra-large navy blue jumpsuit, Terminator glasses wrapping around his moustached face. He waved me to a one-man elevator and we squeezed in. On covered walkways on the top floor, Glen pointed out hollow silos, stepping over unused machinery equipment and looking out over the wheat for miles. I grew up around less-than-smooth, south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line accents, but I couldn’t understand but 10% of what he said. ‘This is the cropper.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Three man job.’

–> The best travel experiences come when you create your own attractions – eg stop at water mills, corn husker huts, fish docks and ask to see them.

The people I bumped into in Kansas – congressman, Native American guides, retired pilots, dieting divorcees, gas pumpers, visitor center volunteers with Parkinson’s, gunfight actors, punk rockers, small town cops – are probably the nicest, most welcoming in the world. I went out of my way on the two-lane roads to reach Nicodemus, the oldest surviving “black town” way off the interstate. Following a thunderstorm from the night before, I passed a demolished barn and several toppled over trees. Nicodemus is tiny. A few houses, a parking meter jokingly put up in front of a closed civic center. Plenty of elbow room. I saw some folks outside one house. “We got hit by lightning last night,” the woman interjected. “Come look.” I dutifully walked through the soft, shaggy 1976 carpet of their living room through a messy kitchen to a back pantry. A black mark marred striped the white window frame on one side — glass gone. “See?”

The next day in Wichita, I stopped into a local institution, Nu Way Café, to try their shredded-beef burgers. It was busy and I took a counter seat by a large woman drinking a Dr Pepper. “I usually have water,” she said, somewhat apologetically. “I work out a lot and need it.” We got to talking. Within maybe two minutes, I learned she used to live in Vallejo, CA; she’s divorced; misses California weather; never knew that Wichita was the HQ for Pizza Hut; has never been to a Wichita museum; and our waitress – a plump girl with a pierced nose – was her daughter. This was conversation not flirtation. Meanwhile the woman next to us couldn’t resist the counter chat and broke in, “I can’t eat those burgers anymore. Cancer and meat don’t like each other.”

–> If you talk with locals anywhere (and nearly all are happy to talk about their lives), they let you see their warts. More revealing, interesting, memorable than a museum. Even Wichita’s.

About Robert Reid

Lonely Planet's US Travel Editor. Written 24 LP guidebooks and articles for NY Times, WSJ, ESPN & CNN. Into cereal, Dylan, travel.
Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.