I have memories from my adolescence of marathon drives through Nebraska, certain that part of the journey from Pennsylvania to the Tetons on 80 West would never end. Looking back, I wonder how many Nancy Drew books I consumed just during that drive across that one eternal flat state. It was a useful way to measure time and distance at that time in my life, so I could hardly complain. What I wouldn’t give now for unending hours with nothing to do but read!
As I planned this year’s western road trip to Colorado from Virginia, I determined not to drive through Nebraska. While I’m fairly sure my current self would not be as bored with the whole thing as my preteen self, I’m taking precautions and staying a bit to the south. Kansas would be the flat state of choice, and I was kind of excited about it as I’d never been there before. Surely it isn’t just all corn and flat, straight roads!
Ok so it kind of is, but there were enough interesting quirks about my route through it that made it worth the drive. You just never know what you’re going to come across when you choose the “alt” road. It would have been easy to just hop on Highway 70 and go, but I stayed south, steering clear of city life with the exception of a quick jog around Wichita. Honestly I was looking forward to this part of the trip, as it was new and counted as adventure.
I’m from north central Pennsylvania, but have lived in Northern Virginia for the last 27 years. I’m used to green mountains and valleys, quiet farms and small towns, as well as busy highways and lots of people. All of this can be found in between my two home states. Neither of these provided any context for Kansas. I was so curious about how people live there. No big grocery store or easy access to so many of the day-to-day things we take for granted. How far do these kids have to travel to go to school? To church? Just to see another human being?? Unless you live directly in town – ok, so town is a negligible word, as many towns boast populations like 235 (Severy, for example) and 150 (Fall River), you may not have a neighbor for miles. While I’m pretty independent and don’t need a lot of folks around, that would be a little extreme.
And it was interesting. And spooky, to be honest. In the eastern beginnings, the terrain was fairly flat and the farms were large, but there was still a sense of town and community, with the occasional family farm – self-contained and noncommercial. The deeper in I went, however, the flatter and sparser it got. The consistent scenery included windmills, corn, soybeans, the occasional farmhouse, and a giant grain elevator now and again, with train tracks running alongside. And cows. Thousands and thousands of them. Many grazed peacefully on farmland as it whizzed past my window, but the real bulk of them were jammed into cattle feeding lots by the tens of thousands, which brought with it its own special brand of stench. I love beef, (it’s what’s for dinner!) but I may have to think about it just a little bit more before I order the delmonico for dinner.
When we left Missouri that morning, I had asked our hipcamp host for any ideas where to stop with Lexi, my puppy golden retriever. There have to be parks somewhere in Kansas, right? We can’t just run around in someone’s cornfield. She has proven to be a great traveler, but at least once a day I try to find a place where she can run and swim, if we’re lucky. My host recommended a place called Fall River State Park. It seemed like a good place for a short respite, as our goal for the day was Dodge City.
As we drove, I just couldn’t imagine that somewhere in the midst of all these fields would be any water at all, let alone a potentially beautiful state park. Surprise again! Actually double surprise as we drew closer to the entrance, we began to see debris on the road. It looked like there’d been a storm. This proved to be an understatement and I reminded myself that I was in Kansas – home of Dorothy and Toto, tornadoes and misplaced houses that land on witches.
The park was officially closed, and no one was around. Bummer for the locals I’m sure! However, a few downed trees simply served to call us to investigate, not turn around (my Nancy Drew background at work). One other car, coming behind us, seemed to have the same idea, so we pressed on, skirting trees and big branches as we made our way through. After all, we just wanted a place to walk and swim, so it seemed likely both could still be accomplished. Plus, I felt just a little bit daring, knowing we were heading into a place we should have been heading out of.
Swimming was not an issue. There was what normally would be a beautiful lake, (and honestly, why it was called Fall River instead of Fall Lake I never really grasped) but it had run over the campground, and high water was evident in every direction. Lexi swam in the lakeside campsites instead of near them. And there were no shortage of sticks to chase and drag around. Retriever paradise! It’s always amazing to see what wind and water can do, especially when you arrive in the aftermath and everything looks normal – until it doesn’t. It will be a massive clean-up effort, but hopefully they’re able to reopen before the end of summer. It was also a solid reminder that Kansas does storms – big time.
But on to Dodge City. I had reserved a very affordable AirBnB – called “The Western Bunkhouse” just outside of town, in a mini house that was part of a larger compound of cabins and buildings that appeared to be some sort of retreat, complete with church, meeting buildings and sports facilities. The little house was perfect for us, and the folks that managed it were very attentive and helpful.
The draw, of course, was the town itself. I was so curious to see what remained of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Turns out the town is all in on preserving their memories, both in the genuine historical sense and by creating every kitschy reference imaginable. While it was a busy town in its own right, with the requisite grain elevator, typical downtown, etc., it was obvious that selling the “Wild West” was its biggest draw (pun intended!). I enjoyed checking it all out, and posed with Doc Holliday at his poker table, checked out the giant steam engine at the museum, and admired the storefront of the “Great Western Hotel”, which I believe is a re-creation but still cool. If you love all these old stories and the movies that go with them (think Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), then it’s worth a visit. I barely touched the surface of it all, but would have loved to dive in deeper. This is one of the downsides to traveling with a dog in the summer – you just can’t go in anywhere for more than a minute!
I can, however, highly recommend Red Beard Coffee! I dashed in there for some caffeine on the way out of town, and found a cool storefront and a very engaging interior. (Not to mention the cool factor that they are located on Gunsmoke Avenue.) The staff was super-friendly and helpful, especially to the older gentleman in front of me who may or may not have ever had a cup of coffee before and needed lots of handholding through the process.
Biding my time, I noticed their prayer wall – a huge chalkboard filled with scrawlings and scribbles of prayers, ranging from petitions for a great harvest (clearly on the minds of most in this part of the country) to community unity and prayers for children. Love!
This last bit left me with a sweet memory for Dodge City, which of course stands in complete contrast with the bang-bang-shoot-’em-up history which draws most folks here. Clearly it’s a kinder, gentler town these days.
Iced latté in hand on this very hot day, Lexi and I excitedly headed west. Next stop, Colorado! We were gettin’ out of Dodge. (I’ve always wanted to say that.) Happy trails!