We set out the next morning to drive six hours on U.S. Route 54, unaware we'll stop in Greensburg, Kansas. The stop just happens naturally.
Heading out of Liberal on 54, we get stuck at some road work. Our lane is stopped for about 10 minutes. You look on a map and see a major U.S. highway like 54, and you assume it is working free of problems around the clock—like a major artery in the body. But at times, even a highway is stopped.
So we sit there and watch four pigs playing and fighting in the back of the pickup truck in front of us. The old farmer driving the truck looks back at the pigs every now and then, but doesn't intervene. You miss sights like this when you fly.
Finally, a pilot car comes and leads us on the wrong side of the highway for maybe a mile or two while the oncoming traffic waits. Once we're clear of the construction zone, we proceed at a normal speed.
As Highway 54 approaches Greensburg, Kansas, we begin to see signs for The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, as well as a large meteorite. Too campy and kitschy for a stop? No way. As the road leads into Greensburg itself, we start looking for signs that will lead us to the attractions.
ROAD TRIP IDEA: Never dismiss a roadside attraction as too cheesy to warrant a stop. Even the hokiest attraction can add color to your trip, not to mention a few photo opportunities. You don't have to hit them all, but if a directional sign piques your interest, take two minutes to pull off the road and check it out. You'll generally be able to tell if the attraction is a tourist trap or waste of time without even leaving the car.
We follow the signs to the Hand-Dug Well in Greensburg, Kansas. It's just a couple turns off Highway 54, on a quiet side street. From the car, we can see that there are no long lines and the parking lot is small. So there's little danger of getting stuck here all morning.
It turns out that the meteorite is housed here in the back of a white building that also houses an extensive gift shop. It's in a glass case. We expected a much larger rock, but considering what meteorites go through as they enter the earth's atmosphere, this one is pretty impressive.
The gift shop is filled with all sorts of Kansas kitsch—not just meteorite-related or well-related items. A Mennonite group comes in, with the women and girls in their distinctively modest dresses and bonnets. I read somewhere that they dress this way to avoid enflaming men's passions. But I think these ladies are strikingly attractive in an overexposed culture.
The well is outside under a white shed. The lady behind the counter of the gift shop sells you a ticket for two dollars and then buzzes you into the well door, which must remain locked at all times for obvious reasons.
"Knock on the window when you're ready to go down," the lady says. "Also, just to warn you, a siren is about to go off. A really loud siren. Because it's noon." A Greensburg, Kansas tradition?
I go down alone. It's quite dark, and the stairs are very steep. I almost feel a hint of vertigo coming on, but then I focus on one step at a time and feel OK. There's a dusty, metallic smell in the well, and it is noticeably cooler and dryer than the outside air.
From the top of the steps, the bottom looks impossibly far away, but the descent actually doesn't take long. There are dim sconces on the walls to guide my way. At the bottom platform, I look up and see Michelle and Mary in the skylight. And yet I am in deep, dark, cool solitude. I feel like I could stay for hours. People have written their names and dates on the walls and pipes.
How could it be worth even two dollars to go down a hole in the ground? It just is.
Less than a year after we stopped in Greensburg, Kansas, the town vanished. It was heartbreaking to read about the Kansas tornados that descended upon Greensburg in 2007 and destroyed 95% of the city. The tragedy really hit home when we saw a photo of the Hand-Dug Well sign lying askew on the ground, having been carried away and cast down by the wind.
We were glad we had decided to stop that day, and grateful that only 11 lives had been lost. We hope and pray that Greensburg, Kansas will rise from its rubble. On a lighter note, Wikipedia reports that the meteorite, which was insured for $1 million, was found in the wreckage and is being temporarily housed in Hays, Kansas.