Back to the Kansas map to plot the rest of our course. We flip through the Kansas guidebook that our friends entrusted to us over dinner in Liberal last night. We know we're going to follow Highway 54 to Fort Scott, Kansas, but we still want to plan our stops. Looks like we'll hit Wichita in early afternoon. Too late for lunch? We'll see.
Along Highway 54 - which is two lanes at this point—we get stuck behind a huge big-rig truck. I want to pass him, but I can't see the oncoming traffic well enough to take the chance. Distant cars are difficult to see in bright sunlight because there's no contrast between the color of a car and the colors of the horizon. Everything becomes a gray blur.
The driver of the big rig periodically turns on his left signal for a few seconds at a time. I keep looking for left-hand turnoffs, but there are none. I finally realize he is trying to signal me that it is safe to pass him. A small courtesy like this can make your day. I wave gratefully once I've pulled in front of the truck.
It's nearly impossible to write about the small towns on the Kansas map without sounding condescending.
I want to compare them to Mayberry, but in a good way. We slow down as we pass through the centers of maybe half a dozen little Kansas towns on the road to Wichita. Looking down those quiet side streets, I wonder what life is like. People probably have broadband and CNN out here, but no matter how homogenized our culture has become, I still believe people have different values and a unique outlook in places like this.
And it's refreshing not to see a Starbucks on every other corner. There, how was that?
Highway 54 widens as it nears Wichita, but there is little traffic. Wichita is surprisingly large and urban, with an attractive, relatively new downtown.
Based on the entry in our Kansas guidebook, we decide to stop for lunch in Old Town Wichita, but we miss the exit on our first pass. This part of town is revitalized, with spacious restaurants and plenty of parking.
ROAD TRIP IDEA: Get hold of a locally-produced guidebook for at least one of the states you'll be driving through. The Kansas guidebook we used not only provided a detailed Kansas map, but also highlighted all the little Kansas attractions that Rand McNally's map of Kansas doesn't include. We never would have known that Old Town Wichita is a good lunch stop without this handy resource.
We arrive at Bellini's Pizza at 2:00 and eat with almost the entire restaurant to ourselves. We order salads and garlic chicken pizza, and eat ravenously. My pizza has whole cloves of roasted garlic on it, and they taste divine. Mary eats pieces of our crust.
We can tell that we just missed the lunch rush because most of the empty tables need busing. The service is speedy and the food is delicious. Outside again, we look at the brick buildings and wish we could swing by for lunch here once a week. Downtown office workers probably do, but judging by the lack of crowd at 2:00, they probably have to be back within an hour. There's a movie theater with a colorful marquee, and a spacious parking garage, though we found a spot right in front of the restaurant.
Wichita intrigues us. With a population of 350,000, it's much more than a wide spot on the Kansas map. I suspect it gets a bad rap, much like Cleveland or Detroit, but has a surprising amount to offer. In the parking lot, I check my cell phone and listen to a voice mail from a client. She seems to be calling from another universe. My projects and deadlines are miles behind me.
The drive to Fort Scott, Kansas takes us through more small towns on the Kansas map. Eureka is one of the towns where the state of Kansas is giving away free land to attract people from other states. The catch? You have to build on the land within a certain timeframe. The value of the land is admittedly low, but it's a nice idea. I fantasize briefly about starting over in rural Kansas, relying on my wits and high-speed internet.
When we arrive in Fort Scott, at the edge of the Kansas map, the air is heavy and damp. We've hit the Humidity Belt, and fatigue finally sets in. Feeling listless, I search the town's lone grocery store for baby-friendly yogurt and am amazed at the general lack of selection. Mid-America has a mass-produced, deep-fried feeling sometimes – but are the lifespans really any shorter here? They probably make up for the lack of organic foods by living a much less stressful lifestyle.
The store is dingy and predictable, but the people are unfailingly polite. The middle-aged lady ahead of me in the checkout line spots the single container of yogurt in my hand and immediately tells me to go ahead of her. I protest in vain.
The room service breakfast the next morning is prompt, huge, and delicious. We drive through the Fort Scott National Cemetery on our way out. Many of the soldiers' graves have a now-deceased widow's name on the back. Good men have made countless painful sacrifices so that my family and I can roll aimlessly across the Kansas map – and beyond.