Road Trip Day 6: Cross two panhandles into Liberal, Kansas

Today will start in Santa Fe and end in Liberal, Kansas. Along the way, we'll cross the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.

On the way out of Santa Fe, we stop for yogurt and bottled water at Whole Foods. We'll be able to find "grownup" foods easily enough along the way, but we have to get yogurt now because it's pretty much the only thing 15-month-old Mary eats.

We then connect to I-40 by way of a nearly deserted highway. At a rest stop on I-40, there's a travel oasis with fireworks for sale two months per year. A sign in one of the bathroom stalls says, "Ready to Explode? Then don't miss our fireworks sale!" How can you not buy fireworks after seeing that sign? But we don't.

Later on I-40, a road sign presents an existential hypothesis: Gusty Winds May Exist.

We make a food and gas stop in Tucumcari, New Mexico. An older couple walks around our Mazda 5 a couple times, then asks, "Is this thing a hybrid?" It's not; it just has that slanty hybrid look to it.

I go into the mini-mart, which is really more of a little drugstore. They're selling camera bags for eight bucks. I buy one for our camcorder/camera. Hey, why not?

ROAD TRIP TIP: Don't ignore the mini-marts you'll find along your route. Sure, they sell an awful lot of T-shirts that say things like, "It's not a beer belly. . . .it's a fuel tank for a sex machine!" But they also have some good deals on odd remainder items.

The camera bag I found in Tucumcari, New Mexico is name-brand and high-quality, and it was only eight bucks. I never would have had time to shop for it during my regular, non-road-trip life....and how could I be sure of the same quality in our destination of Liberal, Kansas?

Tucumcari is also where we pick up U.S. Highway 54, which quietly runs from El Paso to Illinois by way of Liberal, Kansas. Out on 54, near the Texas border, we pass through the town of Nara Visa. It's a de facto ghost town, with virtually all of the businesses boarded up. But there's a large brick community center that looks relatively new. I wonder what happened here. Town on the rebound, or was the new building an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to turn things around?

Just across the Texas border on Highway 54, the land transitions into more ranches. We get stuck behind a green tractor for a minute or so. Across the Texas panhandle, we notice that the signs list different speed limits for daytime and nighttime driving.

This is cattle country. I thought we had seen some cows at the beginning of our road trip on central California's Highway 99. But this is staggering. On these feed lots, there are cows as far as the eye can see—endless seas of black and brown dotted with white. The smell is pretty bad, but not intolerable. Still, I'm not sure how I feel about eating meat right now.

We stop for lunch in Dalhart, Texas. After driving around the town a bit, we decide our best option is Dairy Queen. It's amazing how being in a clean, colorful fast food joint totally distracts the mind from the uglier realities of beef production, because now I want a burger.

The Belt Buster is two patties of pure Texas goodness. I really think this is one of the tastiest burgers I've ever had, but then again, who's to say that the meat didn't come from some food processing plant in Argentina?

One of the young Dairy Queen workers takes an interest in Mary and tells us her baby is the same age. At the counter, they're wishing one of the workers goodbye and good luck because she's "going off to school." I want to ask where, but don't.

This Dairy Queen is decorated with a Lone Star theme. I visit the men's room before we hit the road. The urinal is a high-tech waterless model. I've never seen anything like it, and have no idea how it stays clean.

This is the most advanced urinal I've ever used. In Dalhart, Texas.

Back on the road, we cross the border onto the Oklahoma panhandle, probably less than two hours from our destination of Liberal, Kansas. We immediately notice that the pavement on the highway is much newer and darker, and there are frequent rest stops with picnic tables. How does Oklahoma pay for all this? Do they have higher taxes?

Though the Oklahoma panhandle is but a narrow swath of land, I have a stop in mind: Oklahoma Panhandle State University, in the town of Goodwell. There's absolutely no reason I should want to stop here, other than to get a T-shirt. But will I be able to find a student store that sells OPSU swag? And will they be open in summer?

Yes, and yes. The campus is beautiful, with red brick buildings nestled amongst a sleepy little town. I make a few lucky turns and find what appears to be the center of campus. I walk into the main building and hit T-shirt jackpot.

Back on 54, we slow through the town of Guymon, then speed up again. On a stretch of divided highway with a grassy median, I notice an Oklahoma State Highway Patrol car coming the other direction, but I figure I'm OK. In my rearview, I notice him crossing the median suddenly and coming after me.

He hits the lights and pulls me over. Turns out I was going 69 in a 45. Turns out that as you're leaving a small town in the middle of nowhere, the posted speed limit is often much slower than you expect until you get way out of town. The ticket is $239, and I'm livid. There goes my perfect driving record.

Once we reach Liberal, Kansas, we check into the Liberal, Kansas Days Inn and clean up a bit. Mary gets a little bath in the shower. Then, believe it or not, we call some old friends who live nearby and arrange to meet them for Italian food.

The Italian restaurant clearly used to be a Burger King, but they've done what they can with the decor and renovations. The food is pretty decent and dirt cheap. It's one of those rare restaurant bills where you look at it and say, "Wait, they must have forgotten to add my….no, it's on there. Cool."

Liberal, Kansas centers around Highway 54, with many hotels flanking the highway. In the morning, we enjoy the generous Days Inn breakfast. A friendly man calls Mary "purty." We smile.

Before we hit the road from Liberal, we visit Dorothy's House, a la The Wizard of Oz. It's a small exhibit surrounded by yellow brick paths. Cute, but unspectacular. We pose for a few pictures, then leave Liberal.

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