Exploring Eastern Kansas: You're Not in Kansas Anymore
Despite the state's straitlaced reputation, things have been known to get delightfully strange amid the sunflowers—and it doesn't take a twister to do it.
Day 1: Kansas City to Elmdale
Kansas is a place that's proud of the most peculiar superlatives. Shortly after leaving Missouri, my boyfriend, Patrick, and I spot signs on I-70 for THE WORLD'S LARGEST EASEL and THE WORLD'S LARGEST PRAIRIE DOG.
Size also matters at our first stop:Cabela's, a 180,000-square-foot outdoor-sporting-goods store with a big-game trophy collection. Cabela's is like a zoo where the animals are not only dead, but also impersonating Jackie Chan. Someone has arranged them in dramatic reenactments: A crocodile's jaw clamps a wildebeest's neck, a leopard chases a baboon atop the trees, a zebra kicks a lion in the face.
Lawrence, about 40 miles west, is a cute college town, home to the University of Kansas's main campus. We go to lunch atJefferson's, a boisterous diner with dollar bills thumbtacked to the walls. I order buffalo wings, which come slathered in a tangy hot sauce; the chicken's so good, I don't mind that eating it demands an entire roll of paper towels.
We have a lot of ground to cover today, so after strolling along the main drag, Massachusetts Street, we set off for our evening's destination, Cottonwood Falls. The 900-person ranching community is in the Flint Hills, a region of rolling hills in the high prairie. Pulling into the town's center, we immediately notice horse manure in the middle of Broadway. I'm charmed to realize there really are some places where people still ride horses down the main street. We peek into the front window of theEmma Chase Cafe, a restaurant with plaid tablecloths. As we walk away, a lady runs out, yelling, "You know there's live music tonight, right?" We tell her that we'll definitely be back.
The only restaurant open for dinner is Cottonwood Falls'Grand Central Hotel and Grill, an upscale brick-faced restaurant that I'd heard has the best steak in Kansas. Patrick orders a flame-grilled fillet of beef tenderloin. His large steak isn't very juicy, but the meat is so tender, a mouthful nearly melts. I want to see if they also have the best pasta in Kansas, so I pick the pasta "lemonada": fettucine with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and broccoli in a white wine and lemon sauce. Stick with the meat. Overall, the bill totals $50 without tip, which seems overpriced for a town that has horse dung on its main street.
Back at the Emma Chase Cafe, five singers stand over country-music lyric sheets, two men strum acoustic guitars, and Lucy Smith--the woman who had chased after us earlier--is playing a violin. When we walk in, the music abruptly stops. One of the players looks up and hollers: "You must be from Boston!" I'd called earlier in the week to find out the café's hours; apparently my unusual inquiry had literally been the talk of the town.
- Jefferson's743 Massachusetts St., Lawrence, 785/832-2000, buffalo wings $5.25
- Grand Central Hotel and Grill215 Broadway, Cottonwood Falls, 620/273-6763, entrées from $13
- Cabela's10300 Cabela Dr., Kansas City, 913/328-0322
- Emma Chase Cafe317 Broadway, Cottonwood Falls, 620/273-6020, live music free
Day 2: Elmdale to Wilson
We're only is a few miles from theTallgrass Prairie National Preserve, an 11,000-acre national park devoted entirely to grass. The name, as it turns out, is false advertising in May. The grass is tall--if you're an ant. The park truly earns its name in the autumn, when the grass reaches between three and six feet. A bus tour runs through the grounds three times a day April through October. It couldn't possibly surpass our morning adventure, however, so we visit an information booth/barn where our favorite Emma Chase violinist, Lucy Smith, pops up yet again (she's a park volunteer).
The route north along the Flint Hills Scenic Byway (K-177) is the most beautiful stretch of road we travel. There are grassy mounds undulating along the horizon, dormant farming patches the color of cocoa, and clouds that resemble generous gobs of shaving cream.
It's lunchtime when we arrive at Council Grove, a town of 2,300 with a buffalo mural painted on City Hall.Hays House, founded in 1857 by Daniel Boone's great-grandson, bills itself as the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi. I order skillet-fried chicken, which is crunchy, but a little dry. Patrick's chicken club sandwich, on the other hand, is a winner. We cross the street to theAldrich Apothecary, an old-time drugstore/soda fountain, for a chocolate ice-cream soda.
A few hours later, we make it to Wilson. The town has a lot of rusty silos and abandoned storefronts, and we're a little spooked. TheMidland Hotelwas nicely renovated in 2003, but even it's sort of eerie. After a dinner of beers and a ham and cheese sandwich in the hotel's basement tavern, a local whispers that the inn has a history of strange occurrences. Legend has it that a former owner hanged himself in the main stairwell after he accidentally killed his son in a shoot-out. We think the young woman is teasing us, especially when she says that the third floor--where we're staying--used to be a chicken coop. But later, when I check the hotel's website, I find some of what she was saying confirmed.