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.
- Midland Hotel414 26th St., Wilson, 785/658-2284, midlandrailroadhotel.com, from $65, sandwich $6
- Hays House112 W. Main St., Council Grove, 620/767-5911, fried chicken $6
- Aldrich Apothecary115-119 W. Main St., Council Grove, 620/767-6731, ice-cream soda $2.50
- Tallgrass Prairie National PreserveHwy. 177, 620/273-8494, nps.gov/tapr, free, tours $5
Day 3: Wilson to Nickerson
As far as I can tell, everything in Kansas shuts down on Sunday mornings, so we spend the first part of the day relaxing in the sun, watching people fish inWilson Lake, which locals know as "the clearest lake in Kansas."
The town of Lucas, eight miles north, is something I'm particularly interested in seeing. I had read about an eccentric former resident, Samuel P. Dinsmoor. When his first wife died in the early 20th century, Dinsmoor wanted to bury her in the backyard, but Lucas's local government wouldn't allow it. So Dinsmoor complied, giving her a proper burial on the town's outskirts. A few nights later, he dug up her coffin, relocated it to his yard, and encased the tomb in concrete to render it immovable. The story gets odder. Dinsmoor was also an artist and spent 20 years of his life building cement sculptures of surreal Populist Party and biblical scenes in his yard. He then named his property the Garden of Eden.
Now a tourist attraction, the Garden of Eden is a real sight to behold; the cement sculptures crisscross the yard's perimeter like deeply rooted scaffolding. Even more bizarre, visitors get to meet Mr. Dinsmoor, who's been dead since 1932, at the end of the tour. Entombed in a mausoleum above his first wife, he's visible through thick glass, dressed in a suit and covered in white mold.
Dinsmoor's eccentricity inspired other townsfolk, which is how Lucas became the grassroots art capital of Kansas. We browse theGrassroots Art Center, an outsider-art outpost featuring pieces like a silver car fabricated entirely out of pull tabs. Next door to the Garden of Eden, 33-year-old artist Erika Nelson has a traveling museum parked in front of her home. She calls itThe World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things, the apotheosis of superlatives. Nelson has built hundreds of miniature versions of objects like the World's Largest Ball of Twine (also in Kansas, of course), and she makes pilgrimages around the country to photograph her versions beside the originals.
Animals--dead and alive--seem to be a running theme, so we choose to embrace it.Hedrick's Bed & Breakfast Inn and Exotic Animal Farmin Nickerson is a zoo-like establishment where the vast menagerie includes zebras, camels, and llamas. We're an hour late for the early-evening check-in; a note at the information desk instructs us to find someone to help us over in the kangaroo barn.
Each room has a theme, and we're booked in The Bird of Paradise Suite--two adjoining rooms, one with birds and a waterfall painted over the Jacuzzi and the other with a county fair motif. The inn reminds me of a summer camp; common areas are off-limits after 9:30 p.m. Sadly, by the time we get there, the dinner hour is long past, and we don't fare well finding food in town. A gas station is the only business that's open for miles. Oh well. We check outCity Slickers--it seems totally appropriate--from the B&B's video library and call it a night.
- Hedrick's Bed & Breakfast Inn and Exotic Animal Farm7910 N. Roy L. Smith Rd., Nickerson, 888/489-8039, hedricks.com, from $99
- Wilson Lakeoff Hwy. 232, Wilson, 785/658-2465
- Garden of EdenIntersection of Kansas Ave. and Second St., Lucas, 785/525-6395, $6
- Grassroots Art Center213 S. Main St., Lucas, 785/525-6118, $6
- The World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things226 Kansas Ave., Lucas, 785/760-0826, worldslargestthings.com, free
Day 4: Nickerson to Wichita
At 8 a.m., hand-rung bells outside our door beckon us to breakfast. A cook chides us for arriving 15 minutes later and calls us "slugabeds." After sharing a plate of waffles and an egg-and-potato casserole, Patrick and I wander outside to walk the property. A male ostrich crouches into a feathery ball, frenetically flaps his wings, and then swings his neck against his body like a plumed paddleball. This is his way of flirting, our tour guide, Tammy, tells us.