I got into my truck and began driving. I had no idea where I was going. Four and a half months later, I stopped. Today, let me back up and tell you about a part of my favorite travel experience: traveling northwest Kansas while driving coast to coast in the USA.
I entered Northwest Kansas expecting nothing and found everything. I began at St. Francis, the most western town on Highway 36, continuing to Belleville, a distance of 227 miles. Google Maps and Rand McNally told me this trip would take about 4-5 hours. In actuality, it took me nearly three weeks. This was an experience of a lifetime; I will never forget it. Highway 36 runs from Ohio to Colorado. It crosses the northern portion of Kansas, nestled between Nebraska’s Interstate 80 and Kansas’ Interstate 70.
I spent four-and-a-half months camping across the country on the blue highways, and Highway 36 in Western Kansas was the most awesome of the highways I travelled. There was so much to see. Historically, there has been a Highway 36 Association for over 100 years. All the towns along the highway have banded together to promote their communities.
Camping in Western Kansas is so easy to do. Most communities have a city park allowing free overnight camping, usually with shower facilities. At St. Francis, I found a nice park and was the only camper there. In the morning, I had breakfast at a convenience store/restaurant and met a gentleman farmer at another table. We discussed how he lived in town and drove out to the farm each day to work. The conversation stopped short, as one of us had to leave. He was one of the friendliest Kansans I met.
Beginning the drive eastward, I found another camp in Atwood and hung out there for several days waiting for an international package to arrive. The Postmaster was so helpful and even offered to forward it to me when I felt I had to leave before the package arrived. I spent my days walking around Lake Atwood, 43 acres in size, as it had a great walking path along the edge of the Lake. More fun was to come.
The Eight Wonders of Kansas Customs
Unlike Missouri, the Show Me state next door, Kansas might call itself the I’ll Show You state. In 2007, the Kansas Sampler Foundation created the Eight Wonders of Kansas Customs to rival the Eight Wonders of the World. Kansans voted upon these Wonders. Originally these were the Eight Wonders of Kansas—Cuisine, Commerce, Geography, Art, Customs, People, etc. Today, the number exceeds eight; there seems to be no end. However, each is awesome, some being down right rare.
Other Wonders I would put on the list are The Garden of Eden in Lucas (named for Lucas Place in St. Louis). Labeled the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, here is the home of a Civil War veteran who filled his home and property with his sculptures of characters. The whole town has become a bizarre community of uncommon artists, with flying pigs, the world’s largest collection of souvenir travel plates, and an internationally known rock garden.
So many towns in Kansas carry the name of the towns from which pioneers came, though I hit only a few of them. Oberlin (Ohio) was one of those towns. It has the Last Indian Raid Museum featuring a one-room schoolhouse as well as a sod house and tack room. I finally came to a big town – Norton: 3,000 people. Here, I found one of many memorable experiences to come. Norton has a museum of all the US Presidential candidates who lost. The Gallery of Also Rans was a finalist in the Eight Wonders of Kansas Customs.
I stayed overnight in Prairie Dog State Park hoping to see one, but I didn’t. Continuing on, I visited the tiny town of Prairie View (probably named for its scenic vista). Normally, I would have passed by this off-the-highway town, but before my trip, I had seen on eBay a wonderful Victorian house for sale. It sold for little money, and I thought how cool it would be to own such a home. I simply had to see this house. I easily found it and envied the new owners.
In 1873, the Army sent word to the town of Phillipsburg (named for politician/journalist William A. Phillips) saying Apaches were coming. The citizens hastily built Fort Bissell but, fortunately, they didn’t have to use it; the Indians never attacked. Today, the old fort stands in the town park.
I was excited to come to Phillipsburg as it advertised a bookstore. Scott McCoppin Book Store is on the west side of the square. It was the best bookstore I found along Highway 36.
I found more fun when I arrived in Smith County. A few miles off thehighway is the Geographic Center of the USA, certainly a destination point. Getting there required travelling one of those rollercoaster roads you see only in pictures, up and down like waves on the ocean. What I found was a park, including a tiny chapel which sat six people. Also in Smith County is the cabin of Dr. Brewster M. Higley, the author of the song Home on the Range. Another Kansan composed the music, and it became the state song.
North and South of Highway 36
Next, I turned left and drove up to Red Cloud, Nebraska, former home of Willa Cather, author. She has become the town’s major industry, with a wonderful old Museum/meeting hall downtown. Much of the town, including Cather’s home, has become a national historic landmark. Willa Cather used Red Cloud as the inspiration for many towns in her writing, including My Antonia. A number of the Victorian buildings featured in her works are still standing. Visiting Red Cloud was well worth the departure from Highway 36.
Among the many different attractions in Northwestern Kansas to the south of Highway 36 is the town of Goodland (named by vote, clearly, for the good land around it). It now carries the designation of the High Plains Sunflower Capitol. If you were to enter the town from the south, you quickly learn this feature by the large Van Gogh painting on a giant easel. Crossing into the Central Time Zone east of Goodland, I found Kansas’ largest barn, now the Prairie Museum of Art and History. This barn previously existed 16 miles away. Somehow, it traveled those miles in one piece. This must have been quite an operation.
On my way to a wildlife lake campsite, I visited the tiny town of Cawker City (named for a town father) which housed the not-so-tiny but, in fact, the world’s largest ball of twine [so stated]. Standing proudly under a pavilion on Main Street, this certainly is the city’s claim to fame. This was another of the Eight Wonders of Kansas. Many of the town’s commercial buildings are art galleries – all making art with twine. From the number of visitors who come to this town to see the ball of twine, I think the city Fathers should change the name to Gawker City. After this, I found the farmer’s long fence displaying hundreds of hubcaps.
Next, I had to go to Mankato, named for my hometown in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday morning and I found few businesses open. My younger brother wanted a cap from there, but I could find nothing with the name of Mankato on it. Sadly, I had to push on, but there’s now a reason to go back again one day.
Approaching Eastern Kansas
I ended this part of the trip in Belleville (named for a leading woman of the town). I discovered a walking tour of the downtown. Each corner of the Courthouse Square has a kiosk pointing out the four major themes which existed when the town began— its beginnings, transportation, agriculture, and the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression. A brochure was available informing me of the historic buildings adjacent to the square, also telling me of peoples’ memories of those early days.
Another fascinating “must see” in Belleville is the Boyer Museum. Over theyears, Paul Boyer has created a plethora of animated sculptures. Some of these reflect historical events, while many more are honestly downright hilarious. Each work of art is in a case with a button to push to animate the sculpture. Mr. Boyer has a wonderful sense of humor, and these sculptures prove it.
The state of Kansas and Western Kansas itself get a bad rap. In nearly three weeks, I couldn’t do and see all I found so interesting. I look forward to returning one day to see all the Wonders I missed in this awesome state.
Fact: The Arikaree Breaks are 2-3-mile-wide canyons that stand in contrast to the surrounding plains
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