A Guide to Kansas for Paul Theroux

May_22_2008_Kansas_tornado

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Theroux, the iconic American travel writer, recently published an article on his Travel Wish List in the New York Times  (he probably followed my example ;)). In it, he notes:

My wish list of places is not only long but, in many cases, blindingly obvious. Yes, I have been to Patagonia and Congo and Sikkim, but I haven’t been to the most scenic American states, never to Alaska, Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas, and I’ve had only the merest glimpse of Kansas and Iowa. I want to see them, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads, and defying the general rule of “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc …”

I find this to be true of most Americans, actually, particularly those raised on either coast; my friends from New York and California have trouble finding my home state of Kansas on a map. If you ask someone from Connecticut to list which states border Iowa, you’re probably going to get a confused look in response. The entire landmass that occupies the central 70% of the U.S., referred to as “flyover country”, is typically seen as having very limited appeal for the average “avid traveler”. These people want to see the temples of Thimphu and the shores of Easter Island, not some no-name town with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s as its main attractions. To be fair, having been raised in such a town, I can’t really blame them – I don’t have much desire to go out of my way to see rural Indiana, for instance. However, they might be surprised to learn that “flyover country” is actually creeping up towards the top of “exotic” destination lists for some foreign tourists, who’ll pay not insignificant sums of money to drive from Kentucky to Vegas, for instance, on a “One-Story America” type of organized tour. (Sidenote: “One-Story America” is a series of articles (later a book) written in the 1930s by popular Soviet authors Ilf & Petrov. You can find excerpts from the book in English here.) As Theroux rightly notes, “[t]he long, improvisational road trip by car is quintessentially American,” and “flyover country” has lots of space to offer wandering souls in that regard.

When going to Kansas, there are a couple things one should keep in mind:

  1. It’s very big. You don’t really realize how big it is until you try to drive across it.
  2. It’s very sparsely populated. Google tells us the whole state houses 2.8 million souls; for 82,280 sq miles (213,100 km²), that’s a population density of 34 people per sq mile. In Miami proper, for instance, that figure is 10,160.
  3. Everything is really cheap. An 8 oz filet mignon will run you $9.99. You also get two sides with that.
  4. Everyone is really nice… so long as you are, too. Don’t be rude, don’t stare at people wearing only overalls and nothing else, don’t get frustrated when they tell you that the place you’re looking for is “10 minutes north”. Kansans are born with built-in compasses. That’s just how it goes.
  5. Don’t drive under 70 mph on I-70. It’s just annoying.

With that settled, here are some places you should see, if for no other reason than because chances are, none of your friends ever will. Here’s where to…

EAT: Teller’s in Lawrence. Formerly a bank, now converted into a restaurant. Bathrooms accessible through old vault doors. Best ravioli you will ever – EVER – have.

VISIT: The Iwig Dairy Farm in Tecumseh. The only one-street town where it’s actually wholly possible to get really lost.

LEARN: Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. Because people forget the role played by this whole area in the history of the country.

DESCEND: Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson. Because it’s awesome. One of the guides (hopefully!) still working there has spent his entire long life in the mine. Pretty spectacular experience, and you get to take home a piece of salt.

CHEER: for the Jayhawks playing basketball. Or football. Or any sport, really. Nowhere will you find a college community that’s as warm and welcoming.

GET CREEPED OUT: in ghost towns. The sad part of urbanization and development is that a myriad of tiny towns have died out over the past century and a half, leaving only eerie reminders of the lives that were once led there. Definitely worth a visit, but do some research in advance, and don’t break any laws.

Enjoy!

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