Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Little About Kansas

June 16

The Eisenhower Historic Site was not the only thing we did in Kansas—even though it was our destination, as always, we had lots of unexpected treats along the way that reminded us to see the journey as our goal, rather than the destination.

One of our treats was Abilene, which we expected to be a cow town. Actually, it was a cow town, but it was a cow town with class. Back in the early 1800s, it stood at the end of the old Chisholm Trail, where it served cattlemen with saloons, gambling houses and other unsavory establishments. It was incorporated in 1869, and its first sheriff was dead in the line of duty within a year. The next sheriff was Wild Bill Hickok, and the place got real peaceful real quick, although business suffered a little while when the cowboys found someplace else to play. Hickok moved on after a couple years—apparently working someplace peaceful wasn't much fun for him either.

Even now, a lot of Kansans want to hold on to a piece of the Wild West. While I was browsing in one of Abilene's many antique stores, Dick struck up a conversation with a couple working the cash register who were from the next town over—Salina—where yesterday police shot a man armed with a toy gun in his yard. The Salina resident's commentary was, "Oh, that kind of stuff is nothing new—the papers just like to put it on the front page now to stir up people against guns. If you had a police scanner, you'd know these shootings been going on for years."

The town must have gotten over the loss of cowboy business by around 1880, because we walked and drove around a large neighborhood of homes built between 1880 and 1920 on "The Little Town of Mansions" self-guided tour, and it was clear this place was prosperous back then. There are more Gothic Victorian homes here than we have seen anywhere else on our travels. We lunched in an ornately decorated Gothic Victorian mansion across the street from an ADM flour facility with a block-long series of concrete silos tall enough to see from anywhere else in town. Classy Cow Town.

We made it a point to stay overnight in Lawrence, Kansas, which we remembered fondly from a past cross-country drive. It is a scenic, cosmopolitan college town, home to the University of Kansas, with lots of off-beat shops and interesting restaurants, set on terrain that is way hillier than you would ever expect in Kansas. A bumper sticker captured our feelings well: "Lawrence—27 Square Miles of Reality Surrounded by Kansas."

Which reminds me to mention radio stations in Kansas. We listen to NPR whenever and wherever we can find it, and in Kansas, NPR comes from the UK campus. Out of range of their broadcast facilities, that end of the radio dial is full of religious stations, at least a dozen of them, some of them pretty scary if you stop to listen. One program featured a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity offering advice to Evangelical Christians on how to save others like him—remember that Islam is a religion full of demons, expect Muslims to backslide because of the demons and devils inherent in Islam. We actually flipped to the AM dial and found Rush Limbaugh for a kinder, gentler listening experience, although 10 minutes was all we could stand.

A final note about dining in Kansas. We haven't had anything as distinctive as the Horseshoe here, but at breakfast in Junction City, our waitress did ask Dick if he wanted gravy on his hash browns. That's a first. We knew we had found a true local hang-out when we walked in and all the booths across the front of the restaurant were filled with guys in cowboy hats and feed caps who followed us with their eyes until we got out of their territory. The farm folk at the table next to us were in earnest conversation, and we caught the word "evolution," so our ears perked up. Turned out they were having a really earnest discussion about cultural evolution that shattered our expectations, and almost made us chide ourselves about our stereotypical thinking. But, then they somehow got around to talking about the kind of evolution we expected in the first place, and they didn't disappoint. "I don't know if I came from a monkey, but I do know I have relatives that came from jackasses," the most vocal woman at the table proclaimed in a voice that was meant to be heard tables away.

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