It’s rolling country, in case you didn’t know. The flat is further west. Up by Atchison, up where Lewis and Clark came through, Kansas is glacial hills. South to El Dorado, it’s hilly, too–tallgrass, hills, and bison (less impressive now, having recently come face to face with more than a few on Catalina Island).
1. Eat barbecue so good and right you think about it for months afterward, burnt ends and garlic–Friday’s special.Your Uncle Bryce would have been disappointed by the portion size if he were here, says your mother.
They have a shelf behind the register filled with pig memorabilia they didn’t meant to collect; people just bring it in. Well, there’s one gentleman, and he basically brings it all in. But sometimes other people, too.
This is Lawrence, not famous Kansas City, because there’s a TV show whose main characters were born in Lawrence (though they did not grow up there), and it’s your favorite. In Lawrence streets are named after states but they come up, like slats in a fence, in no order in particular–not alphabetical, nor geographical. Every time it feels like a new betrayal.
(Ohio Tennessee Kentucky Vermont.)
Lose your way on the Kansas Turnpike, and wander off to get on again, and get on only to wander off. Yell, misdirect your frustrations at your mother, because you like knowing where you’re going and not even an iPhone, a Garmin GPS, and an honest-to-god AAA paper map can seem to get you this. The Kansas Turnpike is worse than the streets named for misassembled states. Memorize the names of mid-sized Kansas towns that are not where you are going but serve as landmarks on your map.
In Kansas, the roads are pretty (and if you were Kansas, you’d charge tolls to all the cars driving right past you, too), and everyone stays out of the passing lane except to pass. This is a measure of civility you will miss when you leave.
2. Think too much about chiggers. The flies in Missouri were vicious, cottonwood sticky everywhere. In the tallgrass prairie, assume ticks are legion. Watch your mother slip interesting rocks into her pockets. Take a picture for your auntie–of green, rolling, humid Kansas. This is what California would look like, if California had 80% more water.
Camp by a lake and watch that gorgeous sunset Kansans swear by. The sites are civ, RV-compatible; there are even showers. They are larger than the footprint of most houses in San Francisco, and they cost $5 a night. Kindly remind yourself that a strange set of circumstances led you to pay $88 for a campsite in Southern California earlier this year (though, in fairness, bison were included).
3. Stay a while. Realize your childhood dreams. Hutchinson, Kansas mines rock salt–road salt, mostly; sometimes feed salt. It’s red and impurely beautiful. When you think about mines, you probably think about powder kegs and little trains pumped by human exertion. Perhaps they are manned by cartoon animals.
In Hutchinson, there are American pickups discarded and kept below. They were disassembled, taken down the mineshaft piecemeal, and reassembled–with new battery engines–in the tunnels 650 feet below the surface. It didn’t make sense to unbury them once it was time for them to die. The trash is like that, too, perfectly preserved by virtue of the cool dry salt air. Because of this quality, the mined out areas serve a second purpose storing all manner of Americana: movie costumes, film reels, government secrets. In addition to safety from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fire, and sunlight, the storage company also vigorously and patriotically assures that its contents are safe from terrorist attack.
Two hours north of Hutchinson you will find LaCrosse, or it will find you. At the Barbed Wire Museum, Abraham Lincoln is monologuing his entire life, and has been for three straight hours. There are children in the audience.
Find your favorite kind of barbed wire–scutt arrows. Ranching wire, war wire, concertina wire, pole upon poles upon poles, and the Barbed Wire Collector’s Hall of Fame. Ask the curator (who’s wearing a local sports polo and which you keep wrongly assuming has something to do with lacrosse, since you’re in LaCrosse) if he knows what kind of barbed wire they used at the Japanese American internment camps. He’s not sure, but you’ll send photos later.
Follow your mother as she convinces the curator to open every single miniature museum in all of LaCrosse, just for you. Stay for hours–longer even than Abraham Lincoln.
4. Pray. Dodge City is known for two things–cowboys, wishful westerns; and stock car racing. There’s lightning dancing all around you, and the skies are purple, but it’s not close enough to close the track. Pray for the safety of the drivers and for the general Grace of God, because the track announcers do.
It’s storm-windy and there’s so much track dirt in the air you watch from behind eyelids, behind fingers. You become dust. No one else seems to notice. Some of them are even eating nachos in the middle of the dust storm, viscous cheese and all. (Hundreds of years ago, Native peoples ground maize with rocks and ate the sand that chipped from the rocks right along with the corn. 2016 is not so different.)
There is exactly one woman driving tonight. Her car is pink, and it is emblazoned with the message, “Thank you Dad!” She loses every single race, usually by multiple laps, but she never stops racing.
5. Watch the storm pass over, lightning outside and Matlock on the TV inside. It cleans your car of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas, but don’t worry: southeast Colorado is home to vibrant, giant grasshoppers and you’ll have their leggy bodies hanging askance from your grill soon enough. You’re a killer.
But for now, watch your mother watching the storm. She’s transfixed; she hasn’t left the West in some time. You, Michigan, love storms; but you have forgotten to be awed by them.
In the morning, eat a breakfast of waffles you will very soon regret.
In nine hours, you won’t be in Kansas anymore.