May 5, 2005

Route 50 Road Trip: Day 5, Missouri to Kansas

Up and out fairly early (7:30 am). Made a blasphemous stop at the Wal-Mart Super Center for toiletries and some fruit to make up for last night's gluttonous fried gator dinner. Then to the Coffee Cabana (complete with an aquarium of fish and a beach scene wall mural) for a bagel and tea. To be honest, I had not expected to find a coffee shop in Sedalia, MO.

Heard a news report on the radio about a car crashing into a motel in Chillicothe, one of the towns I passed through in Ohio. A collision in front of the Green River Inn Motel led to one of the cars going through the lobby and down the hall far enough to end up in the men's restroom. No one was injured, including the driver. Now that would have been something to see.

Passed the town of Knob Noster. I don't even know what to say about that one.

This is not specifically trip-related, but I feel compelled to mention it: I stopped at McDonald's outside of Kansas City to inspect the facilities (pee) and got one of their new fruit & walnut salads. Very tasty and relatively healthy, but in true McD's fashion, the packet of walnuts has an ingredient listing three lines long.

And, next to the McD's, I saw the first true sub-division of the trip, with the close-packed houses and lack of full grown trees that are so commonplace back home. The suburbs of Kansas City must be burgeoning.

Entered Missouri on highways yesterday and left it that way today, passing around and below Kansas City. One thing I forgot to mention about MO: The rural routes that bisected 50 are all designated alphabetically, rather than numerically. I kept imagining what it would be like to give directions: "Yeah, you go down B, take a right on ZZ, then hang an immediate left on J..."

50 so far in Kansas has been four lanes, almost flat and less interesting than previous states, but it's definitely got one thing going for it: a 70 mph speed limit.

The rolling flats of the four lane stretch of 50 put me into a coma, so I looked for food as the road went through Emporia, KS. Surprisingly, the stankiness of the Tyson meat plant right at the edge of town didn't put me off my appetite and I ended up at a truck stop right where 50 narrows back down to two lanes. After lunch, it'll be interesting to see whether going back to passing slower cars will wake me up again.

One of my planned stops was Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. I'm not even sure how to describe it without sounding contrived or corny. The easiest way, probably, is to think of the scene in Dances With Wolves when Lt. Dunbar first sees the prairie grasslands and walks along in awed silence, with his hands held out to reverently brush the tops of the grasses. But on a smaller scale. I realized how cool it was going to be a few miles before I turned off 50, when I looked around and realized just how different the landscape suddenly was. I think I even spoke aloud to myself, saying something like "Ok, now we're really far from home!" ('we' being the Pony and me). I mentioned that to the rangers in the visitor center, saying that it felt like I had finally made it to the West, and they told me about a section in Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth when he apparently drives by Tallgrass on 50 and says just about exactly the same thing. So, anyway, I hiked the short nature trail, torn between snapping photos of everything and just putting the camera away and experiencing it all. Great place. Hopefully, my photos do it justice. (Post-trip note: Unfortunately, they don't.)

(For a few more photos, click here)

West of Newton, KS, the land suddenly got flat. Did I say that IL & MO were flat? I must have been on crack. Through the 30 or so miles from Newton to Hutchinson, the only elevation in the landscape is the lines of trees that separate the fields.

Stopped in Hutchinson for the night. Interesting place. Large rural town (population 40k or so). I entered town on a stretch of road surrounded by huge, I mean huge, grain elevators. That gave way to "civilization"-- a mall, big-box stores, hotels and the second Starbuck's of the trip. Also, the first Target. Oh, and Wal-Mart count as of Hutchinson= 10, plus 2 distro centers.

After checking in to Comfort Inn, I drove down into the town proper. At first glance, Hutchinson seems like a typical, run-down, farming-oriented town, but... A slow cruise down the main strip revealed two coffee shops, a theater currently in auditions for "Murder on the Orient Express", a Renaissance garb/supply store, and a couple of cool looking antique shops. Oh, and a bingo parlor with a guaranteed $500 payout every night! Too bad that place was only open Monday, Thursday and Saturday. On the way back to the hotel, I found a neighborhood of totally charming Sears & Roebuck bungalow houses. I get the feeling that Hutchinson hides its light under a bushel basket (or a grain elevator, perhaps?).

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