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Kansas and Oklahoma: Heartland America awaits

The old time frontier lands offer a palette of quirky attractions for a fun fly-drive

By Roger St Pierre

My first night in Kansas was spent behind bars. No, I had not been incarcerated for rustling or train robbery: I was staying in the James Gang themed room at the delightfully quirky Chateau Avalon Hotel, just outside Kansas City. It’s pure Hollywood, in a Mid-West location.

I could have opted for a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ suite instead. Just five minutes away, I lunched at the dinosaur-themed T-Rex restaurant/museum hybrid – an appropriately gargantuan, meat-laden feast centred on a massive slab of barbecued ribs – and did a site inspection of the Kansas Speedway motor racing bowl, the Lance Armstrong backed and state of art Livestrong Sporting Park stadium and the rapidly rising new Kansas Casino.

If Orlando/Las Vegas-style entertainment is your thing, you could so easily spend a week at this site alone but please tear yourself away. In this neck of the woods, it’s not a case of finding things to do but of choosing what to leave out.

It’s not all flat

Too often dismissed as featureless, pan flat and boring by those who have never been there, Kansas and neighbouring Oklahoma are, in fact, endlessly entertaining places to visit.

Yes, the vast flatlands of the Great Plains may seem to stretch on forever but there’s hill country too, from the rolling, wildflower studded Flint Hills and the Prairies of Kansas to the jagged rock outcrops of the Wichita mountains which, confusingly, are nowhere near Kansas’s biggest metropolis but are, in fact, close to Oklahoma City.

However, it’s the hand of man that’s produced an appealing setting for a fun-packed holiday visit to the heartlands of the real USA. All the usual superlatives apply to what’s on offer. You’ll find the words “biggest”, “oddest” and ‘world famous’ liberally sprinkled across your itinerary.

How about discovering the history of the most American of musical instruments at the American Banjo museum, in Oklahoma City, or ogling at the world’s largest soda bottle outside Pops, in Arcadia, a vast steel and glass emporium where you can sip from a choice of hundreds of different soft drinks while munching on topping-laden burgers and fries?

Then there’s the definitely one-of-a-kind Moon Marble store, in Bonner Springs Kansas, a celebration of a child’s distraction whose appeal remains universally powerful even in this electronic age. Or how about Cozy Inn Burgers, in Salina, Kansas, where the patties are the world’s smallest – dubbed ‘sliders’ – and are bought by the dozen rather than singly?

History, folklore, legend

My 12-day fly-drive into Kansas City and out through Oklahoma City was packed with other highlights.

Bonner Springs Kansas, is home to the lovingly maintained National Agricultural Center & Hall of Fame, celebrating the farmers who created the industry that still provides the cornerstone of the American way of life.

It might seem a young country but the USA is packed with history, folklore and legend. Home to the fabled Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, the charming little town of Atchison, Kansas, set on the Missouri River, is famed for its ghostly apparitions and an after-dusk trolley tour of the tour’s prime haunting locations is not to be missed. The Tuck U Inn At Glick Mansion B&B is a good accommodation choice on a quiet, tree-lined street, innkeeper Chris Wildy whisking guests back to the gentile Victorian era when Atchison boasted more millionaires per head of population than even Manhattan could muster.

Don’t leave town without a visit to the fascinating Amelia Earhart Museum, dedicated to the intrepid aviator who disappeared over the wide Pacific in mysterious circumstances just before the outbreak of World War II. The annual Amelia Earhart Festival spectacular, with its concerts, fireworks and flypast is set this year for July 20-21.

Leavenworth is another former frontier town. It’s best known for its military base and Federal prison but has happy attractions too, including the CW Parker Carousel Museum, the lovingly kept Richard Allen Cultural Center & Black History Museum and the 1893 Chapel of the Veterans, which at one period held both Protestant and Catholic services.

Proud state capital

Topeka is a relatively small town but it is proud to be Kansas’s state capital and latching onto a senior school group touring the domed capitol building, I was granted the honour of sitting in the governor’s chair of office. I slept and dined at the nearby ultra-modern Clubhouse Inn & Suites and spent the next morning at the evocative Old Prairie Town, whose curator, a true-blue American, turned out to be a one-time resident of my own home village in deepest Essex.

I also visited the expansive Kansas Museum of History before driving out to Ravenwood Lodge, deep in the boondocks, to shoot some clays and learn about the local wildlife from owner Ken Corbet.

Dude riding holidays are increasingly popular with visitors from across the Atlantic and I sampled the ranching experience at the Flying W ranch, operated by Gwen and Josh Hoy, deep in the delightful Flint Hills.

Salina, Kansas, was my next port of call. Here the music buffs at Acoustic Sounds & Quality Records & Pressings are capitalising on the current re-birth of interest in vynil, stocking a vast selection of rare LPs, new and used, in a warehouse that seems to stretch for ever. They are also making new recordings, cut straight to disc. That evening, a couple of hundred of us crammed into the Blue Heaven Studios, a former church, for the 14th annual Blues Masters At The Crossroads concert to hear Big Jay McNeely, Roy Head, Lazy Lester, Corey Harris, Doug Mcleod, Larry McCray and other R&B veterans cut their latest live records.

Land of Oz

That blockbusting children’s favourite, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, was set in windblown Kansas and on Lincoln Ave, the main street in Wamego, they have an appropriately dedicated museum, jam-packed with memorabilia – some 2,000 artefacts inspired by the movie and L Frank Baum’s books – and an endless selection of Dorothy, Toto and sidekicks’ souvenirs to take home.

Dressed cowgirl style, complete with tassels, sequins and a vast 10-gallon Stetson hat, the ebullient Nita Jones was on hand to greet me next day when I arrived at Buck’s BBQ Steakhouse, a full-on cattle country experience on the outskirts of Sedan. After lunch, we together explored the sidewalks, gift shops, drugstores and ice cream parlours and strolled along what’s billed as ‘The World’s Longest Yellow Brick Road, encircling the downtown area and comprising more than 11,000 8”x12” golden colour bricks, laid by people from every US state and nearly 30 foreign countries plus such celebs as Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor and Whoopi Goldberg, before driving out of town to see Stan Herd’s Prariehenge rock sculpture, set on Red Buffalo Ranch.

Oil boom heritage

Crossing the state line into Oklahoma, I headed down ruler-straight backroads to Bartlesville, a magnet for fans of classic American architecture for here stands the imposing Price Tower, which was the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright’s first attempt at building a skyscraper. It’s an edifice which today houses not only a superb arts centre but also the Inn At Price Tower, whose classy guestrooms are packed with Wright’s groundbreaking décor and furniture concepts.

Bartlesville was an oil boomtown, home to the still vast Phillips petroleum enterprise. Frank Phillips’ meticulously restored and gracious historic home is full of period furniture, antiques and artwork.

Half-an-hour’s drive out of Bartlesville stands Woolaroc, Phillips vast country estate, with its museum and wildlife park with all manner of animals on view.

Island Guest Ranch, near Ames, took some finding – it’s way out in the back of beyond, six-miles from the sleepy, atmosphere-steeped village of Enid. But it’s worth the effort to get there, with accommodation in cosy guest cabins and downhome cooking to be savoured in the massive, barn-like wooden ranch house, where the White family hosts are the delightfully Anglophile Jordy White, her brother Rylan and the latter’s English wife Lisa – who first visited this lovely spot as a paying guest, liked it so much she went back, and then married the boss’s son.

Here you can ride, work cattle and enjoy home cooked ranch food.

Charming welcome

The state’s one-time capital, Guthrie is a bustling little town, with period red brick buildings a wealth of neat little shops and no trace of mass-market brands, at least not in the historic district.

I had trouble finding the way in, but what a charming welcome awaited me at the Pollard Inn. My cosy bedroom, named after Hollywood cowboy star Tom Mix, featured a gloriously high, wide and ultra-comfortable bed and antique furnishings. Incidentally, for fans of the Westerns, there’s a dedicated Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma,. But before slipping into the world of nod, I popped across the street for a succulent steak meal at the Bustling Geno’s Chophouse then back to the Pollard Theatre for a polished performance of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ – and, yes, most of the actors managed to make their English accents sound wholly convincing.

Ending my visit to rural Oklahoma on a sweet note, I drove out to Cripple Creek Farms where Randy Brady is carving a reputation for organic honey production.

It’s refreshing to find that in this age of globalisation and multinationals, tiny Mom and Pop enterprises like this and the myriad others dotted across small town America can thrive even in the homeland of big corporations. That’s just one of the myriad delightful surprises awaiting in Kansas and Oklahoma.

The facts

Before you go

These two states have impressively low crime rates, especially away from the major cities. The visa waiver system has changed somewhat in recent years and citizens of qualifying countries (including the UK and Ireland) now have to complete an on-line ESTA application before commencing their trip. Consult for up to date conditions and instructions.

When to go

Spring, summer, autumn all have their merits, with the shoulder months of May and September good options. Winters can be snowy and bitterly cold, mid-summers scorchingly hot.

How to get there

Use Chicago’s massive O’Hare as your fly-in hub then take an internal flight to Kansas City – most of which, ironically, is not in Kansas but Missouri – then fly back to Chicago from Oklahoma City (or do the whole thing in reverse).

Where to stay

USA is the land of great value motels with a choice between reliable big brands, like Day’s Inn and Motel 8, and family-run – and often amazingly low price independents. Check out the B&Bs which tend to be far more upmarket and professionally run than those in the UK and Europe.,

How to get around

You’ll definitely need a hire car though there are local short hop airports that will facilitate chopping out some of the less entertaining stretches of your route.

Rental companies sometimes offer a free upgrade but be careful – a bigger car means you’ll need more fuel and while it’s relatively cheap, those bills can soon mount up.

What to eat (and drink)

This is the land of gut-busting, artery-clogging stodge. Huge steaks, slabs of ribs, coleslaw and great dollops of mashed potato are ubiquitous. Beware the infamous chicken fried steak, which has noting to do with poultry except the use of the same greasy batter. Thanks to the advent of micro-breweries there are good local beers while, as all over the States, cocktails are popular and wide in choice.

What to speak

English (and a few Western colloquialisms will help. There’s a growing Spanish-speaking population and these two states are home to huge Native American populations so you’ll likely overhear Cherokee and other tongues.

What to spend (and tip)

This rural region offers great value for money with almost everything less costly than in Europe but watch out, servers will expect a 20% tip and chase you down the street if you don’t leave one – they are often unpaid and have to live off their gratuities. I can make a seemingly good value price suddenly seem expensive. Tip cab drivers 10% and give a dollar a bag to hotel porters.

Why visit Kansas and Oklahoma?

Jammed full with the quirky and the offbeat, this region of heartland USA has a high fun per mile quotient, making it perfect for a fly-drive break.

More information

About the writer

Travel writing veteran Roger St Pierre has been to 130 countries and 49 of the 50 US states. This was his fourth trip to Kansas and Oklahoma . His last visit won him a VisitUSA travelwriting award.

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