We woke up in the “Little Apple” after my first night in my 50th state. The toasty Kansas air greeted us as we trekked to the truck for our final day of travel. Today’s route didn’t pass through Route 66 or into ghost towns or mountains—it was a relatively benign journey to Kansas City. Before cruising forward to our last destination, we took a second trip through Wamego, KS to continue our exploration of the town’s Wizard of Oz obsession. For a small admission fee, you can peruse the Oz Museum, which features thousands of artifacts from the movie and a tornado-simulating wind tunnel machine you can stand in. Kitschiness and nostalgia at its best.
Before hitting the road, we stocked up on caffeine and breakfast sandwiches at Paramour Coffee. For such a tiny town, the coffee was top-notch and the egg-and-cheese was piping hot and savory. Fueled up, we drove on towards Kansas City, passing through Topeka and avoiding the temptation to hunt down the crazies at the Westboro Baptist Church.
We did however take a visit the Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site at Monroe Elementary School while in Topeka. The school has been transformed into an interactive museum honoring the historic Supreme Court ruling from 1954. History visits can be some of my favorite parts of traveling. America has a complex and sometimes gruesome past. I think the decision in Brown v. Board of Education may be one of the most important rulings in education history—driven by everyday parents willing to face a racist government to honor the rights of their children to learn with dignity.
As we exited the school, we stood a moment in the parking lot before venturing off to our final city. The air was warm and breezy and the parking lot serene and surrounded by trees. I love those quiet snippets of our trips, when you have a second to process the fact that you are so far from home. There’s comfort in being away.
Our hotel was by the airport, on the Missouri side of Kansas City. But the main objective of our visit to the city was BBQ. Back in St. Louis, we had gotten a short list of top eateries from a random guy we met in the hotel bar. Thankfully, this kept me from scrubbing through several hundred Yelp.com listings and sending myself into a rabbit hole. We settled on Joe’s Kansas City BBQ, the original location on 47th Avenue (on the Kansas side of Kansas City) inside a green gas station. Arriving at 5pm, we got the last parking spot.
There is an excessive amount of good BBQ in the city, but Joe’s has a reputation (and large TV presence) for its brisket, ribs and caramelized burnt ends. We stood on line for a total of an hour and 45 minutes, but the worst part of it was the first hour spent frying under the sun outside. By the time we got into the AC, we were chugging down a cold draft beer (without losing our spot) as the line outside continued to snake through the parking lot.
Finally getting to the ordering counter was like seeing fireworks on New Year’s Eve. It shimmered with the prospect of smoky ribs on the horizon. The perky attendant took our order lightning fast and moved us through to pay. The food came out much faster than expected considering the line, like a well-oiled machine. Digging into that BBQ was a heavenly experience. The ribs were tender and glistening with sauce, accented by the extra dose of spicy vinegar BBQ sauce I added at the table. Katie’s brisket was buttery and full of seasoned saltiness. A final bite of tangy slaw and hearty BBQ beans on the side held it all together. Unfortunately, it wasn’t “burnt ends day” (only twice a week), but still the top BBQ experience of my young life.
The sky had begun to get grey and stormy as we walked out the door. Having already experienced a monster of a storm a few days before, we knew better than to dawdle. All we had to do was drive 25 minutes to the airport to drop off our truck and then hitch a shuttle ride to the hotel. About halfway there, the skies opened again. I felt a familiar twang of panic.
The storms down here are nothing like they are back home. They roll in with fury and speed. Before we could think, the rain became too heavy to see, even on a well-lit highway in the middle of the city (versus farmland like last time). We took an exit and parked in a lot next to a restaurant and apartment complex to catch our breath. Instead of dying down, the storm only got worse. The rain pelted the ground like a monsoon and the wind caused the trees to whip violently back and forth. Our 6-seat Silverado pickup truck was shaking back and forth so badly that we considered making a run for the restaurant for fear of a tree falling on us. But the rain was too strong, and I was pretty sure it would knock me over. We sat anxiously and helplessly until finally there was a small settling of the deluge. Without thinking another moment, we started driving again in a desperate attempt to get to the airport. Like turning off a facet, the whole thing stopped as soon as we pulled into the car rental center. It was surreal.
Our shuttle driver greeted us with “you just drove in through THAT?!” It’s truly bad when locals think it was bad. Still shaken, we went straight for the hotel bar upon arrival and inhaled a glass of wine. The bar started out quiet and empty, as one would expect at an airport hotel bar after a thunderstorm. We chatted with two documentary filmmakers from Belgium about an American road trip film they were working on. We gave them recommendations for Route 66 spots, which they jotted down on a napkin. A little while later, the bar filled up all at once. A large group of well-dressed and polished folks strolled in and began ordering hard liquor. The group had this air of “famousness” to them but I couldn’t peg anybody down until a music manager told us that they were a group of performers from Funk Fest, which was cancelled that night due to the weather.
We stayed at the bar longer than planned. After the Belgium filmmakers, we met people from Canada as well as some of the Funk Fest attendees, including members of the group GUY, Keith Sweat, and Teddy Riley who helped produce Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. I’m painfully unaware of celebrities, but it was still pretty cool. The night concluded when an angry (drunk) wife of a bar-goer came downstairs to fight with her husband and ended up smashing a beer glass into the adjacent hallway. Who knew we would stumble into a melting pot of every nationality, experience and personality in that little bar with one frazzled bartender. It was a symbolic way to end our journey. Maybe even the epitome of America, despite all that has gone on this past year.
I’d say we got about 4 hours of sleep before our crack-of-dawn flight. My head throbbed from too many glasses of wine mixed with vodka beverages purchased by the manager of Funk Fest’s performers. What can you do?
Despite my rattled state of mind, it was nice being up early and reflecting on my accomplishment. Even though I crossed into my 50th state 2 days before (making it “old news”), leaving made it feel like a truly completed mission. This journey around the country has changed everything about my life—each ghost town and highway, unexpected new friend, and gas station coffee in nowhere-land. With the crossing of every state border, my appetite grew—my need to drive further simmered like lava. I am so in love with the road and how it moves you through the beautiful, rugged, raw, and fierce differences in culture and life that is America. And my favorite person on earth has driven it alongside me. It’s been a hard year for hope, with so much hate and so many tragedies. But the road has taught me something so critical, and I stand by it with passion—there is so much more good in people than there is bad.