One of the really interesting things about driving across the US is that distances seem to get longer when you go West. They’re not any longer, obviously, but there does seem to be more ‘openness’ between places. As a colleague of Frank’s said, “After Kansas City, there’s a whole lot of nothin”. Luckily, we found that axiom to be deceptively both true and false.
We rolled out of Lawrence Kansas ready to head out West to Colorado. The original route plan had us staying somewhere between Kansas City and Denver. Exactly where was to be determined. Our return route features several marathon driving days. Frank thought it was a good idea to ‘test the waters’ and see how far we could get in one day. So it was off to Denver we headed! It’s true there aren’t a lot of ‘big’ places between these two cities, but there are lots of little places that are just fascinating to stop along the way. We couldn’t hit them all in the interest of time. However, a couple did catch our eye.
One place that can only be described as adorable is a small town in central Kansas named Wamego. This little town is a bit back from the Interstate but well worth the stop. It only covers a tad under two square miles in area and it has a population of just 4,700 or so people. But let us tell you, there is a lot to see and do in Wamego at least for an hour stopover. The town seriously looks like its the pattern for Superman’s Smallville or it’s nickname from the Wizard of Oz.
It features the Oz museum and everything there is labeled some sort of Oz. We didn’t hit the museum, but we did hit something much better….
The Oz Winery Shop feature some of the funniest named wines we’ve ever seen. Whether you want a dry, medium Ding Dong the Wine is Red or a Niagara white Kansas In The Rear View Mirror, you can find it there. Frank’s personal favorite was The Drunken Munchin (also available as a shirt). Needless to say, the labels are equal to the names. You can taste the wines there, but we didn’t as we were driving. We did send one home to our cat sitter as a big thank you.
That’s but one of the many little shops along the main street in Wamego, KS. There were many more and we could have easily spent the day looking in each of them. Wamego is a great little place that makes you feel proud that such places not only survive in middle America but even appear to thrive. It really should make you think harder about labeling most of the US as ‘fly over country’. That obscures so much of the impressive activity going around the country in little corners of our nation. We’d go back to Wamego again, if we had the chance.
We got back on the road heading yet West again, eager for our next stop. The colleague who mentioned ‘whole lot of nothin’ did happen to mention that Ft. Riley was an interesting place to stop, so it was our next destination. Military bases litter the US and each has a role in the armed forces in one form of the other. Fort Riley was established in 1853 and used as the base of operations for the push West. After the Indian wars, it served as the central base from which the US calvary was trained. Or so we thought based upon the signs leading up to Ft. Riley.
It turns out it’s 100% active and STILL the place where the U.S .calvary is trained, abet the modern version with tanks. It’s remarkable easy to get off the highway and drive right into an active military base. Luckily, this base has a fairly popular museum of the history of the US Calvary, so the guards at the front are nice about accidental drive ons. If you visit Ft. Riley, please be very respectful of the activities going on. Even if you’re on vacation, they are still at work. We found them to be highly respectful, professional, helpful, and downright friendly. They’re very understanding of non-military personel attempting to find their way and more than willing to direct you where you want to go.
If you get the chance, we recommend seeing the history of the U.S. Calvary at the museum. Obviously the history of the calvary is highly controversial, especially as it relates to the Native American population of the US, but it is an important part of cartographic history and ordinance. The museum of the U.S. Calvary obviously has a point of view, but it focuses primarily on the life and experience of the men in the Calvary, not their role in history. The exhibits start at the beginning of the Calvary when they were known as Dragoons, all the way through World War II. The life of the trooper is detailed, as well as the technology they used to do their job. Did you know the U.S. Calvary continued mounted horse units into World War II? We didn’t. That’s just one of the hundreds of interesting facts you can find out about the US Calvary at the museum at Ft. Riley.
Outside the museum is a pretty cool display of mechanized calvary units used in the last 60 years. Nestled on the other side of that display is a really cool thing for geographers – survey markers for latitude and longitude!
We went through Hays,which was a natural mid-point between Kansas City and Denver, Colorado. We found a nice coffee shop to eat at that got high reviews. We didn’t stop at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs!) museum or Fort Hays University , which was highly recommended, but did pass lots of cattle ranches and corn fields on the way. You get a true feeling for why the mid-west is called the bread basket of America. We were starting to run out of steam and decided to stop “somewhere in Kansas” as indicated on our itinerary. We hadn’t booked a hotel room ahead of time because we didn’t know where we would stop and we also didn’t expect to have problems finding a room for the night. We were wrong. Not only were there long stretches with no places to stop, but the smaller towns had the highest price hotel rooms of the trip. Location matters. We used a combination of location based services and gut feeling to locate a hotel room late at night in Limon, Colorado. It was clean, quiet, and one of the less expensive hotels in town. We talked about how, if our parents were doing this trip when we were younger, they would have stopped at a rest area or camp site and had us sleep in the car.
License Plates seen on Day 4: