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Traveling the back roads to the Wild West

If you’ve read my earlier travel pieces, you know how we love back road adventures. This was our most recent trip where we touched on Arkansas and Missouri, soaked up Kansas, visited friends in Colorado, explored New Mexico, and visited Buddy Holly and family in Texas. This is the first column in a two-part series.

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You really can’t get from Mississippi to Missouri without hitting a few miles of interstate, so accepting that, we skirted around Memphis, crossed a bit of Arkansas, and headed to Joplin, our first night’s destination. I must confess, however, that our first meal on the road was a corn dog lunch at the Kum and Go in Bono, Arkansas. Things started looking up the next morning when we crossed the Kansas state line in Galena and found one of the most famous roads in America, Route 66. Both of us remembered the 1960 television series named for this highway when Tod and Buz drove across country in the cool Corvette. We were with them in spirit then and perhaps that is when I developed my wanderlust for the back roads.

A few well-intentioned friends had warned us that the drive across Kansas would seem endless and to prepare ourselves for a long, boring drive. Not. We were barely into Kansas on Highway 400, when we spotted a sign for fresh peaches that lured us in to a small Amish country store. Not only did they have fresh peaches, but pecans from West Point! Best of all, they had information on Kansas byways that offered tempting trails to follow across the state. The Prairie Trail wound around in our general direction, so we set our sights on Roxbury where we would start the 56-mile scenic route. Our destination for the night was Hays.

The rich black dirt farmland was dotted with oil wells pumping away. Milo, corn and beans stretched for miles. Then a field of sunflowers would pop up and I would want to stop and take pictures — like being in Provence for a few miles. I had read about Lindsborg, known as “Little Sweden,” and we decided to make this quaint town our destination for lunch. Lindsborg is famous for its Dala horse factory and we were invited to watch an artist as she painted one for a special order. Legend has it that these colorful horses were first made by King Charles XII’s soldiers as gifts for their hosts and that they became the national toy of Sweden in the early 1700s. We saw a fantastic photography exhibit by National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson, and beautiful handmade jewelry by his wife in their gallery. Needing to move on, we made a fairly quick drive-by visit to Heritage Square, a collection of historic buildings from the 1904 World’s Fair Swedish Pavilion. Of particular interest to me was the West Kentucky one-room schoolhouse since I had actually gone to a two-room schoolhouse in Western Kentucky in the ’50s. We read that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado searched for gold in this area in the mid-1500s, and described the buffalo as “shaggy cows.”

The next must see on the Prairie Trail was a hoodoo rock formation called Mushroom Rock. Determined to find it, we followed two dirt roads near the small town of Carneiro (Legends of Kansas call it “A Tidy Little Ghost Town.”) and were getting a little uneasy since we had seen no other humans on either dirt road and our GPS had no clue where we were. Then all of a sudden, there was the rock — not Mushroom State Park, but a lone hoodoo in the middle of nowhere. More photos. We will explore the ghost town on our next trip.

Getting on in the afternoon and running out of back roads, we decided to get on Interstate 70 to Hays and be ready for our arrival in Boulder the next day. Little did we know that the last miles on our Highway 14 Prairie Trail would take us through the middle of the largest windmill farm in Kansas. It was a stunning sight. Kansas Adventures website says more than 100 landowners are participating and that this farm, developed by an Italian company, provides power for about 85,000 homes annually.

The interstate to Hays was desolate, no traffic, and the indoor pool at our Hays hotel allowed for a relaxing end of the day. We had traveled only 825 miles and already had more adventures from the Kansas back roads than anyone would believe. I decided to write a story about it!

The next morning we took our friends’ advice and mapped our route to Boulder so that we would bypass Denver on a Friday afternoon. (Bypassing Denver on the toll road has made us members of the Colorado Motor Vehicle Club. We have received two bills with very specific details as to how many tollbooths we crossed. Very sophisticated. Hoping we have sent the final check, it was well worth it.)

Interstate 70 was once again a pleasant drive with a back road-like surprise attraction, the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center in Oakley, Kansas. A nice visitor center, you are immediately drawn to a 5,000-pound bronze of Buffalo Bill on his horse, majestically overlooking acres of corn. I had to get my history book out (actually it was my iPad) and refresh my Wild West knowledge since I was looking for Annie Oakley to be there with Buffalo Bill. Wrong. She was a star in his Wild West show, but there was no connection to Oakley, Kansas. Time for lunch, we could not find a restaurant so we turned once again to snacks from the cooler and ate on the side of the road. It is a good idea to take snacks and water while driving across Kansas, and to take every rest stop opportunity since they are few and far between.

This did not dampen our spirits since we knew we would be dining with great cooks by nightfall. I’ve written more about Kansas than planned, so will continue this western journal with the Colorado and New Mexico adventures in Part 2.

Brenda West is an Oxford resident. Contact her at olemisswest@hotmail.com.