Plains Driving

Trip Start Jul 10, 2010
Trip End Aug 31, 2010

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Where I stayed

Flag of United States  , Kansas
Monday, July 19, 2010

Although the thunderheads are alluring from afar on the Plains, the roads, to me, are even more tempting. There are thousands of roads that run across the Plains: interstates, large highways, small federal and state highways, tertiary highways, paved county roads, unpaved county roads, secondary unpaved roads, "minimal maintenance" roads (as Nebraska puts it) and roads no longer. You pass all these road types and can watch them spread out past the cornfields, up a hill and into the distant horizon. A brown or gray line running straight into the unknown. Where does that road go? Maps will show you the explicit answer of destinations, other roads and pavement types, they do not answer the more implicit question of what, exactly, is there. Google Street View does this but, of course, Google Street View is not here. This is far too rural.
These snaking roads led me out of Imperial, Nebraska, where I had stayed the last night. I had originally planned on camping, but got a motel for around $43. Good thing too because, late that night, the violent storm from the west did finally come through, in two waves, no less. I watched TV, populated the iPod with music, and tried to use the internet. No walking, but I should have. The whole town was walking. Imperial is one of those Plains towns that people look for. Everyone comes out in the evenings, sits on their porches, goes for walks, rides their bikes, says hi to their neighbors, goes down to the drive-in (JJ's in this case) for some ice cream. It's Americana as many of us look for it, but never find it in our walled in, lonely suburbs.
And I found more of this as I went along. McCook, where I had planned to spend some time, is the largest town in the region. I first found the High Plains Museum, which was closed. I'm not really upset about it: many museums close on Monday as it's just better than closing on Sunday when more people are wandering around. So I went to a small cafe inside of a "Dutch Oven" bakery and found a $3.65 lunch special: "Jiffy" burger, chips and a 16 oz. soda. When I think "Jiffy" burger, I think of a burger with peanut butter on it. This bakery thought of it as a ground beef sandwich covered with salad dressing and chopped pickles/relish. Not great, but good enough and you can't really get cheaper than that. Nice place too, kind of a town cafe. They had coffee, desserts and even wifi, although I couldn't get it to work, so off to the library!
Libraries have always been the best place to get access to information, so it only makes sense that they were the earlier adopters of the internet, molding it into the truly public resource that it's become. The best thing for my traveling has been that, in recent years especially, wireless internet has been added. Libraries in the small towns of Nebraska and Kansas had it, and I was able to book a hotel for tomorrow night in Topeka (the very nice Ramada Downtown for only $29 a night, which seems weird).

After McCook, I couldn't help but seek out Indianola, just to the east. Indianola, Texas is a place that I've been interested in for years. In the mid-19th century, it was the major port of entry for the thousands of German immigrants into Texas and the United States. By 1875, it was the second largest port in Texas (behind Galveston) and was one of the largest cities in the state. That year though, a major - likely a Category 5 - hurricane made a direct hit on the town. Indianola was decimated. German ingenuity won out though, and the town was soon rebuilt. In 1886 though, another storm, nearly as bad as the first, struck the town again and the following year, the post office was closed, thus effectively signaling the death of the once vibrant Indianola. Many look at it as the ultimate ignored warning sign, as the Galveston hurricane, only a few years later, still remains today as the worst natural disaster in US history in terms of death toll.
After Indianola, I set off up one of the many unpaved roads running perpendicular to the highways, out of the valley and into the horizon. The road led to Danbury, where I turned toward Lebanon.
At Lebanon, my map (the official Nebraska highway map) showed a road branching off and heading straight to Kansas. I drove the town a bit and found one of those sort of scary and paranoid places that you read about. Lebanon was half abandoned houses, one quarter almost abandoned houses and a scattering of houses where all the occupants (with at least 5 kids) sat on the porch to watch me drive by. Really creepy. And Nebraska was left behind.

One of the books I read about the Plains before the journey began specifically mentioned the little differences between states by pointing out that the fencelines, so geometric and orderly normally, become disjointed between Kansas and Nebraska. This also goes for the orderly county roads that criss-cross both states. The road I was on coming from Nebraska ended at a road running the state line and required a small move to the west to hit US 36 near Norcatur. I did all this so that I could reach Prairie Dog State Park.
I don't normally hit state parks, especially in the Midwest, just because they have relatively little to offer me. Most are centered around lakes, and I have no interest in fishing, boating or any sort of other water sports. Prairie Dog State Park is no different - it contains Keith Sebelius Lake - but it's geared toward the once common prairie dog, and has a large community of them near the front of the park. When settlers first came to the Plains, they saw prairie dogs as competitors, removing the crops around their burrow holes for their own safety. The result was the systematic and government-sponsored poisoning of millions of prairie dogs, essentially eradicating them from most of Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. They're reintroduction and protection as likely only because of their mannerisms and appearance. By most all definitions, prairie dogs are very cute and are very interesting to watch. They'll pop their heads out of their burrows periodically to either look around, bark a warning signal to others or howl (which is funny to watch as they use their whole body).

Towns in the Midwest often go to great lengths to differentiate themselves and to attract tourists. Probably one of the strangest ones I've seen is Logan, Kansas, which is effectively built a museum based on nothing. And the museum is not the typical old house or building museum that the historical society fixes up, this is a really, really nice museum. It's named after the man who built it, Dane G. Hansen, but I had never heard of him and cannot figure out now what he did. That'll teach me a lesson though. I didn't want to pay the admission since I didn't know who he was (I figured it was some 50's radio personality or some other figure who I wouldn't know), but there is no admission. However, the museum also does not appear to have any exhibits or collections associated with Dane G. Hansen. So we have a town in the middle of nowhere with a museum for no reason. Logan itself is a pretty nice town. If you can find it, I think you should visit it.
And if you're on your way to your way to spend a week in Logan like you should, maybe swing by Nicodemus. Nicodemus, Kansas is a place that I somehow thought that everyone knew about, but I don't know that they do. After the Civil War, newly freed black former slaves began to move from the South to create their own towns. Nicodemus is the last remaining one of these. There are very few residents today, and many of the buildings no longer remain. What struck me is how few people were there: none. I drove around the town on its deserted streets and encountered one car. There was an African American man driving it who smiled and waived at me. I waived back. Like any town in Kansas.
Then began a hotel search. It was 5:30 by this time, and I had a plan in mind. I had checked rates for hotels in the region and found, strangely, that some in the areas I was going to were booked up. In my experience, this is often not true as their online systems return error messages which are then interpreted as "full" messages. The first motel I found looked cheap but was in a town that looked depressed, to say the least. Stockton had a lot of signs for businesses but relatively few actual businesses. There was a liquor store, a market and a gas station. The motel, called the Coventry, ran $46.80 with tax and was run by a nice looking middle-aged woman who came out from the back to talk to me. I felt bad about not taking it, but I thought I could do better on the town.
I found a motel off the highway in Glen Elder, near the very large and popular Waconda Lake. I pulled and found no office, but did find a man in the middle of going out to his van. I asked him how I could inquire about rooms, and he let me know that the guy who owned it really only rented rooms to people who went on fishing trips with him. No fishing for me, so I moved on.
But both Beloit and Concordia were really booked. In Concordia, the Super 8 clerk let me know that construction projects in the town were filling them up. On to Belleville, where I got the last (read: smoking) room at the Super 8 for $49 + tax. A few dollars more and two hours later than the first motel I hit. Kind of stupid, but that's roughly two hours I won't have to drive tomorrow.
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