Leaving the Rocky Mountains behind was no cause for celebration. Spending the entire day on the plains of far-east Colorado and half of Kansas was minuscule consolation.
Friday morning we had no choice but to depart Pueblo and suffer the pangs of beautiful-scenery separation anxiety. As the miles passed, the horizon behind us swallowed the mountaintops and the horizon before us maintained a flatline status with only a few isolated blips of cranial activity to interrupt the monotonous despair of bleak, blackened vacation death.
Okay, it wasn’t quite that dark. To be fair, because of a few specific locations we wanted to access in southern Kansas, it was our own decision to brave mile after mile of plains, more plains, still more plains, plains upon plains, and plains wrapped in plains inside other plains. If you’ve ever seen Manos: the Hands of Fate, imagine reliving those initial non-breathless minutes of stuporific driving footage that was shot through someone’s car window, except with the laughable narration removed, then placed on infinite “Repeat” mode. When a trip reminds you of Manos, something clearly went wrong in the planning stage.
Our first saving grace of a tourist attraction was two hours east of Pueblo in the small town of Lamar, the first decently populated town to greet drivers entering Colorado via US Highway 50. Their official Colorado Welcome Center is surrounded by entertaining outdoor exhibits, such as a debilitated old train, an actual GE windmill blade mounted for display (until I read the label, I thought it was a light-aircraft wing), and a grove labeled the Enchanted Forest, possibly in the sense that evergreens are “enchanted” in their ability to resist browning during times of drought. A block north of the Welcome Center stands a former gas station (now used-car lot office) built from wood that petrified over time but retained its structural integrity. A “Believe It or Not!” sign has been hung on the front to belabor the weirdness.
Beyond that point, small towns, Subway franchises, and other markers were intermittent. A few signs advised that much of Highway 50 is part of the Santa Fe Trail. Other signs noted “Historical Markers” but refused to divulge their significance unless you were willing to pull over first on faith or out of desperation. Also infrequently dotting the landscape were election ads, entrances to landfills, farmers performing their daily machinery chores, and a few massive stockyards hundreds of acres wide, filled with thousands of cattle awaiting their fates. Somehow Highway 50 also criss-crossed over our old friend the Arkansas River at no less than five different points.
We were starving by the time we reached Garden City, the first small town to advertise a promise of copious restaurant options — over fifty, its advance billboard swore. We pulled off the main road, wandered aimlessly for a few miles, and found next to nothing except a few dinky, insular-looking establishments. We returned to the main road and drove further in discomfort until the next town after that, Cimarron, produced a modest joint called Richie’s Cafe. It looked like an old American Legion hall or former community clubhouse. We pulled up a few minutes after their posted after-lunch closing time of 2 p.m., but a thankfully benevolent waitress popped her head out the door and offered to serve us anyway. For this timely display of grace, and for my sufficient Frisco burger and my wife’s generous taco salad, we counted our blessings, averted the gaze of the employees pacing and working around us, and tipped generously.
Twenty more minutes of driving brought us to big, famous, totally commercialized Dodge City, crowded with dozens of major corporate fast-food joints, certain to be more crowd-pleasing and less awkward than a small-town cafeteria at closing time. Certain parties in the car gave me such a harsh look for having not pushed us twenty minutes further for lunch.
At my wife’s request we paid an unplanned visit to the Boot Hill Museum, whose grounds include a preserved, backyard-sized portion of the very first cemetery to bear that not-uncommon moniker. We were skeptical as to whether or not some of the wooden-plank tombstones were century-old originals, but decided against putting our hosts on the spot. Most of the grounds are occupied by a recreated block of Old West storefronts (plus one authentic transplant built in 1879), inside which were exhibits devoted to integral themes of the Old West — e.g., weapons, liquor, Native American mistreatment, prostitutes, and TV’s Gunsmoke. Inside an old one-room schoolhouse hung posters for informational and educational purposes, including a pair that listed famous Kansans in the entertainment industry — not just obscure old actors your grandma might recognize, but also recent names such as R. Lee Ermey, Paul Rudd, and Jason Sudeikis.
Sadly, the daily staged gunfight wasn’t scheduled for another three hours. I’m not sure what kind of sissy, photosensitive gunman agrees to a high-noon shootout after dinnertime, but it’s not the kind we felt like sticking around to catch, money’s worth or not. After a brief snack at the local overcrowded Dairy Queen (refuge for tourists who declined the Boot Hill Museum’s six-dollar drugstore sundaes), we spent two last hours on the road to our hotel in Hutchinson, located across the street from a dying shopping mall whose official site lists exactly five open restaurants. Kansas just couldn’t resist the urge to discourage us one more time.
We ventured a little further from the hotel so we could end the day on a brighter note. One successful supper was obtained at an unfamiliar chain called Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. To describe it for fellow Hoosiers, it’s Steak-‘n’-Shake with better burgers, crisper fries, Chicago-style hot dogs, optional Red Robin fry seasoning, and Ritter’s frozen custard. It was a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of familiar restaurant parts, but at least those parts were chosen wisely, even if none of them belonged to Smashburger.