Archive for Thursday, April 25, 2002

The road less traveled

Two-lane highways reveal the true nature of the state

April 25, 2002

In preparation for April 15, I had the duty of picking up my prepared tax information from my mom, who was nice enough to take my W-2s to her trusted tax adviser rather than watching me procrastinate and scramble to find someone myself.

Because by April 13 I was getting down to the wire, I met my mom at our rendezvous point in Emporia, roughly halfway between her home in Wichita and mine in Lawrence.

Although on the way down I took the fast, efficient and hopelessly bland Kansas Turnpike, with its bevy of concrete land dividers and Hardee's rest stops, I dreaded the prospect of making the same trek back.

On somewhat of a whim, I decided to exit the turnpike at U.S. Highway 56 without certainty but with the gut instinct I would end up somewhere near Baldwin City, Ottawa, or another town from which I hoped my homing instinct would kick in. My philosophy with directions is as long as I know north, south, east and west and have approximated what direction I'm heading, that's good enough. So when I saw a sign pointing to Olathe, I knew I had to be on the right track, or at least close.

Heading off without really knowing where I was going affectionately called a "Barcomb adventure" in my family wasn't really an original idea. I've been fascinated with the idea of traveling off-interstate since reading William Least-Heat Moon's "Blue Highways" several summers ago. I recently found out the book inspired a local mechanic to take off down America's forgotten roads with the added rule to keep the top down. Even though my Mitsubishi is no match for a 1962 Corvette, I felt adventurous nonetheless, even if it was too chilly to think about cracking open the sunroof.

In the book, Moon writes about an around-the-country trip he took using only those highways maps indicate with the color blue the forgotten, two-lane, scenic roadways that cut through the heart of the country, bypassing the homogenized chain stores and subdivision that litter the cultural landscape. Moon writes how so much about the United States is the same these days. No matter what region of the country you're in, he writes, you can find the same McDonald's and Blockbuster video stores, leaving few aspects to distinguish one region from another. So on his trip, Moon sought out the regional, the ethnic; the things that make us different, whether it's cuisine or architecture.

While driving down my own "blue highway," I looked for the real Kansas drivers never see from the Turnpike: the one-room schoolhouses near Burlingame; a mural exonerating the town's virtues in Overbrook; the reconstructed vintage train cars near Worden; the cafn Scranton that promises "the best food around."

As I delighted in driving through this part of Kansas I'd never seen, soaking in these seemingly-untouched places, I couldn't help but think about some of my first impressions of Eudora once I finally turned off Kansas Highway 10 and really explored the town. I was surprised to find Eudora had an identity extending beyond "the town on K-10 between Lawrence and Lenexa," despite our proximity to the two growing areas. As we continue to talk about how to grow our economy here, I hope we don't lose sight of our identity.

Driving through these small, isolated towns, in spite of whatever romantic notions they might connote, it also occurred to me how lucky we are, in some ways, to have the growth of Lawrence and Johnson County so close. Scranton and Miller are probably the type of towns our school superintendent talks about when he says how fortunate Eudora is to be gaining students, unlike the majority of districts in Kansas facing the economic and emotional consequences of declining enrollment.

Even if I don't envy the problems those types of communities certainly face, I'm definitely glad I traveled a "blue highway." How many people who travel the turnpike can say they've seen a town with a newspaper in business since 1863, or the home town of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist?

If this Kansas driver encountered these unique, quirky sites on an hour-long journey, it makes me wonder: what else are we missing?

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