Nicodemus has been on my to-visit list for about 35 years, since soon after I moved to Wichita in the mid-1980s but it is far far off the beaten path. Today, we finally stopped there on our drive home from Albuquerque and it was only a half hour out of our way. It looks like any other wind-battered, barely-hanging-on rural Kansas town except it has a fascinating history and is now a National Historic Site, with explanatory plaques in front of a few of the handful of buildings left.
In 1877, 300 recently freed slaves from Kentucky moved way out to this remote place, building the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi. In its heyday, Nicodemus had 500 residents. Today, there are about 16 residents and we saw four (25 percent of the population) because we happened to arrive when the Sunday service was starting at the Baptist church. The only other signs of life were a slightly menacing barking white dog who followed us for awhile, as our lab Millie picked up the pace, and a helpful park ranger in the visitor’s center, where we looked at some exhibits and watched a 13 minute video about the town then and now.
The night before, we drove through wide open, barely populated western Kansas ranch land to oakley, KS, where we’d booked a room at the serviceable Sleep Inn. Who knew we’d get an excellent cheeseburger (even medium rare, as requested) from Buffalo Bill’s bar and grill, the name a nod to Annie Get Your Gun?
After Nicodemus, we drove east, passing a few small towns and interesting sights including The M Motel in Stockton, whose dayglo yellow sign shouts in blue “Taylor Swift stayed here.” So she did, after playing the Rook County Free Fair in 2007. (Early days for the now superstar.) A town later, Alton boasted of being Russel Stover’s birthplace. The chocolate candy maker, we presumed.
As a travel writer (and as a traveler), I seek out the places that feel emblematic of the place I’m visiting, with a storied history and local cuisine, with atmosphere, character and grit. Some of those places, sadly, have been felled by the pandemic as I learned in a NYTimes story yesterday. Oddly, we drove past The Rieger restaurant in Kansas City during a day trip there on Saturday and vowed to return once we can to eat at a place that not only had inventive food but allegedly a bathroom that gangster Al Capone once peed in. Sadly it is no more, as the NYTimes story reported. I had been to three of the nine restaurants mentioned in the story – including the Brookville Hotel in Abilene and the Cake Cafe in New Orleans.
I first went to the Brookville Hotel – which specialized in fried chicken and biscuits – in the mid-1980s when I lived in Wichita. The 1.5 hour drive to the tiny worn town of Brookville was worth it, to eat in the old tumbledown hotel that was mostly (or maybe completely) a restaurant by that time. I took many a visitor there as well, since it was so evocative of old time Kansas. A lot of atmosphere was lost when the restaurant moved to a faux hotel recreation on the edge of Interstate 70 in Abilene but the chicken and biscuits were still great. Our memory is the wait staff only asked two questions: What kind of salad dressing do you want? What do you want to drink? Otherwise the order was chicken and biscuits.
I wandered into the Cake Cafe a few years ago while exploring the Marigny and Bywater districts. It was a cheerful alternative feeling coffee house, painted yellow on a quiet corner. Very cozy and they were advertising their NOLA-classic King Cakes with the little plastic baby in them. I had only an orange juice, resisting the tempting pastries (which I now regret) and sat outside, back in the pre-pandemic days when you didn’t do this for your health and safety.
The pandemic has caused so much devastation – first and foremost, deaths and lasting health consequences for people, but also devastation to businesses and livelihoods, some that make a place distinctive. On a happier note, we did get carryout at two Kansas City classics that appear to be hanging in there — ribs from Gates BBQ and a chicken dinner with cinnamon buns (not biscuits) at Stroud’s. We need to remember to keep patronizing these places, helping them to survive.
We didn’t get too much time to hang out in Kansas (or Missouri) last weekend because the focus of our trip was attending the wedding of my niece Whitney in Manhattan, Kansas. But a family’s got to eat, right? So we stopped for lunch at Wheatfields in Lawrence, which was fairly quick in and out and had a solid selection of sandwiches (and excellent looking tomato soup). After a quick tour of his alma KU by Dirck, we drove another two hours to the Comfort Suites in Manhattan, which proved serviceable, as always. We stopped for coffee and iced tea at Arrow coffeehouse, where we also could have gotten cocktails as it doubles as a bar. The wedding was in Aggieville (the KState entertainment neighborhood), at a venue on Moro street next to…an offshoot of The Cozy Inn, the famous slider place in Salina, KS. (Who knew there was another Cozy Inn?) On the way home, after shopping for famous Kansas potato chips (Art & Mary’s) that we found out, sadly, no longer are made (Art & Mary went bankrupt about a year ago, we discovered), we ended up happily at Arthur Bryant’s. Emma, our pregnant daughter, was craving ribs and Rachel had never been to KC or for ribs (she was not long ago a vegetarian). One of the few things I’m not that keen on at Bryant’s is the sauce (yes, I know, the sauce is beloved by many). It’s too peppery. But we discovered Bryant’s offers two other sauces including, I believe, the President’s sauce, which – dare I say it – tasted much like the sweet and tangy sauce served by its competitor, Gates. We had hoped to go to Joe’s (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) but found out it was closed on Sundays. Good to know.
To be honest, we didn’t do much in western Kansas beyond the confines of D’s 1960s ranch house in the tiny town of Wright, outside Dodge City. We were there to pack up and haul out all the stuff that a family of 8 children accumulated during the past 55 years. And we found things that were much older, some back to the late 1800s, we think.
A melancholy task, but good to be with other family who came from New Mexico and elsewhere in Kansas. Lots of laughter, occasional tears, family tales shared. We did emerge for lunch yesterday at Tacos Jalisco, our favorite Mexican place on Wyatt Earp blvd. in Dodge. A late dinner was at a surprisingly packed Applebee’s near Boot Hill, maybe some others were there because there weren’t many other options on a Sunday at 10 pm. I did have a very good limeade.
Today, we stopped to see family in Wichita and then picked up ribs “to travel” at Gates BBQ in Kansas City. Now three hours til home.
P.s. Comfort Inn in Lenexa turned out to be a mixed bag. Our room was clean but the thin walls meant nonstop noise from someone who appeared to fall asleep with the tv on. Argh
On our drive to Dirck’s childhood home for the last time (it has been sold) we have stopped at some favorite spots during our almost 30 years driving together through Kansas.
The Overland Park Farmers market was overflowing with gorgeous produce but we restrained ourselves since and bought only what we can eat in the next two days away. Peaches, cantelope and a fantastic looking bread from the Ibis bakery stand (our “morning buns” were delicious, a bun made with croissant dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.)
On to the flint hills and the old town of Cottonwood Falls with its glorious French revival courthouse. We wandered down the three block brick Main Street, poked around in some antique/junk shops and craft shops, had fantastic sirloin steak sliders in the restaurant At the classy western hotel, The Grand Central Hotel and found a cool old limestone motel at the other end of Main Street along the river that looks like an amazing place to stay, the Millstream Resort Motel.
We drove south along scenic byway 177 through the vast open, gently rolling flint hills, the road almost entirely to ourselves. So much open space, land, sky, road. love that feeling. We stopped briefly at the old Bazaar Cemetery to walk along the old gravestones and hear nothing but the wind blowing through the trees.
Now we are in Wright Kansas, an unincorporated city of less than 100 people, outside Dodge City, packing up the house with some of Dirck’s siblings and their families. Strange. Sad. One of life’s endings.
No visit to Wright, Kansas is complete without a visit to Tacos Jalisco in nearby Dodge City so we found ourselves here, yet again, on a suddenly snowy bleak day after Xmas. Good nothin fancy soft tacos (fried pork is my new fave) and carne asada and flan in a long open dining room with lots of murals of the old country. We also did a little antiquing at the dodge city antique mall near Hastings dept store and stopped at Dillons grocery for some Art and Mary jalapeño potato chips, a Kansas Classic (it was just arts when we lived in Wichita many years ago.)
Fine dining en route to dodge city Kansas from Des Moines for Christmas:
– Stroud’s (“we choke our own chickens”) off I 35 north of Kansas City). We didn’t think we’d be able to stop here because there is usually a long wait but we drove right into a prime parking spot on a Tuesday night at 8:15 pm (albeit holiday date) and sat at the small bar rather than waiting 40 minutes for a table. Great pan fried chicken and what everyone needs after a chicken dinner – killer cinnamon rolls, buttery and warm. Perfect stop before picking our son up at the Kansas City airport.
– Wheatfields bakery in Lawrence where we learned we could avoid the long line for take out pastries and bread if we ordered breakfast as well at a counter with no line. And good grub too although I just had a small croissant (still recovering from Stroud’s.) Our waitress enthusiastically recommended another old tome bakery in town for its cream cheese donuts. Next time. (And there will be…)
– Cozy Inn, we took up three of the six seats at the counter in this shoe box of a burger joint, with a great view of the two tattooed guys cooking sliders on a griddle. Forgot how good those sliders are..small and mighty, slightly rare with grilled onions and pickles (no cheese or fries allowed) on a small moist white bun.
– Ad Astra, a hipster coffee shop around the block on Salina’s main drag where I had a good chai latte and found a great used book about Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton, a sweet older lady from small town Kansas who painted brilliantly wicked self portraits. (One of which hangs in our kitchen nook.) We met her in the late 1980’s when some friends and I were playing pool at a bar and met her nephew, or some such, who called her to see if she was receiving visitors. She was . So we went to her house and she served us lemonade and showed us around and let us buy signed posters of her work. Only in Kansas!! She died in 1993 I see from the book (which I had to buy!)
The sun is finally out with endless blue sky, bald brown hills, the occasional wind-whipped tree and lots of gleaming white whirling wind turbines. Life is good.
We had excellent fajitas at Casa Alvarez in downtown Dodge City – the steak and grilled onions and peppers were packed with flavor. Next time we will stick with just the steak and skip the pork which turned out to be a thin dry slice of meat. Down the street, the pork tacos and flan were a good choice at Jalisco, which has order-at-the-counter service vs. table service at casa Alvarez.
Yes it really is blowing dirt here in the Smokey Hills of central Kansas, with brown clouds above the pale green and tan wheat fields, the occasional wind-whipped tree and wind turbine farm.
But in downtown Salina we stumbled upon a little oasis of alternative-ness, Ad Astra Coffee and books. Cozy wood and stone interior with old sofas and sun drenched plants, Good coffee, not-so-great bagels (but can’t fault them for trying), interesting book selection including tomes by resident world famous (no joke) Agriculture visionary Wes Jackson of the Salina-based Land Institute. very welcome after a grim night in a musty room at The Days Inn along I-70.
From time to time, I field questions from friends like the one below (a Kansas native, I might add, who is a longtime Iowa transplant.)
A friend is driving down to Coffeeville, Kansas from Ames and wants to know what weird and wonderful things he should stop and see along the way. So up your alley!
Is the biggest ball of string even remotely along the way? He’s willing to go a little off the beaten path, and loves quirky things.
What can you recommend?
Wow – that route is a challenge. If he takes 169 south from Kansas city – which appears to be the fastest route – he’ll just miss the Flint Hills, which are one of my favorite Kansas places. If he takes 69 south, another option, he’ll go through some places I remember as interesting – Fort Scott, Baxter Springs and Pittsburg. He should check out this story on southeast Kansas from the NYTimes Frugal Traveler done http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/travel/in-kansas-museums-fried-chicken-and-yes-oz.html last summer.
As for the aforementioned “biggest ball of string, ” it is actually “the second largest ball of twine” (or sometimes the largest depending on the definition) and it’s in Cawker City – in North Central Kansas so not on your friend’s route, alas. How weird is it that I know this stuff?