The Great American Road Adventure: Kansas

The drive from Denver to Topeka, Kansas was supposed to take us 7-8 hours on the I-70 East. Still suffering from the dreadful after-effects of the edibles in Denver, the 5 hour nap refreshed me completely. After I woke up, it was about 2pm, and Michael and I decided that we’d stop somewhere for lunch in the next hour. After looking up some places on Yelp, we decided to stop for a late lunch at a place called Al’s Chickenette, in Hays, Kansas.

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We didn’t have much choice in stopping for lunch at Al’s. It was the best reviewed place on Yelp within 50 miles, that was on the way to Topeka. It took us one hour to get there, and we arrived around 3:30pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Much of the ride had been spent gazing out of the window to stare at cornfields.

We parked in the small car-park outside the restaurant, and proceeded in. Due to the unusual hour for lunch, we were the only customers in the restaurant when we came in. The servers in the restaurant all looked to be about high school or college aged, and were milling about chatting to one another when we came in.

Michael and I were served by a couple of the young servers, neither of whom were from Kansas, but told us they had moved there for college.

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We continued driving to Topeka after our meal, arriving around 7-8pm.

Topeka continued to be stiflingly hot even in the evening, and we were sweating as soon as we set foot outside the car. For dinner, we had Indian, while making small talk with the restaurant owners who’d sat next to us by chance. Michael was fascinated by the seeming randomness of international immigrants who’d come to America 20 years ago, and settled in a place like Topeka.

The people of Kansas spoke with accents that were almost Southern, with a bit of something else thrown in. During dinner, we listened bemusedly to the conversation of diners next to us, who were discussing something at the intersection of religion and extramarital affairs.

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After dinner, we checked in to the Ramada Inn, part of a motel chain. The motel was one of the more unusual and lackluster that we’d stayed in on the trip. At the time of the road trip, I was making efforts to train for my first marathon, and having a gym at the hotel was crucial in making selections for where we’d stay. Though it is the capital of Kansas, Topeka had a surprising lack of hotels with gyms, which is how we ended up at the Ramada.

Some parts of the interior looked like they hadn’t been updated since the 70s, and also could have formed the backdrop for the hotel in The Shining.

The next morning, we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. This comprised of a heavy assortment that you would expect to find in a place like Kansas: hotcakes, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sausages, and eggs. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, and drove to a nearby attraction known as ‘Truckhenge’.

I discovered Truckhenge on the website Roadside America, which lists bizarre national attractions optimal for travelers making their way by road. Truckhenge, rated as ‘Major Fun’ on the website, can be described as an unusual art installation created solely by one man, Ron Lessman. The website advised calling the phone number listed to see if the farm would be open to visitors on days people intended to visit.

After Michael called, we drove there with some trepidation, noting that our surrounds looked like a place ideal to commit homicide.

Within 10 minutes’ drive, we’d reached our destination. The gate was closed to us though, and we wondered if it was open. We got out of the car after stopping on a grass mound across from the farm, and walked into the front yard, where we saw a man with grizzled hair doing something in the yard. After getting closer to him, we excused ourselves, and asked if we might be permitted to take a look around.

On turning around, he looked startled, but not hostile, and asked if we were the ones who’d called that morning. We identified the man as Ron Lessman, the resident, owner and creator of Truckhenge. Mr Lessman had a thick sort of accent that wasn’t quite a Southern accent, and nor did it seem like it was a typical Kansas accent. While enthusiastic to speak with us, we had some difficulty in understanding him.

Mr Lessman told us it would be $8 to see his property. Michael handed over $20, but noted later that he never received any change. Mr Lessman seemed to welcome the idea of visitors that day, and asked us if we’d like a tour. Though we said no, he proceeded to walk and talk with us about his creations, telling us anecdotes about some of the creations along the way.

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In front of the Lessman farm

He had a section of the farm that was dedicated to stumps of trees that had faces etched into them using a saw.

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Mr Lessman seemed especially pleased with these, and proceeded to tell us stories about each tree carving. He was also fond of making gestures, which Michael and I mostly didn’t understand.

Around where the trucks were, Mr Lessman left us to our devices. We leisurely strolled about his farm, admiring his creations.

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What we understood of the story behind Truckhenge, was that the local council had advised Mr Lessman to get rid of his trucks- the phrase they’d used, according to Mr Lessman, was “pick up the trucks”, which resulted in him “picking them up” according to his words, and a gesture with his arm. The art that came after, like the tree stumps, were a result of the initial trucks.

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The trucks were the last creations on the farm, before we were about to turn around and head back to the house. Then, we heard a humming, vibrational sound, and turned the corner around a bush, to see Mr Lessman doing something on a tractor. When he saw us, he hopped off the tractor, and started talking and walking with us back in the direction of the house.

Michael mostly asked Mr Lessman questions about his pieces, while Mr Lessman told us about how some high school kids would come there to take photos before going to the prom. As we neared the house, Mr Lessman suddenly turned to us expectantly and asked us if we’d like to see the inside of his house.

Micheal, ever cautious, said we had to get going shortly, but thanked Mr Lessman. A blank look came over Mr Lessman’s face, perhaps surprised at the unexpected denial. He then asked us, “Do you want a peacock feather?”

We’d seen peacocks strutting around his farm as we walked, and excitedly, I said yes, not knowing what the offer entailed. We walked back and reached the house, and horrifically, I realized that Mr Lessman meant for us to go inside the house with him to get the peacock feather.

He opened the door, and we both stepped through. Michael kept one foot nearly in the door, while I stood nearby. We watched as Mr Lessman stepped off to the side and retrieved a sole peacock feather from a nearby desk. The interior of the house had dark gray walls with high ceilings, and giant pieces of furniture or other objects that loomed over us and cast long shadows.

He handed me the peacock feather, and then said he could show us around the house. I thanked him, and Michael said we had to get going. It looked like disappointment crossed Mr Lessman’s face for a second, but he walked us out, and we thanked him for the tour and the feather. He shook our hands in goodbye, and we got in the car quickly, and began the drive to Kansas City.

It took us about an houralso to drive to Kansas City from Topeka. The temperature in Kansas City again, wasn’t much kinder to us, and we were dripping with sweat as soon as stepped out of the car.

We entered the restaurant I had chosen, Hayward’s Pit BBQ, to have eyes fall on us, and mouths hang agape. The restaurant had the largest and whitest customers I’d ever seen in one place at a time, and was also heavily male. We had plates of very heavy meat set before us, while Michael chatted to the male server about our road travels.

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I noticed that the waitresses here, even despite being middle aged and above, wore full faces of makeup, looking like the picture of traditional femininity. Michael remarked later that people in more conservative communities tended to conform to traditional gender roles compared to people in more liberal places. He also noted later that Kansas is a red state, and I thought that there must have been at least several people in the restaurant that day, that voted for Trump.

We finished our meal, paid the bill and left to drive north, to Minneapolis.

 

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