On our drive through Arizona we’d felt like soggy versions of Pig-Pen, stalked by rain instead of dust clouds. Walking into the Wichita Marriott, we felt like actual Pig-Pen, swirls of dirt and grime clouding around us in the perfectly pristine lobby. Because this was a classy establishment, no one remarked on our disheveled appearance. Oh, sure, we’d showered that morning, but after seven hours in the car we were in definite need of refreshing. Compound that with our exploration of the outdoors for the past week and getting gussied up sounded divine.
For the first time in a week I put on makeup, and for the first time in two I wore shoes that didn’t have laces or velcro. Dinner was downstairs in Fireside Grille, and as the name suggested, we sat next to the fireplace, a glass-enclosed window in the light-colored brick wall.
We began with housemade burrata accompanied by roasted red peppers, pesto, and grilled crostini. It was the most sophisticated dish we’d had since we’d left Elgin. We were in Kansas, so I had to get a steak, and that KC strip, aged for 21 days at nearby Creekside Farms, was the stuff of which carnivore’s dreams are made. Jim indulged in the cheese and spinach stuffed ravioli topped with lobster. With LOBSTER. It was like we’d been living on lunch meat wraps and trail mix for the past week or something.
We skipped dessert because we were going to do date night right, so we headed to Old Town for a nightcap at Mort’s Martini & Cigar Bar. There was live music to serenade the cigar smokers on the enclosed patio. We opted for a seat at the bar and perused the list of 160 martinis. Being the crazy kids that we were, he went for a basic 007 made with vodka, gin, and vermouth. I ordered an old standard, getting a Dirty McNasty made with vodka, olive juice, and beautiful bleu cheese stuffed olives. Ah, civilization.
The next day was a humdinger. I’ve been on a few FAM trips, so I’m used to cannonballing into a destination. Short for FAMiliarization, these are intense, immersive experiences that allow a group of travel media to see as much as possible in a short amount of time. While this trip was just the two of us, Visit Wichita arranged our itinerary in FAM style and it was like jumping into a pinball machine of travel as we caromed from one stop to the next.
Strap in, because this was one wild ride.
We began with breakfast at Doo-Dah Diner, where the first thing we noticed was the giant mural of civic pride painted on the outside bricks. This was the Wichita flag, and it was as ubiquitous as Chicago’s distinctive blue stripes and red stars are in the Windy City. The blue circle represents the sun and the white symbol in the center is a hogan, an American Indian symbol for a permanent home. The red stripes are virtue and honor and the white stripes are courage. Together, they mean Wichita.
Patrick and Timirie Shibley named their diner Doo-Dah because they wanted to create a place with a laid-back vibe, and that’s what the Wichita nickname means (or so the story goes). The restaurant’s only been around since 2012, but it had the feel of a place that had been there for ages. It was Friday morning and it was packed, and after one bite of monkey bread we knew why. Jim uncharacteristically had the gluten-free banana bread. Topped with candied apples, pecans & apple butter, you would never know it was celiac-safe. I had Tanya’s Benny. I don’t know this Tanya, but I’d sure like to meet her. She took avocado toast to a whole new level by putting it on eggs benedict with some maple pepper bacon.
In just two meals we’d more than made up for our culinary wasteland of the previous few days.
We rolled out of Doo-Dah, took a photo with the flag, and met the Keeper of the Plains.
The Keeper is a 44-foot tall steel sculpture at the Mid-America All-Indian Center. He stands at the point where the Big and Little Arkansas (pronounced ar-KAN-sas here, mind you) Rivers meet, standing guard over downtown. Created by renowned Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin, it took six years in the late 1960s and early 1970s to get the funding and it was finished in 1974. In 2006 the Keeper was moved to a public plaza on a platform built to look like Castle Rock, a limestone tower in the Kansas plains. The plaza is designed to represent a medicine wheel, with stations for air, fire, earth, and water. It’s an impressive, spiritual place, and the Keeper of the Plains is one of the most important symbols of the city.
More of Bosin’s work was inside the Mid-America All-Indian Center, which opened two years after the Keeper was originally installed. The museum was closed when we visited, but we were able to tour the Hall of Nations. It’s lined with photos of its beginnings and modern-day pow-wows. From the ceiling drape hundreds of flags sent by tribes from all over the United States. Over three hundred nations have flags, and over five hundred tribes are recognized by the U.S. government. This center is a place for education and preservation of these unique cultures, and for the 10,000 American Indians who live in Wichita.
The next item on our itinerary was the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. The museum fills four floors of the original City Hall, a magnificent building that dates from 1890. Its clock tower and turrets earned it the nickname the “Palace of the Plains” and it’s a piece of history in its own right.
Inside, the exhibits explore Wichita’s past. The top floor had a 1916 Jones VI Automobile set in a recreated garage. It’s the only car of its kind viewable by the public. The Spirit of Wichita exhibit illustrated the industries, calamities, and cultural influences that helped to define the city. Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, & Lloyd Stearman all built their aircraft fortunes here, which is why Wichita is known as the Air Capital of the World. We learned about the original inhabitants, for whom the city’s named, and walked through a 19th century cottage and an early 20th century drugstore.
Our visit coincided with a special exhibit commemorating 150 Years of the Chisholm Trail. After the Civil War, cowboys drove cattle from southern Texas up to Kansas, where they were loaded on railcars and shipped east. That trail helped establish Wichita as an urban center and Kansas as one of the country’s leading states for beef.
We admired the first floor display of cut and engraved glass on our way out into the sunshine and headed to the ICT Pop-up Park for lunch. On the way to the park, named for the local airport code, we appreciated the profusion of public art. The first piece we saw was Georgia Gerber’s Soda Fountain in Chester Lewis Reflection Square Park. The square is named for the NAACP lawyer who helped to organize the sit-in, one of America’s first, at Dockum Drug Store. Soda Fountain sits right outside where the drugstore used to be.
There were sculptures throughout downtown. In the square was a man playing guitar with a dog for an audience. Lining the streets were a mother and child, a child on a scooter, and several animals, including a hawk sitting on top of a traffic light. Many of the sculptures with human form wore knitted hats and scarves. When I looked at the tag dangling from a hat atop a bronze barefoot businessman, reading a paper near a park bench with his shoes and briefcase, it read “God Bless” on one side and “Free New Hat” on the other. Locals leave the hats on the statues for those in need.
Fortunately that day was balmy. It wasn’t until we reached the Pop-up Park that we realized it was March 17. St. Patrick’s Day. There were families and people on their lunch hour, and while some of them wore green, it was nothing like St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. That city turns into a satellite of the Emerald Isle. Thinking of that, I was surprised to realize I wasn’t homesick even though we had been on this adventure for a full month. It was an odd dichotomy. I was ready to be home, but I didn’t miss it.
While we weren’t terribly hungry after our ginormous breakfast, our next two stops were to check out some local breweries, so we sat at a pressboard table painted bright yellow and shared a Creekside burger from The Flying Stove - one of the 25 Coolest Food Trucks in America, according to Forbes. The beef was topped with bacon, queso, guacamole, and pickled red onion and Jim barely got any.
Properly fortified, we resumed our exploration of Wichita with a visit to Aero Plains Brewing. How can you not love that name? They’re in the Air Capitol, in the Great Plains, it’s brilliant. We took a quick tour with co-owner Lance Minor and he pointed out that this country, and specifically Kansas, had gone from riding horses to building airplanes in less than fifty years. Their slogan, “Brewed in Wichita, Kansas at the crossroads of history and innovation,” summed it up quite nicely.
My favorite thing about craft breweries, besides the beer (duh), is the palpable passion of the people who run them. Lance had been in the Marine Corps for 21 years. After retiring he took advantage of what he called “boots to books.”
“Your tax dollars taught me to brew beer,” he joked. I approve.
He’d traveled the world, but even after living in Hawaii he missed Kansas. “The thunderstorms are magical, spiritual,” he said.
He loved waking up at 3 a.m. to sit on the balcony and watch the storms roll in, so much so that the floor of his brewery was poured to look like a stormy sky. Other touches include a bar made from the wing of a ‘57 or ‘58 Beech airplane, beer flight caddies in the shape of an airplane, and a fully-functioning art gallery featuring the work of local artists.
With his two partners he built a large operation that’s set for growth, with an in-house lab and microbiologist monitoring the consistency. This was obviously a labor of love, and he put himself into every detail. Lance was a man who’d faced death and come out the other side, and not just in Afghanistan. After returning home, in 2014 he contracted the H1N1 virus and ended up in a coma for seven weeks. He had to learn how to walk and talk again, and said his speech still lagged some, but we didn’t notice.
“Going through that and seeing people drink my beer makes it more meaningful,” he said. “It makes me really appreciate where we are.”
After that story his beer could have been squirrel spit and we would have put on a happy face, but the beers were approachable, Germanic in style (Jim’s favorite), and eminently quaffable. We could see why they’ve grown quickly and were being distributed widely.
Aero Plains Brewing was one example of craft brewing in Wichita. Our next stop was to the first tap room in the city.
“We’re not gnome people.”
Torrey Lattin said that with a straight face, despite being surrounded by gnomes in his brewery, called Hopping Gnome. As many brewery stories begin, Torrey had been an avid home brewer. When he and his wife Stacy decided to turn the hobby into a business they had trouble picking a name that somebody else wasn’t already using. Finally, in a fit of desperation - or genius, he took a look at the one gnome they owned, a giveaway from the 2012 Kansas City Royals All Star game. “Stacy!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got it! Hopping Gnome! For hops, in beer!”
I love brewers.
The storefront tap room and brewery is filled with gnomes, and Torrey said they’ve all been gifts. The brewery’s in a building from 1930 with 2 by 12 rafters and unpainted walls adorned by local art. It fits right into its neighborhood, the Douglas Design District, an artsy community with murals and a 24-hour doughnut shop with a rooster on the roof.
Torrey was another Wichitan that was overflowing with love for his city. He and his wife didn’t have kids and could have moved anywhere, but instead they chose to stay where they were. “Let’s make Wichita better one pint at a time,” they decided.
He said they’d made the right choice. Hopping Gnome is cozy, and it feels like you’re hanging out with a bunch of friends. The only difference is you have to pay for the beer. “It’s not a bad job,” Torrey said. “It’s basically a glorified hobby.”
Jim had the ESB and I had the Coffee Stout, made with beans from a local roaster, and we could have spent the rest of the day hanging out, drinking Torrey’s hobby, and making a bunch of friends, but we had one more place to go.
After a quick cleanup at the hotel it was after six when we rolled into Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper. The dinner bell rang at 6:15, so we barely had time to stroll through the Hopalong Cassidy Cowboy Museum before settling in for some vittles and fiddles. If we had gotten there earlier, we might have been able to take a horse-drawn wagon ride, but there’s only so much you can fit into one day. Supper was brisket, sausage, potatoes, beans, and flying biscuits (catch!). There was a break between dinner and the show, so I stepped outside.
As a windmill spun slowly and the sun set, I reveled in the silence. We hadn’t been around a lot of people in the past week, and suddenly we’d had a day filled with them. It had been a delightful day, there was no question about that, but we were a touch oversaturated. I breathed in, out, and was ready to sit back and enjoy the show.
There were lots of cowboy standards, of course, and kids in the audience joined the band on stage for a rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The music was what you’d expect at a western show. The quality, however, was unexpected. The fiddler, Jenny Bowen Clayton, played violin with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. Orin Friesen was a member of the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Kansas Bluegrass Hall of Fame and America’s Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. Jesse Friesen owned a professional recording studio, and Ranger Stan Greer has won the Kansas State Mandolin Championship. Together, these four make up the Prairie Rose Rangers, and their musicality was a pleasant surprise. Jim, who’s a classically trained singer with a Masters in Vocal Pedagogy, was very impressed. That doesn’t happen often.
In between songs the show was sprinkled with jokes and plugs for their items in the mercantile. The latter came a little too frequently, but the overall sense was that this was a group that loved what they were doing, and the friends and families in attendance did, too.
The next morning was almost painfully early, even though we didn’t get back on the road until nine. Here we were in this gorgeous hotel room, overlooking the on-site pond, with a beautiful marble bathroom and a bed like a cloud and we’d spent just enough time in it to sleep. It was a shame. But we had our longest day of driving ahead of us, although we didn’t know it yet. We just knew we had a couple of more stops to make in Wichita before driving through the Flint Hills to Tallgrass Prairie.
Find a room at the Marriott Wichita (you'll be glad you did)
Our first stop that morning was breakfast at R Coffee House in the Riverside neighborhood. We pulled up to what’s been called the “Coolest Corner in Wichita” and entered an eclectic shop. The sign on the door said “Support Your Local Anything.”
Inside I ordered coffee sourced from PT’s out of Topeka, which is a direct trade-only roaster, “because it’s the right thing to do.” More local art hung from their walls, and handmade soap from Flying Pig was offered. The soap bars had names like Raspberry Rush, Citrus Cedar, and Sleepy Time. Jim was particularly amused by the bar of olive oil and shea butter - called Monkey Farts.
We each ordered a breakfast sandwich, figuring that would be the easiest thing to take on the road. It was the best freaking breakfast sandwich we have ever had in our entire lives. We’d take a bite and then mumble “oh my - what the - how do they” before scarfing down another mouthful. It must have been the local eggs ham spinach ciabatta. If this is what “Support Your Local Anything” means in Wichita, then I completely and fully support their local.
Our final, final stop in Wichita was the Nifty Nut House. This was a candy, sweet, and nut emporium that put Eddie’s World in Nevada to shame, mainly because Nifty was actually affordable. There were raw nuts, roasted nuts, maple covered, milk chocolate covered, dark chocolate covered, white chocolate covered, yogurt covered, cinnamon covered. It was nuts! You could buy pre-packaged or in bulk, and they had all of the other candy you could hope for (except for Tangy Taffy or Big Hunk). Since it was close to Easter there was a whole room full of baskets. I’d almost be afraid to walk in there around Halloween.
It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we did, with only one bag of goodies in hand, which was just enough to get us to the Flint Hills and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
We'd spent just 41 hours in Wichita, Kansas, and while we'd seen a lot, we could tell we'd barely scratched the surface.
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