Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Chapter 40 – Whoa There, Wichita

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!

On our drive through Arizona, we’d felt like a soggy version 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 house-made 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.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

Previously published with modifications at Things to do in Wichita, Kansas