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!
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 taproom 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 Delano 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.
Our first stop 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.
Previously published with modifications at Things to do in Wichita, Kansas