My husband and I took a little excursion to visit nearby attractions. Before leaving home I nicknamed this our “Quirky Kansas Tour”. We planned to see famous attractions as well as some of the places featured in the “Weird Kansas” book– places we had read about and were curious enough to take a jaunt specifically to see them. I expected it to be fun and I expected it to be a nice departure from our regular routine. I also expected it to be quirky.
Our itinerary was a big loop, starting at home, near Kansas City.
This was our plan:
1. Bentonville, AR to see Crystal Bridges and the Wal-Mart Museum.
2. Then north and west across the Kansas prairie to Hutchinson, KS and the Salt Museum.
3. North, across more prairie to Salina, KS and the Rolling Hills Zoo and nearby Rock City.
4. Then on to Lucas, KS and the Garden of Eden and Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden.
Three days. No advance hotel reservations. No scheduled meals. As we traveled we decided when to stop and what to eat. We didn’t check e-mail. Phone calls and text messages were limited due to reception, (or lack thereof.)
Ready? Let’s go!
Our first stop was lunch in Butler, MO at Koehn Bakery.It’s a cute little deli/bakery: Special features were huge sandwiches and the surprise seating of brightly colored vintage school chairs – they’re not retro, they’re the real deal! We were too full for pie but got a sweet little blackberry turnover for later. When we ate it I wished I had bought one for each of us instead of planning to share! Mmmm!
Next stop: Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR home to an impressive collection of American Art. We saw art by Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe, Homer, Andy Wharhol, Norman Rockwell – name an American Artist and their work is probably in this collection. Forget about the French Impressionists and don’t look for Michelangelo – at least not here – this museum houses talent born and bred in America. And most of the subject matter is American: Portraits of George Washington to Rosie the Riviter to Dolly Parton; Landscapes of Yellowstone, Yosemite, the open plains and waves crashing on the shore; city views and country views; realistic and abstract; paintings and sculptures. The building and its setting is also a work of art with outdoor sculptures dotting the gardens and nature trails. It was about art and culture – and it wasn’t quirky.
The Wal-Mart museum was next. Whether you like Wal-Mart or not there is no arguing that Sam Walton was enterprising and passionate and I say if you are going to be anything, be passionate. The Wal-Mart museum was about history – and it wasn’t quirky.
After a little snack at the old fashioned ice cream store we were on our way. We drove until we were tired then found a hotel and dinner in Joplin, MO. The next day, we crossed back into Kansas and headed west.
It was a great Sunday morning drive through the Kansas countryside with its soft, gently rolling hills, two lane highways and hardly any traffic. The native prairie grass was turning golden under the late summer sun while ripening corn crops provided a dark green backdrop. We passed through small towns with local grocery stores and old style motels, and no chain stores – aside from an occasional Wal-Mart, that is, until Wichita where we grabbed a chain food lunch. A touch of the ordinary wasn’t going to hurt us for one meal!
We arrived at Hutchinson, KS and the Salt Museum where we donned hardhats and emergency respirators (just in case) and took an elevator ride deep into the salt mine – 650 feet. My ears popped on the way down as my vision adjusted to the dimly lit interior. Soon we found ourselves in a mysterious, underground world. The salty floor crunched under our shoes. The walls and ceilings were solid salt – not the glistening white salt that we sprinkle on our fries; this salt hasn’t been purified. It’s layered with mud and grit, red salt, grey salt and rarely, crystalline white salt.
“Send it to the Salt Mines” – the mine has the perfect underground conditions providing low humidity and even temperatures making the salt mines a suitable storage facility for films, costumes and documents. Somewhere, out of the eyesight of the visitors, are vaults holding our history. It’s a time capsule– deep under the city of Hutchinson, KS. Who knew?
I took a deep breath and tasted salt lingering on my lips. I sort of liked this dust-free, pollen-free environment but after two hours underground my eyes felt strained from the dim lighting. Time to ride the elevator back to ground level. Once our eyes adjusted to the afternoon glare, we hit the road. The mine is one of the 8 geological wonders of KS. It’s educational. Not quirky.
Arriving in Salina, KS we decided to go local and have dinner at an Italian restaurant downtown then catch a movie at the neighborhood movie theater.
The next morning, our third and final day, we started early. The Rolling Hills Zoo, tucked into a natural landscape of rolling hills (yes, there are hills in Kansas!) opened at 8 am. The last time we visited a zoo it was the San Diego Zoo and it was crowded. Would the Rolling Hills Zoo also be crowded? Turning into the visitors parking lot we saw one lone car! We have been alone in a movie theater before, we have been the only people in a restaurant before, we have even been on a Boeing 727 with only 7 total passengers but we have never had a zoo to ourselves before! Oh wait! There is someone else – a local who comes here three times a week to walk. Some places have mall walking. Salina, KS has zoo walking!
Lions, tigers and bears – the Rolling Hills Zoo has them all, and more. We got up close and personal with the Rhinos, watched the tall giraffes looming overhead and saw a pair of black swans showing off. The African dogs pranced about their cage and the snow leopard paced along the fence, his big, bushy tail swaying from side to side. Butterfly gardens of native plants decorated the path – all plantings native to the prairie. What a pleasant zoo tucked in the rolling hills on the plains of Kansas. There is nothing quirky about this zoo!
Next stop: Minneapolis, KS, home to Rock City where strange boulders were deposited millions of years ago, scattered across fields and valleys – over 2000 of them dot the landscape.
Dale standing among the rocks. See? They are huge!
Their edges were worn into ridged spheres when ancient water washed away the silt, sand and soft limestone leaving hard rock. The erosion continues today with the wind and rain washing over the stones. It’s peculiar, maybe even a little bit quirky.
In three days we have gone from a layer of underground salt stratas set down millions of years ago to an outcropping of stones deposited millions of years ago. I feel so young, like a tiny speck of dust in the big picture of the world.
We enjoyed a home-style lunch at a roadside diner in Lucas, KS (with a slice of yucky chocolate peanut butter pie) then it was on to the final two stops of our quirky tour – The Garden of Eden and Florence Deeble’s Rock Garden.
SP Dinsmoor built his garden and house as a tourist attraction showcasing his religious, political and social viewpoints. His wife complained that he spent too much time building his garden and she never saw him so he created a sculpture of himself waving to her outside the kitchen window so she could see him any time she wanted.
It’s a strange and curious place. My favorite part? The statue of Eve. Mr Dinsmoor gave her generous hips. I liked that. But was his garden quirky? Oh yes!
“Weird Kansas” listed Florence Debble’s Garden as one of the state’s weird attractions. During my trip planning I discovered that it was right around the corner from The Garden of Eden so of course I wanted to see it. Part of the Grassroots Art Center, the house and garden is open for tours. It was hot and near the end of the day so we just took a peek around the garden instead of the whole tour.
Got an extra ironing board you don’t know what to do with?
How about some old LPs and action figures?
Ceiling fan blades turned ‘bad hair day’?
Quirky? You betcha!
Crystal Bridges is not quirky – it’s a center for serious art lovers in a modern ‘state of the art’ building.
The Walmart Museum is not quirky – it’s a history museum documenting the life and business endeavors of the largest private employer in the country showcasing his vision and passion for helping people live better.
The Salt Museum is not quirky – it’s a working salt mine that produces the rock salt used on our winter roads and houses vaults holding the documents and movies of our life and times.
The Rolling Hills Zoo is not quirky – it’s a perfectly sized zoo and museum tucked among the gently rolling hills of the Great Plains.
Rock City isn’t quirky – but it is peculiar with its strange outcropping of gigantic eroded stones.
The Garden of Eden – is quirky, built as a tourist attraction in the early 1900s it touts political and religious sentiments of one man. There is no denying that he believed what he believed with a passion.
Then there is Florence Deeble’s Garden – the quirkiest of them all!
In the end, it was barely “The Quirky Kansas Tour”! But it sure was fun! Try it for yourself! If you don’t live near enough to follow our tour route I bet you can find some unusual attractions in your own neighborhood to stage your own quirky tour.