By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
“Where the wind comes whistling down the plain” … Oscar Hammerstein.
Never let it be said that Mr. Hammerstein wasn’t the very essence of understatement. Hays, Kansas was the next stop on our journey to Kansas City. It is the largest city in western Kansas, boasting a population of over 20,000 hearty people and no Starbucks. As we drove up to the hotel we made the “rookie” error of facing the car into the wind. As it turns out, there was a tornado watch in effect. I had to use both arms to push the car door open, and then attempt a quick exit before the door could swing back and crush me. Welcome to Kansas. Once in the lobby, my husband casually asked the clerk if the hotel had a storm shelter. “Well, no,” she chirped, “everyone just crowds into the laundry room.” My husband paled. “So..”, he asked, “you must not have many guests staying here tonight.” After a quick consult with her computer she looked up and said brightly, “Well, actually we’re almost full so if we do have a tornado some people will just have to take shelter under the stairwell.” We slept with one eye open and one foot on the floor. In the event of disaster we were going to be the first people wedged between the washer and dryer.
As we left Hays the next morning, bleary-eyed from our own “tornado watch” and no Starbucks, we were dismayed to see that the scenery had not improved overnight. I could write about how very boring the drive was but then that would make for a pretty boring post. Let me just leave it at this: If ever you get the wild idea to drive through western Kansas – DON”T.
Luckily, 90 minutes down the road is the city of Salina, which not only HAS a Starbucks but is the demarkation point for where the terrain changes. I don’t think those two things are related but you never know. Within the space of a mile, suddenly the flat, dry plain became luscious, rolling green hills. As we made our way toward Kansas City the vistas became more beautiful, until we finally arrived at our destination – Leawood, Kansas – home to our newly-relocated family.
We set out immediately to get to know the area. First of all, Kansas City is known as “the city of fountains”. This picture (right) is on our daughter’s home street and is pretty typical of the neighborhood fountains. Both my husband and I come from California and have seen some pretty fancy neighborhoods but we both agreed that we have never seen so many contiguous miles of beautiful homes. These places were so big they would make Donald Trump happy. There are parks everywhere and wide boulevards with medians filled with huge trees, colorful flowers and, yes, more fountains. No less a journalist than Edward R. Murrow once described Kansas City as “the Paris of the Plains”. Alas, that was not due to its beauty or the meandering river that runs through the center of town. He was referring to the fact that during the heyday of Prohibition, Kansas City had a reputation for debauchery. Thanks to its corrupt police commissioner, not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or even possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide.The wide-open party town attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
Today things are a bit more sedate. The crown jewel of the city is Country Club Plaza, or just “The Plaza”. It was the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile. It was patterned architecturally after Seville, Spain, with wide streets, tiled roofs and, you guessed it, more fountains. Even the chain stores and restaurants somehow look better here, which shows you what a good city planner can wrestle from a monolithic corporation. For example, the outside eating area of the Cheesecake Factory is in a cobble-stoned courtyard, planted with fabulous flowers and of course, the requisite fountain. I think the beautiful surroundings might make you forget that you’re ingesting a 2,000 calorie salad. There is every store imaginable on The Plaza but one that is truly unique to Kansas City is Hall’s. As in Hallmark Cards, which happens to be headquartered in Kansas City. Hall’s is so upscale that their motto ought to be “where you care to spend the very most”. The influence of the Hallmark corporation is everywhere and suffice it to say that every gas station and grocery store have displays of Hallmark Cards that would make one of our local Gold Crown stores weep.
But the real reason to visit Kansas City is to eat some of its famous barbecue. Our kids suggested that we go to Jack Stack BBQ, which has been in business for over 50years. “Diet” and “BBQ” do not intersect at Jack Stack. We started with their baked onion rings. “Baked” means low-cal, right? I further deluded myself into ordering the baby back ribs, on the theory there wouldn’t be as much meat on them as a half-pound burger. Delicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Instead of the greasy, drippy ribs I’m used to, these were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a smokey flavor. I would have licked the plate if there weren’t so many people around. Hell, I would have licked the plate with so many people around but I thought setting a good example for our grandsons was paramount. I discovered that Jack Stack has a mail order division that ships anywhere. I think I’m in big trouble.
We left for home the following day, still longing to see more of KC, and with what can only be described as a “rib hangover”. We’ll have to save further exploration for our next trip. Which – make no mistake – we will do by plane. We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its surroundings. Although we have both traveled to most large U.S. cities for either business or pleasure, neither of us had ever heard of Kansas City as a place to visit. As our son-on-law so accurately said, “Kansas City isn’t just below the radar, it isn’t even on the radar.” Whatever the reason, we were happy to discover this charming, beautiful city. As Dorothy once said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and we’re sorry we’re not.