I came down in the morning to find the lobby as devoid of life as ever. In the raised area at the back, where Pavel had indicated breakfast would be served, some tables with crumbs on looked like they’d not be wiped for a couple of days. There was a toaster and one opened packet of bagels with three left. I went through to the kitchen and found a jug of tepid coffee.
Pavel was talking on the telephone behind the reception desk. I asked him to show me on my map the best way to get back to US 50. I was hoping that my information about the unmade road might be wrong and that I wouldn’t have to return via Florissant. He told me that he had a much better map and produced one that was identical to mine from behind the desk.
He pointed to the squiggle that led due south to the main highway and told me to take the right fork as I was leaving town. It was a “good road” and “the best way to reach the highway 50”. That was all that our “good conversation over breakfast” amounted to and soon another phone call took his attention away.
The right fork to which he’d referred was easy to find and soon I was on my way down a very pleasant mountain road. About five miles out of town the tarmac stopped and I was on to mud and sand. A roadside sign warned vehicles over 25’ to go no further. Quite where such a vehicle would be able to turn around even at that point in the road was far from clear.
The road ahead was narrow and winding with no further points at which it would have been possible even for a car to turn around. It remained unmade for the next 31 miles and provided a hair-raising drive. It ran the length of a small ravine, thankfully most of it along the canyon floor. Where it rose sharply to the ridge, I found myself driving along an unguarded precipice with nothing but gravity between me and a 200 feet fall.
The gradients of Colorado had tested the tiring engine on my Mazda to the limit. Now it was the turn of the suspension to be put through its paces. There were more potholes than road on this stretch. It took almost two hours to complete the journey and I joined the main road at just after ten. Never before had tarmac felt so luxurious. Beware Yugoslavs bearing road directions.
I still hadn’t procured a souvenir from Colorado and I realized that I was running out of options. While passing through Fowler, I noticed an antique shop down a side street and doubled back around the block. I had learnt that items in American antique shops often amounted to no more than second hand curios and junk.
An old man was sat outside and looked surprised when I got out of the car to go into the shop. He asked if he could help and apologized. He explained that he hadn’t expected me to come into his shop. I told him that I hadn’t expected to either and described what sort of a thing I was after.
He suggested that I look at some shelves sporting an assortment of garage glassware, while he went to have a look out back. He returned after a few minutes brandishing an old chipped tankard emblazoned with Colorado State University and its crest. It was about the best I was going to do.
He asked me if I was with the military because it would entitle me to a discount. I told him I wasn’t. The price was $2.50 and I’d probably be his only customer that day as it was.
I’d come to the conclusion that too much serious radio wasn’t proving good for my mental health, and so tuned in to something a touch lighter. It played a variety of easy listening music, interspersed with phone-ins and the occasional competition. I listened intently as some guy managed to win for himself two cinema tickets to see Pulp Fiction this Saturday. The movie had been on general release for seven years.
He was thrilled at the prize, especially as he was getting married that day and it would provide the perfect ending to the special occasion.
For the last hundred odd miles, Colorado failed to resemble anything like the state that had so struck me when I had entered at the Four Corners. The mountains disappeared to be replaced by flat featureless plains that then stretched for another thousand miles before you hit the Mississippi. The only vaguely entertaining thought to be had was that I was now only 24 hours from Tulsa.
By the time I reached Syracuse, 16 miles into Kansas, I needed to fill up, so I pulled into a gas station. I ended up buying about five dollars more fuel than I needed to when the cut-off failed to work and gas started spewing out all over the forecourt as I was trying to dislodge bugs from my windscreen.
The eccentricity guidebook told about a B&B situated on an “exotic animal” farm near a town called Nickerson, which sounded promising. I called the place to find out if it actually existed and whether it had a room. Amazingly the answer to both questions was yes, and so I made a reservation and set off for Dodge City, which I figured had to be a good for souvenirs.
Kansas looked incredibly dull on the map and I was sorry to find out that it wasn’t much better in the actual experience. Fields, fields and more fields, without even a hedgerow in sight. Somewhere over the rainbow to my right was the Wizard of Oz museum, but that amounted to the only tourist sight for over a hundred miles around.
And the stink was incredible. It was what my dad used to refer euphemistically to as “the smell of the country”. Most people just call it shit.
The boredom that had set in as I’d hit the plains back in Colorado was now festering, making each minute seem like an hour. I kept looking at the clock, finding it hard to believe that only ten minutes had passed since I had last checked. A sign alerted me to an approaching a “Scenic View” where I could “stop and rest”.
At last, some small respite of interest. Eagerly I pulled off the road and parked near the picnic benches. I hurried up the path to the viewing point. To the horizon stretched a brown muddy field and a sea of cows. In the foreground was a meat processing plant.
I was tempted to visit Garden City. According to some posters, it had the largest free swimming pool in the world. Not only that, it also had rhinos and elephants and giraffes, although it wasn’t specified whether they were in the pool or elsewhere.
If only I had had the time, but sadly it was three in the afternoon and I had between four and five hours on the road still to go. As I drew near to the city spur, the smell of poop went off the top of the scale and my mind was finally made up.
To compensate for the absence of anything closely related to scenery, the promise of further superlatives continued to entertain. Somewhere out there in this agrarian tundra could be found the World’s Largest Hand Dug Well. What will they think of next?
I tried to keep myself amused by smoking more cigarettes, but decided that too much nasal danger was to be had even opening the car window an inch. I was also somewhat wary of holding a lit object in such a methane rich atmosphere. It was easy to speculate as to why the paint was peeling off the buildings in Cimarron.
Dodge City proved to be like any modern American city and nothing like the name conjured up. Opposite a huge McDonald’s was the Historic Front Street, home to the Boot Hill Museum. An old western town had been recreated at the site and was very reminiscent of Tombstone AZ, only more sanitized.
I was aware that the Earp brothers had come from Dodge City but it seemed strange to commemorate a cemetery from another state that was situated almost a thousand miles away. Inside were plenty of souvenirs and I was spoilt for choice.
I also picked up a postcard with the legend “Kansas Tornado” on it and a photograph of the same. Even allowing for the probability that tornadoes were the most interesting thing to happen in Kansas, it still seemed slightly bizarre. I found myself wondering whether you could get San Francisco Earthquake postcards, or how long it would be before someone brought out one from New York showing the Twin Towers collapsing.
The road all the way from Dodge City to Hutchinson was marked on my map as a scenic route, which just went to show that everything was relative. For a state that considered a field of cows an attraction then I guess it might have been, but the most engaging thing I found was that the telegraph poles either side of the highway weren’t the same height.
Towns in this part of Kansas seemed to amount to little more than a huge grain silo, a gas station and an agricultural supplies store. There was the occasional post office or hotel or saloon, but very little else. They certainly weren’t residential hubs in any significant sense of the word. Given the strictly utilitarian nature of these settlements, perhaps somebody might have thought of erecting a big air freshener in each of them, and done us all a favor.
The road from Hutchinson brought me in past Hedrick’s B&B. A field of ostriches next to a field of camels suggested that I’d arrived.
It was unusual to say the least. At the end of the drive was a big house and next to it the B&B, which had been made to look like the frontage to a Wild West street. It showed a bank, a livery stable and a firehouse. All sorts of animals were mixed in with one another in the same pens, but they were settling down for the night. My headlights caught some zebras and giraffes as I parked, and a couple of cats ran out to greet me.
Inside was another warm welcome. There was a pool table and lounge area where coffee and cold drinks were available 24-hours a day. I was staying in the camel room, which was decked out thematically as all the rooms were. This one looked like something out of Cleopatra’s barge. Everything was deep reds and greens and laced with gold brocade. A door led out onto the communal balcony. I was given a key but I wasn’t sure why. Neither of the doors had locks.
I went into town to find something proper to eat. The woman at Hedrick’s had recommended going to the Sunshine Café. Nickerson had one junction and two streets and it soon became clear that I didn’t need a recommendation. The Sunshine Café was the only option in town. It was empty and they were doing that cashing up and sweeping the floor thing that suggested they were about to close.
The waitress looked about fourteen and was very timid. After I’d finished eating, she came up and asked apologetically whether I was from Nickerson. When I said I wasn’t, she looked almost relieved. My accent had clearly been bothering her.
I explained where I was from and what I was doing. When I mentioned that I’d been staying near Colorado Springs the night before, her eyes lit up and she said that she used to live there. She had only moved to Nickerson the previous week to look after her mother, who was ailing. She worked at Hedrick’s during the day and the café in the evenings. It seemed like a tough life for a girl that young to be away from her friends and supporting a sick mother by doing two jobs that probably paid her pennies between them.
Back at Hedrick’s I took my beer and cigarettes on to the balcony and soaked in the atmosphere. Every few moments another strange noise would come from an animal in some quarter. Against the lights from the street, I could see the silhouettes of the ostriches standing stock-still and occasionally swivelling their heads.
Down in the yard, the fatter of the cats chased a mouse and caught it. It was the most relaxing place that I’d spent the night so far. Everything about it was delicious. It didn’t even smell that much of manure.