Where dreams and reality meet . . .

I must confess that the 1962 red Corvette convertible I once owned spawned dreams of taking the ultimate Route 66 road trip. The car didn’t come into my life until years after the TV show ended, but both were classics. And, as they say, old dreams die hard. Sadly, that car and I shared memorable times on other highways and byways, but the cruise along Route 66 never happened. The Corvette was a part of my automotive “stable” for about 15 years, and I fondly remember that first sports car.

I later learned, to my disappointment, that the car used in the television show wasn’t even red. Even so, it was easy to fall into the rhythm and excitement of traveling along the Mother Road, on a press trip in September with fellow travel journalists.

Route 66 was just about 2,450 miles long. It began in Chicago and meandered through eight states on its way to Los Angeles. Only 13 miles were in Kansas, but much of the original Kansas highway remains. What was America’s “first superhighway” opened in 1926 between Illinois and California, and it became a primary “escape route” for those who fled middle America during the Dust Bowl days. It was, at the same time, a symbol of opportunity and the sign of a country that changed rapidly following the war years.

The Way It Was

One can still drive across the last surviving Marsh Bridge over Brush Creek, one of three concrete and steel rainbow bridges that once traversed Kansas creeks along Route 66. The bridge now is on a loop road off the thoroughfare, and it’s a favorite destination for photos, picnics, and an occasional wedding. The Route was officially “decommissioned” only in 1985, and it is no longer the highway of choice for modern travelers, other than those who are seduced by its history and its television fame.

Kansas, at least this portion of it, hasn’t changed much visibly over the past several decades, but its people have. Modern highways move vehicles and people faster and more efficiently, but traveling the short stretch of Route 66 is definitely more fun! It’s clear that this section of the historic highway still does what it was designed to do — it “connects the main streets of rural and urban America.” The best part? There are ample opportunities to pull off the road and explore Kansas communities!

Nostalgic reminders of a very different past are evident along the way. History comes alive when the Route 66 signs appear.

Nelson’s Old Riverton Store has been in continuous operation since 1925. Today, it looks much as it did then, and operates similarly, welcoming locals and tourists alike. It’s worth a visit – try a beet-juice pickled egg or purchase kitchy Route 66 magnets, ball caps, license plates and t-shirts. Why? Just because!

Locals still come to buy a loaf of bread or a can of beans, grab a soda and a sandwich, or just while away the time with friends. It’s that kind of place. It appears to be decades ago that any repairs were made to the building. Wildflowers grow up along the fence line and hanging baskets add color to the scene. Shopkeepers are welcoming and only too willing to share stories with visitors. It’s like stepping back in time.

It’s impossible to escape the influence of the Route in this part of Kansas.

Cars on the Route

Fans of Disney’s “Cars” are in for a treat at Cars on the Route in Galena. Visit the old Kan-O-Tex station and get up close to the rusty boom truck that was the inspiration for Tow Mater in the movie.

Walk down a dusty stretch of road and around a corner to enjoy a sack lunch at rustic picnic tables in the shade of a ramshackle lean-to. Snap some shots of the quirky old photo boards before moving on.

Other attractions in Galena include outdoor art and murals, a Texaco station turned curio shop on Main Street, complete with pumps set to recall the low gas prices of the time. There’s also a rusty old “jail” near the city’s square that provides an irresistible photo op!

We broke for lunch at Bricks & Brews in Baxter Springs, and what a treat that was, with a menu to satisfy any palate and attentive service accompanied by big smiles. We also stopped for an all-too-brief visit at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum. We had only limited time to spend, but it is a treasure trove of information about the town, the history of Cherokee County and southeast Kansas, the Civil War, and Route 66.

Nature and More

We pushed on to the Southeast Kansas Nature Center/Schermerhorn Park, near Galena. Admission is free, and the hilltop site acts like a magnet for anyone interested in visiting the 32-acre Shoal Creek Wildlife Area. There are wooded hills, streams, and caves to explore; dedicated anglers can even drop lines along a ¼-mile stretch of the creek. Indoor exhibits include live snakes, exploration drawers, plant, animal, and history exhibits, educational films, and the attention of a knowledgeable curator/guide. A bonus was a squirrel that visited the feeding station just outside the one-way glass!     

Add in a visit to Big Brutus, standing tall and proud at an old coal mining site on the Kansas prairie, and we were ready to sample Kansas comfort food — fried chicken with all the fixins at not one, but two, local restaurants with long histories in Pittsburg, Kansas.

I’ll fill you in on the food — and there was lots of it — next time. Our group sampled both downhome dishes — some with a new twist — and culinary delights for sophisticated palates.

Planning a road trip to this part of Kansas from the neighboring states of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, or from farther afield, is easy. It seems appropriate to leave the Interstates behind and enjoy the miles of farmland punctuated by picture-postcard views of old barns, fields filled with growing crops that stretch towards the sun, and animals lazily passing the time doing what farm animals do. The route stretches on with gentle curves; small towns are not far apart and each promises a unique and unusual experience.

Be sure to request your Kansas map and state travel guides in advance of a road trip to Kansas. Knowing where you’re going and what there is to see makes a driving trip so much better!

Full Disclosure: This trip was sponsored by Kansas Tourism, and the itinerary was prearranged. But the impressions are mine alone. I want to return, and it’s an easy road trip from my home base in Arkansas. I’ll be writing more about Kansas as well as about other travel to new destinations abroad in 2023. Subscribe to my blog here, or follow me on Facebook and Instagram.

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