“It feels good to not set an alarm,” I told Samantha Friday night. She smiled a knowing smile and said, “Doesn’t matter. You have road trip brain; you’re gonna get up early anyway.” She was right. Since I was planning a day trip through Kansas on Saturday, I woke without aid before 7:00 AM. By 7:30 I was gassed up, cup of coffee in hand, & headed north on Highway 75.
Though I hadn’t driven 75 north past the Oklahoma border much in the last ten years or so, that highway holds a lot of memories for me. I lived in Topeka Kansas in 1999-2001 and drove back to Tulsa frequently to visit friends. Since my family stayed in Topeka for a time after I moved back to Oklahoma, I continued to drive up there to visit them through at least 2005. Forgotten memories came to the surface as I turned miles: places where my ’88 Merkur Scorpio broke down, the spot in New Strawn where I ran out of gas in the middle of the night with my first girlfriend, stretches of road where I frantically passed lines of cars in a race north to convince my father he had a lot to live for. In all those years, I never ventured off the highway to explore; this time, I weaved through a few small towns and was delighted at what I found. I’ve changed a lot since those days of destination driving.
North of Burlington, I turned off of Highway 75 and headed west. I took gravel roads through the Flint Hills Wildlife Refuge to my first stop, a marsh arch bridge over the Neosho River. I’d never seen one of these bridges so covered in graffiti. Most of it was tied to graduating students, undoubtedly from the nearby town of Hartford. The oldest tag I could find was from 1980; spray-painting the old bridge has been a Write of Passage for some time.
Not far away, my second destination was one I was really looking forward to. The bridge that spans the same river in Neosho Rapids is a rare cantilever design, meaning the bridge is anchored only on the ends; support comes from continuous structural steel construction. The bridges often have a differentiating shape, too; as you can see in the photo, it definitely looks different than the normal truss bridges I post. It’s the last of its kind in the Sunflower State. I waved at the occasional pickup truck that passed while I buzzed around. In the distance, a train horn sounded.
Once I was finished, I continued northwest. When I merged onto I-35 N, I was surprised to find myself sandwiched between no less than a dozen RVs. License plates were from all over the place: Florida, California, Louisiana, Texas. When I saw a KDOT billboard, I realized why. Eclipse Traffic! Nebraska was in the totality zone for the solar eclipse, just two days away. All these folks were motoring north to camp out for it. Traffic was heavier than normal all the way to Salina, where I exited. Good luck to them! I’d hate to travel that far to be thwarted by overcast skies.
Salina KS is home to the Cozy Inn, which has been serving hamburgers for nearly a century. The owner was inspired by the brand-new White Castle and started serving his own slider-style burgers in 1922. They still have a walk-up window and lots of outdoor seating, but I went inside and sat at the end of the counter. I took the last of six stools. The owner greeted me warmly and asked, “First time?” I said yes, which promted him to give me the run down:
Burgers are slider-style and served with onions cooked-in; no exceptions. No cheese, so don’t ask. They come with pickle, which can be left off. Ketchup and Mustard on the counter. People normally eat four to six. You can order a batch to go or just order them a few at a time until you cry uncle and we’ll settle up. Chips are over there, soda is also available. Now, how many do ya want?
I ordered a Pepsi & pair of burgers, which were served to me within a minute. They were, indeed, small but super tasty; I can see why they’ve been rated as one of the best burgers in Kansas. I ended up eating four total, though I could’ve eaten more. While I sat and enjoyed my lunch, folks came up to the walk-up window and they also took a few phone-in orders. Most of the call-ins were for huge numbers, I’m talking 36 burgers in a single order. When you factor in the small size, though, that makes sense for a family. Heck, my brother would probably eat a dozen all on his own. I thanked them for an excellent meal and set out to explore a bit more of the town.
The temperature had settled somewhere in the mid-nineties; the sunshine beat down on me as I walked, but I could see a few clouds forming on the horizon. Those would come into play as I headed back south, which I’ll talk about in my next post…