So we were back on the road again. When you’re headed east from Denver, the plains of Colorado and Kansas look pretty much the same until you get close to Kansas City…and then there are some trees. And then you cross Missouri.
OK, just kidding! Actually, the reason we were driving across Kansas in the first place was because I wanted to have something eventful to look forward to along the way home. There was a real temptation to take I-80 back through two states I’d never seen before, Nebraska and Iowa, but the lure of Kansas City barbecue and the Gateway Arch along I-70 thwarted it. Besides that, I didn’t know of anything pressing I wanted to see except for maybe Chimney Rock along the Oregon Trail.
So after having such a great time and a short time together with my Denver family last night, we all decided we’d get up super duper early to have a last hurrah this morning before Becky and I hit the road. So we woke up at about 5:30am to pack up our car for our two-day voyage home. This went quite easily, as we had no tent to pack up. Kelli was so kind as to supply us with ice from her freezer, so our cooler was even stocked well enough to make it through most of the day.
We all met up at a regional chain breakfast restaurant called Snooze, right off of I-25 on Lincoln Avenue. The food was very good. I had the French toast and fruit, which was well-prepared and came with real maple syrup. The fruit was also fresh and tasty, and obviously not from a frozen bag. Even though we were in a shopping center in a sea of parking lot, the patio was comfortable and far enough from the cars. It was a perfect place to relax one last time with the family before heading out.
All but a few from last night sacrificed their chance to sleep in today to see us off, and I sure appreciated it! Even though it had been several years since we’d spent time together, it felt just like I’d expect family to feel. I’d seen my Aunt Pat in the last couple of years, but I hadn’t seen my cousins Cathy, Kelli, and D.J. much since 2012, when they came in for our grandma’s funeral in my hometown of Wellington, Ohio. And until yesterday, it had been 15 years since I’d seen any of Cathy’s girls. I sure hope it won’t be another 15 years before I see them again!
After breakfast, we stood in the parking lot for several more minutes…finishing our conversations, saying our thank-yous, we’ll-miss-yous, and our last good-byes. They all talked of making plans to come to Ohio since it’s been several years…I hope they make it soon!
On The Road Again
After all the hugs, we drove north up I-25 while I checked prices on GasBuddy. The best price, coincidentally, was at the Sam’s Club off of I-225 and Mississippi Avenue, near where my Aunt Pat lived when I last visited 29 years ago in 1986!
Getting out of the Denver area went smoothly, but as I mentioned, there isn’t much to see along the road across Eastern Colorado and most of Kansas. While it isn’t exactly a void, this part of the country is sparsely populated. The view along I-70 isn’t really too much different from I-90 across South Dakota, except with flatter terrain and fewer trees. Something that’s cool about Eastern Colorado though, is that you can see the glorious Rocky Mountains on the western horizon. You can even single out Pikes Peak from well over 100 miles away. Since I-70 runs southeast for a few dozen miles, it’s fairly easy to look west and enjoy the view when you’re not driving. The highway also parallels a railroad line, with a few opportunities to look out to see entire trains as they cross the plains.
My cousins scoffed at how terribly boring and long it is to drive across Kansas, and I have to admit my childhood memories of it are mostly just heat, humidity, and boredom. I talked to my mom a little bit one day while we were at Kelli’s, and expressed that I wasn’t longing for this part of the trip. Interestingly, she had a much more positive spin on Kansas. She liked the rolling grassland and fields, and enjoyed seeing the windmills and water troughs used to water the cattle. So I did my best to keep an open mind about Kansas.
Anyway… I would like to give Kansas props for completely confounding my freeway travel style with a modern convenience. We had gone far enough that it was time to refuel. I’d found a station with cheap gas, and planned to use it for a restroom stop as well. Unexpectedly, however, this gas station had no attendant on duty this fine Saturday, and therefore no restrooms available! This place had gone totally automated with pay-at-the-pump, and was in too populated an area for me to use any of the little boys trees without risk of consequences. Thankfully, a rest area was not far down the road, which gave me much-needed relief.
After driving most of the day, we were finally approaching the part of Kansas where civilization begins to appear more frequently—the capital city of Topeka. Several miles before you reach the city, signs mark this part of I-70 as the first eight miles built of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The Interstate System was a big deal here in Kansas, not because of their desperate need for traffic congestion relief, but because the man who conceived of them, President Eisenhower, was himself from Kansas. It took decades to build, facilitated urban sprawl, and created deep scars on many American cities, but it sure does make it easy and fast to cross the country.
Now Topeka wasn’t a very large city, but compared to everything we’d seen since Denver, it was huge. Past the east side of town, I-70 becomes part of the Kansas Turnpike, which connects the capital to the state’s other large population centers, Wichita and Kansas City. It was as easy to use as any toll roads back East, with tickets and transponders. Unfortunately, their transponder system is not compatible with our E-ZPass, so we had to use tickets and cash. Thankfully, the toll section ends well outside the Kansas City area, so traffic at toll gates was never a problem.
Kansas City Barbecue
Approaching Kansas City also meant that we were approaching dinner! I had seen a documentary recently about the different styles of barbecue around the country, and it identified three main types. North Carolina barbecue was almost always pork, and its hallmark is the spicy sauce with a vinegar base. Texas barbecue was always beef, but until extremely recently has never included any type of sauce at all, because the meat was always plenty juicy and tasty by itself. Kansas City barbecue was made with whatever meat was available, beef or pork, and it used all sorts of smoky sauces ranging from sweet and mild to more spicy. I was fairly certain that most barbecue I’d been exposed to was of the North Carolina-style, as many who migrated to work in the factories of Northeast Ohio during the 20th Century came from down South. I’m sure I’d been exposed to Kansas City-style barbecue a few times before, at restaurants and rib cookoffs, but I looked forward to trying the real deal.
Of All the Barbecue Joints, Which One Do We Walk Into?
Before and during our trip, I’d been asking people for recommendations on where to find the best barbecue in Kansas City. I went through a lot of people who said it was awesome here, but nobody with a specific recommendation or a strong opinion on any specific place. Then I was told my cousin Kelli’s husband, Jamie, spends a lot of time in Kansas City for work…he would know. Jamie told me about the time his boss took him to a gas station for lunch, where the food was incredible and the line went out the door—a gas station!
We got off of I-70 just as the Kansas City skyline came into view on the top of a hill in the distance. Now it’s important to know there are actually two Kansas Cities: the big one in Missouri, and the smaller one in Kansas. The barbecue joint we were heading for was in the smaller one on the Kansas side. I looked into it, and while Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas are directly adjacent to each other on the state line, they were founded as separate cities rather than originally being one city that was split later by a state line. I have no idea how that affects the authenticity of the local barbecue, but honestly I didn’t care anyway because I already knew it would be good, and I was HUNGRY!
Not far off the freeway we arrived at a corner in a mostly residential area that had a green-roofed building with gas pumps on the side—Joe’s Kansas City. We turned in and it looked like just a plain old gas station. Becky drove around to the other side of the gas pumps and then we saw the other side of the building with a sign that actually said “Bar-B-Que” and a line reaching almost to the end of the building. This was the place! Seeing as this was a residential area and not a tourist trap or even a very commercial area, I knew that most of the line had to be locals. Seeing as it was already late into dinnertime after 7pm, I knew that the food must be outstanding to attract a line this long!
We waited in line for close to an hour, but thankfully the temperature had cooled down, and people in line were very friendly. For a good portion of our trip across the state, the temperature was pegged at a very toasty 102°F, but by now it had dropped below 90°. A gentleman from Central Kansas in line ahead of us was here for the first time with his sons, who live in the area now. He drove a truck just like my dad does, and spent a number of years as an Army recruiter as well. All of the locals we’ve met on this trip out West, from the farmers to the hoteliers and restaurateurs, have been exceptionally friendly and genuine…it makes me wonder how “Western Hospitality” isn’t a thing people talk about! Unlike some very touristy places (especially cities in the Northeast), everyone we met was very patient and courteous toward people from out of town.
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que was no exception to this. While they served a lot of customers a lot of food very quickly, the employees were all very patient and helpful with us first-timers. I ordered the Cowboy Platter, which our new friends in line recommended. It’s a sampler of almost everything they have except for the pulled pork, which Becky ordered…so we were covered. So I had three ribs, smoked brisket, and sausage, plus a slice of Texas toast and two sides. I was told to try the fries, and I just had to try the baked beans.
Every. Single. Thing. Was. Delicious! And how! I finished off the ribs and worked on the fries after tasting everything else. I wasn’t really interested in the sausage at first—and then I tasted it—and had to stop myself from eating all of it and getting overstuffed. The ribs were awesome, and the brisket was incredible! The fries were definitely good, and the baked beans were way beyond good. I definitely boxed my leftovers and stowed them in the cooler for a midnight snack or lunch tomorrow!
Searching for a Motel in Missouri
We moved on from Joe’s, and Becky drove us back toward I-70 on I-35, which passes right through Downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The sun had gone down and the city lights had come up by now. Kansas City seemed like a vibrant place, enjoying the same urban resurgence enjoyed in many American cities over the past decade. I am definitely interested in returning to stop and smell the roses here.
But for now we had to press on. It was a full four-hour drive to cross Missouri, and only eight hours to get home from St. Louis. My goal was to find a motel somewhere in the center of the state, far enough away from the larger and more expensive urban centers on the state lines, yet populated enough to have a few cheap motel options. From looking at the map, Columbia seemed like a good place to start looking. I decided to rule out camping since it was already pretty late, and storms were predicted overnight.
When we got within 30 minutes or so of Columbia, I started making calls. Google Maps showed a few motels with rates in the neighborhood of $40, but every single one I called in or near Columbia was totally booked. A few brands that are normally pretty cheap were coming up in the $70-80 range! Totally flummoxed, I finally asked a clerk at one of the motels why all the rates were almost double.
She explained that the Show-Me Games were being held in Columbia this weekend (remember that Missouri is “The Show-Me State”). People were coming in from all over the state to compete or see the events. This was bad news for us, but it did save me a lot of time hunting around. Thankfully we weren’t too tired to drive a bit longer!
As I knew next to nothing about the St. Louis area except that crime in some areas is said to be worse than I’d like to deal with, I looked just west along I-70. I finally found a pair of super-cheap mom & pop motels about an hour or so past Columbia near High Hill. They were far enough from the Show-Me Gamers that both had vacancy. I didn’t bother with a reservation so as to avoid a repeat of our experience in Craig, Colorado. If they filled up, we’d take our chances further east or just sleep in the car.
We finally pulled off of I-70 around 10:30pm and drove down the frontage road to the Colonial Inn. Its online reviews were generally positive, and they only wanted $39 for the night. I always check reviews because even cheap motels can be clean and well-kept…while some can be seedy dumps.
I went into the office to check in. A thin man with an accent, maybe from Eastern Europe, stood behind a window. He gave me a form to fill out and asked for my ID. Maybe my memory is really bad, but the form felt more like I was applying for credit than just staying in a motel…I didn’t recall providing this much information at other places we’d stayed.
After he processed my credit card, I felt like I might have just committed to my doom. I certainly didn’t expect a spa-like atmosphere—all I wanted was a clean room with a clean toilet, clean sheets, and passable air conditioning like I’d read about online. I don’t know what it was, but I just got a funny feeling about this place.
We took the car across the small parking lot to our room, and then I pulled out the key (no key cards here!) and opened the door. It was stuffy inside, as the air conditioning had been turned off. It smelled a little funny too. I turned on the A/C to cool things down and hopefully get rid of the smell while I looked around. While they could have used a fresh coat of paint in spots, the room was tidy and the bathroom was clean. However, the floor definitely had a slope towards the door…and that smell…made me wonder if that initial funny feeling I had wasn’t justified.
Either way, flaws or not, Becky and I were too tired to evaluate things any further. We had a bed and the clean bathroom we needed. Becky got a shower and I must have fallen asleep pretty fast, since I don’t even remember her watching a little TV afterward.
Tomorrow we planned an early start so we could head into St. Louis on our way home. I wanted to go downtown and shoot panoramas of the Gateway Arch and the old courthouse with its multi-level rotunda. After St. Louis, we would cross the Mississippi River and no longer be in the West…and we’d be a short 8 hours from home in the East. I sure was going to miss it here!