BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

Kansas, land of roadside curiosities

Kansas, from the driver's seat

A statue depicting a rider of the US Army Cavalry, at the US Cavalry Museum on Ft Riley. (Benjamin Preston)

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," is the traditional quip after driving across the Kansas line into a neighbouring state.

But whereas Dorothy's travels outside of the Sunflower State connected her with strange and wonderful things, a trip within the state’s rectilinear borders can yield the same feeling of discovery, especially for the motorist.

There is no Emerald City to speak of (though Wichita does have its charms). Instead, Kansas’ appeal to the unhurried traveller is in its roadside oddities. Take in the rickety, hand-painted signs hawking wacky wonders to drivers as they hurtle by at a legal 75mph – they are a salve to minds jangled by hours of driving across otherwise featureless terrain.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy examples of the roadside sights available to the intrepid Kansas motorist.

Prairie Dog Town, U.S.A.

What would otherwise be a drab collection of farm buildings amid a tan, dusty landscape becomes a roadside curio with the addition of a sign touting the world's largest prairie dog. Spoiler alert: no one said the prairie dog was alive, or whether it was ever alive. It is instead a huge statue of a prairie dog.

As the great philosopher George W. Bush once said, "...fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can't get fooled again."

The five-legged steer

Perhaps the handlers of this curious beast could teach it to use the pygmy leg protruding from a goiter on one side of its neck to hold a fork. If all that is a bit much for your constitution, Roscoe the Miniature Donkey is also somewhere nearby in this spare section of western Kansas.

The second-friendliest yarn store in the universe

Located in Salina, Yarns Sold and Told purports to be the most complete yarn collection in central Kansas. Overlooking the fact that there is virtually nothing, let alone yarn, in central Kansas, a visitor’s enthusiasm should be tempered. The proprietors are certainly friendly, as the curio’s slogan suggests.

Livestock and wheat made this bustling burg of 47,000 what it is today, but when there is no wheat to thresh and the cows are out to pasture, Salina's yarn shop is a place where locals and visitors can participate in the Central Kansas Yarn Hop. All a participant needs is a $6 Yarn Hop passport booklet, some yarn and a bunch of free time. A knitting circle in full swing just may be the most relaxing way to spend a rest away from the highway.

Rock City

Traveling a few miles north from Salina on Interstate 135 takes the Kansas voyager deeper into the middle of nowhere. Not far from the burgh of Minneapolis – population 2,032 – is Rock City. Basically, this is a collection of geological lumps of a type seen on a much grander and more colourful scale in Utah's red rock country. They may not loom large from the roadway, but approached on foot they are impressive on their own merits.

The Greyhound Hall of Fame

A stone's throw from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, the self-described  “greyhound capital of the world” is dedicated to the history of pointy-nosed racing dogs. The hall's proprietors have two live greyhounds on the premises, both retired racers. The museum's list of human and canine honorees includes the names of such illustrious characters as Flashy Sir, Isadore Hecht and Donald R. Wootten.

The largest Czech egg in the world

Yes, the “largest ball of twine in the world” is also located on Kansas' rich, wheat-growing soil, but there are other superlative spheres. Wilson is home to 800 souls, an expanse of flat, featureless terrain and a massive fibreglass egg. A goodly number of Czech immigrants settled here, as Wilson's inhabitants now consider the town the Czech capital of Kansas. The egg itself is 20ft tall, 15ft wide and took a decade and $18,000 to complete.

The Oz Museum

Financed through a state grant, the Oz Museum includes thousands of artefacts not only from the 1939 MGM film, but also from director Sidney Lumet’s 1978 movie musical, The Wiz, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. And the museum has been known to convene surviving members of the Munchkins for special events.

The US Cavalry Museum

Ft Riley is a massive US Army base that does not, at first glance from the interstate, seem to merit a closer look. But set in the Flint Hills, a never-plowed expanse of rolling hillocks that relieve eyes weary of dryland farms and tumbleweeds, the base contains a gem among its neat rows of 19th century stone houses and barracks.

It is there that you will find the US Cavalry Museum, which documents the Army’s efforts to “pacify” the native peoples who once roamed the prairie. There is a decent collection of original saddles, sabres and other ephemera used by Army riders. George Armstrong Custer, the cavalry commander, lived in one of the houses here before his fateful Last Stand.

The They Also Ran Gallery

Last, though by no means least, is the portrait hall dedicated to the losers of presidential races. The gallery's management recently held a dedication ceremony for Mitt Romney, the losing Republican presidential candidate. Although the former Massachusetts governor was invited to claim this honour in person, he was, we were told, a no-show.