The so-called Mid-Continent Road Trip rolled through July 4th – America’s Independence Day.
It should be a day of celebration, regardless of your political theories. However, something felt strange on this national holiday. Let’s face it, we’re a divided nation standing on both of sides of a chasm as big as the Grand Canyon. One side of the proverbial canyon felt like celebrating. The other was still upset over the powder keg that blew last month on the streets of Minneapolis and around the world.
The trip continued with caution. Reminders that we’re still in a global health crisis, as cases were on the rise again and mandates over mask use were matching that rise.
Still, I got behind the wheel of the rented 2020 Toyota Camry SE – produced in Georgetown, Kentucky – and headed deeper towards the center of the continent.
LEG 3: OMAHA TO KANSAS CITY
I left Omaha just before 7:00 AM and skipped across the Missouri River back into Iowa for breakfast and to catch up on some work on my laptop. My main driving duties would be to conquer a new leg of Interstate 29 along the mighty Missouri into Kansas City – my weekend stop.
Southwestern Iowa surprised me as the entire western part of the state did. While Interstate 29 was flat, there were some lush rolling hills full of tress to the east of the highway.
That landscape continued all of the way into Kansas City. I was hugely surprised by this, especially in the area where I was staying – the Westport neighborhood. Still, I started really liking Kansas City and the charms it already offered.
On the fourth of July, I was also surprised at what was open. Sadly, the Visit KC Welcome Center was closed – set to open again on July 9. Everything else were partially or fully open for business.
My first actual stop was Union Station, an icon of a building that serves as Amtrak’s stop for Kansas City, as well as host to two museums. It was as I expected – a period piece when trains ran this country with all of the charms of those years that are still alive today.
Across the street was the monolithic National World War I Museum and Monument. It would provide a perfect promontory for a skyline view of downtown Kansas City. It felt appropriate to visit this location on a major national holiday.
Downtown Kansas City was unique with a quasi-San Francisco vibe. A cluster of districts tied into one location creating a perfect intersection of classic and modern in harmony with itself. The rest of the city followed this pattern with distinct neighborhoods that tie together with specific points of interest that denote each location.
One surprise came as I stopped at Country Club Plaza. It was a classic shopping district with its roots in the 1920s. There were plenty of shops open on this national holiday Saturday. There was one shop that I hoped would have a Bret Saberhagen t-shirt (the hero of the 1985 World Series for the Kansas City Royals who was the high school baseball stud of the Los Angeles Section of the California Interscholastic Federation when I went to high school. In fact, Saberhagen played for and attended a rival high school of mine). No avail. I ended up with a George Brett throwback t-shirt. Hey, he’s from Southern California.
In a similar vein, I took a drive out to the Truman Sports Complex to see both Arrowhead Stadium and Kaufmann Stadium. For those unfamiliar with these two sports venues, they are the homes of the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs and the baseball Royals, respectively.
My hotel for the next two nights was located in the heart of another classic neighborhood – Westport. The AC Hotel was suitable and quite stylish. It served as a base camp for me through the weekend.
Westport itself was known as a center for Kansas City’s LGBT community. I saw a few places flying the rainbow flag – some bars and retail places on Westport Road, Broadway, and Main Street. I also noticed that it was a crossroads for the city’s diverse communities. I hate to use another California analogy, but Westport set off some vibes that reminded me of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood, and West Hollywood.
That evening, fireworks were going off across the city. Kansas City’s official fireworks was held at the World War I Monument. The park surrounding it had a lot of grassy area for the city’s residents to enjoy the light show above. Me? I chilled out at my room. I figured the is the best I can do to avoid challenges to social distancing recommendations here.
The day after the 4th of July came an interesting twist to my second day in Kansas City. I attempted to walk to try to find breakfast. I was looking lost as I went the opposite direction from Broadway. Some crazy person looked at me and ask if I needed help. Then she said something crazy. I said, “no thanks” and walked east on Westport Road. Then, she barraged me with some crazy talk that only tells me that she’s off behaviorally. Luckily, I had a block distance from her.
Rarely do I feel unsafe. I felt unsafe at that moment. I quick walk around the block took me back to my hotel to grab my keys to the Camry for a drive to clear my head.
A couple of hours later, I found myself at one of two stops I wanted to make that day. Raygun was a discovery I made in Cedar Rapids last year. It is the only retail establishment that I would be guaranteed a huge laugh out of their wares. I really wanted one of a few t-shirts they had, but, alas, they did not stock my size. I bought a couple of stickers instead. Not a total loss, however.
My second stop was the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine neighborhood. However, I found another new gem in Kansas City for lunch. The Mission Taco Joint offers an extremely creative menu of tacos, burritos and other Mexican-inspired dishes. That, along with the best service I had this entire road trip until this point. It is worth a try, when you are in Kansas City.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum turned out to be a highly emotional visit. This was a history that almost was lost. Thanks to the great Buck O’Neil, this museum offers a deep education and appreciation of a chapter in professional baseball history that needs to be listened to and taken in. Today, the museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League by Rube Walker.
Why was it an emotional visit? This was a history I have known for decades, thanks to O’Neil, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson. If you’re deep into baseball, you should know the latter two names. Paige was an ageless master on the mound and one of the first black superstar pitchers that made it into the Major Leagues.
Robinson needs no introduction. You should know what he stood for – the first baseball player to break the "color line" and one of the best ballplayers of the Post-World War II era.
However, I fear that we have a generation who will forget there was a separate professional league of baseball for black athletes. They will forget the names of Paige, O’Neil, Josh Gibson, and so forth. They will forget that stars, such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Don Newcombe, got their start in this separate universe of baseball. As a longtime baseball fan (and former baseball blogger), I implore you to study this part of baseball history and never forget this era of the game.
After a break, I decided to head for dinner on Broadway. I took an Uber, so I can leave the Camry at the hotel. A short ride took me to Hamburger Mary’s – a familiar name in LGBT-dom. I have been to a few of these places, and each of them are different from each other. This one served bar food – the best way I can describe it.
It’s too bad, because Hamburger Mary’s is a great LGBT brand. The place just felt like any old LGBT bar I’ve known for 30 years.
A block down was Woody’s, which was supposed to be the “bear bar” in Kansas City. They had the rainbow steps in the patio, which was a cool site. After a cup of pop (soda, as we Minnesotans call it), I was done with the LGBT scene in Kansas City.
My short stint on Broadway served as a reminder on how much I have not been out in the scene in years as much as I used to be some years ago.
One final Sunday drive in Kansas City took me over on the other side of the state line. The are some really lovely neighborhoods south and west of Country Club Plaza. Admiring these lovely mansions and homes, the greenery and the trees remind me how much this city and this area reminds of other places I have roamed. Meanwhile, there is a certain flavor that gives these neighborhoods a uniqueness that makes Kansas City what it is.
My time in Kansas City came to a close. Two days in the crossroads of the nation. Not 12 hours. Not an hour in an airport. Two days in this city. My mission was accomplished.
Not exactly. There is now a bonus destination to accomplish.
Would it be fair to call Wichita, Kansas a “bonus destination?”
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle was rented by Victory & Reseda, along with all travel expenses paid by this publication.
All photos by Randy Stern