What do the Wizard of Oz, Oregon Trail, and the Garden of Eden have in common? Kansas.
Before leaving St. Louis I planned out the next few days through Kansas. Just about everyone I talked to who had taken a road trip west mentioned that Kansas was an endless stretch of fields, sunflowers, and tumbleweeds. I was determined to make it worthwhile.
My first stop on the list: The Wizard of Oz Museum in Wamego. On the six hour drive to get there, I was dreaming up delicious food and an exotic Las Vegas sized museum. Finding a supermarket with bottled smoothies and fresh bread wasn’t the Whole Foods of St. Louis, but it was much better than highway-side food. As I turned down the street toward the Wizard of Oz Museum and didn’t see any major buildings or signs I started to wonder whether or not it was really there. After following my GPS to several abandoned or non-existent restaurants the past few days, I was cautious about taking its lead.
The modest sized museum was there after all and I pulled into a parking space right out front. I did not miss the presence of parking fees and meters that defined the other major cities of my road trip. If you make a visit to the museum, look down before going inside and you’ll see two sidewalk blocks with the hand and foot prints of several munchkins from the movie.
Admission to the museum is $8 for adults, but a dollar discount is offered to a wide range of patrons from AAA members to the military. The entrance is a gift shop with Wizard of the Oz toys and gifts. The exhibit is a series of rooms filled with display cases containing letters, toys, clothing, photographs, and other artifacts. You’ll also meet life-sized characters from the movie including Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Glinda, and of course Dorothy. You can pose for a picture inside a hot-air balloon basket just before the exit.
I visited the museum on a Sunday afternoon and found it sparsely populated which allowed for slow viewing and studying of each object and article. Had I known that the museum also contained a movie theater that shows The Wizard of Oz I would have planned to arrive earlier to see the classic film on a big screen.
Wamego is also home to Oregon Trail Road and several cemeteries for early settlers who didn’t survive the wagon ride out west. The road itself doesn’t seem to have been renovated much since the 1800s as it is covered in dirt and rocks. The fields that stretch in every direction make for a nice view on a sunny summer day.
If you’re staying the night in Wamego, I highly recommend the Simmer Motel. I felt like I was walking into a studio apartment when I saw the decorated bed, couch with neatly arranged throw, corner desk, microwave, mini-refrigerator, and coffee pot. The room pictured above was just $47 a night, but for a few extra dollars you can get larger rooms like the honeymoon suite that offers a jacuzzi. An outdoor pool and play area is also available to all guests.
The night before leaving Wamego, I searched online for other places to visit in Kansas. I read about the Garden of Eden, but decided it wasn’t right for me. About two hundred miles of driving later, the highway signs looked too inviting to pass by. Even though it took me 16 miles off the highway, it was well worth the visit. Another bonus: the 16 miles were on a scenic byway with beautiful views of Wilson Lake, which felt a lot like seeing the ocean for the first time after the miles and miles of farmland.
The Garden of Eden is a home and sculpture gallery built by S.P. Dinsmoor, an eccentric Civil War veteran. The house is made of limestone, the sculptures of cement. Dinsmoor’s intent when building this house was for it to someday become a tourist attraction. With that in mind, he crafted each door and window to be a different size, filled the yard with his overtly political and religious sculptures, and made the porch framework by making cement casts of beer bottles during prohibition. His house was also the first in the area to have running water, electricity, and plumbing. It became a local attraction from the outset and although it functioned as an apartment building for about 20 years, it has since been restored to a historical home and now offers daily tours. There are nine tour guides who work at The Garden of Eden, and two of them are distantly related to Dinsmoor. I was lucky enough to have one of them as my guide.
One of the main draws of the property today is not he sculptures or the unique structure of the home, but the cement mausoleum in the back yard. After Dinsmoor’s first wife passed away, he wanted to bury her body behind the house, but the town refused to allow it and forced her burial in the local cemetery. After the funeral, Dinsmoor and his friends returned to the cemetery, dug up her body, and moved it to his backyard where he encased her coffin in cement inside the mausoleum so that it could not be removed. Her body, or bones rather, still reside there today.
After his wife’s death, Dinsmoor, then in his 80s, was remarried to his 20 year old housekeeper with whom he had two children one of which later became a decorated Korea and Vietnam War veteran. His son was the only Vietnam veteran whose father had served in the Civil War one hundred years earlier. Still not convinced of Dinsmoor’s eccentricity? Upon his death, Dinsmoor requested that his body be mummified and laid to rest on top of his wife’s cement coffin. His own coffin consists of a glass top to allow for viewing of his torso and face that still bears his characteristic long white beard. Though pictures are not allowed, the tour guide will be happy to shine a flashlight over the coffin so you don’t miss a detail.
Even if you don’t take the tour (although you really should) you’ll be able to see some of the sculptures from the street, including the one pictured above. Many of Dinsmoore’s sculptures are overtly political and show his hatred for capitalism. Though the one above was unfinished, the message was heard loud and clear by the town who argued with him to remove it. The statue depicts some of the forces and people that Dinsmoore, a worker, felt oppressed by.
Lucas, Kansas is also the capital of grassroots arts– arts created by people with no formal training, Dinsmoor falls into this category. The Grassroots Arts Museum is just a few blocks from The Garden of Eden and also offers tours.
Scott City was my final destination in Kansas and although I’d planned on arriving quickly so that I’d have time for a hike in Lake Scott State Park, when I set out on the road from Wamego this morning, something told me to take my time with getting there and I’m glad I stopped along the way to see the Garden of Eden and to have a picnic in a highway rest area. I checked into a motel first before I went exploring and was off-put by the black flies swarming everywhere. Fortunately, the motel owner was nice enough to provide me with a fly swatter for the night at no additional charge. It was a far cry from the cozy room in Wamego.
When I got to Lake Scott State Park I thought it odd that the visitor center was already closed and there was a do-it-yourself camping and parking permit station. After filling out the parking pass and depositing the money in the metal box, I set off walking down the road. As soon as I’d reached the inside of the park, I immediately felt like I’d stumbled onto the set for the 1970s version of The HIlls Have Eyes. There were large, uneven rock structures in the distance, gray flowers that looked dead but were actually alive, dozens of vultures circling the sky overhead, and even more ominous black flies like the ones that had been camping out in my motel room. I cautiously started off on the “Nature Trail” but soon veered off because I was wearing shorts and worried about tics in the over-hanging grass and if the hills really did have eyes I didn’t want to be alone on a path somewhere in the shrubs.
I continued walking down the road for about an hour, hoping that I’d see something worthwhile or remember why it was I planned to visit this park in the first place. About fifteen minutes in, I saw a placard in the distance and ventured over. Before me stood the ruins of a Native American Pueblo. The grounds to the park had once been a settlement called El Cuartelejo, built by the Taos Indians.
Though Scott Lake did offer pretty views and I did see many people heading into the campground for the night, something about the place just didn’t sit right with me and I made sure to leave long before the sun began to set.
Kansas Short and Simple
Although Kansas is an endless stretch of flat farm land, there’s something beautiful about the simplicity of the green fields touching the blue sky in every direction. There are plenty of quirky places to visit along the way too, you just have to venture off the highway to find them. Be on the lookout for small brown historical signs if you’re driving through. They come and go quick with the 75 mile an hour speed limit, but if you’re lucky enough to follow them you might begin to understand Dorothy’s famous line from The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”