Southeast Kansas (SEK)

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When the Kansas City Chiefs qualified for the NFL playoffs, Delta airlines launched a 2-day sale to Kansas City over Super Bowl weekend. I booked a 1-way flight and redeemed a Spirit airlines credit from a previously cancelled flight to Oakland. Roundtrip, I paid only $67, about ¼ of the usual fare.

On Friday, February 3rd, 2017, I took off from LAX after work and landed around midnight. I had booked a tiny hostel on AirBNB, but got an offer to stay with my cousin last minute, so I took him up on that.

February 4, 2017: SEK

The goal for this trip was to go on a road trip through Kansas on Saturday and then hang around Kansas City to see friends on Sunday.


On Saturday morning, I woke up early and set off around 7:15am. After 90 minutes of driving south, I reached the town of Nevada, Missouri (pronounced Ne-Vay-Dah). I walked around the familiar half-occupied town square that can be seen in hundreds of county seats across the Midwest and South.

Two stores stuck out: the Iguana Azul, which looked like the most popular restaurant in town, and a store selling local t-shirts. My favorite read “There is nothing that Jesus and Coffee can’t get me through.”

After refilling up on the sub-$2 Missouri gas, I headed west for 10 miles across the border to Fort Scott, Kansas. Here, I revisited the Fort Scott National Historic Site that was unexpectedly closed when I went 3 years ago on Martin Luther King Day (a sad 3-hour excursion). This time, it was open, and I was able to get that elusive National Parks Passport stamp.

I also got to learn about the amazing history of the site! Fort Scott was originally a frontier fort to protect travelers coming from the Eastern United States to settle the West. After the Mexican American War when the US annexed Texas and lands west, the fort’s purpose became obsolete and it was sold to private citizens at auction.

The fort then became an important battleground in the Bleeding Kansas fight, a fight over a vote to allow slavery in the new state of Kansas after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Most of the locals who lived in the town of Fort Scott supported slavery, but the rural farmers did not. Kansas ended up becoming a free state, something the state is still very proud of today.

During the Civil War, the Fort became a hospital and supply depot for the Union. After that, it was once again abandoned and owned by various civilians before getting purchased by the National Park Service. Despite the decades of abandonment, the park service has been able to beautifully restore most of the buildings and install period-furniture. The park movie and exhibits were also fantastic.

With stamp in hand, I headed further South to Crawford County, home of the world-famous fried chicken battle between Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s, two fried chicken places that were founded in the 1934 and 1945 respectively are located right next to each other on a rural highway 5 miles out of Pittsburg. Unfortunately, they, along with the 4 other imitators, have the exact same hours, which were 4-9pm on Saturdays. I ended up settling for the bakery that makes the biscuits for all the restaurants, the Frontenac Bakery in the town of Frontenac.

According to the sign, the bakery was opened in 1904. Without an obvious entrance for customers, I walked through the tiny loading dock and knocked on a door asking to buy a loaf of bread. The baker, was surprised to find a customer and was wondering how someone from Missouri (my rental car had Missouri plates) found his bakery. I found this rather odd since the state line was only 10 minutes away- perhaps the rivalry between the two states is still strong. Rather than tell him I’m from California and go into a long story, I told him I was driving up from Joplin to see my grandma in Kansas City and had to get his bread. He was flattered and sold me 2 loaves of bread for $2.

Heading further south, I eventually reached Pittsburg (no ‘H’), the largest town in the region. The main street was blocks long and had an annoyingly low speed limit. Based off research, I went to the mall at the south end of town to get lunch. Inside the mall was the innocently named Mall Deli, which happens to be the most popular restaurant in town. The line to see the hostess was outrageous.

I lucked out since I was eating alone and got seated immediately inside the large restaurant. A waitress brought me a menu along with an appetizer of saltine crackers and their famed Creamy Italian dressing. It was good.

I then ordered a delicious French dip sandwich for less than $6. I understand why it’s so popular. As I was leaving, I noticed that the line was even longer- now almost stretching out of the mall.

Heading southwest, I then reached Big Brutus, the largest electric shovel in the world (second largest ever built). This doesn’t sound very impressive or cool until I saw it- it’s 160 feet tall and is considered one of the largest machines ever built. Electric shovel were used to remove the “overburden” dirt above coal seams. The machine was built 10 miles away and traveled in a straight line 1-mile a year for 10 years before it was retired at its current location. It stopped running because the coal had too much sulfur.

After paying $8, I got to see a museum about the coal industry in Southeast Kansas and walk up to the machine. The shovel was absolutely enormous. The track used to move Big Brutus was over 10 feet tall! To enter the cab, I had to climb a few sets of stairs. The cab was at least 30 feet tall and could easily fit a few hundred people were the machinery to be moved. Out in front, the shovel could easily pick up a car or two. I was so impressed!

I continued an hour to the northeast of Big Brutus to the town of Chanute. In the center of town, there is an usual plaque in the middle of an intersection with a Google logo, latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. It turns out that this marker is considered the center of the earth for US users of Google Earth’s Mac version. The main developer for Google Earth is from Chanute and wanted to give a shoutout to his hometown. The other main developer is from Lawrence (they met at the University of Kansas), so the Windows version shows Lawrence as the center of the earth

Chanute is also home to the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. This seemingly out-of-place museum chronicles the life of Martin and Osa Johnson, the first ever nature documentarians- basically the Discovery Channel of the 1920’s.

Martin Johnson was from Kansas and, without any experience, got a job as the chef for Jack London on his voyage around the world. The expedition ended after Jack got sick in Australia. After, Martin started a traveling show displaying artifacts from the voyage. On a stop in Chanute, he met the 16-year old Osa. They eloped.

Seven years later, they set out on a 9-month adventure to New Guinea and the South Pacific islands. Along the way, they got captured by a tribe called the Big Nambas and only escaped after a British gunboat happened to be passing by. They returned with video footage from the trip and turned it into the huge hit “Among The Cannibal Islands of the South Seas.”

The film was such a huge hit that they headed back to see the Big Nambas again, this time with an armed escort. They decided to show their film to the tribe. They were absolutely stunned to see themselves and dead members of their tribe on film- as they had never seen a film or photograph before. After that, they became very friendly and helped with the production of a second film, which also was a huge hit.

After the South Pacific, the Johnsons headed to Africa where they shot wildlife. Because zoom had not been invented yet, they had to get very close to the animals. Martin would shoot the footage, while Osa stood next to him with a shotgun and would shoot any wildlife that attacked Martin. They made films together for the next 7 years before Martin tragically died in a plane crash in 1937. Osa continued to make films and write until her death in 1953.

The Safari museum is a collection of the many artifacts the Johnsons collected on their expeditions. It is easily the best collection of African and Polynesian masks I have seen anywhere. This museum was so awesome- it alone made the trip to Kansas worth it.

On the way back to Kansas City, I stopped briefly in the town of Iola, which claims to have the biggest courthouse square in the country except for Graham, Texas. However, after some research, the locals realized that Graham’s town square has roads going through the square and Iola’s does not, which makes Iola’s more impressive according to the them. Regardless of its size, the courthouse itself is really ugly which makes the town square totally unimpressive (so unimpressive I’m not going to post a picture).

I then headed back to Kansas City for dinner and to see my high school friends The Two Friends perform a DJ set as part of their world tour.


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