Impulsive Traveler: Weather or not, Wichita has its charms

The 44-foot-tall Keeper of the Plains stands guard over the Arkansas River. At night, jets of fire erupt around the statue.
The 44-foot-tall Keeper of the Plains stands guard over the Arkansas River. At night, jets of fire erupt around the statue. (Paul Chauncey/Alamy)
Map of Wichita, Kansas
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Stephen Amidon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2010

If you spend a couple of days exploring Wichita, there's a pretty good chance you'll run into the Berlin Wall.

As I prepared for a short stay there, I learned that at least two substantial slabs of the Cold War relic are prominently displayed in and near the city. At first, that didn't feel completely inappropriate. After all, Kansas's most populous city has become something of a symbol for the cultural and political divisions that plague the nation. It's home to Operation Rescue, the radical antiabortion organization, and was the scene of the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller last year. Koch Industries, a sprawling energy company headquartered in town, helps fund a variety of conservative enterprises and has been linked to the tea party movement. Soon after the 2008 election, a local church made national headlines by posting a sign claiming that President Obama is a Muslim.

It didn't take me long after arriving, however, to discover that I had not jetted into some turbulent vortex of American discontent but rather was visiting a sleepy, endearingly eccentric city that's capable of exercising considerable charm.

That became apparent as I took an introductory walk along the Arkansas (pronounced ar-KANSAS) River, which cuts through downtown. This is perhaps the finest spot in the city, where beautifully landscaped waterfront walkways lead you through a cluster of museums. The most impressive is Exploration Place, a kid-oriented science museum that's heavily influenced by Wichita's status as a center for the aviation industry. Not surprisingly, the best displays were the flight simulators. There's also a phone-booth-size machine that simulates being in a Kansas tornado. It was realistic enough to make me ask about the location of a shelter once I got back to the hotel.

From downtown, I walked through an incessant prairie wind to the majestic Keeper of the Plains monument, a scene-stealing 44-foot-tall steel sculpture of a Native American figure situated on a rocky promontory overlooking the river. It's a stunning bit of civic sculpture, most impressive for 15 minutes each night when flaming jets erupt around it to create the "Ring of Fire." Just beyond this is the Mid-American All-Indian Center, which is more interesting for its evening performances and powwows than for its somewhat stodgy permanent displays.

After dining on a delicious local steak, I took a nighttime walk through the city's Old Town district, which bustles with restaurants and bars. Both the River City Brewery and the Anchor offered a wide array of local wheat beer, and a cigar bar named Mort's served a wicked martini.

Old Town was also home to my first destination the next morning, the breathtakingly eclectic Museum of World Treasures. The brainchild of a local doctor who clearly liked to whip out his American Express card when on the road, it houses one of those sections of the Berlin Wall, as well as mummies, handwritten notes by Ronald Reagan, dinosaur remains, Spartan weaponry from the Battle of Thermopylae and the pitchfork used by Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," yet another reminder that I had touched down in Tornado Alley.

Across the street was A Legacy Antique Mall, home to some unusual and cheap paraphernalia culled from local homesteads. From there I traveled down Douglas Avenue, the city's main drag, to the popular Donut Whole, which can be easily identified by the giant plastic chicken perched, for no discernible reason, on its roof. Still no sign of political outrage in Wichita, but plenty of evidence of enticing oddity.

After a stop at the Sedgwick County Zoo, I spent a few hours wandering the Great Plains Nature Center, an oasis of prairie within the city limits. It is a surprisingly verdant and varied landscape, especially to an East Coaster like myself, programmed to view the plains as featureless. Walking amid the waving tallgrass and hyperactive songbirds, I discovered that the ecosystem here is as varied as a marshland or a jungle. Just a lot windier.

Next, a local writer and I drove 50 or so miles northwest to the town of Hutchinson. En route, my hostess was kind enough to point out locations where devastating tornadoes had touched down, as well as the sites of several abandoned nuclear missile silos. In Hutchinson, we visited the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center museum, whose location in small-town Kansas is at least partially justified by the proximity of those silos and the sprawling McConnell Air Force Base. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, it is, in my view, every bit the rival of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. It also possesses a second slab of the Berlin Wall, this one intended to illustrate the Cold War origins of the space race.

Also in Hutchinson is yet another curatorial oddity, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Although the 650-foot elevator descent and the mine's low ceilings will test the forbearance of even the mildest claustrophobic, this attraction proves to be considerably more interesting than the phrase "salt museum" suggests. Somewhat unexpectedly, it houses a fine collection of film memorabilia: Because of the mine's aridity and constant temperature of 68 degrees, several Hollywood studios use it as a storage facility for original prints of many classic movies, as well as other film artifacts such as a Batman costume and "Men in Black" sunglasses. I quipped to our tour guide that it must also be an ideal storm cellar. His tight smile suggested that one does not really joke about the weather in this neck of the woods.

I left Wichita less concerned about potential political and cultural rifts. True, the nation's divisions can still be quite visible here: Just before leaving town, I heard that the churchman who had put up the sign about Obama was running for lieutenant governor. But for the casual traveler, the city's charming eccentricity will prove a much stronger legacy.

Amidon is the author of the novels "Human Capital" and "Security."

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