SHARON SPRINGS — It was an informal gathering Friday morning on the steps of the Wallace County courthouse, one that exemplified the spirit of the Big Kansas Road Trip.
“Why don’t you just shout out your town,” Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said from her perch in front of the steps on a stool carved from a wooden stump.
Lee’s Summit, Mo. Pratt. Leawood. Goodland. Wichita. Hays. Garden City. Ashland. St. John. Seneca. Lawrence.
“We’re trying to create a culture in Kansas, a culture that’s two-sided,” Penner told the crowd of about two dozen.
“You are one side of it. We need people who will go out and visit the small towns, and then we need folks like this, who are ready to greet us and are proud of their town and ready to do an open house,” she said, gesturing to Jayne Pearce and Camille Murphy, two of the locals organizing events for the road trip.
Now in its second year, the goal of the Big Kansas Road Trip is to bring people to parts of Kansas that they might not otherwise consider but have much to offer in their geography, history and people, Penner said.
The 2019 trip, which concludes Sunday, spans three counties — Wallace, Sherman and Cheyenne. Road trippers could tour historic homes and museums, tour the National Weather Service office in Goodland, see the Arikaree Breaks or Hell’s Half Acre, or just shop and visit with locals.
“People are just having a ball. They’re coming from Baxter Springs, Johnson County, every part of the state,” Penner said.
The road trip even brought travel writers Melody Pittman, Vero Beach, Fla., and Sara Broers, Mason City, Iowa.
“I love the Midwest and the Midwest loves me,” Pittman said with a laugh. They have been logging their experiences on the Facebook pages of their blogs, Wherever I May Roam and Travel With Sara, including playing bingo at the Elks Club in Sharon Springs and dining at local restaurants.
The women said they were familiar with parts of Kansas, including Hays, but were surprised by what western Kansas had to offer.
“There’s so many things to see and do, and the people are so nice,” Pittman said.
A highlight was Wednesday night’s tour of a bison ranch.
“It was one of the best days ever,” Pittman said. “Oh, my God, it was amazing. We were literally six feet away from hundreds of buffalo and we sang to them. Our group sang ‘Home on the Range’ to them,” she said.
She was also looking forward to tea at the Kansas Pacific Railroad Superintendent’s House in Wallace, seeing a herd of 1,300 wild horse mares near the Fort Wallace Cemetery and setting foot in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado all at one place.
Many of the locals were happy to show what the area had to offer. About 34 miles north of Sharon Springs, Judy Peterson gave tours of Olde Westport Spice Factory, the business she and her husband, Bill, moved to Goodland from Kansas City in 2009.
There, they package spices and mixes for soups, chili and breads in a downtown building that was once a Ford dealership. On the second floor — which was once the auto showroom — they constructed a 2,000 square foot apartment for themselves and use the main floor as retail space, the production area and a mailing room from which they send orders across the country.
The couple moved their company to Goodland to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren, who lived in Denver.
“We could move anywhere, so we came here. We stopped in Kansas because we could get more for our money by not going into Colorado. Everything went up as soon as you cross that border,” she said.
Downstairs, locals gather to put together puzzles, play games or enjoy a shaved ice from Terra Bona Hawai’ian Ice at the tables Bill constructed out of the lanes from the local bowling alley that was torn down.
Mary Ellen and John Coumerilh are also transplants, coming from Wichita 21 years ago, where John was a Boeing engineer and pastor. They opened the shaved ice store about a year ago and created a Kansas Breeze flavor just for the Big Kansas Road Trip. The almond and peach combination will likely become a permanent part of their menu, Mary Ellen said.
Rain on Friday kept the travel bloggers and others from some of their activities, but Broers, co-owner of the Midwest Travel Network, said events like the Big Kansas Road Trip show people can be tourists close to home.
“We in the Midwest, we’re target market areas from the mountain areas for tourism. But you don’t have to leave the Midwest to experience beauty,” she said. “I was very surprised by the hills driving out here.”
“What feels great to me is just getting the word out about these rural towns,” Penner said.
Counties hosting the 2020 Big Kansas Road Trip will be announced Sunday at a meeting of the Kansas Explorer’s Club in Goodland.