Off the beaten path travel is all about small towns.
The last generation highways and two-lane roads that wind through every state go right down the main street of every county seat, shipping terminal, and stringtown strip built since we began to travel on four wheels.
Transportation, too, has had a vivid impact on this landscape of gas stations and post offices. The fortunes of many a settlement have been made or lost from the siting of a canal, railroad, or highway.
For better or worse, we humans have a deep-seated loyalty to place. I’ve talked to many a resident of a dying town who would no sooner consider moving to another town than moving to the moon.
We enjoy a good hike to a beautiful viewpoint or camping by the side of a lake, but what we enjoy most is exploring the history and lives of the towns we come across. Whether it’s the Midwest, Deep South, or Mountain West, a majority of small towns have fallen on hard times. Centralized manufacturing has largely done away with the small forge that used to make implements for local farmers. Corporate agriculture has taken away the farm families that shopped on the local main street, and instantaneous access to a world of culture and information has made young and old alike yearn for a broader and less parochial experience.
In some small towns, civic leaders and local philanthropists have gone at the problem vigorously and have, through a variety of projects, revitalized the community. Sometimes the revival has centered on an attraction that brings pride and tourist dollars. In other cases, a boutique or specialized industry has been the key. What makes it work in some places, while others struggle mightily, is a question we’ve been thinking about for some time.
Take for example, Lucas, Kansas. We visited Lucas in the Spring, outside of the typical tourist season. Just outside of town is a beautiful Corps of Engineers lake with three full service campgrounds. We joined a handful of off-season campers along the shore. Lucas bills itself as the grassroots art capital of the state. It’s home to the Garden of Eden. In 1902, Samuel Dinsmoor, a Civil War veteran, built his wife a home from carved limestone logs. He then proceeded to form concrete trees around it to display an extraordinary collection of figures he created. It’s an otherworldly experience to see this assemblage in the early morning light.
Downtown you’ll find the country’s number two best public restroom, so voted in 2014. It’s amazing, with specially themed men’s and women’s areas. There’s an art shop that offers classes, at least three studios of outsider artists, and a restored 1930s movie theater. Still, when we visited, there was not a soul in sight on the streets. At the library, we chatted with Mary Ann, the librarian. “It’s a real struggle,” she told us. “We’re trying to bring this town back to life, and we’ve got a lot to work with. There’s the Garden of Eden (she’s a tour guide) and the movie theater, where we show a new movie every week (she’s a projectionist), and our award winning restroom (she organized the fundraising).”
Still, things are tough. Brant’s meat market, an area institution and home of Czechoslovakian ring bologna, closed in January after 75 years in the same family. A few months earlier, the town grocery store shut its doors. “They were doing a good business,” says Mary Ann, “but the young couple who ran it felt to stifled by small-town life and, when they moved away, nobody was interested in taking it over. The convenience store out by the highway is putting on an addition so they can carry more stuff, and that’s good for everyone, but it’s not like having a grocery store downtown. It’s just not the same.”
Folks in Lucas are working hard to keep their town alive. The outsider art is beginning to draw in more visitors. Brant’s has new owners who plan to reopen soon. Fishing at nearby Wilson Lake keeps the gas station and a downtown cafe open, and Mary Ann is hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she says. We hope she’s right.
Places like this enrich not only the ones who live there, but also those of us who just stop by for a visit. We look at the hours and dollars we spend out here as an investment in the fabric that keeps us all resilient and challenged. We hope to see you out here too, along the roads that lead off the beaten path.
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