Road trip day 1: Kansas Jayhawks, equality snowmen, and Supreme Court history

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You know what surprised me most about Kansas? The abundance of Sonic Drive-Ins. They were everywhere.

I had assumed most of Kansas was way too rural to support such iconic fast food establishments, but they kept popping up during my road trip around the state in late March. I also wasn’t expecting to see funky college towns and fascinating museums, but it’s the Sonics that really caught me off guard. (Of course I stopped in for some onion rings and milkshakes. So much for eating healthy while traveling.)

The week-long Great Plains trek throughout Kansas and Oklahoma was my first real road trip in a while. You’re probably thinking those aren’t the most exciting states for a road trip, but that’s exactly why I wanted to go! It was great to get back on the road and head through tiny towns and seek out quirky and unusual sights.

The first stop was Lawrence. Home of the University of Kansas Jayhawks, Lawrence is a typical university town with bars, music clubs, and lots of touristy stores selling university clothing and memorabilia.

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The bars and restaurants seemed cool. Kansas City is only an hour away, so that’s evidently where students go to see the bigger concerts, but the cooler, smaller indie shows happen right in Lawrence.

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Two odd stores worth noting: An Urban Outfitters inside an old theater, and a cupcake shop called Billy Vanilly.

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billy vanilly cupcakes

Snow from a late-season storm remained on the ground as I headed toward Topeka, stopping only to take in this historical marker about the Kansa Indians. Like most stories regarding the treatment of Native American tribes, this one isn’t very uplifting.

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From Lawrence, it was on to Topeka, which allowed me to add another state capitol building to my tally. This one was undergoing heavy construction.

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At this point, I’ve seen so many state capitol buildings (about half), that seeing all 50 has become a goal. I don’t even have a particular affinity for these structures; but now that I’ve come this far, I feel I must see them all.

Stopping at the Westboro Baptist Church was a must. Not because of the church itself, which is well known for spewing hate, but because of the house across the street that was painted in rainbow colors in March. Known as the Equality House, the home serves as a stark contrast to the notorious church.

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Snowpeople for equality!

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From the site of a modern-day civil rights clash, I moved on to one of the most important historic civil rights sites in the U.S., the former Monroe Elementary School, one of four schools in Topeka black children were allowed to attend in the 1950s.

Monroe is now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, which documents the case that finally led to the end of legal school segregation with the immortal words, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

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Immediately upon entering the facility, visitors are hit with a sobering reminder of the history with the “white” and “colored” signs.

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The displays inside included video presentations, clips from old newspaper coverage of the Brown decision, and analysis of how Brown changed American history. There was also an exhibit featuring famous protest songs from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

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You can feel the history in the building. Because of its historic significance, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site was easily the highlight of Day 1 on the road trip.

Coming on Monday: Day 2 of the journey, in which I try to sneak into an abandoned amusement park in Wichita.

(Note: Thanks to carrentals.co.uk for assisting with my rental car for the road trip. The company provides a car hire comparison search engine that you can use to find car rentals in the U.S. and around the world.)

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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