Lenten Roadtrip Part 4: Ike Still Stands Tall
Among Plains Prezes, The Kansas Kid Left A Real Road Mark
Thanks to a dodgy computer, a faltering muse and various levels of post-driving exhaustion, I’m way behind in these travel posts, which I promised you, and myself, that I’d file daily. That’s way out the window, and I’ll be home in Reno before I get caught up. So be it.
So where were we? Oh, yeah.
By the time we’d left Chicago and made the turn toward home via a more southerly route – choosing I-70 for the bulk of the trip rather than I-80 (been there, done that) – we’d driven past several presidential birthplaces: West Branch, Iowa (Herbert Hoover), Tampico, Illinois (Ronald Reagan), and, of course, Springfield, Illinois (Abraham Lincoln). Then we hit the Missouri border near Hannibal, where the “president” of American writers, one Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, was born.
I wish we’d had time to visit both the Lincoln and Twain natal shrines, as would most Americans, but we wanted to reach Kansas City in time to find the barbecue dinner I’d been coveting for weeks and may never get the chance to reprise, even though I didn’t yet know what rib joint we’d choose. So on we cruised, plowing through northern Missouri’s rolling glacial hills, then turning south on I-35 to KC itself, where the Big Muddy Missouri River takes on the Kansas River’s waters en route to a rendezvous with the Mississippi near St. Louis.
Like downtown Chicago, Kansas City’s central core (on the Missouri side) seems hollowed out somewhat, still in the throes of Covid-19 shutdown. Quiet streets. Silent office buildings. The famed Power & Light district decidedly devoid of people power and party lights, especially for a Friday night. And over on the Kansas side, the industrial rust and rot seem acute; streets dead end, freeway on-ramps are blocked, and … it’s just weird. (That said, the ribs and burnt ends we sampled at a relatively new spot called Slap’s on the Kansas side, which was recommended by a bartender at a pub near our hotel, were all I’d hoped KC ’cue would be, and business was booming. Glad the homegrown folks share my priorities.)
Anyway, KC deserved a better showing. I’d like to get back to that quintessential Great Plains town under more “open” and vibrant circumstances. Besides, there are steaks to be consumed, too.
Heading west the next morning, we counted off the college towns one by one: Lawrence. Topeka. Manhattan. Slowly, the low wooded hills we’d seen for the last several hundred miles started giving way to the nearly treeless terrain of the Flint Hills, but not before we drove by the little burg of Abilene, childhood home of the man who, in 1956, signed the legislation that gave the go-ahead for the national interstate we enjoy and abuse today, at the highest speeds we can get away with: Dwight David Eisenhower.
Yes, I know, he was actually born in Texas, but spent his formative years in Kansas, the third of seven sons to Pennsylvania Dutch parents. The Sunflower State pretty much claims him.
I have a passing and tenuous, but no less special, connection to the man: He was in the final stanza of his two-term stay at the White House when I was born, in May 1960. Given my general political leanings, I probably wouldn’t have voted for him, but you never know; after all, as a California native who didn’t know any better, I voted for Reagan twice. And, compared to what passes for today’s Republican party “leaders,” Ike was a hardcore progressive.
Think about it: This was the World War II general who warned us of the “military-industrial complex,” who presided over the highest personal income tax rates in American history, and who worked with Congress to implement huge infrastructure projects during a decade in which the nation expanded its economic power, with virtually no competition. He could have cruised through the 1950s, played even more golf than he already did, rested on his military laurels, but no. He wanted an America that worked, that hummed with productivity, that created the most stable middle class the world had yet seen – populated by forward-looking, suburb-loving folks who could drive their V8-powered tanks from one side of the country to the other with relative ease and make a new life wherever they chose.
Six decades down the road, America’s interstate system is still growing, even as plenty of its oldest stretches are showing signs of wear and tear, as are the bridges, dams and other massive structures we take for granted. Think where we’d be without it, how tortuous long-distance travel across Missouri and Kansas and Texas and wherever would be were we still relying on the patchwork of state highways and a handful of two-lane Route 66s or U.S. 40s. We romantically lament the loss of big chunks of those roads, but c’mon: we wanna get to where we’re going as fast and efficiently as possible, even figuring in barbecue stops.
So, thanks, Ike. We didn’t stop in Abilene to pay tribute, but we saluted you from I-70, at 75 miles per hour. And you weren’t done with us yet, as we’d discover the very next day.