Now, look. I don’t have anything against Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.
My wife and I go on three dates every year, and she insists on dinner at Joe’s on at least two of them.
So when the click-bait site Thrillist named the Kansas City, Kan., barbecue joint as Kansas’ entry in its list of the “Best Damn Thing in Every State,” I sort of understood.
Then again, the explanation betrayed a certain lack of effort.
“It’s tough on the Kansas side of Kansas City,” they wrote. “First they put the bulk of your namesake city across the border in a different state, and THEN your iconic barbecue joint is confusingly named for a THIRD state and thus no one wants to give you credit for having some of the most incredible ribs on the planet. Luckily the artist formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s is now Joe’s Kansas City BBQ and all is right in the world. Although there was never anything wrong with the ribs.”
Thrillist didn’t respond to my request for a comment, so I’m going to just assume the good folks who compiled the list traversed the state from Easton to Weskan, from Narka to Chetopa, and settled on Joe’s as our best damn thing.
It would be too cynical to imagine a guy with a laptop in a cubicle farm hollering out, “Ah, hell. Hey, guys, what’s good in Kansas?” and then writing down the favorite ribs place of Alice from accounting.
(In case you’re wondering, Show-Me Staters, Thrillist said your best damn thing was Lake of the Ozarks. That sounds reasonable, but I’m not from here, I just work here.)
When you ask folks about the best things about the Sunflower State, you get a few common and fairly predictable answers. Folks might say Cheyenne Bottoms or Monument Rock. In the fall, people will mention the sunflower fields outside Tonganoxie. Any year but this one you might hear people say they love the sight of the burning pastures in the spring time.
And, of course, the Flint Hills.
Having grown up in the Flint Hills, I guess I always took them for granted. When I went to college and saw people get all misty-eyed and romantic talking about the grandeur of the prairie, I’d say, “Wait, this?”
Having spent a lot of time in Kansas City, though, I do often long for a view unimpeded by Chick-Fil-As and Hobby Lobbies. That’s not a political statement, by any means. I don’t care for the food at Chick-Fil-A, and it’s just too tough to look like a badass in a Hobby Lobby.
At the Capitol, you can see John Steuart Curry’s famous John Brown painting “Tragic Prelude,” and then climb the winding stairs to the observation deck and see all that Topeka has to offer.
The latter is inside the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame, of course, and features wax figures of not only Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp, but also Dracula, Frankenstein and JFK.
As for me, I go for the less touristy places. I once took a date to the Rocky Ford State Fishing Area north of Manhattan. I have fond memories of that night because even though my date yelled at me for not holding her hair while she vomited up the evening’s libations, she still agreed to be my wife years later.
The Mrs. is from a town called Parkerville, which boasts on a sign outside the city limits: “Home of 44 Friendly Folks.” My hometown of Alta Vista is a metropolis by comparison. We have 444 residents. I’d say most of them are friendly, though I remember at least one Old Settlers Day parade where organizers put the campaigning politicians behind the horses.
Thrillist’s choice of Joe’s made me wonder what other restaurants they tried. Bonito Michoacan in Kansas City, Kan., has amazing tamales. The chicken fried steak at the Midway Cafe in Selden is not only terrific, it’s as big as a hubcap.
We Kansans also have some amazing events. The Dirty Kanza bicycle ride, the Maple Leaf Festival in Baldwin. Paxico has a Meatloaf Festival. The annual Brew 2 Brew Run from Kansas City to Lawrence features runners and relay teams busting it down the backroads of northeast Kansas. The annual pickin’ party that is the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield might draw more hillbillies than the Kansas Legislature, but while our lawmakers tend to suck the fun out of everything, the bluegrass folks know how to party.
Then there are the completely unexpected moments you’ll occasionally find in our state.
My college roommate and I were driving the gravel roads around Harper once and came upon a man firing a .12-gauge shotgun indiscriminately into a bank of cottonwood trees. When we pulled up next to him to ask what he was doing, he said, “Not much. Wanna go get a beer?”
We said yes.
Or the time I fished the Herington City Lake and heard behind me what sounded like a hand slowly wiping clean a chalkboard. It went on long enough I thought I was imagining it, but then I turned and saw in the rocky crevasses behind me the body of a snake larger than I’ve seen out of captivity. It moved away slowly, and I moved away slightly less slowly.
Some friends and I once walked through a solid half mile of nothing but 5- and 6-foot-high cocklebur plants outside Abilene. We were hunting pheasants. It took a good 45 minutes to an hour to muscle our way through the field, emerging with cockleburs in every imaginable spot. And just as we came to the edge, out rolled a flock of hundreds of pheasants, flying into the air like the murmuration of starlings. There were so many you couldn’t pick out rooster from hen, but we were all too dumbfounded to raise our guns anyway.
Any list of my all-time favorite random Kansas moments would be incomplete without this one, which explains so much about our state.
I had stopped at the convenience store at the Maple Hill exit off of I-70 one night when this woman came in saying, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
She was dressed like she’d just been to the opera. She smelled of perfumed hundred dollar bills and looked as though she expected a round of applause.
It was after 9 p.m. and the only people in the joint other than myself were the young 20-something clerk and what I assumed to be her boyfriend, whose brown-stained chin and T-shirt seemed to indicate he was quite an enthusiast for chewing tobacco.
“Excuse me,” the woman repeated. “When does it start getting pretty here?”
I looked at her and looked at the darkness outside the store and looked back at her and said, “Around 7 a.m.”
Without missing a beat, the clerk said, “It’s night out, ma’am.”
Clearly, we flatlanders had missed her point.
“I’m from Michigan, and it’s beautiful there,” she said. “We’ve been driving all day in this state and we haven’t seen anything.”
The clerk and I kind of looked at each other, not knowing exactly what to say.
Then the young chewing tobacco enthusiast brought a dirty foam cup to his mouth, spit a hearty brown goo into it and looked her right in the eye.
“Yeah, well,” he said. “It ain’t for everybody.”