Things to Do

Virgin driver's cross-country trip, Days Three and Four: I think we're still in Kansas after all

Editor's note: New York City's Sam Levin, a beginner driver, is kicking off his fellowship with Westword by documenting his cross-country trip. This is his third dispatch from the road.

The open road makes me dizzy. Very dizzy.

Maybe it's because I grew up spending all of my transit time in the exact opposite of settings -- gasping for air and desperate for personal space in jam-packed subways or biking through congested Manhattan streets where pedestrians, drivers and cyclists direct aggressive and passionate anger at whoever is in their way.

On the last leg of my road trip from New York to Colorado, I felt especially far removed from civilization, battling the monotony of seemingly endless fields of hay (that's what that stuff is, right?) passing by at exactly 75 miles per hour, hour after hour. After hour after hour after hour.

This is Kansas -- where the speed limit reaches new highs and the most exciting roadside attractions are the anti-abortion billboards, which seem, according to my unscientific survey, to be most intense and frequent in the center of the state ("Abortion kills what God created," "God knew my soul before I was born," "Smile. Your mom chose life").

Here are three other things I learned about the state of Kansas, via I-70 West.

• A wrong exit can lead to a dirt-covered car and a very confused GPS. If you take an incorrect turn, Samantha -- the name for the default GPS voice, apparently -- may just give up on you.

• In the Kansas stretch of I-70, being low on gas matters. I've fumbled through all kinds of virgin-driver mayhem on this trip, but it took the endless roads of Kansas to give the more classic beginner-driver "Shit, we may actually be stranded here if a gas station doesn't appear soon" experience. One did, finally, right as I was asking my mother to Google "How long do you have after gas light turns on?" It looked completely abandoned -- no employees, no restrooms, no customers in sight, and absolutely no sign of life anywhere in any direction except for me and my mother trying not to get blown over by the wind as we pondered the probability that we were no longer on Planet Earth.

• "Grandma Hoerner's Foods" does not have meal-worthy food. It's a factory with lots of jams and salsas and other things that fit into jars. They probably serve very lovely jam, but it did not provide the McDonald's alternative I dreamed of when I first saw the billboard and veered off the highway.

By the final hours of my third day, it was clear that I was losing my mind. Some examples:

• At our first real stop for early evening dinner at a steakhouse in Oakley, Kansas, I felt like I was slowly rocking back and forth as I allegedly sat "still" in the restaurant. I was convinced the feeling would only go away if I got back in the car and continued on I-70 West at 75 miles per hour. (Ultimately, fried shrimp did the trick).

• After seeing a sign that said "See live rattlesnakes, Pet live pigs," I asked my mom how a rattlesnake could pet a pig.

• I got a solid twenty minutes of giggling from listening to my GPS direct me in other languages.

I had spent my first two days eagerly searching for ridiculous roadside attractions, with modest success.

Choosing to skip out on several potential stops -- "Dorothy's House and Land of Oz," the world's largest ball of twine and the geographic center of the country -- I found myself visting only two attractions on my final full day of driving.

First stop: Leila's Hair Museum, in Independence, Missouri. It's a museum with artwork made of hair. To be exact, 500 hair-based wreaths and 2,000 pieces of hair jewelry. And the tiniest strands of hair from celebs and historical figures, including Marilyn Monroe and Abe Lincoln. Second stop was a truck graveyard thing in Topeka, Kansas, which, despite its "open" sign, was locked behind a gate. I could not fit through a space between two gates, but I gave it a good try. Otherwise, it was just the open Kansas road that somewhat miraculously turned into Colorado -- which I entered at a high speed, excited and (finally) confident in my driving abilities.

"Mountains!" I shrieked as we neared Denver -- before I changed lanes without signaling or looking, prompting a comforting and familiar urban honk and dirty look from the driver next to me.

My new home.

More from our A Week in the Life archive: "Virgin driver's cross-country trip, Day Two: A dragon, a cross and the birthplace of flight"

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin