Visiting Friends in Olathe, Part I

It was high time for me to visit a dear friend of mine from high school, so finally on Tuesday I made arrangements with her and another high school friend to come down and visit. This of course provided another opportunity for a road trip!

I left after lunch and headed east on US-24. After stopping in tiny Grantville, I continued on 24 and turned off to a back road at lonely little Newman. I continued eastward through Medina and onto Perry. Besides being the gateway to nearby Perry Lake, this little town was a prime stopping point when I was a kid as we drove to Kansas City suburbs. We always went to Trude’s, a classic Valentine diner, or pretty much a prefabricated trailer built in the 1960s. It was a sad day about 15 years ago when I learned the place closed, but the building is still standing, the letters on the menu fading just a little each day and the weeds in the parking lot covering up the remaining patches of asphalt. The first mozzarella cheese sticks I ever had were from Trude’s, and she also had fried zucchini and fried cheddar cheese cubes. Surely they were as unhealthy as anything else on the menu but delicious. Trude ran a tight ship. The menu inside was neatly printed in marker and included the price of everything: cup of ice, 10¢; ketchup, 2¢; lids, 2¢; etc. When I needed to use the bathroom, she reluctantly unlocked the back door to a tiny bathroom with a miniscule red light. The benches were mostly coming apart, taped together with layers of duct tape. So many more memories, but only ghosts dine there now.

After my silent homage to Trude’s, I took a road south across the river to historic Lecompton. Once the territorial capital of Kansas, Lecompton has been dubbed the “political birthplace of the American Civil War” and certainly holds its own as a place in history. The constitution was pro-slavery, which of course ended up being a primary point of contention in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Today it’s a sleepy town with a fairly deserted main street. A few of the historic buildings do remain, such as the Constitution Hall, Lane University (also the Territorial Capitol Museum), Fort Titus cabin and a former Democratic Headquarters. Unfortunately they were all closed the day I visited, so I read the plaques in front and continued on my way.

Before hitting Lawrence, it started to rain, but not a lot. A few wrong turns later I was back on US-40, passing the old Kanwaka community hall and then detouring to Lake View Lake, a small cutoff created when the Kansas River changed course. I continued through Lawrence east on K-10 highway through Eudora. The grandmother I never met had been raised here and several relatives on my mom’s side had lived in the area. Before reaching De Soto, I passed by the forlorn entrance to the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, a fairly large tract of land set aside for the production of ordnance. In fact after it was built in 1941, it was the world’s largest smokeless powder ammunition plant in the world and employed over 12,000 people. It is eerily silent today, with tall weeds and abandoned buildings and smokestacks dotting the landscape. On the old K-10 side, the 60-acre Sunflower Nature Park was carved out of a part of the territory once owned by the government. A mile away from there is the depressing community of Clearview City, originally built to house the Sunflower employees. Most of the housing units are low-rent facilities if they’re not abandoned. The community was off-limits to non-residents, but a pathetic strip mall was along the old highway and it wasn’t entirely clear if that was open or not.

Before heading south for Olathe, I decided to angle north into northwestern Johnson County and see if I could find the town of Wilder. A winding road took me through residential areas to a railroad crossing. The flat floodplain spread out before me on the left, while the four-street town of Wilder hid amidst the trees on the right side of the road. After that detour, I got back on a highway that headed due south to the suburban sprawl of Olathe.

It was great seeing Ann and her husband Sean, and finally meeting their daughter Abby as well as seeing Will. The last time I’d seen him, he was a newborn, but he’s now a full-fledged 3-year-old and just as rambunctious. Ann and I met up with another high school friend, Sheryl, at Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ restaurant in a large shopping center somewhere in Olathe. Not only was it great to sit and reminisce about fellow classmates, funny memories, old teachers and stories of our lives since high school, but the barbecue was a welcome flavor I’d missed for far too long. We didn’t stay out too late, but it was a great trip down memory lane and another flagstone in my year full of reunions.

Note: this content was originally posted on my old Blogger site “The Nystagmus Zone, Volume 3.”

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