I like to have quests. Well, at least now I do.

Quests challenge me, help keep me motivated, and can dissolve monotony during a long trip.

So, what am I really talking about when I say “quest” here?

Defining a Quest

A quest is defined as an extensive search for something, or more eloquently put by Merriam-Webster, “an act or instance of seeking.”

Most people probably think of something on a grand scale, like summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

Sculpture of a boy whirling around a smaller boy. It is located in Garden City, Kansas and is called "Take Flight"
Quests can take you on a whirlwind journey

There’s also the metaphysical realm, as in a vision quest. This is an experience found in some indigenous cultures where an individual hopes to receive wisdom after having to fend for themselves.

When it comes to travel, a quest is more of a multifaceted adventure to find something, endure a series of challenges, or complete a particular category or list. For example, traveling to see all of the national parks or visiting every country in the world.

Travel Quests

In my case, the first real travel quest was to visit all 105 counties in my home state of Kansas. But I had no goal or plan to do that until it was almost already achieved.

This article was first published in 2018, just after I had completed the journey to the handful of counties in the southwestern corner of the state.

Grain elevator in the background and a sign reading "Ryus Unincorporated"
This sign in Grant County is typical of many tiny locales in western Kansas

Those “final four” counties were on the list for nearly 10 years. Turns out, it’s more difficult to finish a quest in a region that is not near where you currently live.

Let’s step back in time a bit to unpack this notion of a quest.

The Mysterious Origins of a Quest

Perhaps it originated when I saw episodes of the animated series Jonny Quest. He was always traveling to exotic locations, full of adventure and a little danger. Plus, the name.

Receiving my driver’s license suddenly expanded my world. I used this newfound freedom to venture beyond the confines of where my two feet or bicycle could take me.

Grain elevator and train cards. This one reads "Wolf" - the name of the railroad siding
These tall buildings are grain elevators, which are everywhere in Kansas

As a youngster, I was not very risk-tolerant. Teenagers may have a skewed view of what risk and safety really are, but my endeavors were quite tame.

I plotted out road trips to surrounding counties, thinking I could cover a lot of territory in a day.

When the timing was right during my high school summer break, I covered 300 miles on my first road trip.

I continued driving around Kansas throughout my college years, including some overnight trips and even as part of an assignment.

Signpost along a dirt road reading "Santa Fe Trail Crossing"
Santa Fe Trail Crossing near Hartland

I was a geography major and wrote a lot of papers about Kansas and tourism. The road tripping dovetailed with this, or downright predicated it early on.

The Realization of a Quest

At some point I tallied the counties I’d visited and realized I was close to having been to all 105.

I immediately resolved to someday get to the rest of them, but I’d already moved away from Kansas by then. Challenge accepted!

Abandoned building reading "People's State Bank"
Abandoned bank in Ensign

My last “new” county prior to this was Sheridan in 2009. Cowley, Cherokee and Crawford were earlier in the 2000s. Before that, I went to most of them in the 1990s in a series of big road trips.

My “county collection” unknowingly began by visiting the surrounding counties of northeast Kansas in the late 1970s with family. Other trips throughout the 1980s to western and southern Kansas added more counties.

And so it goes that a quest is often begun without intent or realization.

Building with farm implements and a street sign
Big Bow, Kansas

The Final Four Road Trip Quest Begins

As shoppers around the country threw punches at each other on Black Friday, I headed west in the pre-dawn darkness.

Mushroom Rock State Park

As the sun emerged to warm up the hazy pewter sky, I approached Mushroom Rock State Park. It is the smallest in the state and was my first planned stop of the trip.

Rock formations
Mushroom Rock State Park has two main types of rock formations, shown here

Regardless of my destination, I can’t help stopping along the way to discover new things. I can’t be confined to a car for too many hours, especially when there is interesting stuff to check out!

Even though this park isn’t too far from the main highway, it’s a bit further from I-70. Even so, I think not many people are aware of it.

Most of central and western Kansas used to be part of an inland sea. These formations are just some of many in the state that result from erosion and sedimentation from the receding waters.

Meandering around the toadstool-like chunks of rock in the crisp morning air set the mood for the trip ahead.

Rotund rock formation
Some of the rocks are round concretions without the stem

More Details: Mushroom Rock

The tiny park includes rock formations on either side of the road. Some are the tall mushroom-shaped pillars that give the park its name. Others are rotund balls of layered rock called concretions.

Generations of initials carved into the stems of the rocks were disappointing to see. However, the curious beauty of these magnificent sentinels remains intact.

Mushroom-shaped rock formation
These “mushroom rocks” are aptly named

Cross the footbridge on the south side of the road to get to the other section of the park. A lone park bench sits atop the hill on the north side. A flushless toilet facility exists adjacent to the road.

Hours are during daylight, but there are no entrance gates or personnel. I didn’t see any road signs from the highway, so be sure to plan ahead. WiFi is equally scarce.

The site is south of the near ghost town of Carneiro in Ellsworth County.

Black & white photo of an abandoned building
Abandoned buildings like this one in Carneiro are cooler in black and white

Bonus spots not visited on this trip:

Pawnee Rock

The wind nearly knocked me over at the state historical site of Pawnee Rock.

This stop along the old Santa Fe Trail was historically important for Native Americans as a lookout for bison or potential enemies. It also made a good pitstop for settlers heading west along the trail.

Outstretched plains
The vista from Pawnee Rock

Gazing across the vast plains from the mound of rock, I imagined being a weary settler stopping for a break on my journey west. The endless outstretched landscape became a metaphor for what the future may hold.

I pictured buffalo herds grazing in the distance, and hundreds of rickety wagons on similar journeys into the unknown.

More Details: Pawnee Rock

The park is on top of a hill just north of the small town of the same name. From Highway 56/156, once you enter Pawnee Rock town, turn north on Centre Street and continue for about 4-5 blocks.

The park is on the left side just past the end of town. The entrance is a one-way loop that takes you to the top of the hill, where you can park.

Monument at Pawnee Rock
This marker commemorates the importance of Pawnee Rock

Bring a picnic. There are tables and an outhouse. Just hope that the wind isn’t going to blow your napkins across the outstretched plains of Kansas. The gate is unstaffed, but locked after dark.

Bonus spots not visited on this trip:

Garfield County

I stopped in Jetmore to have lunch in the quaint public park. My sandwich was nearly carried away by the relentless wind. I then ventured off the paved roads to one of my more obscure destinations.

I’d long been fascinated by the notorious “county seat wars” of Kansas. One of the classic battles took place in Garfield County.

Wait…you can’t find that on the map? That’s because it no longer exists.

Ruins with 5 pillars remaining
Ruins of the old Ravanna schoolhouse

Yes, it’s a “ghost county.”

And I went to visit two true ghost towns in the ghost county. After the county was established in 1887, settlements sprung up and vied for the coveted title of county seat.

County seats were strategically and economically important, and no community wanted to be on the losing end of the battle. Oftentimes, the loss of the courthouse meant the death of the town.

Ravanna and Eminence

Ravanna and Eminence were neck and neck in the Garfield County race. When Ravanna gained more votes and won, Eminence challenged the results, claiming voter fraud.

Eventually the Supreme Court of Kansas agreed, and the county seat was awarded to Eminence. Ravanna had already built the courthouse and was not going to take that loss lightly.

The fight continued with more accusations. Eventually Ravanna decided that if it couldn’t be the county seat, no town would.

Ruins of courthouse
This is all that’s left of the Garfield County Courthouse

It petitioned the Supreme Court to disqualify the county itself, as it contained fewer square miles than was officially allowed.

In 1893, Garfield County was finally annexed to Finney County and the two towns died out.

Some remains of the original courthouse and school in a farmer’s field drew me to investigate. Other foundations in the area are barely visible and inaccessible without permission to enter.

In Eminence, a little more evidence existed, but not much. A single farmstead had been built up around the old schoolhouse, now on private property but visible from the road.

Farm buildings in a clearing
“Downtown” Eminence – now a private farmstead

The only other remnant to see was a nearby cemetery.

For me, it was the story that drew me to want to visit these places. I could imagine the fierce rivalry and ballot-box stuffing that went on so long ago.

Poetic justice won out here and only the township name serves as a reminder that a county once existed here.

More Details: Garfield County Ghost Towns

Highway 156 west of Jetmore or east out of Garden City will get you to present-day Garfield Township.

To get to Ravanna, head west from Kalvesta and then turn north on the first dirt road west of the Highway 23 and 156 junction.

It should be noted that Kalvesta is the only inhabited place left in what was Garfield County. Their Facebook page includes pictures of Ravanna as well.

Entrance to the town of Kalvesta, showing a sign and some agribusiness buildings
The only remaining populated place in the former Garfield County is nearly a ghost town itself

Continue north for about four miles and turn left at the end of the road. Stay on that for a mile, then north again until you reach another perpendicular junction. There you should see the crumbling pillars of the school in the field directly ahead.

The courthouse and other ruins are to the south, on either side of the road you came in on. There is also a cemetery north of the site if you take the next road to the west.

Continuing on to Eminence, head west from Ravanna (I believe it’s Lake Road) until Highway 23. There, turn left and at the first intersection, turn right.

The farmstead with the school building is just before the next road.

Arch to cemetery reading "Eminence Cemetary [sic] 1887"
Lonely Eminence Cemetery

To get to the cemetery, turn north and then west around the bend. The cemetery is on the south side of the road, flagpole hoist dinging in the wind. Most of those buried there died very young.

Garden City

After so much time on rural gravel roads and “one-horse towns,” Garden City felt like a metropolis.

I didn’t want to linger since I was just miles away from the first of those last four counties. However, it was late afternoon and while I had eaten a light lunch, I had not had my afternoon coffee!

Luckily I found a little haven in Patrick Dugan’s Coffee House, the perfect downtown cafe that was open and thriving.

Mug of coffee reading "Patrick Dugan's Coffee House" and a cookie in a package that says "fudge indulgence cookie, gluten-free"
A warm cup of coffee and a cookie fueled me for the beginning of the “final four”

Downtown Garden City has some cute sculptures, interesting shops, and a few other restaurants.

Bonus spots not visited on this trip:

  • The Big Pool, once considered “the world’s largest outdoor free concrete municipal swimming pool,” in Finnup Park is still quite an impressive sight. They now charge an entrance fee. The nearby zoo’s elephants no longer swim in it after it closes for the season.
  • The nearby town of Holcomb may be familiar to some. Author Truman Capote‘s bestseller In Cold Blood has made it a hotspot for dark tourism. The farmhouse remains where four members of the Clutter family were found brutally murdered in 1959. [Note: I decided not to visit the site out of respect to the owners. The house was for sale in 2019.]

Kearny County

I was eager to get to Kearny County, the first of the final four counties on my list.

Kearny County Line sign
The first of the final four counties: Kearny

It was anticlimactic because there’s not much hoopla surrounding crossing a county line. It was the light at the end of the tunnel of my quest that made it exciting.

Soon after making brief stops in Deerfield and the county seat of Lakin, I detoured off the highway to see another former county seat ghost town.

Hartland‘s fate was less dramatic than the Garfield County battles, but it certainly was as unkind.

Plaque with the history of Hartland, Kansas
Hartland, Kansas is just history now

Hardly anything exists now beyond the visible ruts of the old Santa Fe Trail. There is an historical marker summarizing the town’s fate.

I knew there were some ruins on private property as well. With the sun inching its way towards the horizon and no wish to trespass, I headed west along River Road.

The drive paralleled the banks of the dry Arkansas River.

Hamilton County

The low sun nearly blinded me as I raced westward towards my final few stops for the day. With the Hamilton county line crossed, I was now down to two more counties.

Kendall

Although not a genuine ghost town, Kendall seemed to be on its last legs.

Grain trucks inched down the gravel street to the elevator while an excited dog chased my tires. As I drove out of town, I spotted two children running across the lawn of the abandoned school.

Sign reading "County Line" and a town in the background
The entrance to Hamilton County and the village of Kendall

The post office must keep the town alive, but it was after hours when I passed through. Turning back onto Highway 50/400, the sun was setting over the cemetery hill.

Syracuse

I pulled into the Hamilton County seat town of Syracuse just in time for twilight.

At this point, I decided I should review the check-in logistics for my lodging that night. Rural businesses don’t always have regular hours, and I didn’t want to miss a critical window.

Sudden panic and confusion set in as I glanced at the time. A friendly voice reassured me that I was fine, since it was still an hour before 6.

Mural depicting a covered wagon with horses and a family
This mural in Syracuse depicts the reality of many hardy travelers who ventured west

Flooded with relief, I realized my phone just had not automatically changed the time zone. Hamilton County is one of only four Kansas counties in the Mountain Time Zone. So is Kearny, but I didn’t pay attention to the time there.to Mountain.

With the extra hour at my disposal, I decided I deserved a drink at the local pub. And it was dinnertime anyhow.

Contrary to its reputation in the late 1800s, there are few watering holes in western Kansas. I’d researched this in advance and luckily found the Black Bison Pub.

The front of the Black Bison Pub at night
The Black Bison Pub in Syracuse is a great little “oasis” to get some food and/or drink

With its rustic etched logo on the back of the bench, I settled in a cozy booth at the back and began to relax.

I ordered the “small” KC strip steak with an endless salad bar and baked potato. I had to walk around town a bit before waddling back to the truck for the final 15 miles to Coolidge where I stayed the night.

Coolidge

Friday night in Coolidge pales in comparison to what its legendary twin Trail City was known for. Limitless debauchery, trigger-happy cowboys, and occasional nude prostitutes on horseback were common occurrences in the late 1880s.

Now, it’s mostly crickets.

You may actually be familiar with Coolidge if you are a fan of the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies. Cousin Eddie and his family are portrayed as foolhardy country bumpkins in the classic Christmas Vacation.

Cousin Eddie's Visitor Center at sunrise
Coolidge has a sense of humor!

Despite the buffoonish characterization, Coolidge has embraced its brush with fame and good-natured humor. The Cousin Eddie Visitors Center may have limited hours, but just the sign is enough for a few laughs.

For a village of less than 100, Coolidge boasts a restaurant, a restored opera house, and the Trail City Bed & Breakfast. My weary head happily enjoyed the quiet that night. 

Looking up at the curved fa├žade of the bed & breakfast, I could almost picture it as a saloon. Actually, it was before Trail City’s demise and its relocation. Tonight it was backlit by a full moon and the silhouette of a stationery windmill.

Bed & breakfast with a windmill in the back
Trail City Bed & Breakfast is a hidden gem in southwestern Kansas

The bed called to me with its crisp linens and down pillows. A portable heater toasted the room against the chill settling over the town.

I woke up with the sun and took a stroll around the frost-covered town. An occasional car or semi whizzed down the highway. The grain elevator was already starting its busy day, but otherwise the tranquility blanketing Coolidge was palpable. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the hearty breakfast of French toast, scrambled eggs, and potatoes. Hostess Lori singlehandedly prepared everything, along with a couple mugs of coffee.

We chatted during the meal, and she gifted me a booklet her mother had written about Trail City.

Colorado Excursion

Time was still of the essence, since I’d end up losing an hour heading back eastward. I also couldn’t resist the jaunt into Colorado.

Brick building reading "hotel"
An old hotel in Holly, Colorado

Really it was the only was to reach my next destination without having to backtrack a lot or miss something. So, I made my way to Holly before turning south.

Another ghost town called Lycan sat quietly at a desolate crossroads, overlooking the bleak prairie.

I continued south to Highway 160, making a quick stop at the abandoned siding of Bartlett. Then, heading east, I once again returned to Kansas, the Central Time Zone and my third new county.

Black & white photo of an abandoned building and trailer
The ghost town of Lycan, Colorado

Stanton County

Saunders is less of a town and really a locale with a grain elevator on the state line. It served as my entry point into Stanton County, my second to final county.

Manter, with its adobe buildings and dusty streets had little to offer but the post office.

Small town of Saunders with the sign "Saunders Unincorporated"
Saunders, Kansas: Gateway to Stanton County, coming from Colorado

Johnson City is the county seat, also called just Johnson. I took only enough time to drive around the main square before continuing on to tiny Big Bow.

As the weather forecast kept looming ominously in the future, I didn’t spend much time in these places. There is always more to see than time allows, even in the remote corners of a state like Kansas.

Grant County

Finally, with even more of an anticlimax, I entered my final county, Grant.

To cross that threshold knowing that I completed my quest was a moment most satisfying.

Cup of coffee and newspaper reading "Ulysses News"
Relaxing with a coffee and a newspaper in Ulysses in my fourth and final county

I celebrated unceremoniously in the only incorporated town in the county. Ulysses also is the county seat and largest populated place in the entire four-county area.

Inside the Bear Creek Coffee Company I enjoyed a delicious coffee and read the local newspaper. Walking around downtown, I found a phone booth that may actually have been functioning.

Venturing on through the hamlet of Hickok, I found a handful of streets and a couple grain elevators.

Sign "Hickok unincorporated" with a grain elevator in the back
Many western Kansas towns look similar to each other

The last stop in Grant County was Ryus, an old abandoned coal mining community. I crossed the county line into Haskell County and began my return trip back to my mom’s.

The Final Day of the Quest Trip

Newton

I continued on to Newton with a few requisite stops along the way, but most places I had already been.

Saturday night I enjoyed kicking back with some friends who lived in the area. I anticipated an interesting return trip with the impending snowstorm predicted for Sunday.

Newell Travel Center gas pumps
My motel in Newton was next to a 24-hour gas station

It appeared that my plans to visit the Hutchinson salt mines and other sites on the way home would have to wait.

In drastic comparison to the first two days’ weather, Day Three began with the threat of an oncoming blizzard.

Driving in a Blizzard

The initial forecast downplayed the impact it would have on Newton, but the situation changed by morning.

I received a call from my worried aunt that it had already started snowing and was windy. I left immediately after breakfast.

A normally two-hour drive turned into a 4.5-hour sludge through blowing and drifting snow. I fishtailed on the interstate and hit a small pole near the shoulder.

Snowy main street
Arriving back in Saint Marys in a blizzard

At least it saved me from getting stranded if I’d gone off the road.

The remainder of the drive was tediously slow. The heat cranked up to an unreasonable level just to deice the wipers. I constantly adjusted the speed, especially after the scare.

Pulling into a quiet and messy looking downtown Saint Marys, it hit me that the quest was really over. I was happy to relax and destress for the rest of the day.

Quest Complete

While I didn’t have any breathtaking discoveries on this trip, I consider it wildly successful.

I hardly did these places justice having traveled so far to just drive through them so rapidly. I made sure to capture a moment in each place as part of a larger quest to visit each town in Kansas.

Deerfield City Hall
Deerfield was one of the towns in the “final four” (Kearny County)

I’ll have to save that for maybe the next decade or two.

More Details: Kearny, Hamilton, Stanton & Grant Counties

Highway 400 runs through Kearny and Hamilton west of Garden City to the Colorado line. Nearly everything of interest is within 10 miles of that highway.

For example, the Kearny County Museum in Lakin, River Road / Hartland  / Santa Fe Trail ruts, and the Hamilton County Museum in Syracuse.

Stanton County courthouse
Stanton County Courthouse in Johnson City

Highway 160 runs through Stanton and Grant County from Southeastern Colorado to the Haskell County line. Johnson City has a county museum.

The Historic Adobe Museum is in Ulysses. The townsite of Old Ulysses is commemorated with an iron sculpture on the south side of the highway east of Ulysses.

The rusted out ruins of the large Carbon Black plant and its former employee housing development site are just south and east around the bend in the road (Hwy 190) past Ryus.

Rusted out abandoned buildings
The abandoned Carbon Black plant in Ryus

Wagon Bed Springs is south of Ulysses off of Highway 25 along the Cimarron River.

Revised June 12, 2024.

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