Road to Nowhere

Cutting across America’s heartland, US‑83 remains a must-do long-distance byway—transnavigating this broad, odd nation without once grazing a conventional tourist destination.

Garden City

One of the biggest towns in this part of the Great Plains, Garden City (pop. 26,658) is perhaps best known for its huge public swimming pool: around 330 feet by 220 feet, with 2.2 million gallons of water. It’s south of US-50 at the end of 4th Street, near the Arkansas River in Finnup Park, and it only costs $2! Next to the swimming pool is a small historical museum and the nice Lee Richardson Zoo (620/276-1250), with rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and zebras. The zoo is free for people on foot but costs $10 for a drive-through tour.

North of the zoo in the brick-paved downtown (which unlike many places shows few signs of businesses fleeing to the highway frontages), you can window-shop (or even buy something) at the department stores and antiques shops or see a movie at the classic State Theatre on Main Street. Another notable downtown landmark is the Windsor Hotel. After its construction in 1887, this “Waldorf of the Prairies” drew lots of cowpoke-luminaries, including Buffalo Bill Cody. Alas, the classic Windsor Hotel is closed awaiting refurbishment, but the owners are usually happy to give tours (620/275-4340).

Garden City supports not only the usual gas stations, motels, and fast food, but also, best of all, the 3,760-acre Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area, which may be viewed along the west side of Business US-83, around a half mile south of town.

Farther south, across the often dry-as-a-bone Arkansas River, oil pumps languidly dip their heads. This is where the stereotypical Kansas landscape comes in: either stark desolation or—thanks to money and modernity—vast irrigation efforts. Prior to the advent of reliable irrigation from the Ogalala Aquifer, over-eager farmers almost ruined the region’s fortunes plowing up the fragile buffalo grass for a quick cash crop. But the winds then blew the topsoil away, so the hills that stood here prior to the Dust Bowl are gone completely now, and the landscape is endless, see-forever plains, marked by grain elevators and telephone poles.

City Pool (504 E Maple St.)
Lee Richardson Zoo (312 E Finnup Dr.)
State Theatre (418 N. Main St.)
Windsor Hotel
Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area