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.

Liberal

First, the name. It’s said that a munificent early settler came and dug a well, and whenever a dusty emigrant would offer money for a drink or the chance to wash his neck, the settler would say, “Water is always free here.” One day the reply came, “That is mighty liberal.” Rush Limbaugh wouldn’t approve the word choice, but the name stuck, and now the town is stuck with it.

Second, the adjectives: hot, dusty, treeless, flat. The approach into town reveals the drab side of Liberal’s oil, gas (the town lies on the eastern edge of an enormous natural gas field), and meatpacking industries.

But the sights do improve. Honest. There is one significant draw, the top-notch Mid-America Air Museum (2000 W. 2nd St., 620/624-5263, daily, $7 adults), on the site of the old Liberal Army Airfield. It’s one of the five largest air museums in the United States and has amassed more than 100 different types of aircraft covering the entire history of flight, including military fighters and bombers from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Otherwise, there’s a lot of “Ozmania” in town, since Liberal claims to be the home of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Though there’s not even the most tenuous connection between Liberal and the film or the book, apart from them all being set in Kansas, an annual OzFest blowout is held at so-called Dorothy’s House, at the Coronado Museum (567 E. Cedar St., 620/624-7624, daily, $7), a block north of US-54. This combination historical museum and re-creation of the movie’s Kansas sets displays a mock-up of Dorothy’s bedroom from the movie, a mini Yellow Brick Road lined by models of the film’s animal heroes, as well as a horse bit left behind by the expedition of Don Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his troops, who passed through in 1541 searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

The city’s most unusual attraction happens annually on Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), when it holds its annual, international, soon-to-be-famous Liberal’s International Pancake Day race, a competition between local homemakers and their counterparts from Olney, England. No matter how cold or inclement the weather may be, the ladies of Liberal race a 415-yard, S-shaped course, each carrying a frying pan all the way. The Olney event purportedly dates from 1445, when a woman rushed to church with her pan still in her hand; the Liberal race has taken place since 1950.

US-83 and US-54 is known as Pancake Boulevard in Liberal, which may inspire a stop at the popular Pancake House (640 E. Pancake Blvd., 620/624-8585). Pancake Boulevard claims the majority of Liberal’s places to eat and sleep.

Mid-America Air Museum (2000 W. 2nd St.)
Coronado Museum (567 E. Cedar St.)
Pancake House (640 E. Pancake Blvd.)