With my many business interests in western Kansas (see above photo), I can justify traversing the vast empty plains to get to a town like Liberal. It’s all tax deductible. So I set the bar a little lower than your average tourist, who might might want a water slide or Wizard of Oz theme park to make the drive worthwhile. All I require is a good breakfast joint.
First the bad news: There is no water slide. Neither is there a Wizard of Oz theme park, unless you count Dorothy’s House, which isn’t so different from Dave Knadler’s House except for the oversized sunflower cutouts and the crudely wrought figures suggesting the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. People often ask if this is the real Dorothy’s house, but the bitter truth is that Dorothy is a fictional character and it’s absurd to suppose that she would own real property.
The good news is that there is a pretty good breakfast joint. I congratulate myself for being savvy enough to find it. There was a guy in a shirt and tie pumping gas into a Buick hearse when we stopped at the outskirts of Liberal. When I asked about a place to get breakfast, he first mentioned Applebee’s, which was just across the highway. Maybe I looked stricken; he then suggested the Pancake House — cautioning me that it was not an IHOP.
The Pancake House is definitely not an IHOP. It looks like hell from the outside and is not all that elegant on the inside, with cheap veneer paneling and lack of windows and particularly well-worn carpet. But the place was packed on a Sunday morning and a squad of trim waitresses, dressed for comfort, radiated positive attitude and brisk efficiency. The food was pretty good too, highlighted, as you might expect, by a dozen or more varieties of pancakes. I appreciated that nothing on the menu had a tie-in with The Wizard of Oz. Just good food, good service, good prices. Dave Bob says check it out, next time you get to Liberal.
Which you will probably never do. Look, it’s easy to be snide about little towns in Kansas that try to market themselves to tourists. But I’m not going to do that again. I’m just going to point out that in Liberal, like all towns in America above a certain size, the first thing you encounter is a Wal-Mart. Then you proceed down the Avenue of Franchises, past the obligatory Wendy’s, and Arby’s, and KFC and McDonald’s and Burger King, past slapdash tanning salons and H&R Block storefronts, until you finally arrive at what the town used to be: a wide Main Street lined with handsome brick structures where the windows are now as vacant as the parking spaces. You could fire a shotgun down Liberal’s Main Street at midday and never hit a soul. You could rent or buy any of this space for a song, but nobody’s going to do that either. Those with big dreams about hawking antiques or used clothing quickly discovered that it was a buyer’s market.
This isn’t really an anti-Wal-Mart rant. If I lived in Liberal or Dodge City, I’d probably be heading out to Wal-Mart too. One-stop shopping, baby, and always the lowest price. But driving down all these dead Main Streets populated only by the ghosts of better decades, there does seem something wrong with an economic model that systematically eliminates anything about a town that makes it a town.
That’s why I like a place like the Pancake House, with its dusty parking lot and ancient postcards and Kiwanis Club banner and pictures of the happy owners on a ski vacation some years back. You go up against the corporations and still pack a place on a Sunday morning, that deserves some respect.