Cross-Country Road Trip: Near-Miss Twisters and Burnt Ends in Kansas City

At the risk of being cliché, Kansas is flat.

The kind of flat that can cause agoraphobia, with your line of sight rushing out to a blue and green split-screen, no matter which way you turn. Standing outside the ring of trees surrounding our KOA campsite in Salina, Kansas, I experienced a delicious vertigo. Like the lush infinity of the rich midwest soil could slip out from beneath my feet at any moment. A green silk scarf sliding off the edge of a glass table.

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I lay down in the close-cropped grass to keep from falling over and watched the thin clouds glide by on winds that didn’t reach down to the earth, loving every moment of this trip. Angela was enjoying a good murder mystery book beside the pool. The boys were exploring the campground and taking turns filming each other on the Jumping Pillow, a kind of ground-level trampoline.

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We had logged over 400 miles this day. And, although I was tired from the driving, I still felt the tickle of adventure at having officially crossed out of the East and into this beautiful flat land.

Earlier that morning we had left St. Louis, only stopping for occasional bathroom breaks and lunch in Kansas City.

While our travels don’t typically involve planned stops for specific restaurants, this lunch in Kansas City was both an exception and exceptional. When we began charting our route for this trip, Angela had come across a Food Network listing of the best barbecue places in America. Now, I know that a list like this is both arbitrary and arguable. But, as a Tennessee family who had already been to Rendezvous in Memphis on more than one occasion, we had to taste how the other half lives.

A perennial contender on best-of-the-best barbecue joints is Joe’s Kansas City (formerly called Oklahoma Joe’s). Fellow traveller Anthony Bourdain had dubbed it the best in the land and one of the 13 Places to Eat Before You Die, so we had to see what the fuss was all about.

Oklahoma Joe’s original restaurant is still located in a working gas station and has very little signage, so it’s easy to miss. Although the GPS had pinpointed the location, we sat in the truck for a minute, asking each other, “Surely that can’t be it?!” Then we saw the lunch line begin to form as patrons opened the unembellished door and halted, unable to actually enter the building. We rushed to claim our place in the queue just before a tour bus pulled into the parking lot.

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Our truck and travel trailer, parked outside the unassuming Oklahoma Joe’s

Once inside, it looks just like an unassuming gas station, but it smells like barbecue heaven.

Thick, smoky, and sweet aromas greeted us from the open kitchen behind the ordering counter. Veteran waitresses circulated through the dining area with a lazy courtesy that comes from fat gratuities and years of confidence peddling a perfect product. The line had grown to over fifty strong when one of the servers cut through the crowd just in front of us, delivering a tray of steaming awesomeness to a waiting table.

“What’s wrong, Bernice?” asked an obvious regular standing just behind us.

“Don’t know,” the waitress replied. “But it’s awfully slow for a Monday.”

During their brief exchange, the busload of tourists had joined the line, swelling its ranks to over a hundred. If this was slow, I would hate to see it on a busy day.

We ordered and found a table near the plate glass exterior, watching the ballet of masterful cooks, wizened waitresses, and hungry guests while we waited on our food. Zack had the Z-Man, of course, a sandwich combination of beef brisket, provolone cheese, and fried onion rings. Ben selected the pulled pork sandwich. Angela enjoyed the smoked chicken dinner. And I eagerly chose the burnt ends with a side of dirty rice. We shared bites all around, second-guessing our individual decisions with each sample since everything was so delicious.

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The Z-Man in all its glory (photo: Joe’s Kansas City)

We left sated and satisfied with a new appreciation for the Kansas City contribution to barbecue cuisine. And, although Rendezvous was certainly tested, it still remains the King of Q in my book.

That night, back in the quiet of the camper, full of barbecue and happy thoughts, I dreamed about flying. I leapt into the air, effortlessly, from the hills of Tennessee, soaring over the Mississippi River and out over the green expanse of Kansas, past our camper, moving ever westward, sailing over ice-packed mountains and through deserts and buttes, over towns and lakes, and finally diving into the cold Pacific Ocean.

Then I awoke with a start.

The calm night had turned into a screaming tempest. Trees flanking our camper were banging into the sides and branches were bending low and scraping along the rooftop. I had been in tornados before and recognized the sound: at once both a low rumble and high-frequency whine.

I couldn’t believe it. In Kansas for only one night, and we were experiencing a twister! Talk about cliché! I laughed and gripped the edge of the bed, calculating the weight of the RV and thankful I hadn’t unhitched us from the truck last night. Angela and the boys slept through every quaking moment, exhausted from the road.

Then, just like that, it was over. In the early dawn, fellow campers were cautiously peering out of their vehicles to see how close we had come to disaster. Excepting a few downed tree limbs and some tossed garbage cans, the campground had survived relatively unscathed. Our next-door neighbor, a grizzled mountain of a man, stepped out into the waking light and looked skyward, casting his gaze from horizon to horizon.

“Going to be a beautiful day!” he exclaimed, and ducked back into his trailer.

“Yes, it is,” I answered to myself, thinking of the coming drive, ever westward. Today I would see the Rocky Mountains.