"A Mask and a Minivan" - Our Pandemic Road Trip (Part 2 - Lawrence)
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
This is the second post about the 5-month road trip my wife, daughter, and I took earlier this year in the middle of the pandemic. If you are just stumbling upon this, you can also go back and read a little of the background/ context behind the trip.
For about 3 years between Fall 2013 and Fall 2016 my wife (who was my girlfriend back in 2013) and I lived in Lawrence, while I did my MFA in creative writing at KU. Those had been really good years for us. I was writing and reading a lot, my wife started her first (flourishing) acupuncture practice after finishing school in NYC, and our relationship blossomed. We ended up getting married in Lawrence in April of 2016. This post is not about that period of time, but it is all to say that we had really fond memories of Lawrence and were looking forward to spending three weeks there – with our daughter – during the second leg of our road trip.
It's fair to say that things probably didn't go as planned there.
But that's getting ahead of things.
Having definitely learned from our drive down to Asheville, there was no way we were going to even attempt to drive 13+ hours straight from Asheville to Lawrence and instead decided to break the drive up to two days. Roughly the halfway point between the two locations was Paducah, Kentucky where we stayed in an exceedingly charming Airbnb that was part of an event space.
Driving through (and stopping in) Kentucky wasn't strictly by chance. It also happened to be one of the few states I hadn't yet been to or stayed in (for the record, the others I've never stepped foot in are Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi--5 others I've driven through but never stayed the night).
Our stay was uneventful and we'd started to figure out a way to only lightly unpack the van for the night to limit the amount of work we'd have repacking. The next day we were on our way again through southern Illinois, St. Louis, and then the soulless stretch of I-70 that cuts through Missouri to Kansas City. As seemed to be our luck so far, the weather was shitty and much of the second day it was raining. Still, when we got off the highway and drove up Massachusetts street (the main thoroughfare of Downtown Lawrence) we both agreed that it was good to be back.
Throughout our 5-month road trip, one of the things I began to become fascinated by was how much the story of the United States's settlement is also a story of rivers. Looking at a map of the large river networks in the US, one can see how nearly ever major river west of the Mississippi starts in the Rockies and then flows either east to the Mississippi or west to the Columbia, Colorado, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
Major settlements then lay along this network of rivers – and Lawrence, Kansas is no different. Lawrence is located directly on the Kansas River. Fifty miles east from where the Kansas River joins the Missouri is Kansas City; where the Missouri joins the Mississippi is St. Louis; where the Mississippi joins the Gulf of Mexico is New Orleans.
In any event, early history of Lawrence, and Kansas more generally is inextricably tied up with the fight over slavery and the Civil War. In the 1850s there was both political upheaval and violence around the question of whether Kansas would be a pro or anti slavery state. Lawrence, ever a stronghold of those who opposed slavery (i.e. Free-Staters) was twice attacked by pro-Southern forces from Missouri – first in a relatively bloodless sack in which free-leaning newspaper presses were destroyed and the Free State Hotel was shot by a canon and burned, and later during the Civil War in an event known as the Lawrence Massacre (or Quantrille's Raid) when it is thought that around 150-200 men and boys were murdered and the city raised to the ground. To this day, Lawrence's anti-slavery roots is still interwoven in the city's makeup – from the Freestate Brewery downtown to frequently used iconography/ imagery/ murals around town of John Brown to the mascot of the University of Kansas, the Jayhawk, which was a nickname for anti-slavery fighters.
If you're interested in a very good novelization of the period and of John Brown, I highly recommend the book, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which also happened to win the National Book Award a few years ago. I believe the book was also turned into a Showtime mini-series with Ethan Hawke as John Brown, but I didn't watch it.
It was raining when we got into town, but it still felt good to be back. The Airbnb we rented was a small three-bedroom house west of downtown and across the street from Centennial Park. I had been to the park when I lived in Lawrence in the past, but it was only this time around that I realized it was primarily a disc golf park (in fact as I've subsequently learned, Kansas as a whole is a kind of disc golf Mecca). In any event, it was nice to finally have completely separate bedrooms from our daughter so that we didn't have to worry about waking her every night when we went to bed.
Needless to say, during our trip thus far, one of our biggest fears was one of us coming down with COVID. While the vaccine had been released, so far it was only being given to essential workers and those who were deemed high risk, and it was unclear when we'd be able to obtain the vaccine. To add further pressure to the matter, my dad and his wife were both pretty worried about us coming to visit them once we reached California given that we would have been traveling around and they hadn't been able to obtain the vaccine themselves so far. As luck would have it though, a few days into our stay in Lawrence, my wife (through a pharmacist friend) was able to get us last minute appointments for the vaccine. We were ecstatic. Though the three weeks between doses would bring us beyond our time in Lawrence, we decided to just get our first dose when we could and figure out how to get the second dose later.
The city of Lawrence had created a huge drive-thru vaccination site at the fairgrounds, and our drive there from our Airbnb took us through part of the city we hadn't often visited when we used to live in Lawrence (the Barker neighborhood). At one particular intersection, I noticed a stately looking house that I recognized previously seeing for sale on Zillow which had then been taken off the market. However, the sign in the yard stated that the house was, again on the market and that there was an open house that weekend.
"That's that house I saw online," I said to my wife. "We should go check it out." I noted the website address on the sign and we proceeded to our vaccination appointment.
Our vaccinations were uneventful and that weekend we went to see the house. We immediately fell in love. The owners had beautifully remodeled the 111-year-old house and it was pretty much everything we were looking for. Up until that point we hadn't even really considered moving back to Lawrence in earnest, but the house just jumped out at us. We saw a few other houses in town, but nothing compared to that first one. Even in Lawrence, the housing market was relatively hot and we knew that this particular house wouldn't stay on the market long. We decided to take a few days to think things over.
On one hand we had loved living in Lawrence, it was where we were married, and held a special place in our lives. And yet, how could we move to the dead center of the country, far from any family? That week as we thought things over, we went back and forth. We should do it, we shouldn't do it, we should do it, we shouldn't do it. Finally after much anguishing, we decided to put down an offer.
And then our offer was accepted.
Even after we put the deposit down, we went back and forth. My wife would come to me crying. How could she decide to be so far away from her parents? Maybe we should back out? I personally was going through a tough stretch at work as well. It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. In the end, we decided we'd go through with it. We'd still finish the road trip, but rather than stop by my mom in Wisconsin, we'd return to Lawrence to take possession of the house in a few months.
The day of the home inspection was a beautiful spring day and our real estate agent gave us a plate of homemade baklava to congratulate us. We'd made our decision and the hardest part was over. Or at least that's what we thought.
A few other things were happening concurrent to all this. First, we decided to extend our stay in Lawrence so that we could get our second dose of vaccine. We'd have to change Airbnbs to accommodate, but decided that ultimately it was worthwhile to get our vaccines over with. Second, we'd gone on a number of hikes and shortly thereafter I started having pulsing headaches. Sometimes they were mild, sometimes quite severe. I thought I might be getting migraines, which appeared to be common in places like Kansas where the weather was prone to rapid changes.
We changed Airbnbs to a place near downtown. By day I was still working and by night I was finishing up all of my loan application for the house. We got our second dose of vaccine. The headaches got worse. While the pain was bad, the worst part was the headache's persistence. The pulsing would continue all through the night such that I was hardly sleeping. The only thing that helped was to sleep with a heating pad on my face. Around this same time our daughter started having regular vomiting incidents. Once she got started, she would vomit multiple times in a row until her stomach was completely empty, her face pale. So debilitated was I with the headaches though, that I could hardly help with our daughter and the task was left to my wife who was very concerned by everything happening.
To top everything off, a few days before we were set to leave Lawrence the side of my face where I'd been experiencing headaches appeared red and shiny. It seemed that I'd burned my face with extended use of the heating pad at night.
While we had just purchased a house in Lawrence and would be coming back on our way back from the west coast, it's probably fair to say that we felt good temporarily leaving Kansas and continuing on our road trip.
Things We Love In/ Near Lawrence:
Given that we lived in Lawrence for 3+ years previously, this is not necessarily a list of things we discovered on our road trip and more a list of places that we generally love.
Decade Coffee is located on Delaware Street on a neat little block that is half commercial, half residential. Many of the houses on the block have been totally renovated where the bones of the house are old, but everything else is super modern.
During our first stint in Lawrence, we'd frequently go to Decade on weekends and sit and read while enjoying our coffee. Also, the last year of my MFA, the space would frequently hold the readings for the creative writing students. Everything they serve there has high attention to detail and the space is well designed and inviting. My wife is a huge fan of the chai lattes, so if you're a fan of chai, you might want to give that a go.
In the years we were away, the owner of Decade, Lou, opened up Cellar Door, a more food based cafe located downtown on 11th Street, not far from the corner of Massachusetts. We've been there a bunch of times now and all the food is well-thought out and fantastic. The menu rotates a bit, but in our experience you really can't go wrong. The Peruvian chicken salad sandwich was probably my favorite item so far, but we've enjoyed pretty much everything we've gotten there.
2. Taco Zone
Located downtown, Taco Zone is simply really tasty Mexican food (tacos, burritos, nachos) with a slight twist and a rotating choice of fillings. Really flavorful and good. My only caveat is that things run slightly on the spicy side (for me at least, since I can't handle much spice).
3. The Burger Stand at the Casbah
Back during my MFA days, some of my classmates and I used to frequent the Burger Stand once a week after our night class. The atmosphere is a laid back/ bar-like vibe and everything from the burgers to the chicken sandwiches to the fries are quite good. They often have a rotating seasonal salad that is surprisingly good as well. Located downtown on Massachusetts Street.
4. Bobby D's
Bobby D's is not in Lawrence – and depending on your perspective it's not even that close, but rather is located about an hour and 20 minutes drive away in Emporia, Kansas. Still, no list of stuff I love in and around Lawrence would be complete without mentioning this spot. Bobby D's is a BBQ joint with really excellent BBQ; however, the thing at Bobby D's that is superlatively good are the wings. We've literally driven all the way there (and back) just to get them. Recommendation: order a bucket of wings with the sauce on the side (to maximize crispiness) and then pick your sauce from their selection of a half dozen or so. You won't regret it.
While there are a few bookstores in town, The Raven is by far the best. More recently The Raven relocated from its spot on 7th Street to a more central location on Mass in a beautifully renovated space. The now-owner of the bookstore, Danny, was doing his MFA at the same time I was and used to host the Sunflower Reading Series on the college radio station with me. Since taking over the bookstore, he's made quite a splash by writing about his opposition to Amazon.
When you think of Northeast Kansas, most people's minds probably don't immediately conjure up natural beauty in the same way as you would when thinking of Colorado or the Pacific Northwest. Still, there is no shortage of great hiking and walks in the area. Here are some of our favorite spots for outdoor walks/ hikes:
The Levee Trail - Just north of the Kansas River, you can access the Lawrence Levee trail by making your first right after the bridge. We usually follow the trail out to the east where eventually you can access the mixed use mountain bike/ hiking trail that has a bit more tree cover. A really nice walk first thing in the morning.
Baker Wetlands - We discovered the wetlands more recently. Really beautiful marshlands just south of town. May not make for great hiking in the peak of the summer due to relatively little tree cover, but great for fall hiking.
7. The Lawrence Public Library
As a bookish person, I love libraries, and the Lawrence Public Library is an inviting place in a great building. Some years ago the LPL was named as one of the best public libraries in America.
8. The Lawrence Aquatic Center
Lawrence has a great public pool located near downtown and the Library – complete with swim lanes, water slides, diving boards and a place for little kids. We haven't been back recently due to COVID, but we used to frequent it when we lived previously in Lawrence and can't wait to bring our daughter here once the pandemic subsides.
While we loved Lawrence (and bought a house there!), our stay was pretty stressful and it felt good to leave town for a bit. We'd be back, and hopefully things would go smoother when we returned.
Next up: two nights in Denver and then Moab, Utah.