Free Stuff and Boring Place Names: A Road Trip Through America’s Heartland

We recently returned from an epic road trip straight south. Our mission? To take my youngest son to college in Arizona. He wanted to have his car with him at school, so thus the necessity of driving it 1,700+ miles.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a long road trip and I was looking forward to it. I’d also never driven across Kansas or Oklahoma before, so was itching to cross those states off my driving list.


Photo taken by Hunter Zhuikov, somewhere along the Kansas Turnpike.

Two themes soon emerged: free stuff and boring geographic names.

The free stuff started with our first lunch while we were still in Minnesota. We stopped at a Perkins Restaurant. Unbeknownst to us, Mondays are free pie days at the chain. Our waitress thought that everybody knew this and that’s why we stopped there. When she announced our free pie choices, we just stared at her in dumbstruck wonder. Afterward, we continued our drive, fortified by a few hundred extra free calories.

Our luck continued that night in Kansas City where we ate at a Red Lobster for supper. Due to a computer glitch, our food order did not make it to the cooks in a timely manner, so, even though we weren’t upset by the wait, the manager offered us a free dinner and two desserts. More free food, yippee!

The next day our luck changed from food to transportation. We were at a tollbooth on the end of the Kansas Turnpike when the machine malfunctioned. The toll operator let us pass through without paying because it was going to take too long to reboot the machine. Yeehaw!

We thought our luck was over when no free stuff appeared for the next 24 hours, but we were wrong. On our third and final day of the trip, we decided to stop at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico because it was right next to the highway and it looked picturesque. We could only spend about a half-hour there, however, because relatives were waiting for us in Arizona. As we drove up to the entrance fee booth, we noticed it was empty. Yay! Free scenery!


White Sands National Monument

If you ever get the chance to visit White Sands, be sure to do so. The piles of white gypsum flow in spectacular dunes, which you can access right off the park road. We had enough time to drive to a boardwalk trail and hike to the end of it, taking photos along the way.

Now for boring geographic names. C’mon Kansas, you can do better. Examples: there’s a town named Rock, another named Urbandale. How generic can you get? A river called Whitewater. Another town named Grove.

Ugh. As if driving through farmland isn’t already mind-numbing, the place names in Kansas, at least those before Witchita, were totally uninspiring.

After Witchita, things changed. We ran into town called Smoots. Another called Pretty Prairie. That’s better, Kansas. Keep it up! We crossed the Ninnescah River about three times. I probably liked this name because it sounded Minnesotan. Thank goodness the place names got better or I might have fallen asleep behind the wheel.

Other things of note: We passed the world’s largest hand-dug well in Greensburg, Kansas. We did not stop, but maybe we should have. I mean, the thing has its own visitor center, it’s so huge! We also passed the world’s largest pistachio. This was in New Mexico. It’s not a real pistachio, but a “mammoth outdoor sculpture” to advertise a pistachio tree ranch. We didn’t stop there, either, having already used all our spare time at the White Sands.

We were also impressed by all the wind turbines in Kansas and Oklahoma. It seems as if wind power is alive and well in those states.

I am happy to report that my son’s car survived the journey, and so did we! My son is ensconced in his dorm room and starting his classes now. Once we flew back home, the house was eerily silent without his presence. We are still adjusting.


Moving into the dorm.

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