U.S. Highway 36 runs in pretty much a straight line from one end of Kansas to the other, parallel and a few miles south of the Nebraska border. If Kansas is 400 miles long, U.S. 36 comes darned close.
Most of us traveling west in Kansas take Interstate 70. It's faster.
But, as an old cowboy used to say, "If you're in a hurry, you didn't get started early enough."
Travel the interstate and you're not likely to run into strangers with stories to tell.
Last week, heading west, a flag man protecting a paving crew, waved my car to a stop just outside Scandia, way north of Salina. Turned out it was a young "flag woman," Tasha Mett, who lives in Marysville.
"You'll have to wait for the pilot truck to take you through," she said, smiling under her effervescent pink ball cap.
She asked if I smoked or used tobacco.
I don't do either today, but you'll rarely hear the second part of a question if you say no to the first part.
"A tobacco salesman came through here and dropped off a case of Grizzly smokeless and asked me to give them away ... to adults."
She handed over a sealed five-pack of Grizzly.
You never know what will happen when you talk to strangers.
"You're darned right," Tasha said. "Last week a guy slugged me, fist came right out of his truck window, just because I told him he had to wait."
She said she hit the asphalt and the bad guy hit the road heading south on a side route driving an old, blue pickup.
The punch got her the rest of the day off and an ambulance ride to a hospital.
"I get cussed at a lot, but nobody had ever punched me before," Tasha said.
Her left cheek was discolored.
They still haven't found the culprit, but her adventure made the weekly edition of the Bellevue Telescope - without mentioning her name. She was referred to as "a flag woman."
Pain with no glory.
Another thing you're likely to miss if you travel the interstate is advancing your motel education with stays at establishments in the "mid-range" category, like the U.S. Center Motel in Smith Center. Clean, old-fashioned and $36 a night.
I was unloading my car at the motel when I had the sinking realization that my bag with most of my clothes was still hanging back in Lawrence, 255 miles behind me. The embarrassment went deeper when my wife called to ask when I was coming back for my clothes. But calmness soon arrived in a quart container of low-fat, Neapolatin ice cream.
My abandoned wardrobe was to be worn in Oakley, where I would stand before gifted western Kansas students expounding on journalism, 50 miles from the Colorado line.
In order to make life more interesting for the next 145 miles, I replaced my clothes at various thrift shops and an ALCO store for my Oakley appearance. My wardrobe passed muster, and I even got a compliment on my tie. At the end of the presentation, I showed off recent copies of the Journal-World.
"Where's Lawrence?" asked a serious looking student.
Fifty years ago I would have asked "where's Oakley?"
Driving across Kansas, you don't need a farmer to tell you that half of the state is dry. You can smell the dust before you see clouds of it being kicked up behind tractors and machinery planting the 2006 wheat crop. Thirty-three Kansas counties qualify for disaster relief due to lack of moisture.
Stopping for gas at the Co-op in Great Bend, an older farmer was pumping fuel into a 20-year-old, beat-up Ford 250 that hadn't seen an Interstate, body shop or car wash for a long time.
When the pump stopped, he hollered over to a friend, "Hey, this is the day and the time to trade in my old truck. She's worth $56.53 more right now than she was this morning."