I’m in a custom-made jeans store along the main drag of downtown Wichita. Looking at the jeans, priced at $200 a pair, I have to wonder how a store like this survives here—Wichita isn’t exactly a fashion capital. The owner, a young guy in his mid-20s named Frank, shrugs and tells me that the cowboy roots run deep here, that jeans are a way of life.
I’m poking around a store in Middle America for two reasons. First, although I’ve driven through Kansas several times on road trips, I’ve never stopped to stay—I always seem to be headed for big-name destinations. Second, my buddy and I live on opposites sides of the country (New York and Hawaii, respectively), and each year we find an event or music festival that gives us an excuse to meet up somewhere outside our destination hometowns. This year, we picked the Vortex Music Festival in Wichita.
As I contemplate the incongruity of these high-priced jeans, another person comes into the store. It’s not a customer, but rather another young guy, a friend of Frank’s. This is a fortuitous turn of events for me. Half the reason I wander into stores when I’m traveling is because I want to ask the people behind the counter what I should see and do in their hometowns. This is the perfect opportunity, with these two young guys just hanging around, chatting, to find out where to get a good craft beer. Or better yet, figure out what a guy from out of town should do in Wichita.
As it turns out, the other guy, Ryan, is the head brewer at River City Brewing. It’s just down the street and he offers to show me around his brewery later, but right now, he tells me, another brewery, Central Standard, is having a small event. He looks at me and Frank. Let’s all go? I’m in, of course. Recommendations don’t usually come with a tour guide. Frank’s in too. He closes the shop “for lunch” and off we go.
It started as simply as that, a little small-town kindness toward an out-of-towner. But from there the dominoes started to fall. I was whisked into the world of Wichita from one resident to another via a series of handshakes—a real-world relay race where I was the baton.
After a beer at Central Standard, Frank went back to his shop to finish the day, but Ryan and I continued on to a brewery called Limestone that’s hidden in a small shopping complex. Mid-beer, Ryan jumped on his phone. “Hey,” he said, half on the phone and half talking to me, “Do you want to meet the owner of Central Standard?” I said sure, and we got back in the car. But instead of heading back to the brewery, we headed for the owner’s house—he had invited us over.
At this point I began to feel like a celebrity. With every stop on “the tour,” each new acquaintance would have someone else I needed to meet—brewers, chefs, bar owners, hat makers, writers—anyone who was anyone in town. I ate at their restaurants, dropped by their shops, mingled with their friends. I met a man named Johnny Freedom, who paints large murals of the Wichita flag across the city. Later, he and I went to a baseball game together at the local stadium. Another night, at the Vortex Music Festival with my travel buddy, introducing ourselves to a local in line for the bathroom led to an invitation back to his house for a post-concert party.
In all the twists and turns of my trip, I didn’t have much time to think about what I was experiencing. But upon leaving, I felt a sense of sadness. I had formed a strong bond with Wichita and had gotten to know it in a more personal way than I had ever expected. I wasn’t just leaving a place, I was leaving all these people I had been fortunate enough to meet, these new friends.
In a city like Wichita, where hospitality is more important than the daily hustle, you’re not a tourist. You’re a visitor, and there’s an important difference between the two. In a metropolis, an out-of-towner is one of millions; a large percentage of a city’s residents come from somewhere else, too. But in tight-knit small towns and still-budding cities, introductions to the owners of the local restaurants, bars, shops, and music venues result in personal, genuine connections that begin to snowball. The degree of separation is extremely small—residents know each other well; they probably even went to high school together. There’s a sense of pride and a deep understanding of the place that’s incredibly alluring to me as a traveler. It’s something that’s hard to find in bigger markets.
In this way, a smaller place can mean a bigger experience. Sightseeing is great. Experiencing real life is better.