When it comes to vacations, big-name cities often get all the glory. But far from the overwhelming crowds of a metropolis, one traveler finds himself unexpectedly welcomed like a guest in a small city.
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.