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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Kansas 150: Quirky Kansas quests

BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle

The gauntlet was thrown down in 1999 when Larry Woydziak decided to bowl a few games. Kansas bowling alleys were quietly disappearing and Woydziak —"no big bowler," he says — decided to bowl in as many as he could.

The Lawrence firefighter didn't own a pair of game shoes.

Or a ball.

He'd rent and go.

Two years later, in 2001, he finished his quest, bowling in 79 of the state's 105 counties. The other 26, didn't have any bowling facilities.

People found out. As he neared the end of his quest, newspaper reporters interviewed him.

He was nicknamed "Larry the Bowler" and people — perfect strangers, really — met him at the Kansas alleys, sometimes 50 to 60 at a time, bringing freshly baked home-made pies.

"It started as a lark and I discovered how really decent and nice Kansas folks are," the 56-year-old Woydziak said earlier this week.

Soon, others followed maybe not in his footsteps — but in celebrity status, creating their own quests and discovering in their own ways what Kansas had to offer.

There was Bill Bunyan, the burger man from Dodge City who ate his way through every Kansas county one hamburger at a time, then turned around and ate his way across again, one steak at a time.

Others made quests to Kansas wineries, back roads, brewpubs, soda fountains, courthouses, airports and more.

And with Kansas celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, be on the lookout for even more quests and quest seekers, said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

The quirkier the quest, the better.

"Seeing Kansas should be fun, and each person gets to pick their own individual quest — something they can brag about — and gets them around the state in new ways," Penner said.

The quest experience

The inspiration for doing state quests came, in large part, from Penner's foundation in Inman, a nonprofit group dedicated to sustaining rural Kansas culture through education.

In 1994, Penner developed the Kansas Explorer program.

"We wanted to make it a fun club," Penner said.

It has proved to be a passionate, eclectic group of travelers.

Larry Freeze of Topeka has almost achieved his goal of guzzling a pint of beer in Kansas' nine microbreweries. So far, he's made it to eight. He has yet to visit Mo's in Beaver.

"I wouldn't trade Kansas for anything," said Freeze, a 61-year-old transplant from Dallas. "I still go back to Dallas but I can't stand the 12 lanes of traffic in every direction."

And the beer?

"I've enjoyed questing beer for 47 years; I like the small breweries that still make beer the way it is supposed to be made. And I admire the creativeness and inventiveness of people who start their own businesses. They seem so happy and excited about what hey are doing."

Reason enough, he says "to raise a toast."

Teresa Huffman of Marion has a cabinet full of experiences from the Kansas wineries she's been to.

She's picked grapes in Eudora at the Blue Jacket Crossing Vineyard and Winery. At Smoky Hills Vineyard and Winery, she attended a Greek Orthodox Church Blessing of the Grapes.

"I decided I would make this sacrifice for Kansas and it has been so much fun," said Huffman, 61. "I love how Kansas people are so down-to-earth, so grassroots. I've found so many discoveries."

Discovering Kansas is what led Carol Carley of Kansas City to drive to almost every courthouse in Kansas. Originally from Illinois, she adopted Kansas as her home state. So far, she's been to 90 out of the 105 counties.

Courthouses. Really?

"They are all so different," she said. "People talk about how flat Kansas is and I just want to laugh. It is really different than what people expect. At the Arikaree Breaks in northwest Kansas, that's where you drop down into canyons. And, at one place in southeast Kansas, we came over one hill, and it was like we were looking at paradise. I'm a big Jayhawk fan now."

Who are these questers?

The majority of questers are metro Kansans, who are often looking for a reason to get out of the city for the weekend, Penner said.

"They often have rural roots," Penner said. "We have tons of explorers from Johnson County and Wichita. Those are the hotbed areas of Explorers."

They are people like Wichitan Larry Hornbaker who has made it a quest to drive at least 25 miles of unpaved roads in every Kansas county. So far, he's driven more than 33,000 miles and completed 82 counties. He estimates it may take him another two years to complete.

"I've enjoyed dirt road exploring even before I joined the Explorers Club in 2001," said Hornbaker, 56, who grew up on a farm in Reno County. "I remember as a teenager, we had bicycles around the farm and I'd get up and go ride down the roads to see what was there. It intrigued me to go out and see barns and landscapes."

During the 1980s and 1990s, he explored the back roads of Kansas on a motorcycle. In 1999, he bought a digital camera and has since been documenting his travels.

"It is everything — from wheatfields to sandhills to bodies of water," he said. "I've been to places that no longer exist. It's a religious experience sometimes when you come across something to photograph that you weren't expecting."

On their Kansas travels, Charlene and John Van Walleghen of Wichita send themselves postcards of every county they've visited, purchase fabric to be used in a Kansas-themed quilt and walk a mile in each county.

So far, they have 55 percent of the postcards, 50 percent of the quilt fabric and 7 percent of the miles.

"In our defense, we started walking this past summer," said John Van Walleghen, 59.

It's all in the journey

Chris Petty of Hill City vows to eat in every barbecue restaurant in Kansas. So far, he's made it to 10 of the estimated 100 joints.

Last spring, the 33-year-old Petty became a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified judge.

So where is Kansas' best barbecue?

Technically, the jury is still out, Petty said, but right now, if he'd have to choose of a place outside of Kansas City — it would be 4 Legs Up in Great Bend or Olathe's Oklahoma Joe's.

"If you got to die of something, I'd just as soon it would be because of high cholesterol from eating good barbecue," Petty said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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