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  • Writer's pictureKaley Lefevre

What do you do in Wichita?

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

You search for something beautiful.

What do you do in Wichita?

This is the one question I kept getting over and over from the people I told about my plans to travel. "Why Wichita?" they'd ask. "What do you mean you don't know someone there?", "What are you going to do for a week by yourself?" "What's there even to do there?"

Here is how I answer:

What do you do in Wichita?

You book the cheapest Airbnb you can find that has good ratings from other solo female travelers. You make sure to get there before the sun sets, and when you walk in you laugh out loud to yourself at what a bare-minimum type of place you've booked. It's not exactly like the pictures but it'll do. You resolve to make it work for the 7 days you'll be there.

You admire the open-space layout of the dingy place and watch your cats sniff out every corner. You feel tense, but not scared.

You play with the cats to distract yourself from being alone. You pace in circles and try to open the windows as much as you can, letting in at least a little light into the dim basement. You sleep with a knife by your bed, for safety, and you listen to the upstairs neighbors laugh over dinner (you are literally in the basement of their house) while you eat your microwave lentil meal and watch bullshit TV.

But by the end of the week, you learn to appreciate Airbnb for what it is. You take the cats outside on walks and you watch the birds with them. They move slow, so you move slow with them instead of trying to hurry them up. You meet the kids who walk to and from school in the path by the backyard and you laugh with them and let them try to pet the cats.

By the end of the week, you commend yourself for "not needing more than the bare minimum" because boy, this sure is the bare minimum. By the end of the week, you're almost sad to see it go. You'll smile when you've moved everything out - you did it.

What do you do in Wichita?

You google the closest coffee shop and evaluate if you can walk there from your Airbnb. Reverie Coffe Roasters is about a mile away.

After some debate and pros-and-cons-ing in your head, you put on your tennis shoes, kiss the cats goodbye and lock the door behind you. You make sure to have the pepper spray on you, but you don't hold it. You remind yourself that the world is not as scary as some people want us to think it is.

On your walk, you look up at the trees. You admire the magenta pinks of the budding flowers, the flowing white petals that litter the streets.

On your walk, for just a moment, you let yourself think about whether or not it was a good idea. The chorus of questions you've been asked echoes in your head but the wind blows them away. You decide to shrug it off. It doesn't matter if you have doubts or want to shake them off - you are here now.

What do you do in Wichita?

You get in your car and you look up parks near you on Google Maps.

You see a few situated close together by a body of water and start to drive in the general direction. You think about the river metaphor that's come up lately in therapy sessions -- the river that runs between "chaos" and "rigidity." You hear her voice in your head: "You can't get anything done if you stay in either one of those places for too long."

You get lost and sidetracked in your thoughts, listening to the music with one arm out the window. You turn the wrong way on a one-way street. You mouth apologies and curse words and make the first turn you see. There are historical buildings, old colleges, and places that look like somewhere you might've gone if you went to school here. You think about your own college town and about all the things that have changed since you were last there. All the ways you've changed since you were last there.

For a second, you see your younger self, stomping around the streets of Athens. Drunk and stubborn and passionate about everything - dancing from one bar to another. You didn't notice the temporary-ness of it all at the time, the same way you don't see this moment in Wichita fleeting before you, too.

You park and let your feet lead you. You flip through music and podcasts and Ted talks and audiobooks to listen to but nothing sounds right. You can't focus. You decide to keep the earphones in your ears and listen to nothing, which actually makes you listen to everything. You vow that you'll do this more often.

You hear children laughing and screaming on the playground, you hear a mom calling for her kids, you hear the screech of skin on a hot slide. You hear bike tires on the gravel and the quickening patter of kids' feet as they chase each other into the grass. You hear the wind whistle and the whirr of the cars in the background.

You feel the wind lift your hair off your neck. You notice the warmth of the sun. You see the light twinkling between the branches. You walk up to an animal enclosure - the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit. You stare at the owl and the other birds, then watch the kids who were running together come to check it out too. You watch their eyes light up with excitement and wonder as they find the big bird in the makeshift habitat. There's one pressed up against the cage, how did we both not see that at first? The kids are just like you.

And you stand there, side by side with the kids, looking up at the owl.

Eventually, you all walk away in your own directions and you find yourself on a makeshift "beach" of sorts by the water. You sit on a log and read your book, then you go to put your feet in, just to see what it feels like. Right before your toes touch the water, you notice the cracks of the ground, giving and making way for the water to wear it down. You jump on the ground like a kid and it sinks ever so slightly. You jump, again and again, pushing your weight down and You marvel at the softness you feel.

What do you do in Wichita?

You commit to spending at least one day exploring.

You walk down the nearby street you've been frequenting, but decide to go the opposite way today. You thought there was only one cafe here but you find another coffee shop that's been hidden in plain sight. What looks to be a house is actually a coffee shop with the most sitting areas you've ever seen. There are rooms with games and cozy couches and rooms with tables that look like they were meant for meetings. There are big round tables, where you imagine a group of people discussing a book or playing cards, or kids doing homework.

You try several chairs and then finally settle in one that's situated next to the window on the second floor. You write until the words stop falling out.

You pack it all up and head to the next place, one that inspires you in a way you weren't ready for -- Eighth Day Books. As a lover of both coffee and books, you're surprised by the way today has turned into a self-love montage of new places.

You walk around this book-filled home, letting your fingers linger on the spines and reading first and last pages of books about religion, war, growing up, being born, dying, wildlife, etc. You settle on a handful of books and the man with no shoes on checks you out upfront. You don't ask about the bare feet but you smile about it.

You are comfortable here.

What do you do in Wichita?

You drive to another part of town you haven't been to, find a bridge, and see a bunch of people gathered. You let your curiosity lead you and remind yourself that there's time to kill - we promised ourselves we weren't going home 'til it's almost dark.

You realize you've found the Keeper of the Plains statue. You see the groups of kids with parents, you realize this might be the pinnacle place of Wichita -- it's not far from a Discovery Center, which also looks cool. You wander onto the bridge, stopping only to marvel at how wide the river runs beneath it, the way it splits and comes back together -- you read that it's the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers. This is a big deal for Wichitans.

You stare at the statue, with his hands outstretched to the sky in a way that seems to say "I am open to receiving." The next plaque you read tells you that you were only half right -- his hands are like that as a means of "supplication to the Great Spirit." He is not just receiving, he is giving, too.

You read every plaque, just like your mom tells you that you did when you were a kid. There's no one to rush you here, no reason to hurry. You learn about the sacred land, the tools Native Americans used to gather food and smoke, and play.

You walk back to where you parked your car, but you notice how you noticed those bikes that were parked a few feet away. You engage with the noticing, you put your things in your car, and stuff an apple into your pocket. You rent a bike -- only a few bucks for a few hours! -- and you start to ride, not knowing where the path will lead.

You ride along the river the entire time. You ride past dams, past moms pushing strollers, past photographers crouching for a shot of the bridge. At some point you stop - it seems like this path could go on forever. You set the bike down and sit on the grass and eat your apple, thinking about nothing but the sour taste it leaves on your tongue.

The way back is all slightly uphill and you've gone further than you thought. You take your time, you stand up on the pedals, and you grip the handlebars harder. You breathe hard and your legs hurt in that way that makes you feel human. You feel alive and whole.

What do you do in Wichita?

You look up a comedy show in the area and buy tickets for somewhere with decent reviews called the Loony Bin weeks in advance. You know yourself well enough to know that you'll want to back out of going on the day of, so you ensure the tickets aren't refundable. The day comes and, surprise, you don't feel like going. You go anyway.

You sit by yourself and awkwardly try to interact with a few other people - you talk to the guy that's also by himself, and you order a drink to have something to do with your hands. The lights dim, the show starts, you sit up.

You marvel at the humanity that's happening right in front of you -- an old grandmother doing a bit, really playing up the old part, a guy in a tie and a guy in sweats, a guy making misogynistic jokes and a guy trying to be political, a guy dressed as Charlie Chaplin had hands shaking so bad you could see it from the back. One girl kills it, another doesn't. the guy you were talking to turns out to be a performer too - it was only his third time on stage, he said. He was funny, and you want to tell him that, but he leaves immediately after his set. He doesn't know you're still thinking about him after he leaves.

You take mental notes. You pay attention to the pauses people take between jokes, the way the corners of their mouths give away a smile when they hear a laugh, egging them on. You laugh when it's funny, you clap for every performer.

You think to yourself - what if I did that? What if I got up there?

What do you do in Wichita?

You get off your work-from-home job early on Friday and jump in the car, not knowing where you'll go. You surprise yourself when you turn into the tattoo shop - Time Honored Tattoo Inc.

You think about what type of tattoo you could get, where it might go, whether this is a stupid idea.

Without thinking for too long, you get out of the car and ask if they take walk-ins. The guy says yes, you tell him you want a butterfly about yay big, and he's printed it and you're holding the stencil in no time, standing in front of the mirror to try to judge where it might go.

You find yourself getting annoyed by the tattoo artist .. he's rushing you and he won't offer his opinion about the placement, no matter how many times you ask. He says he's got somewhere to be later and if I don't hurry up, we can't do it. You FaceTime a friend who doesn't answer. You think about walking out.

You say "fuck it," literally, point to a spot on your arm, and tell him to go for it.

It takes a minute to get situated, and the air between you and the artist feels thick; like you are both holding your breath. But next thing you know, you're laying on the table and it's finally a feeling you recognize in a week that has new and unrecognizable from every angle. You feel the cool towel, you smell the cleaning alcohol, you hear the gun's buzz. The rigid air between you two starts to melt away.

You make some small talk, he asks where you're from. You tell him about the road trip, you say you're headed to Georgia next to see the family.

He grunts in a certain way and you recognize that he's responding to the word "family." You recognize that this would normally be a moment to shy away from the topic, but you don't.

"What about you? Are you close with your family?" is all you asked. You prepare yourself for recovery, some other topic you could turn to if he shuts this one down.

"Well, it was just me and my mom when I was growing up," he says. "She was all I had."

"No dad in the picture?"

"Nope, he got out as soon as he could. Actually, he died about a year ago."

It's like the faucet's been turned on.

"He never lived in Wichita," he continues while the tattoo gun keeps buzzing. "Apparently he stayed out of Kansas most of his life to avoid the child support case he'd face for not helping my mom out. They would've arrested him if he'd come back into town for all that money he owed. But weirdly enough, he had his funeral in Kansas, not too far from here."

"Did you go?" You ask, thinking it was a stupid question as soon as it leaves your mouth.

"I did actually," he surprises you. The gun stops buzzing for a minute, he stares at your arm while he talks, quieter now than before. "It just felt like I needed to, for closure or something. And you know what .. I'm so glad I did."

"Yeah? You felt like you got closure?"

"Well, not exactly. I didn't get closure, but I did get some siblings..." he chuckles. "Yeah it turns out he had some other kids that he did the same thing to. And funny enough, some of them showed up to the funeral, too. One of them lives 10 minutes from me."

You laugh, because what else do you do? Truly, what are the odds?

He goes on, unprompted: "I'm going to my sister's son's baseball game tonight, that's why I was rushing you. I can't be late, I'm the only father figure he has."

What do you do in Wichita?

You learn a little bit more about yourself. You realize that you can still have moments of feeling exactly like yourself, even if you don't know anyone there or anything about where you are.

You realize the importance of coffee shops; the beauty of walking on the streets just to see what you'll find; the sense of freedom that comes with knowing you can say anything to anyone; the difficulty of being alone with your thoughts; the necessity of this trip.

You grow, that's what you do in Wichita when you're by yourself. You stretch your branches out and let yourself blow in the wind. You surprise yourself.

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