THE ROAD HOME -- Kansas ain't much better on the way back through. If it's possible, Kansas got worse. Kansas is not purgatory. But the elevator is already installed -- and it only goes down.
Even "The Shadow" hates Kansas.
The reason Sports Editor Gary McCann and I were in Kansas on Friday for so many hours of driving is we had to get home from an earlier drive to Denver. Denver, you may recall, is where Winthrop played in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. It's where Winthrop lost by 31 points.
So, Friday at 4:57 p.m. Mountain Time, with McCann behind the wheel of the filthy gray rented Chevy Malibu I dubbed "The Shadow," we headed east on Interstate 70 to start the 1,635-mile drive for home.
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We passed from Colorado into Kansas and into the Central Time Zone, after about three hours. Our first stop was to try and see the World's Largest Prairie Dog again in Oakley. We tried on the way to Denver, with no luck. The 15-foot, 8,000-pound gopher was again closed.
I cursed all rodents and took the wheel. I made it 158 miles, at Hays, when the familiar flashing lights grabbed my attention. I was attentive because a Kansas state trooper was right behind "The Shadow," pulling me over.
I grabbed the car rental agreement and my driver's license and handed both over.
"Know how fast you were goin'?" asked the trooper. He had forearms the size of Virginia hams. A brush cut. A pistol the size of Nebraska. "I had you at 79."
"Not sure, I had it on cruise," I said with great confidence and control.
Actually, I could've wet my pants. The speed limit was 70.
"Where you guys going, on vacation?" the trooper asked.
That's when even McCann now helped bring out the spiel I had told hundreds of people since we left York County on Monday morning. Driving to Denver to cover Winthop's tourney game, all that stuff that by now even had me cringing when I said it.
The trooper grinned. I expected at least a ticket. Maybe cuffs.
"Gonna give you a warning ticket, no fine, no need to appear anywhere, just slow it down, OK?" he said in a question that was not a question but a command.
If I were a real reporter, I would have written down his name. But I was too busy thanking him for cutting me a break. A brown-noser extraordinaire I am, I even shook his hand out the open window and said: "Thanks, man."
As the cop took off, McCann said to me, "'Thanks, man?' Shut up and drive."
I drove on and McCann added, "Yeah, vacation. In Kansas in the middle of March. This is vacation if you are from Northern Canada. And even then maybe not."
I drove a few more hours until Salina. Gas and coffee, and McCann took over driving. Eastbound, almost to Topeka, about 65 miles from Missouri and heaven, another trooper pulled McCann over.
"You traveling in tandem with the car in front of you?" asked the trooper. "You were following real close."
McCann said no.
"Where you guys heading?" the trooper asked.
For the first time in five full days, I was mute.
"On our way from Denver to Rock Hill, South Carolina," McCann said.
"Long way to go," said the trooper. "I know there's a lot of traffic out here, but add at least two car lengths more to your following distance. Stay safe. Go on, and get home."
He strode back to his car and took off. No ticket, no nothing.
He didn't even ask to see McCann's driver's license or the rental agreement on the car.
"Maybe he knew McCann had been cooped up in the car and covering Winthrop with me for days, and saw the resignation on McCann's face. The look on McCann's face when the cop pulled him over screamed, "Why me, God? What did I do to deserve this week?"
This comes after Thursday in Denver, when the NCAA courtesy van driver named Tom gave me a free tour of Denver that only a local would know and promptly got busted by the cops for making an illegal left turn. It was illegal because the light was red. He turned left during a red light because I wouldn't shut up.
"Can you just be quiet a minute, I'm trying to tell you something," were Tom's words, and then, he promptly got the ticket -- $130 it cost him.
I cannot print in a family newspaper the words Tom the van driver used to react to getting that $130 ticket, or the words he then used to describe me.
On the way back to the hotel after the Winthrop debacle, hours later, Tom asked McCann, "And you rode all the way from South Carolina with this guy? Are you nuts?"
McCann's exact words were as follows: "I guess I am. I did it last year, too."
Finally, Friday afternoon, at exactly 2:47 Central Time, after another trooper passed us -- this time without stopping us -- we crossed a bridge over the Missouri River. The car, "The Shadow," seemed to shudder across the bridge.
"To paraphrase the old country song, 'There's nothing better than Kansas in your rearview mirror,'" McCann said.
Then, McCann and I waved goodbye to Kansas. We each used one finger.