A fledgling travel industry is emerging in a place once deemed a ghost town.
An innkeeper, a Swiss banker and a journalist walk into a restaurant in Coolidge, Kansas.
That’s not the lead-up to some oddball joke — it’s what happened this month in this town near the Colorado state line.
In far western Kansas — a little sliver of the state in the Mountain Time Zone — Coolidge has become a quaint stop for westward travelers, thanks to the determination of a few locals.
Coolidge is one of those towns you can drive through in less than a minute.
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Its streets are gravel, and the phone booth on its main street is filled with tumbleweeds.
It also bears the distinction of being perhaps the only town in Kansas that has an opera house but no churches.
If you’re thinking you’ve heard of the place before, you probably have: Coolidge is the hometown of Cousin Eddie from the “National Lampoon” movies.
Coolidge (with fictitious mountains in the distance) makes a few appearances in the films, most notably in the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
And if you’ve seen the movies, you know it’s not exactly the kindest portrayal of rural Kansas — where Cousin Eddie farms for worms and cooks Hamburger Helper without the hamburger.
But Lori Lennen is on a mission to make Coolidge cool.
As the owner of the Trail City Bed & Breakfast — one of a handful of businesses in town — she moved back to Coolidge almost a decade ago to help settle her ailing father’s affairs. The family, who had been in Coolidge since the 1800s, owned multiple historic buildings in town that were slated for demolition.
But Lennen decided she wanted to stay in Coolidge and preserve the town, which was proclaimed a “ghost town” by The Hutchinson News years ago.
“I didn’t think I would ever come back, but I just ended up falling in love with being home, the area, the big sky,” she said. “It’s just wonderful.”
Now she owns a good bit of real estate in town, including a building right off the highway dubbed Cousin Eddie’s Visitor Center.
Right now it’s just an antiques shop, but she hopes to one day develop Cousin Eddie’s into a quirky road-trip stop filled with “National Lampoon” memorabilia.
“We’ve just been doing baby steps,” Lennen said. “We haven’t delved into all of the paraphernalia that could come with Cousin Eddie’s, but we sure are looking at doing more and more as the time goes.”
If Cousin Eddie’s embraces the “Hicksville, U.S.A.” persona the movie portrays, Lennen’s Trail City Bed & Breakfast should do the opposite.
Lennen in May finished construction on two posh log cabins as the latest addition to her four-room B&B. They have all-new kitchen appliances, a 55-inch flat-screen TV and a California king bed on the ground floor and a queen bed in the loft bedroom.
Surely there couldn’t be that much traffic in this little bed-and-breakfast, right?
On a recent stay — during what Lennen described as a “slow” month — a Wichita Eagle reporter shared company with a few businessmen doing work in the area and a Swiss banker about to set off on a rural American vacation.
The banker, Esther, said driving across the rural plains wasn’t quite as exciting as she thought it might be. After quipping that she “didn’t think towns this small existed,” she decided to reroute her trip to Wichita and Kansas City. There are currently 99 souls living in Coolidge, according to Lennen — up four from the census estimate of 95 in 2010.
The log cabins are the nicest lodging in town — likely the nicest within miles — and Lennen said she got the idea from Airbnb, which claims log cabins are among the most popular lodging options on its service.
And it’s tough to beat Trail City’s breakfast: a full platter of French toast (homemade bread), potatoes, homemade yogurt, eggs and bacon.
The best part: There’s little to no traffic after dark, and stargazers can sit on a rocking chair or patio table and count the constellations.