kansas road trip

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What becomes of a town when its heyday has passed? What convinces young people to stay when good jobs vanish?

Those are questions many towns across America have been trying to answer for years.

And they were on my mind when we headed to Independence, Kan., with a dwindling population that’s now below 9,000. It’s in the southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Oklahoma border.

Independence has much to boast about.

It’s where Mickey Mantle played his first season of professional baseball, in 1949. It’s the hometown of one of the first monkeys to be sent into space: Miss Able, in 1959. At its peak in the early 20th century, with oil and gas money fueling prosperity in Independence, it was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the U.S.

Now, if you’re from Independence, you still wear that name with pride. Just about everyone we talk to tells us it’s a great place to raise children.

They’re proud to be the hometown of playwright and novelist William Inge, who wrote Bus Stop; Come Back, Little Sheba; and Picnic; set in small Midwestern towns much like Independence. Their hometown author is celebrated in the annual William Inge Theatre Festival, which has attracted marquee names like Steven Sondheim and Neil Simon as honorees.

Big city folks plunked down in rural Kansas.

“And then they marvel at cows, as you bring them back into town!” says Kym Kays, laughing.

More: Despite Economic Troubles, Residents Of Kansas Town Remain Proud

Photos: Elissa Nadworny/NPR

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On a road trip a few years ago we came across this derailed train and went over to shoot pics. It was rusty and had been there quite a while, then one day my friend told me he drove past and it was all cleaned up and gone.

Shot on Kodak Elitechrome 160T, cross processed, using a Lomography Sprocket Rocket.