Searching for gold in the Prairie State
    Along the Arkansas River, where I want to be. Photo by .A.A. on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Every spring, from third through fifth grade, I would race to the kitchen each morning and tear through the paper in hopes of finding out that the Medallion Hunt had begun. Finally, on one glorious Monday every year, after flipping the Wichita Eagle open to page 1A of the Local & State section, I’d find the four-line rhyming clue I had waited for so patiently.

    Once the clues started showing up in the paper — one a day, for two weeks — my friend Amy and I staked claim to a table in the cafeteria, laid them out and pored over them, one at a time, looking for patterns and rhythms and anything that may lead us to the prize. The rules were simple: Officials hid a small, golden medallion somewhere within city limits, on public property. Using only the clues and their mental prowess, readers were to deduce the location and find the medallion. The first to bring the medallion to the Wichita Eagle offices won $3,000, money Amy and I were determined to win.

    We never found the medallion. But not for lack of trying. One afternoon, swearing I’d decoded the riddle, my mother drove me south to a tiny, ill-kept park. I gave up after an hour of searching, visions of dancing with Cinderella and riding Space Mountain popping like bubbles in my 10-year-old head. A few days later a man found the medallion close to where I’d been, hidden in a Barney coin purse.

    Even though I never found the medallion, the hunt served only as a lead-in to the Greatest Event of the Year — the Wichita River Festival. For nine days, almost 400,000 people gathered in downtown Wichita, crossing the Douglas St. bridge to attend the carnival on the other side, and laying in the grass beside the Arkansas River. Most only attend the first day of the Festival (the Sundown Parade) and the last (fireworks over the Arkansas to the musical stylings of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra). I wanted to attend them all, spending as much time downtown as possible, sitting in the sun with a tank top and shorts, watching goofy barefoot water-skiers fall off their six-man pyramids. Downtown Wichita is wonderful in a way that no city can perfect, and even though it’s a 15-minute drive from my house, it’s the only part of the city I miss painfully, because it was that vibrant taste of freedom and individuality always missing in suburban life.

    Take a left out of my high school’s parking lot, follow Douglas St. under I-135. Pass the QuikTrip that served me a 98-cent mocha every morning before school. To the right stand the red brick warehouses that make up Old Town. I spent last summer working in Old Town Square, taking my lunchtime to call Northwestern friends while walking the puppies that commuted with their owners to the office. To the left is Wichita’s half-hearted attempt at skyscrapers — in my sophomore year, I watched the River Festival fireworks from the penthouse of our tallest building before racing my best friends down all 26 flights of stairs. The elevator had broken during the hour we were upstairs.

    Cross the Arkansas River to Delano, historic Wichita, where local bands rented a skate park for concerts that one summer I pretended to be a scene kid. After shows we migrated to the Vagabond, the smoky little bar next door that let us sit in the back playing board games as the cooler kids finished their packs of cigarettes.

    Come early May — May 8 this year — this little stretch of Douglas is transformed into the River Festival. A large outdoor food court pops up near my old office. The bridge over the Arkansas River is blocked off.

    When I was at home, these little changes meant the most exciting time of the year was coming. The River Festival was about to begin. But because Northwestern is in session so late into summer, I’ll miss it this year and the next, and likely the years after that. My last memory of it, then, will be climbing up a hill on the west side of the river with blankets and sandwiches, cuddling into the blanket to fend off the last spring chills, and laying against the hill as the fireworks exploded above us. For an hour, we owned the city. We didn’t realize the city owned us — and wouldn’t let us escape its grasp quite that easily.

    I can hate some of Wichita, with its strange, backward policies and hyper-Christian populace, but I can never fault downtown. As the River Festival approaches in spring, and I can only sit anxiously in the library awaiting one midterm or another, my throat clenches and my heart beats faster. It hurts me not to be home, just for those nine days.

    The Medallion Hunt, which stopped running in 2001, is being revived this year with one small alteration: instead of hiding a real medallion, the Eagle will ask readers to name the location in Wichita where it is virtually “hidden” based on a series of clues. Were I home, I would resent this stupid change, as half the fun is the hunt. But since I live elsewhere now, I fully intend to take home the $3,000 I should have won 10 years ago.


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