Tour stops #4, #5, #6, and #7: From the college towns: “Come and couch-surf Kansas!”

Students at Topeka's Washburn University await Rolf's After a somewhat lonely showing in the Salina Central Mall, I took my book tour east on I-70 for a series of events on college campuses in Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, and suburban Kansas City. It was here, amid college students who were keen on the message of Vagabonding and intrigued by the tales in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, that I feel like my book tour finally hit its stride.

I suspect that university campuses will always be my bread and butter when I tour for books — if nothing else because of the “time-is-wealth” slant of Vagabonding, which college students are always keen to hear. My tour of northeastern Kansas colleges started at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where I was slated to give keynote address to the Kansas International Educator’s conference. The word “keynote” was slightly intimidating (it made me feel like an adult all of a sudden), but I decided to keep the subject matter of my speech close to what I know best — travel, and the gut-level lessons you learn when you live in unfamiliar cultures. Since these concepts are easily applicable to international education, this led to a great post-talk discussion of living overseas, including safety issues and how to best motivate students to leave the comfort of home and study/travel abroad.
After my speech for the KIE folks, I jogged over to the K-State student union building and gave an International Coordinating Council-sponsored talk to 20 or so students, including hitchhiker extraordinaire Aaron Bell (whose hard-won hitching strategies I will blog about later this year at Vagablogging). Several members of the audience were members of, and they all had a common refrain for would-be USA travelers out there: “Come to Kansas and stay with us!”

I say right-on to that, since a place like Kansas is off the beaten path in the truest sense of the word, and the student-couRolf champions the vagabonding ethic for a noontime crowd at Johnson County Community College in Kansas Citychsurfers there seem keen to show travelers the best of what the state has to offer.

Once I’d finished in Manhattan I continued on to Topeka, where I spent a day at Washburn University speaking with the writing students of novelist Thomas Fox Averill and memoirist Sarah Smarsh. None of these classes dealt with travel writing per se, but even among the fiction students I was able to generate some great discussions about how travel can sharpen your sense of place as a writer (and I’ll share some of these specific tips in my next post).

After an open-to-the-public Marco Polo Didn’t Go There reading at Washburn Union, I made a red-eye drive to Kansas City, where I was slated to give a noontime vagabonding talk the next day at Johnson County Community College. JCCC is one of the largest and wealthiest community colleges in the United States, and as a venue it reminded me of my talk at Google’s New York office: It was very organized and high-tech, with a sharp and engaged audience. As was the case at K-State and Washburn, a few of the students in the audience had been Vagabonding fans for years, and they brought in yellowing first-edition copies (some of which had traveled around the world with them) for me to sign. It’s always awesome to meet people who not only have read Vagabonding, but have already put it to use, and traveled around the world and back with stories to tell.

My final stop on my tour of northeastern Kansas was the classic college town of Lawrence, where my cousin Dan and several other old friends live. There I made an appearance at the River City Reading Festival alongside Kansas authors like American Shaolin author Matthew Polly, River of Doubt author Candace Millard, and Ice Harvest author Scott Phillips. I had a small but lively crowd at my reading, but the real spectacle was the author signing tent afterward, where a long line of people was stretched out along the library waiting to meet — no, not me — What’s the Matter With Kansas author Thomas Frank (who was there promoting his new book, The Wrecking Crew).

I managed to attract a dozen or so Marco Polo Didn’t Go There fans during my hour-long stint in the tent, but Thomas Frank’s mob of admirers was a reminder that other authors certainly have a more high-profile manner of promoting their books this year.

After Lawrence, I headed off to London, England of all places — to record voice-over for a Travel Channel special I’ll describe in a future post. [Photos by Jeffrey Couch.]