By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - While some avid travelers seek exotic ports or ancient cities, Larry Hornbaker's ambition is to drive 25 miles of dirt roads in every county in Kansas.
He has company on the back roads. Some 1,500 members of the Kansas Explorers Club long to see every corner of the state and patronize struggling small towns, many of which are fighting a losing battle against population decline.
"Our mission is to sustain and preserve rural culture," Club founder Marci Penner said. "Our explorers know the difference they can make."
Bill Bunyan ate a hamburger in all 105 Kansas counties. Then he ate a steak in every county and now he and his wife, Susan Bunyan, have set out to have ice cream sodas at all 39 old-fashioned soda fountains in the state. They visited their 12th soda fountain in Greensburg on Tuesday.
Larry Woydziak bowled in every county that had an alley -- 85 counties altogether. Bonnie Danley photographed a church in every county. John and Charlene Van Walleghen are walking a mile in every county and sending themselves a post card from each one.
Others have built county-by-county quests around eating pie, landing an airplane, seeing a historic bridge or visiting every courthouse.
Perhaps the most-traveled members of the club are Charles and Ina Kay Zimmerman, who have visited all 627 incorporated cities in Kansas and 923 former towns -- or what's left of them. That took 13 years.
Kansas is about 400 miles east to west and 210 miles north to south, stretching from Kansas City on the east to vast emptiness on the west.
"We love to see the people, the little grocery stores and cafes," Ina Kay Zimmerman said. "People in these towns are trying to survive and to lead a rich life. They have such courage."
DRAWN TO BACK ROADS
Penner said many people on quests live in urban areas, such as Kansas City and Wichita, and pine for the road less traveled. Their trips satisfy a wanderlust while doing some good for rural Kansas, she said.
In 2010, the smallest 25 towns had 593 people, a drop of 30 percent from the combined population of 849 in 2000, according to U.S. Census data.
Kansas had 22 towns with fewer than 50 people in 2000, but 41 such towns in 2010.
Few small towns have conventional tourist attractions. The Explorers Club finds something to like.
Hornbaker is hitting dirt roads partly because he is intrigued by old farmsteads, some with weathered, collapsed barns and houses. "You wonder who had been there, why they left and where they went," Hornbaker said
Hornbaker has covered nearly 35,000 miles and is 80 percent through his quest.
Bunyan is partial to "mom and pop" restaurants and sought them out in his quest for hamburgers and steaks. He finished the burger hunt in 2003, gaining publicity that inspired others from the club in the ensuing years, Penner said.
"It's just a fun thing to do and it forces you to go to every county," Bunyan said.
TRAVELERS GLIMPSE A TIME GONE BY
The Explorers Club has grown steadily since its founding in 1994, Penner said. For an annual fee of $18.61 -- Kansas was admitted as a state in 1861 -- members receive six newsletters that allow them to stay informed about quests and hear about ways they can help small towns, she said.
The Zimmermans' trips, sometimes on a motorcycle, took them past remote cemeteries, deserted school houses and prairie vistas. It provided close-up looks at wildlife, including a buffalo herd they didn't expect to see in south-central Kansas.
"You stumble on things you would not have known existed," Ina Kay Zimmerman said.
Narrow roads of sand or with grass growing in the middle once led to towns now long gone, she said. Sadly, she said, the towns may have lost a major employer or had a new rail line or highway pass them by.
The Van Walleghens are about two-thirds through their goal of sending a postcard from every county and have walked a mile in about a third of the counties.
"We are in no rush," John Van Walleghen said.
(Editing by David Bailey and Daniel Trotta)