Oct 5, 2020 – Her Florida

After several months of traveling, we are welcomed back to Florida.

We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion.” Marjory Kinnan Rawlings

After several months of traveling, crossing the state line into Florida conjures mixed feelings. We could easily turn around and continue traveling, but we also get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we come back to Florida. It is our home and despite all the baggage that Florida carries with it, we love it and always look forward to coming back to it. It is for this reason and the fact that our home base is way down on the southern end of the state that we take advantage of the great distance between the state line and Chokoloskee to explore Florida.

And no matter where we are in Florida, we experience everything we dislike about the state and everything we love about it. While getting our annual Forever Warranty service done in DeFuniak Springs, we decided to check out the little town of Seaside.

A walking path or an actual road? Hard to tell in Seaside.

Seaside is an unincorporated planned community on Florida’s Gulf coast designed by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, architects that have influenced the green urban design industry. Their vision was to create a community that would “cut through the smog of America’s car dependency”. The result was Seaside that is laid out with a grid so that stores and community buildings were only a few minutes away from any home on foot. Never been to Seaside? If you watched Jim Carrey’s movie “the Truman Show”, you most certainly have seen it as it was the backdrop for Truman’s Rockwellian hometown, aptly named Seahaven Island.

Just a block or two off highway 30A, one can easily drive through the neigborhoods of Seaside. This leaves you feeling secluded and you would not think about all the traffic and crowds along 30A.

So while I can appreciate the green architects vision, driving around a Florida coastal town with a full ton truck does nothing to cut through the smog of America’s car dependency. Seems everyone visiting Seaside and perhaps living in Seaside leave a vehicle parked somewhere, which is why we could not find a place to park (or at least one accommodating to our smog-creating diesel engine truck). Besides, you could not spit without hitting a tourist or community dweller, so we drove slowly around the Trumanesque town, enjoying the neighborhoods filled with a range of building designs from Victorian to Postmodern, often hidden by a thick growth of native plants in the front yard.

The boardwalk in Deer Lake State Park stands above a beautiful dune ecosystem. The boardwalk keeps people from walking all over the dunes.

Along highway 30A, the crowds and traffic were relentless, that is until we came onto a little oasis in the middle of a sea of development, and that is Deer Lake State Park. Deer Lake is one of the rare coastal dune lakes which, in the United States, are found only along the Gulf Coast. From 30A, a small gravel road takes you to a deadend parking area where $3 gets you a parking pass. From there, a short walk on a boardwalk takes you into (actually over) the dunes before ending at the waterfront beach. Except for the surrounding development, it is pristine and and wild, and without human footprints. The dune ecosystem is one of 11 natural communities in this 1920-acre state park and the boardwalk provides a full view of it.

The dunes overlook the Gulf of Mexico.

After a few days, we left the panhandle to settle in for a week at Wilderness RV Resort, right up against the Ocala National Forest and on the Ocklawaha River. This gave us an opportunity to paddle a wild Florida river as well as visit the little town of Micanopy and the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Never heard of either of these places? Welcome to old Florida!

I had the best turkey reuben at the Old Florida Cafe in Micanopy.
And after lunch, we visited the Micanopy cemetery.

Kirkpatrick (once the Rodman) Dam was built along the Ocklawaha River to facilitate navigation along the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The Florida Barge Canal was to go through the Ocklawaha River and construction was stopped in 1971. Thankfully, there are over 70 miles of natural river with a significant part of it running through undeveloped Ocala National Forest giving you a scenic view of Old Florida. This is the part of Florida that we love.

The Kirkpatrick Dam is a leftover from the Cross Florida Barge Canal project. You can read more about the canal in one of our first blogs from 2018 when we began to travel with the RV and passed through another area of Florida also affected by the canal project.
We spent a day paddling the Ocklawaha River.

Speaking of Old Florida, long before I moved to Florida, I knew about a book popularized by a movie, titled “The Yearling”. In the spirit of “Old Yeller” I honestly could not gather the nerve to see the movie. Nor have I read the Pulitzer Prize winning 1939 novel by Marjory Kinnan Rawlings. But having recently seen the movie titled “Cross Creek” which stars Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings in the biographical drama romance film, Vivian and I took a keen interest in visiting the Marjory Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park located in Cross Creek.

At the entrance of the Marjory Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park is a wooden sign with a Rawlings quote befitting of Old Florida.
Rawlings home is on display at the park, and is pretty much the way she left it when she passed away in 1953.
Unfortunately, the house tour was closed and we were unable to go inside.
But the park volunteer spent some time with us telling us about Rawling’s life on her orange grove. In the bowl are small fruit called roselle, a type of hibiscus First time I ever heard of it, but apparently, Rawlings grew it on her land.

Rawlings once wrote, “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.” There Rawlings lived on a 72-acre orange grove between Orange and Lochloosa Lakes. Her stories that fictionalized many of her Florida cracker neighbors immerse the reader into the remote wilderness and those that lived in the area. Rawlings spent long periods of solitude at Cross Creek and wrote that she could feel “vibrations” from the land. Her Old Florida land is now her historic state park.

A 1940s Oldsmobile, similar to the one Rawlings owned, sits in the farmhouse’s car port.
I believe the boat is the original one used by Rawlings, whereas the motor is a replica of the one she used on her boat.

After our short time in Rawling’s Old Florida, we headed south and eventually crossed the bridge to nowhere – our home. Fall did not feel much different from spring when we left five months earlier, yet there was just a hint of winter in the air as hurricane season finally passed and we settled in for the long haul. As our northern friends and family braced for a long cold winter, we got our canoes out and enjoyed the Everglades for the next four months. As Rawlings once wrote, “Here in Florida the seasons move in and out like nuns in soft clothing, making no rustle in their passing”. Indeed, as I write this, we are well into spring barely feeling a change in the air.

Still hurricane season when we arrived at the bridge to nowhere, rains clouds hover over Chokoloskee Island.

Yet, the calendar says it is time to go. Our 2021 travel adventure begins – now.

As Rawlings has said, “Here is Home”.

Sep 19, 2020 – Waterfalls, Canyons & Lakes

Burgess Falls, Tennessee. The water falls about 136 ft into a limestone gorge.

For family, our travels always include Indianapolis; so once again like many times before, we drove from Indiana to Florida’s panhandle by way of Tennessee and Alabama. This time, we took our time heading south and meandered off the beaten path so to speak. With no cities in our way, the next few weeks were nothing but waterfalls, canyons and lakes, oh my!

One of our favorite campgrounds is Defeated Creek on the Cumberland River, about 50 miles east of Nashville.
The campground is maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers as with many campgrounds we enjoy staying in.
The fog in the Appalachians and over the creek was a beautiful sight to see each morning from our campsite.
And not to mention the herd of whitetail deer that wandered in open fields within the campground.

In Tennessee, we camped on reservoirs and while Vivian fished from our campgrounds, I drove to Burgess Falls State Park one morning. Before 7 am, I waited in the truck outside the closed park gate until someone came to open it. Finally, a ranger opened the gate, and other than him, I was the only person in the park. I walked the short distance down to the water from the parking lot. Since traveling, waterfalls have eluded me, and most of them have presented themselves as nothing more than a trickle. But not today.

Along the path that follows the water trail is the remains of a foot bridge that once gave people a full view of the Middle Falls.

At last, my tripod stood on rugged rocks being swept by gravity-driven water. Today, I had exuberant water and I was alone in my own private Tennessee paradise (at least for a short time before other visitors showed up).

About a 1/2 mile up river from Burgess Falls was a beautiful area of the river from which I could photograph safely.

Further south, we spent a couple weeks in Alabama. We have become very familiar with Alabama as it is conveniently located next to Florida and quite difficult to avoid on our travels north or west. And each time we come here, it surprises us – this time with its deep canyons, grand overlooks and yes, waterfalls. The southern Appalachian Mountains come into northeast Alabama with canyon rims, bluffs and sandstone cliffs, and gorges carved by the Little River.

The Little River cutting through the landscape.
One of the lookouts within DeSoto State Park which is located atop Lookout Mountain. We enjoyed several hikes within this mountainous state park.
There are so many hiking trails in northeast Alabama. Check out the state parks such as Bucks Pocket and DeSoto, as well as across the Georgia state line to Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Little River Canyon (a National Preserve since 1992) is one of the deepest canyon systems east of Mississippi River and the deepest in Alabama. While staying at a campground in Fort Payne for one week, we had time to explore the area. Lots of hikes, photography atop a waterfall, and lunch at a quirky mountain town called Mentone.

With only a small water fall, I was able to walk over the rocks above Little River Falls with my tripod and camera.
A day after spending the morning photographing from the top, an afternoon storm brought the falls back to life.
Another view of Little River Falls before the storm. While I photographed, a person walked across the rocks and sat down near the water falls. In this photo, the person is sitting out-of-view behind the horizontal rocks in front of the water falls.

Heading further south, we come out of the mountains and the rolling terrain becomes less rugged and more gentle. We were getting closer to the gulf coast and Florida, and temperatures were increasing. On our way down, we stopped at Wind Creek State Park, one of the largest state parks in the United States and where people can access Lake Martin.

During a morning walk along the edge of Lake Martin.
From a narrow peninsula that juts out into the water about 1/4 mile, I photographed Lake Martin early Sunday morning. No one else was out there.
You’ll never forget which state you are in when camping in an Alabama state park. On an early Monday morning, this sight is uninspiring compared to the ostentatious red decor that filled the campground over the weekend.

Following Wind Creek, We headed south and stayed near the town of Eufaula with its southern hospitality and historic plantation homes. We were in the deep south, the antithesis of the badlands where we spent much of our travels this summer.  Which makes it even more ironic that while staying in southern Alabama, I was able to explore a canyon. A very strange and quirky canyon.

While camped at White Oak Campground, another Army Corp, Vivian got a little fishing in from her inflatable kayak.

Eufaula is on the Walter F George Reservoir, a large vertical expanse of water that is split down the middle by the Alabama-Georgia state line. As the early morning sun rose, I drove across a bridge from Eufaula on highway 82 into Georgia and headed north about 16 miles to Providence Canyon State Park. The drive there took me through rolling hills of forests and farmlands, nothing special for these parts.

Satellite imagery of Providence Canyon gives you an idea of its peculiar terrain.

As I got closer to the park, I had thoughts of our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota a couple months earlier where we drove through the flattest country for hundreds of miles before all of a sudden, like being tele-transported to another planet, we were surrounded by extremely tall and very strange rock formations. Likewise, once inside Providence Canyon, you feel you are in another world, certainly not southern Georgia.

It isn’t until you get inside the canyon that you realize how strange and quite surreal this place feels.

But yet, there it is. But this time, unlike the badlands we visited this summer, Providence Canyon or ‘Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon’ is manmade, which makes it even more peculiar. Apparently, Georgia recognizes its Natural Wonders and considers this one to be one of its seven. The canyon was created by erosion after years of poor agricultural practices during the 1800s (I suppose that’s natural considering man is part of nature).

Constant erosion from water is quite evident in the canyon that is comprised of mostly sandy clay.
You’ll find several of these crevices barely wide enough for one person to walk into along the canyon walls.
It is difficult to believe that canyon walls several stories high are made of this.

The erosion created several gullies as deep as 150 feet and you can climb down and wander around many of them. As you walk the gullies, you are surrounded by very tall and colorful canyons comprised of pink, orange, red and purple hues. The clay and sand soil appears fragile, like a sandcastle on the beach. The rare plumleaf azalea grows here as well. All this makes Providence Canyon a strange and beautiful thing, thanks to farming gone bad.

The colorful canyon wall reminds me of tapestry.

Out 2020 travels included many places that are not only far removed from our southern Florida ecosystem, but so broadly varied from each other. Rolling hills of Iowa, Although we traveled far and wide to see some of these strange lands, it is remarkable that so many of them border right up to Florida. The United States is diverse in many ways and to explore it by RV is a wonderful thing. And yet, as we leave Alabama and cross the Florida line, I begin to think of how I could spend a lifetime simply exploring this state. Well over 500 miles lay ahead of us before we settled down for in Chokoloskee for our winter hibernation. So, we spent a little time near the Ocala National Forest to do some exploring. Stayed tuned for our final 2020-travels blog coming soon.

Another foggy scene from the Defeated Creek campground.
Outdoor seating or takeout only from the Wildflower Cafe in the colorful mountain town called Mentone, in Alabama.
A nice view of an Army Corp Campground called Long Branch, on the Caney Fork in Tennessee. Spacious campsites spread out wide and on a weekday, we had the place practically to ourselves. Water levels on the fork vary widely from water release from the Center Hill dam located several hundred feet upstream.

Sep 5, 2020 – Three Women of Tennessee

Before bringing our 21-ft truck into the city, we research the parking options. We found this one pictured here on Google Earth and picked out the one spot we thought would give us a fighting chance to get in and out. It’s the one with the little red car. We figured on a Saturday morning, the lot would be empty (which it was) and backing into the sight would be easy enough. And by the way, this wide-angle image makes the parking lot look way bigger than it actually is!

Thank you Hurricane Laura for changing our travel itinerary. Because of you, we spent a day in Nashville before getting back on track. We love visiting cities but held back during COVID. Finally, armed with masks, we could not pass up a day of visiting one of the most interesting cities in the country. There are a lot of things that strike me about Nashville, not the least of which is the music. And no doubt, the music or really, the history of the music took precedence while visiting the Music City. But buried among the nostalgia of the Grand Old Opry and the many entertainers associated with it, were three stories of three women that stood out for me – three women who, in some way changed the face of Nashville and even the entire country.

Early Saturday morning in downtown Nashville before the crowds. I can’t remember which southern biscuit sandwich we had for breakfast, but I am sure it was low calorie.

After a filling breakfast from Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken, we walked the uncluttered downtown streets and found ourselves standing in front of the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 and while it was designed as a house of worship, it was often leased out for nonreligious entertainment events to stay afloat. In 1904, along came an enterprising widow and mother who was working as a stenographer, had recently finished business school and relocated to the fast-growing city of Nashville. To make ends meet, Lula C. Naff began helping a colleague book speaking engagements, concerts, etc. at the newly named Ryman Auditorium. Ahead of her time in 1914, Naff made event booking her fulltime job and in 1920, she became the Ryman’s official manager.

A National Historic Landmark, the Ryman Auditorium is still a venue for concerts and events, and tours are given as well. Unfortunately when we were there, it was closed.

To avoid initial prejudices as a female executive in a male-dominated industry, Lula C. Naff used the name L.C. Naff professionally. Naff gained a reputation for battling local censorship groups who threatened to ban many performances deemed too risqué. She had the ability to book shows with world-renowned entertainers including W.C, Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Doris Day. The Ryman was Nashville’s largest indoor gathering place and Naff managed to keep it in the forefront of the city’s awareness. Not only did Naff stand up against censorship, but she also snubbed Jim Crow and provided a diverse range of entertainment that sometimes was enjoyed by integrated audiences in a period of “Whites Only”.

In 1943, Naff saw a good thing and arranged for the Grand Ole Opry to begin broadcasting from the Ryman on June 5, 1943. And there, it originated every week for almost 31 years thereafter with every show sold out. Lula Naff was named Manager Emeritus upon her retirement in 1955 and passed away at the age of 90 five years later. Given the nickname, “The Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium became a National Historic Landmark in 2001 for its influential role in country music.

Enjoy this slideshow of downtown Nashville, taken during our guided walking tour that included Printers Alley and the Woolworths, site of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.

During the same year that Naff passed away, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess purchased a bar called Mom’s. The old honky tonk shared an alley way with the Ryman Auditorium and was notorious for the Ryman entertainers who snuck away for a drink before, during and/or after a show.

The alleyway between the Ryman Auditorium (on the left) and Tootsies. In between sets at the Ryman, Willie Nelson would sneak over to Tootsies for a drink or two, or three, saying “it’s 17 steps to Tootsie’s, and 34 steps back”.

One day, Bess hired a painter to give the 3-story bar a fresh look. Later, she came back and was surprised to see the building painted orchid purple. Instead of demanding the bar be repainted more appropriately, Bess instead renamed it to ‘Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge’ which to this day is orchid purple.

Tootsie’s in all her Orchid glory, 422 Broadway in the heart of Nashville’s entertainment district.

Many a songwriter including Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams played at Tootsie’s to get their work in front of other performers. And many luckless writers and pickers were graced by Tootsie’s generosity in the form of $5 or $10 bills slipped into a pocket. Apparently, Tootsie had a cigar box behind the counter full of IOUs from hungry artists. Opry performers got together at the end of each year to pay Tootsie. In 1978 after Tootsie’s passing, she was buried in an orchid gown and placed in an orchid-colored casket. On November 8, 2009, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess (herself a singer and comedian) was inducted in the Music City’s Walk of Fame.

Standing in line outside of Tootsies with other masked tourists, we waited for two people to come out of the bar, prompting the doorman to let us in. Tootsies is three stories, each with a stage for live music. We removed the masks, and enjoyed a beer while listening to a local picker play his songs on the second floor.

Enjoy this slideshow from our walk down Broadway’s music district.

But of all the influential women of Tennessee, there was one the stood out more than all the others. This fact came to light as we stood in front of the Hermitage Hotel, built in Beaux-arts style in 1910. The hotel is yet another National Historic Landmark, designated so about one week before our visit. This time, not for its influence on country music, but rather on the right of women to vote. In 1920, as one of Nashville’s leading hotels and a block away from the capitol, the Hermitage became the focal point for the nation.

It was here that both suffragists and anti-suffragists lobbied legislators for several weeks leading up to the Tennessee Senate and House votes.

By the summer of 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment and Tennessee became the Suffragists last, best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election. Tennessee’s governor called a special session of the General Assembly on August 9 to consider the issue. Pro- and anti-suffrage activists (the Suffs and the Antis) descended upon Nashville with intent to influence the legislature. For six weeks, the Hermitage Hotel was filled beyond capacity with Suffs, Antis and journalists. All eyes were on Nashville.

The resolution passed easily in Tennessee’s State Senate, while both sides lobbied desperately for the House of Representatives votes. It became known as the ‘War of the Roses’, where legislators favoring the ratification wore yellow (handed out by the Suffs) and those opposed wore red (handed out by the Antis). The intense lobbying worked on both sides because twice, the Tennessee House members voted 48 to 48 to table the motion to concur with the Senate action ratification decision.

As it were, we visited Nashville around the time of the centennial celebration.

On August 18, 1920, a call for a third vote on the original motion was made, assuming it would again be defeated by the same tie vote. The House’s youngest legislator at the age of 24 was Harry T. Burn from a little town called Niota. Burn came into the votes with a red rose on his lapel and voted ‘Nay’ twice to table the motion prior to the third vote.  Originally, Burns supported the suffragists but was pressured by his party leaders and constituents telling him his district was overwhelmingly against woman suffrage. Burns began the voting process siding with them.

A third roll call commenced and five votes later, landed on Harry T. Burn. Tucked away in Harry’s suit jacket pocket under the red rose was a letter delivered that morning from Pheobe ‘Febb’ Burn, his mother. Among a few stories from her farm, Febb wrote the following,

“Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.

With lots of love, Mama”

Knowing very well what he had to do, Burns said ‘Aye’ and pulled off his red rose. The suffrage vote had passed the Tennessee House 49-47 and Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment which became law ensuring the right to vote could not be denied based on sex.

In the case of Harry T. Burn, the significance of a mother’s influence on her son cannot be overstated. Since 1848, women had organized and fought for suffrage at the national level. It was an extremely difficult battle fought by thousands of women who literally put their lives on the line by enduring violence and incarceration. So it is amazing to think that the amendment’s passage came down to one mother’s gentle but forthright nudge toward her son that made all the difference in the world.

Thank you Lula Naff, Tootie Bess and Febb Burn.

One last note, we also visited the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum for a walk down nostalgia lane. Here are a few photos from that visit.

There must have been a couple dozen drum sets on display at the museum, including this one from Santana’s drummer Michael Shrieve. His stunning Woodstock performance of the song “Soul Sacrifice” is forever burned in many people’s memories.
Only a few musicians are honored with a full room exhibition at the museum. Jimi Hendrix is one of them.
Cosmo’s Factory – my first album purchased with my own money! I still like to hear “Doo doo doo, lookin’ out my back door”.
There is a museum in Nashville devoted to Johnny Cash, but the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum did him justice.

Aug 26, 2020 – Running from Laura

Our tour through Arkansas included four stops, each of which would give us lots of time on the water. It began in the Ozark Mountains and was to end at the Mississippi River.

Sometimes intentions are just that. Vivian and I had every intention of spending quality time in Arkansas this year, mostly because we didn’t get to do it as planned last year. Last year, Vivian broke her ankle while fly fishing the White River on the first day of our month-long Arkansas adventure. Consequently, reservations got cancelled as we hobbled out of Arkansas feeling defeated.

It is now 2020, Vivian has fully recovered and we’re back in Arkansas to slay our demons. To ensure we didn’t miss anything, I booked four Arkansas campgrounds giving us almost one month to explore its backwoods country. And it all began in the tiny town of Gilbert on the beautiful Buffalo National River.

At the Gilbert RV campground, we could open our door to view the steam rising from the Buffalo River each morning.
Gilbert, population 33, is a one-road town and that road dead ends at the Buffalo River. The most activity is at the campground seen here or down the road a bit at the outfitter/general store.
During the early 1920s, Reverend John Battenfield and his followers migrated into Gilbert and aspired to create a self-sufficient community to survive the return of the Messiah. Gilbert Cemetery was created for those who didn’t make it for the anticipated Rapture.
We camped five nights in Gilbert which gave us time to explore the area and paddle the infamous Buffalo National River.
Established in 1972, Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.

Next on our whirlwind tour of Arkansas was Lake Dardenelle State Park where we secured a coveted full hookup site on the water. The campground was quite generous with its real estate as we enjoyed a full view of the water from the RV. From the RV we could walk halfway down to the water to our own patio large enough for a couple of chairs and table.

From our campsite, we had prime real estate overlooking Lake Dardenelle. The lake is a major reservoir on the Arkansas River and covers over 40,000 acres.
While Vivian fished Lake Dardenelle, I photographed it.
From the state park’s pier, Arkansas Nuclear One is in clear view. The lake was created in 1968 upon the completion of the Dardenelle Dam. Although the lake itself offers beauty and a prolific fishery, there are always reminders of the strong hand of man.
We spent a day hiking some of the trails at nearby Petit Jean State Park, one of Arkansas’s best, located between the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Plateaus.
A pioneer cabin nestled in the Ouachita Mountains was where five children were born over a hundred and fifty years ago. You can visit it at Petit Jean State Park.
Sandstone and iron oxide create interesting patterns and textures as seen on the Bear Cave Trail in Petit Jean State Park.
Lake Dardenelle supports a habitat for macro-invertebrates such as the mayfly nymphs. After spending the day exploring the area, we came home to this, the RV covered in mayflies. To me, mayflies are beautiful, so I commenced to photograph them. Enjoy the slide show below.

Our next stop was Lake Oauchita (pronounced WAH-shi-tah) where we had six days at Denby Point, an Army Corp campground.

Our campsite on Lake Ouachita. Unfortunately, we did not get to stay as long as we intended.
With the time we did have, we stayed put at the campground so Vivian could fish every morning while I explored the shoreline.

As always, we keep a wary eye on the weather. When we arrived at Denby Point, forewarnings of tropical disturbances was vaguely on our radar screen; that is until Laura came along. No doubt, being hundreds of miles from a coastline makes one cavalier toward tropical storms, but not this time. Tropical storm Laura was heading toward Arkansas and Denby Point was in the middle of it.

Laura was big and bad enough to make us leave and head north.

So we left. For the second time, I cancelled reservations at Mississippi River State Park, Arkansas’s newest. It was not meant to be. Instead, we left the southern mountains and drove north to Illinois, barely out of Laura’s cone of certainty. Laura approached the Louisiana coastline as a category 4 hurricane on August 27 and became the tenth-strongest U.S. hurricane landfall by windspeed. Louisiana was devastated – Texas and Arkansas were struck hard. Laura entered Arkansas as a tropical storm and generated eight tornadoes, the largest tornado outbreak recorded in the state during the month of August. Widespread flash flood warnings were issued throughout the state, along with 57 mph wind gusts.

Friendly campground chickens visited our campsite at Whittington Woods Campground outside of Benton, Illinois. We really enjoyed this campground and the owners were generous enough to share a dozen fresh eggs, complements of the friendly chickens.

Nimble with our 33-ft fifth wheel in tow, we were safe in Benton, Illinois. Never heard of the little town before, but dang if it didn’t turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip. Not because George Harrison visited it (the first U.S. visit by a Beatle) or because it was the site of the last public hanging in Illinois, or where John Malkovich grew up. No, instead, Benton, Illinois will always be in our memory because, through happenstance, we got to spend quality time with good friends and fellow fulltime RV’ers who were camped nearby.

While we were running north away from a hurricane, our friends Lorraine & Spencer were making a beeline across the country from Oregon to South Carolina attempting to get there in time for a wedding. As luck would have it, our paths intersected in Benton, Illinois. Didn’t seem like it, but it had been two years since we saw them last in Indiana. So with our friends, we toured Benton and had a blast.

This picture is the result of gawking tourists driving by. So what’s the story here? In September 1963, George Harrison and his brother came to Benton to visit their sister Louise who lived in this house with her husband. At that time, the U.S. had not yet caught on to the Beatles. But that would happen soon after many folks in Benton met the skinny younger brother of Louise. He had funny hair, but people found him to be respectful and charming.
The “George Comes to Benton – 1963” mural created by California artist John Cerney welcomes you to Benton, Illinois. While George visited Benton, a neighbor of Louise drove him to a music shop in nearby Mt Vernon where he purchased a Rickenbacker 425 guitar. It was fire red, but George had it refinished in black. The guitar, which he used when the Beatles recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” a month later, sold at auction in 2014 for $657,000.
Beatles memorabilia can be bought at an antique shop in downtown Benton. During his visit, many people of Benton became acquainted with the younger brother of Louise. One Sunday in early February 1964, the people of Benton turned on their television sets along with a record-breaking 73 million other viewers to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show.” George’s second trip to America was proving to be very different from his first.

Were we disappointed that our Arkansas plans were once again foiled? Absolutely not! But to Arkansas, our nemesis, I say “We’ll be back!”

Spencer, Vivian, Lorraine and Connie. One of the perks of traveling in an RV is meeting others who do the same. Our friends also travel in a Grand Design Reflection and through regular correspondence, we share our adventures and learn from theirs.

Aug 3, 2020 – Bleeding Kansas

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is located in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Visiting it gave us a chance to enjoy some of the outdoor markets.
City markets can wake up your senses! Most of our travels are spent in rural areas. So spending some time in a vibrant city is refreshing to us.

Our interest in American history continually evolves with our travels. Learning the unique history of a place enriches our travel experiences, gives us a deeper understanding, and shapes our itineraries. It opens our eyes to the lives of so many people of the past whose actions, intellect, drive, bravery, love or hatred still reverberates through time. So with that, we heeded our friends (fulltime RV travelers) Lorraine and Spencer’s advice and visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City.

How the Arabia Steamboat Museum came to be is an extraordinary story. The sidewheel steamboat sank in the Missouri River near what is today Kansas City, on September 5, 1856. In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons, Greg and David, set out to find the Arabia. They used old maps and a proton magnetometer to locate it, and finally discovered it under 45 ft of silt and topsoil.

We didn’t realize coming into the museum how much it would contribute to our Civil War history lessons. The museum is full of preserved artifacts that were saved from the sunken ship that was loaded with immigrants as well as goods being delivered to the western territories, including Kansas. It is an extraordinary time capsule of a most fascinating period in U.S. history. Many patents were being created and with so many people immigrating to western territories, a large supply of new-fangled products for home building and farming, guns, clothing, housewares, food and medicines were being shipped along with them.

The only casuality of the sinking of the Arabia.

What makes this even more fascinating is that everything contained on the Arabia was well preserved within the mud (devoid of oxygen and light) of the Missouri River for over a century. Check out this slide show to see some of the remarkable displays, including the preservation lab.

It was the museum and then later, a visit to Lawrence, Kansas that enlightened us to the civil war that had been going on years before THE Civil War began. And this pre-civil war conflict began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1855. Indeed, it was these words from Senator Atchison of Missouri who wrote in September 1855 to his southern friends, “the Kansas contest is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institution if we fail…the stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one… in a word, the prosperity or the ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle”.

Among the many goods carried by the Arabia were Sharps Rifles, These were brought in primarily from the New England Emigrant Aid Company out of New England to supply Kansas abolitionists that were at war with pro-slavery opponents from Missouri.

It is clear from this letter that the institution of slavery was under attack and Kansas played a big role in determining whether slavery would survive or not. A few months earlier, Horace Greeley (editor of the New Your Tribune) wrote a celebrated editorial predicting the great battle between Freedom and Slavery was at hand and that the little cloud hovering over a handful of people in the far West foreshadowed the coming storm.

So how did Kansas get drawn into the fight? The short of it is, organization of western territories was in demand and this required railroads. Since 1820, the country was divided by the 36th parallel – above it, free states; below it, slave states. Realizing the importance of a transcontinental railway for taking hold of the western territories, southern slaveholders wanted it to run below the 36th parallel and this included Kansas.

A violent conflict exploded between slave-state Missouri and the Kansas territory which was increasingly populated with abolitionists transported from New England. Much of the violence occurred in and around Lawrence, Kansas. Both sides shipped immigrants and armaments to the region. This is where the Arabia Steamboat comes into the story as it was a common means of transporting immigrants and guns to Kansas. Among supplies and goods shipped to western territories were the Sharps Rifle that were later known as “Beecher Bibles”. These rifled designed and patented in 1848 were known for their long-range accuracy and became icons of the American West. A leading abolitionist and part of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, Henry Ward Beecher believed the Sharps Rifle was a “truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.” His sister, by the way was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

After years of violent conflict, Kansas was admitted as a free state on January 29, 1861, and this was only because enough southern Senators had departed during the secession crisis that led to the Civil War. Our lessons into the tragic events leading up to the Civil War culminated at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas. The college town ambience made us feel at home, and from its museum, we came to appreciate its contributions to civil rights activism, including a recent Black Lives Matter protest.

The Watkins Museum of History walks you through Lawrence’s civil rights history that continues to this day. Since 1855, we have come a long way, but their are always reminders that the journey continues.
Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas advertises youthful whimsy in every store window.
And showed us a witty sense of humor in the time of COVID.
Having been in rural western Kansas and Nebraska for weeks prior, the overt welcoming signs were a delightful shock.
Practical and effective advice provided with humor – a nice alternative to the “no masks required” signs we were use to seeing through much of the great plains.

We spent two full days in the area of Kansas City, Lawrence while camped in Topeka. The stark yet refreshing contrast from our western Kansas experience did not go unnoticed while visiting a vibrant city market and an eclectic college town. But that’s not what we came for. No, we wanted to go to Wamego. Why Wamego? To see the Wizard, of course! And with that, we leave the great plains and head south.

Downtown Wamego.
It isn’t always history that leads us to some unknown town, like Wamego, Kansas home of the Oz Museum
Even in Oz, some do and some don’t.

Aug 1, 2020 – To Boldly Go…

Our route through western Nebraska and Kansas began with Fort Robinson State Park and ended at Scott Lake State Park in Kansas. We stayed in four campgrounds along this route, each identified on the map. With fifth wheel in tow, we stopped at Carhenge after leaving Fort Robinson, an easy roadside pulloff for RVs. All told, from the day we arrived at Fort Robinson to the day we left Lake Scott, two weeks had passed.

Most people I suspect, drive through Kansas and Nebraska only because they cannot avoid them if they want to get to their next destination. And I also suspect that most people keep to the interstates of which there is one in each state that bisects it completely from border to border. With that, I will guess that most people who have traveled through Nebraska or Kansas have never seen Toadstool Geologic, Carhenge, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Monument Rocks or Little Jerusalem Badlands. Too bad, because these are jewels adorning the vast flat topography of the great plains.

Carhenge is a replica of England’s Stonehenge, conceived in 1987 by Jim Reinders. Instead of stone, carhenge is created with 39 automobiles.
While living in England, Reinders studied the structure of Stonehenge, which helped him to create carhenge.

One of them is man-made inspired by stone formations, while the others are strange and abrupt geological landmarks formed by the power of weather-driven deposition and erosion. The alternating layers of hard and soft rocks interrupt the flat lands with dramatic vertical appearances that fan out at their base. When viewed from a distance they appear as aberrations and viewed aerially, look like injuries to an otherwise smooth landscape. When you see these rock formations, you get the sense they did not look like that millions of years ago. Indeed, what remains standing are testimonies to the durability of hard rock as the surrounding softer rock eroded away over time. Often, odd shapes have formed from large clumps of sturdy sandstone that appear balanced delicately atop narrow vertical outcroppings – such are the toadstools or hoodoos. They have won the test of time and their ongoing erosion is undetectable to the human eye.

From our campsite at Chimney Rock Pioneer Crossing we had a view of the rock. Not much of a campground, but it is conveniently located.
At night, Chimney Rock lights up.

Escaping far and wide from the vertical rocks are deep crevices or arroyos that appear like spindly tree branches extending across the landscape, only to be seen from above. This severe landscape is often referred to as badlands and indeed, the progress of westbound pioneers was impeded by them. Emigrants typically traveled along the Platte River Valley as part of the Oregon Trail. When they arrived at Scotts Bluff, the travelers were forced to move out of the valley to find a pass that would allow them to continue westward. Other formations such as Chimney Rock served as familiar landmarks for travelers.

Westbound emigrants had to find a pass around Scotts Bluff on the Oregon Trail.
The Summit Road was built through Scotts Bluff. No need to go around it now!
A view from Scotts Bluff.
Looking east toward Scotts Bluff as the sun set behind me.

Otherworldly is a term used often to describe these rock formations. I cannot help but think of many Star Trek episodes where the landing party finds themselves among strange geologic formations on a desert-planet. No need to travel to another galaxy, simply get off the interstate and explore Nebraska and Kansas. One does not have to boldly go where no others have been because these points of interest are not difficult to get to; you simply need the desire to see them. And Vivian and I had that desire; at least I did, with camera in hand.

The sun rose behind me as I set up to photograph Little Jerusalem Badlands from a lookout point.
Little Jerusalem got its name because to some, it looks like the ancient walled city of Jerusalem.
Cattle graze everywhere in western Kansas.
Monument Rocks is located on private land, and is technically closed from sundown to sunrise. We arrived a couple hours before sunset.
While attempting to photograph Monument Rocks, I had to patiently wait for people to move out of the frame. It wasn’t terribly busy, maybe a couple dozen people scattered about with plenty of rocks to go around.
Around sunset, the moon rose and by then, most everyone had left the rocks.
A photographer could spend a lot of time here.
While camped at Fort Robinson, Vivian and I drove up to Toadstool. It was a long drive going 15-20 mph on 12 miles of washboard gravel roads, but well worth it. The photograph was taken from a Newsbreak website to show you the campground and parking lot.
I had less than an hour, maybe only 30 minutes or so to photograph what I could at Toadstool. Sunset was an hour or so away and a nasty storm was closing in on us.
I basically walked around the edge of the rocks, not having time to explore inward.
Meanwhile, the storm was hanging large in the sky, but made for a perfect backdrop for the bright rocks.
This pyramid shaped rock stood out along the road into Toadstool. On the way out, Vivian stopped so I could get out and capture this scene before the rain started.
In addition to exploring the rocks, we visited the Golden Spike Tower than overlooks Bailey Yard, the world’s largest switching yard, near North Platte, NE.
And last, we stayed in a campground overlooking McConaughey Lake, a large reservoir in the middle of western Nebraska. Here, large RVs can park along the water on the beach. You can’t drive yours down there, it has to be brought in with special towing equipment, at a cost of course.

Jul 21, 2020 – “Nebraska was Not Always a Bed of Roses”

Last year, we followed key historical events of the Civil War on our travels through South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi. This year, we followed the Indian Wars during our travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama.

Our campsite at Fort Robinson State Park gave us a view of Nebraska’s wide open spaces. Fort Robinson at one time was a K-9 corps training center. The training of war dogs in this country began during WWII. About 5000 were trained at Fort Robinson. Dog food was made in that building.

Standing outside the RV on a hot and windy July evening, the eerie whistling of the stiff winds through the trees sparked my imagination of a wintery cold night as anything could. I gazed upon a Nebraska great plains scene from our Fort Robinson State Park campsite and thought about the feeling of freezing temperatures whipped up by the wind, knowing how it can cut you to the bone like a steely knife. I thought about that after visiting the Fort Robinson Museum and learning about the massacre that took place on these grounds in the winter of 1879. Contributing to my dark feelings were the comments from a park employee concerning the common sound of the wind through the trees that are thought to be spirits crying in the night.

An aerial view of Fort Robinson State Park. Our campsite was in Red Cloud Campground (full hook ups).

What spirits? On March 29, 1874, Camp Robinson was established as a military post within the U.S. Red Cloud Indian Agency, a parcel of land designated for the resettlement of 13,000 Lakota Indians. The agency was created from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as were many other agencies or precursors to Indian Reservations. Camp Robinson was set up to protect the Agency and became the location of Crazy Horse’s murder, and soon after a massacre of Cheyenne Indians.

A window reflects the Crazy Horse Memorial. The building is a replica of the one Crazy Horse was led into when he came to Camp Robinson under a flag of truce.
A memorial to Crazy Horse where he died. Four large granite stones surround it in all four directions, a Lakota traditional design.

Following the battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. Government ramped up its war on the Native Americans. After suffering several defeats, the Indians began to drift into the agencies and surrender. Crazy Horse himself, the victor of Little Bighorn was convinced to return to Camp Robinson and give himself up. On September 5, he was taken to the guardhouse where something happened that caused him to bolt out the door. In a split second he received a fatal bayonet wound from a sentry guard. Hours later, Crazy Horse died from his wound on September 5, 1877.

An artist’s account of the fatal wounding of Crazy Horse.

Approximately one year and four months later, a band of captured Cheyenne led by Dull Knife broke out of Camp Robinson where they had been starved of food, water, and wood for heat as an attempt by the U.S. military to force the Indians into submission. The goal of the military was to make the Cheyenne return to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where the band had fled earlier in attempt to return to their land north of Nebraska. The consequence of Dull Knife’s group of about 150 men, women and children breakout was the massacre of all but 60 of the escapees who were captured and returned to Camp Robinson on January 22, 1879.

Replica of the barracks where Dull Knife’s band were imprisoned with no wood for heat, or food & water.

While camped at Fort Robinson State Park, the horrors of those days can be easily forgotten on the park’s friendly grounds where visitors can leisurely bicycle or walk around while taking in the historical sites. Horse back riding is a common activity here and one can enjoy a modest meal at the park’s lodge. In the days before Covid-19, hayride and chuckwagon cookouts were provided as entertainment. In the evening, Fort Robinson’s campgrounds are a familiar site with campers sitting comfortably outside their RV or tent, grilling and chilling. We had two days, so we assigned one day to immerse ourselves in Fort Robinson history and the second day to explore the surrounding area where we continued our Great Plains education.

A couple miles from the state park along Highway 20 is Staab’s Drive-Inn, the most active scene in Crawford. As many times as we passed by it (and stopped in one time), we never saw it without costumers waiting in line.

Nebraska’s 200-mile Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway (highway 20) bisects Fort Robinson State Park. It was along this highway that we explored the history of northwest Nebraska’s great plains beginning with the very small town of Crawford. It is one of hundreds we have seen during our travel; a once thriving rural community, now a skeleton of dilapidated buildings, some with a hint of life in them. We imagined growing up there and what might convince a young person to stay on past high school. The prospects look dim and from what I could tell Staab’s Drive-Inn (not a typo) is the only lucrative business that employs local teenagers. Crawford once thrived when the railroads reached Fort Robinson to bring in supplies to the soldiers. It became the entertainment center for the soldiers and fur traders, gaining quite a reputation as a wild frontier town as you can imagine. Oddly enough later in our travels and far away from Crawford, we met two RVers on two separate occasions who were born and raised in Crawford, NE, current population of 1116.

I’m sure it’s somebody’s favorite bar, but it definitely has seen better days on Crawford’s main street.

We continued driving east to the larger and more robust community of Chadron, home of Chadron State College. Chadron began as a fur trading post in 1841. Railroads led to its growth as did higher education that was brought to Northwest Nebraska in 1909 with the founding of Chadron State College. There we ate our packed lunch at a beautiful city park (Wilson Park) where a few others seemed to go to escape their office cubicles for an hour. Nearby was the college campus where we visited the Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center.

Iron metal cut outs & their shadows run along the outside walls of what was once the Blaine Hotel, the starting point for the 1893 Chadron-to-Chicago horse race.
A statue of Nebraska’s author, Mari Sandoz stands among wild grasses and flowers in front of the visitor center.

The Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center is more than that; it contains exhibits and is an active research facility containing ecological, geological and sociological collections relating to the great plains, with some art thrown in for show. An author of dozens of books, Sandoz was born and lived much of her life in the great plains, of which is the focus of her books. She wrote about Crazy Horse and the Sioux, she wrote about the fur traders, she wrote about the cattlemen, and she wrote about the buffalo hunters. Her detailed research makes each of her books an historical account of high plains life, especially relevant when coming from a woman who grew up there in a family of immigrant pioneers.

Author of many books, it seems Sandoz wrote every story there was to tell about Nebraska’s high plains.

To round out our Great Plains education, we visited the Museum of Fur Trade, located a few miles east of Chadron. The museum is where over 6000 authentic artifacts are displayed to help tell the stories and history of the North American fur trade. Do not underestimate this distinctive attraction – it presents an interesting view of American history.

About 3 miles east of Chadron along the scenic byway. The sign is small relative to the large red-roofed building that is the museum.

The trade industry was huge back in the day and the museum touts it as the first business in the New World. Fur trade was a significant means for Native Tribes to acquire many things, including firearms to resist the U.S. Government. There is so much going on here, that a quarterly journal is published through the museum. For the film “The Revenant” the producers relied on the Museum of Fur Trade for its authenticity.

The museum houses an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and clothing.
This museum contains a comprehensive collection of historical artifacts from the fur trade era, including furs!
In the museum, a room is devoted to an obsessive compilation of firearms that were made exclusively to sell to American Indians. It is the largest collection of these rare firearms.
You learn something every day! River travelers in their canoes carried personalized canoe cups for drinking water.

Vivian and I never imagined the rich history that we would be exposed to during our visit to northwestern Nebraska. While planning, we basically lumped together our travels through Nebraska and Kansas into one segment – great plains states with a history but largely void of iconic national parks and archetypal landscapes and wildlife. To the contrary, both Nebraska and Kansas are full of surprises that transcend the prevailing flat farmlands. Stay tuned as we take you further into it, next time.

PS The title of this blog is a quote from Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, 1991.

Jul 13, 2020 – Two Artists, Two Monuments

Even from the highway, these two monuments stand large.

Our RV was parked in the Black Hills of South Dakota for two weeks. The history and legend of these hills, not the least of which is that they constitute sacred land to the Lakota Sioux people did not escape us. After a long and drawn-out conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota, the government seized the land in 1877. From that point on, the Black Hills have experienced mining, logging, recreational uses, and two monumental stone carvings, both of which we came to see.

The bust of the Mt Rushmore artist is on display at the entrance of the Avenue of Flags at the Mt Rushmore National Monument.
A painting of Crazy Horse Memorial artist Korczak Kiolkowski is in the American Indian Museum.

Our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial was a way to pay humble respects to Native American history and to learn from it. Unfortunately, undertones of shame were difficult to ignore. And while our visit to Mt Rushmore was to pay respects to our national parks, it came with subdued pride for our democracy. Nevertheless, the tug-of-war between pride and shame dissipated when we were stopped in our tracks and stood in awe of the extraordinary human accomplishment of such massive stone carvings. Instead of immersing ourselves in Crazy Horse’s story (this will come later in our travels), we found ourselves paying more attention to the life and work of Korczak Ziolkowski. Instead of reflecting on each President’s accomplishments and how they shaped our American democracy, we could not stop thinking about John Gutzon Borglum.

The entrance to the Avenue of Flags gives you a full on view of the monument.
Outside the American Indian Museum, a mock up of the completed Crazy Horse Memorial serves as a foreground for the unfinished memorial.

To put it as bluntly as possible, each monument is the creation of an egotistical white man with visions of grandeur. Initially, the Mt Rushmore project was the idea of South Dakota’s historian Doane Robinson to promote tourism to the state. Robinson wanted to pay tribute to the great American West by way of a stone carving that would include the likeness of a Lakota Chief and famed explorers Lewis and Clark, among others. He invited nationally renowned American artist John Gutzon Borglum to do the work. Interestingly at the time of this invitation, Borglum had begun a project in Georgia with a different take on American democracy.

Lincoln’s head proved to be the most challenging to carve because of his beard. I guess Roosevelt’s mustache was no match.

Borglum was an opportunist – a worthy trait for an artist and a necessary one to become nationally renowned. He was also quick tempered – not uncommon among opportunistic artists, I suspect. And he was racist – also not uncommon among white Americans during his time. He once said, “I would not trust an Indian off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Each of these traits worked together to bring him atop Stone Mountain in 1915 and eventually to Mt Rushmore. It was Borglum’s national reputation (and perhaps his racism?) that led him to Helen Plane of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.

On June 9, 2020 Mississippi relinquished its confederate state flag. At the time of our visit to Mt Rushmore, the flag had not yet been replaced. Consequently, along the Avenue of Flags was one empty flag pole. I am sure by now the new magnolia flag waves proudly there.

Plane invited him to carve a 20-ft bust of Robert E. Lee on the 800-ft face of Stone Mountain. Borglum suggested her idea would amount to nothing more than a postage stamp on a large stone face, so he conceived a monument of grander scale. His vision included Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson riding their horses, followed by artillery troops. To honor the major financial backers of the monument, the KKK, Borglum agreed to build an alter to them when offered the following proposal from Helen Plane, “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”

Along the Avenue of Flags, 49 of our 50 states were represented. I wonder what the four presidents would think about that.
The Presidential Trail winds through the forest along the base of the mountain giving visitors a closer view and varying perspectives of Mt Rushmore.

Within a year’s time, Borglum’s headstrong will clashed with the financiers of the monument and came to a violent head when the artist smashed his clay and plaster models. He left Georgia permanently and ended his tenure with the KKK, which was likely prompted by Doane Robinson’s more lucrative invitation. Borglum discarded Robinson’s original idea and came up with his own vision to include four presidents representing his personal symbolism of America – birth (George Washington), growth (Thomas Jefferson), development (Theodore Roosevelt), and preservation (Abraham Lincoln). The carving commenced in 1927 and Borglum devoted his remaining 14 years of life to the 60-ft tall profiles that would emerge from Mt Rushmore. His son Lincoln finished it for him after he died in 1941.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson. It was truly a good start in the right direction.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.” George Washington. He never told a lie, right?
“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” Abraham Lincoln. I believe Lincoln saw the forest through the trees.
“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” Theodore Roosevelt. Two of my favorite three presidents seen here.

Meanwhile, Chief Henry Standing Bear had a vision to counteract the newly created monument dedicated to the United States of America. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” This was written to another well recognized and highly accomplished American stone artist, Korczak Ziolowski. It took Ziolowski a couple years to mull it over and create some designs for this monumental work of art. But like Borglum, Ziolowski never met an opportunity he didn’t like.

“I will return to you in stone.” Crazy Horse

Ziolkowski set out to design the Crazy Horse Memorial, ultimately to become the world’s largest stone-carved monument. And unlike Mt Rushmore, it would be created three-dimensionally from one side of the mountain to the other. One can imagine Ziolkowski’s motivations to take on such a project that he expected to complete in 30 years. Perhaps his difficult background growing up in abusive foster homes gave him a deeper sensitivity to the Sioux Nation’s plight, or perhaps it was being in the shadow of Borglum during his stint as an assistant on the Mt Rushmore project. After all, Chief Henry Standing Bear offered Ziolkowski an opportunity to outdo the other famous stone carver. Or maybe it has nothing to do with Borglum or the Sioux Nation, rather it was simply an opportunity to do something no other had done or was willing to do. Perhaps none or all the above. Whatever his initial motivation, Ziolkowski blasted away the first pieces of Thunderhead Mountain in 1948 and commenced to dedicate the rest of his life (and his family’s) to carving it.

A pictorial timeline of the progress made on Crazy Horse Memorial.

Approximately 17 miles from Mt Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain. The completed head of Crazy Horse is 87 ½ ft, much larger than a president’s head on Mt Rushmore. The entire completed memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Although the memorial is unfinished, the vision of its completion looms large beyond the detailed and completed face of the Lakota leader. The Crazy Horse Memorial came into existence to counter the nearby monument to America and it is probably for that reason it remains unfinished with no end in sight. Indeed, funds from the U.S. Government have been refused numerous times. Regardless of its relationship to Mt Rushmore, the memorial to Crazy Horse was inspired by the spirit of the Sioux Nation, while the stone carving itself is the mega-vision of one artist.

Artist paintings of American Indian Chiefs. Below are more photos of art and handwork displayed at the American Indian Museum.

So, what did we come away with from our visit to these great monuments? The obvious take away is that together they represent a large piece of American history, both bright and dark. For that reason, we recommend anyone traveling to South Dakota to visit both monuments. But mostly, we learned the stories behind two amazing stone carvings. We learned the motivation behind the extraordinary creation of each monument began with the work of one artist. Mt Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial – two artists, two egos, two visions, two lives dedicated, two immortal stone-carved monuments. That is quite a legacy.

Jul 9, 2020 – Let the Chips Fall Where they May

The American Alligator is synonymous with The Everglades. I can remember clearly the first time I saw one in the wild. At least six feet in length, the reptile’s presence commanded its watery environment. It appeared to not have any interest in me or anything for that matter- it was just there biding its time. I could not keep my eyes off it, it looked so primeval with its thick armor of dull gray skin. In terms of evolution, the American Alligator got it right the first time having not changed much over the millennium. Nearly extinct from hunters a hundred years or so ago, its comeback is the symbol of all that is right with the Everglades. The quintessential keeper of the swamp, the American Alligator IS the Everglades, always has been and respectfully, always will.

Like my first encounter with the alligator, my first siting of a bison in South Dakota felt as if the magnificence of everything I came to see and experience in the Great Plains was filtered down to that single moment when I saw a lone bison standing under a tree. Like the alligator, the bison appeared to not take any notice of my presence nor cared one way or the other. It was just there – keeper of the grasses. The American Bison IS the Great Plains, always has been and respectfully, always will.

The classic bison profile stands out against the very large longhorn steers. The second bison is laying down behind the steer.

On July 9, two days after arriving at the Black Hills in South Dakota, Vivian and I saw two American Bison, number 4 and 5 on our count. The two were hanging out behind a small herd of longhorn cattle at the foothills of Devils Tower, not far over the Wyoming border. The monolithic rock formation with its vertical columns stood out in severe contrast to the brilliant blue sky and green pasture foreground, a perfect backdrop for the bison on the plains. Despite it being in the same family of Bovidae, the bison appeared out of place next to its cousin. Or should I say, the longhorns looked out of place in the bison’s grassland.

An artist’s depiction of what the America’s Great Plain once looked like. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

The bison is synonymous with the Black Hills or really, the Great Plains. In fact, it became the national mammal of the United States in May of 2016. I am sure most Americans slept through that one, I know I did and only recently became aware of it as my interest piqued from our travels. The irony of bestowing an animal that was brought to near extinction with the honor of national mammal by the very same government that caused its near extinction is not lost on anyone with an ounce of cynicism. Long ago, the bison once roamed North America in numbers upwards of 30 million. By 1890, there were less than 1000 and ten years later, only 325. Our national mammal, indeed.

A mountain of bison skulls. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.
Among the few that remained after 1900, bison were being exploited. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

For centuries, Native Americans relied on bison for their survival. It provided them with practically everything they needed – food, clothing, tools, shelter. The bison was also an object of worship for many natives. Following Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery in the early 1800’s, the American westward migration commenced at an obscene rate. By the 1860s, the elimination of the bison began. This was primarily by hunters who killed the animals for their hides, bones, and tongues, and consequently leaving the carcasses to rot on the plains. When the trains started running through the Great Plains, it was all too common for passengers to shoot the large beasts for target practice as the train thundered past the herds. While the killing of animals to extinction to fuel a fashion trend is difficult to wrap one’s head around (I am still struggling with the thought of plume hunters), this horror pales in comparison to the atrocious effect it had on native people, best summarized by General Phillip Sheridan, Commander of the US Army Cavalry who stated, “The buffalo hunters did more in five years to defeat the Indian nations than the army had done in fifty.”

Each year, Custer State Park’s bison herd is rounded up, an important management strategy (and very popular sightseeing event) to maintain a large and healthy herd. Photo comes from South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks website.

Ranchers that moved into the northern Great Plains also contributed to the bison’s demise. But ironically, it would be a handful of ranchers that eventually initiated the slow return of the American Bison. Today, there are almost 400,000 bison throughout North America, most of which live on public and tribal lands, including Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The state park is home to 900-1600 bison, the second largest publicly held herd in the country.

I left Vivian behind a few mornings to go photograph the Black Hills from atop a ridge overlooking an enchanting view of the hills.

Only three days into our 2-week stay in the Black Hills, I left Vivian and our RV behind to drive in the dark toward the main entrance of Custer State Park. Not far from there I turned onto Wildlife Loop. As sunrise approached, it became lighter as I made my way to a previously chosen location where I was eager to photograph the sweeping Black Hills landscape from atop a ridge. My truck, as far as I could see, was the only vehicle on the 18-mile loop.

A herd of bison stopped me in my tracks as they walked on by.

As I slowly made my way on the 25-mph highway, I had a difficult time containing my eagerness to photograph the landscape before the dawn’s early light lost its sweetness. And then abruptly, my anticipation was interrupted. Stopped in my tracks on a highway where no other traffic was evident for miles, I sensed something special was about to happen. The sheer size of the bison is enough to stop anyone in their tracks, even if one is driving a full ton pickup. It was not one bison that caused me to stop, it was at least 50. That was my immediate impression as I put the truck in park. Within a second or two, I came to realize that was only the beginning as I watched a thick line of bison a quarter mile long wind its way toward me.

Too excited and wanting to capture video and photos of this event, I never did get a count. At best guess, upwards of a couple hundred bison proceeded to walk past me.

The sauntering procession began somewhere in a field on the other side of trees that blocked my view. All I could see were large animals appearing in the distance one by one. In total awe I watched several of them pass by within six feet of me. The adults’ wariness was evident with a steady eye contact. The calves were never far behind them. The only sounds were the gentle clopping noises of even-toed hooves on the pavement and occasional loud bison grunts and snorts. I opened the door and stood on the running board to get a better view of the animals as the long parade passed on both sides of the truck. Minutes passed. Alone with a few hundred bison and three pronghorn that leapt briskly through the scene at one point, I felt as I do when alone in the Everglades.

Later that day as I backtracked the Wildlife Loop, I came onto this common scene. Not long after this, a video of a female buffalo charging a woman who got too close to a calf went viral.
A similar type of scene in Everglades National Park. The park warns people to give alligators a wide berth.

A moment like this takes on an entirely different meaning when experienced in the presence of others. And that happens a lot in Custer State Park. In fact, the park warns visitors of frequent traffic jams because of bison herds blocking the road. Similarly, visitors to Everglades National Park are warned to give alligators a wide berth as the reptiles lay out in the sun in the presence of hundreds of onlookers walking along a narrow boardwalk. It feels like Disney World when you see so many alligators lying motionless in the open as dozens of tourists accumulate to take pictures before walking on by. In Custer State Park, stopped vehicles accumulate on the road, and doors open as passengers try to get a clear view of the bison with a camera or phone.

Alone with the bison.

But when given an audience of one, nature will put on an extraordinary show of epic magnificence, if only for a fleeting moment. With no others to distract or to serve as a buffer, the experience can be palpable. It is nothing short of a unique gift from nature, to be kept safe in a memory. The Black Hills gave me such a gift at the crack of dawn on Wildlife Loop. For about 10 minutes, I stood still from the safety of my truck and viewed a few hundred bison saunter on by. And in those moments, what I had anticipated in the Black Hills no longer mattered. Everything came down to this.

Bison at the Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. What an experience to step out of your RV only to be confronted with a herd of bison.

After that, Vivian and I saw many more bison, often in the presence of many other visitors to the park. The Black Hills gave us one gift after another; I got to photograph the enchanting hills on a few occasions and Vivian got to spend time fishing the many lakes in the area. And then there were those two grand rock sculptures we visited (those are for another blog). But it was the time I had alone with the bison herd that defines the Black Hills for me.

Each morning that I went out to photograph, I felt as if I had the entire Black Hills region all to myself.
One last scene, from atop a ridge where the Wildlife Loop highway runs through it.

Jul 7, 2020 – There’s Gold in Them Hills

Custer’s campground base in the Black Hills.

On July 2, 1874, a United States Army expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer set out for the uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to investigate the possibility of gold mining. On July 31, the wagon train arrived at Black Elk Peak (highest point in South Dakota) where a camp was set up at the mountain’s base. This camp was named ‘Custer Park’. On August 15, Custer wrote a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota and stated the following “…examinations at numerous points confirm and strengthen the fact of the existence of gold in the Black Hills.” A scout carried that message to Fort Laramie and from there, it was telegraphed to the press eastwards and the news spread like a social media tweet storm.

A modern-day campground in the Black Hills.
Vivian and Connie’s campground base in the Black Hills.

It should be noted at the time of the expedition, the Black Hills was exempted from all white settlement forever according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Justifiably, the Lakota people living in the Black Hills were alarmed to Custer’s expedition. The short of it is, Custer’s letter piqued the U.S. government’s interest in owning the Black Hills. But there was this nagging issue of a treaty. To earn ownership of them their hills, the U.S. government would have to buy or steal them from The Lakota Sioux. At first, Congress took the high road and offered The Lakota $25,000 for the land and to relocate them to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). When the chiefs refused the offer, a US commission was sent to the Black Hills to pressure the Lakota leaders to sign the new treaty. They failed.

Custer’s expedition Wagon Train.

President Grant and members of his cabinet met with military leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the issue. Indian Inspector Erwin C Watkins responded to their discussion with this: “The true policy in my judgement is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”

Connie and Vivian’s expedition Ford F350 without its wagon attached.

Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After a series of campaigns, including the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer met his defeat, the Agreement of 1877 officially took away Sioux land and permanently established Indian reservations. Meanwhile, the Black Hills Gold Rush had already commenced.

What a hike in the Black Hills looked like for Custer’s expedition group.

Fast forward to 1919, 40 years beyond the peak of the Black Hills Gold Rush. South Dakota was now a state, and under the leadership of Governor Peter Norbeck fast becoming a popular tourist destination in place of its gold. Norbeck would leave a tremendous legacy to South Dakota during his two terms of governorship and later as State Senator. In 1919 the “prairie statesman”, urged the state to acquire a 72,000 parcel of land designated as Custer State Forest and turn it into Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest state park.

A modern-day hike through the Black Hills.

Driven by his vision for South Dakota, Norbeck personally oversaw the development of South Dakota’s Custer State Park including the infamous Needles Highway. He initiated the creation of Needles Highway by marking the entire course through steep slopes of pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains by horseback and on foot. In 1922, the Needles Highway was completed, including two tunnels blasted through granite rock.

Imagine a highway being created through those rocks.

On July 7, 2020, an RV expedition led by Vivian and Connie set out for the popular Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to explore Custer State Park’s many scenic highways including a drive through the infamous Eye of the Needle, and to discover its many lakes, hiking trails and wildlife. The RV in tow arrived at Heartland RV Park located along Highway 79, a short distance from the small town of Hermosa where it would be set up for two weeks. The camp was named ‘#630’.

The Black Hills as seen from a highway.

With a laundry list of things to do and places to see including lakes to fish, lands to photograph, historic towns to visit and trails to hike, it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to fit them into a two-week period. So, on the first day, it was decided to initiate our Custer State Park expedition with the most anticipated (and perhaps feared) activity on our list, and that was to drive the truck through the Eye of the Needle.

Classic South Dakota storms were frequent during our stay. During one of those storms while inside the RV, we heard a loud noise, only to look out the window to see our neighbor’s awning blown out.

The name ‘Needles’ refers to the granite spires that comprise a region of the Black Hills. Basically, these are tall vertical rock formations with sharp looking tips. Besides the view, which the driver cannot fully appreciate having to keep her eyes on the road, the best part of the highway or at least the most anticipated are the tunnels; and there are two of them.

Custer may have killed a grizzly bear during his expedition to the Black Hills, but…

Winding through the mountains we eventually came to the infamous 8’9” wide and 9’8” high Eye of the Needle. We got our truck through it in one piece and could sigh relief as we knocked that “must do” off our expedition list. Custer may have shot and killed a grizzly during his expedition to the Black Hills, but we passed through the Needles and lived to tell the story!

…we drove through the Eye of the Needle!

One last thing about them Black Hills – gold may have been discovered from Custer’s expedition, but our expedition to the Black Hills felt very much like striking gold. Take away Custer State Park and the area is left with two national memorials, two national monuments (one of which is in Wyoming), a national park and several historical mining towns. Not to mention 1.2 million acres of beautiful wilderness full of wildlife. Now that is gold.

Stayed tuned for more of the Black Hills expedition. Meanwhile, enjoy this slideshow from some of our hikes in Custer State Park.