These are Eric’s diary entries, with the newest entries at the bottom.
It is time to create a website for our vacation to Oklahoma!
Did some work on the "plumbing" for the website today. I realized that sometimes people who try to register for this site are not able to complete their registration, because their confirmation email gets lost.
It is now possible to have a new confirmation email, with a new registration code, sent to you. This should help in the registration process.
After all, I want to make it easy for anyone to sign up here! Let me know if you still experience problems.
It is Saturday, the day before we leave. As always, the last day before the vacation is mostly one of waiting, interspersed with some hectic activity.
We have purposefully waited with packing until the last day. Partly because yesterday I still had a full day at work, but also because we know that otherwise the day will go by way too slowly. Still the actual packing didn't take long at all.
Nicoline actually does most of the work, since she is best at this kind of stuff. The way we work this is that Nicoline lays out everything she suggests we'd take - clothing on the bed, hiking and camping stuff in the basement, and so on. I then look at it and usually have one or two questions or suggestions, but that's it. This way we don't spend a lot of time going back and forth and still share the responsibility of forgetting something. (Yeah, I know, we should want this to be slow, but that's just not who we are.)
We've started to load up the car with some of the things that can stay in there over night. Tomorrow morning we should only have to add our suitcase, the cooler with some of the perishables, and the expensive stuff (camera, laptop and such).
We also finished the other chores by noon — making sure the gutters are cleaned, putting some lights on a timer, shutting off the gas, things like that. I went through and charged the various electronics, and I'm now trying out my new sneakers.
Footware always surprises me. We always seem to be having more of it than we think. Hiking boots, sneakers, sandals, city shoes, water shoes, flip-flops for in a hotel - it adds up quickly. For this trip, I'm taking only four pairs: hiking boots for the more substantial hikes, sandals and sneakers to alternate day-to-day wear, and flip-flops both for going into the water and for wearing if a hotel isn't as clean as one would hope it'd be.
So now we're ready to get up tomorrow morning around 4 and be on the road before 5...
Yes, the day has finally arrived that we got started on this year's fall vacation. We got up at 4 (Nicoline even earlier than that), after having gone to bed around 8:30 last night. We do sit down for breakfast and then finish packing the car. And I remember to take a picture of the mileage before we leave!
There is not a lot of exciting things to tell about the rest of today, since the first day is mainly driving. We see the sun come up when we change drivers the first time, pass a water tower with an apple basket in Virginia and see a school bus towing a pickup truck. By the time we enter Tennessee it's time for our third switch at the welcome center, where we pick up a new map and see a building across the highway in the shape of a guitar.
Past Chattanooga we enter into Central Time so our clocks go back by an hour (we have an hour extra). Shortly thereafter we enter into Alabama, our sixth and last state for today (after Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and a teeny piece of Georgia).
By now we're off the Interstate and on US-72, which turns out to be the "Trail of Tears Corridor". We follow this to Huntsville, where we visit the visitor center to get coupons and maps, then find our hotel.
The Candlewood Suites hotel that we reserved seems to be a kind of an extended-stay place, it has a pretty decent kitchen with cups, plates and everything. It also has a vending area with snacks and stuff, not in a vending machine but available to get, using the honor system. You can borrow DVDs and games and things at the front desk. It has washing machines, a small gym and everything.
Most of today is taken up with a visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville is the site where the rockets that brought men to the moon were tested, it is where Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists settled to do their R&D in the 1950s and 1960s.
I had to admit that I had heard of Huntsville, but I didn't quite know what to expect. Other than that they have a Saturn V rocket standing in their rocket garden - we saw that yesterday when we drove by.
We were there before they opened at nine (of course) so we started looking at the displays outside the entrance. One of them was of special interest to Marching Monkey: a memorial to Ms. Baker, the first American animal to travel into space and return unharmed.
I won't bore everyone with detailed descriptions and endless photos of rockets, engines, and other parts. I really wanted to see a Saturn V "in the flesh" one day, and today I did. Apart from that, what impressed me most was how small the capsules and moon lander really were. I've seen moon landers in the Smithsonian in D.C., of course, but here the small size really struck me.
Because of a coupon we got at the visitor center yesterday, we got a free IMAX movie with our ticket, which we watched, and after which we had tickets for a bus tour through Redstone Arsenal base.
This base is huge, with a four-lane divided highway connecting different parts. Back in the 1950s, the Huntsville area was mostly empty so it was an ideal site for relatively dangerous rocket testing. Nowadays most actual testing has moved elsewhere.
Here we saw some of the original rocket test sights, as well as the people at work in the International Space Station Payload Operations Center. We also visited the area where they do research with regard to long stays in space, like getting a better system to retrieve water and oxygen from waste products.
After our visit to the Redstone Arsenal base we continued through Alabama into Mississippi until finding a hotel in Holly Springs. No internet, unfortunately, so the upload will have to wait until tomorrow.
The motel we found last night was cheap, but as per usual, you end up getting what you pay for. I mentioned already it didn't have internet, which we can live with. But the lamps next to the bed didn't have light bulbs, and when we switched with bulbs in other lamps in the room, we found that the bedside lamps actually had their plugs cut off from the cord. Also, the smoke alarm had been removed. And as icing on the cake there was a cricket hiding in the room somewhere, which kept Nicoline awake most of the night.
Like yesterday afternoon, one of the remarkable features of the landscape was the stretches where everything was totally overgrown with Kudzu. Kudzu, which has been called "the vine that ate the South", is almost impossible to contain once it starts overgrowing an area. It has its own Wikipedia article.
We have breakfast at a Waffle House (always a good fallback!) where they had a new menu option: the Apple Crumble Waffle. Definitely interesting, although I'm not sure if I'll have it again. I think I prefer my waffle plain (I don't even like butter on it), with plenty of syrup.
We continue towards Arkansas, and shortly before reaching the Mississippi river we wonder what the plants with the white dots are in the field we're passing. Would that be cotton? Yes, it is. Much lower than the cotton plants we've seen before, but clearly still cotton. We see all stages of the plant, from flower to seed pod to open cotton.
We cross the Mississippi river and enter into Arkansas, a state we've set foot in before but never really visited. So we start out at the welcome center not far beyond the bridge where a helpful lady gives us a lot of information about the town Helena and things we may want to see there.
We do get to the river, and get to go down all the way to the water's edge. As we all know, the Mississippi will grow and shrink, depending on the amount of water its tributaries contribute. Right now it's low (although not extremely low like a couple of years ago, when ships couldn't use most of the river) so the land on its edge is dry land, cracked from the baking sun. It forms beautiful patterns...
Back in town, we visit the Delta Cultural Center. Here we learn about "King Biscuit Time", a radio show five days a week which started on November 21, 1941 and has been going on ever since. It started out sponsored by a local flour brand but has become a phenomenon in its own right since.
It turns out that the host of the show, "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, has been the host since 1951. A World War II veteran, Mr. Payne will be 90 years on in November, and he still continues to present this 30-minute show five days a week.
Nicoline and I ended up as guests on the show. Today's episode can be downloaded here, although I don't know how long that episode will remain available. We are there about 16 minutes 45 seconds into the show.
The Delta cultural center also had a special exhibition of face masks of many famous blues artists, which officially opened today. Its regular exhibitions tell the story of the blues in the "delta" (which is really a large area around the Mississippi river, not really literally the river delta).
Before leaving Helena, we visit the site of a civil war battle in the area, the Battle of Helena, which is marked by sculptures of soldiers, kind-of like sketches. There was supposed to be a nice view over the town, but most of that view was obstructed by trees.
Next stop is the Louisiana Purchase State Park. The Louisiana Purchase is the transaction where president Jefferson bought a huge tract of land from the French, more than doubling the territory of the United States in 1803. Once bought, the territory had to be surveyed, and to do this, baselines had to be established. The north-south and the east-west baselines met in a place in Arkansas, around which the Louisiana Purchase State Park is established. The area is really a swamp, as is common around here ("headwater swamps", which are swamps that don't fluctuate as much as other types of swamp). Supposedly there are alligators in the area, although we only see turtles and some kind of lizard.
After the state park we continue to Pine Bluff, where we end up finding a hotel (a Best Western this time, after our experience with a cheap place last night). Before getting to the hotel, we visit the Delta Rivers Nature Center, which was a little bit of a disappointment. They did have animals in small displays in the nature center, but the trail around the grounds was not really exciting. And there seemed to be an awful lot of trash left in the swampy areas.
One of the things I love about the vacations Nicoline and I take, is that unexpected things happen. We do some preparation: I read websites, Nicoline gets books from the library, and we jot down ideas. We look at the points of interest we idendified and see where they're all located. This gives us a rough idea of our route. But when we're actually on the road, a lot of that is thrown out the door, and we go where inspiration takes us.
Yesterday, we ended up in a radio show. Today, we end up camping in Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Although I was the one insisting we bring our camping gear, I wasn't expecting to use it until we were in western Oklahoma. I guess Nicoline was planning to go camping much earlier than that. So here we are, sitting in front of our tents, Nicoline reading a book and me working on the photos and diary. We will see how the night in the tent goes...
After breakfast this morning we started out towards Little Rock. The first stop was the Little Rock Central High School, the site of the 1957 "Little Rock Nine" action against seggregation in the South. To our surprise, the high school is still a working high school in Little Rock, so you can't actually go in, but the National Park Service has a visitor center across the street that provides a lot of the historical information (a very useful refresher for me, for I have to admit that unlike Nicoline I don't have all the details of American history exactly in my head).
The visitor center showed a movie that was made in 1964 about the Little Rock Nine by the federal government, to be shown in foreign countries. Basically a propaganda movie. Interesting, but as the park ranger warned us, it was clearly lacking some context.
As so often recently the thing that struck me once more this morning is how little really has been achieved since 1957. The lines aren't drawn as absolute as they were in the Jim Crow era, but we haven't come nearly as far as we would like to think.
By the way, if you think this is something specific to the "south", think again. This is a photo of protest against integration in Poolesville, Maryland. Slogans like "Integration is communism", "integration is unchristian", "keep Poolesville white" and "put me down as 'no' nigger lover".
Anyway, from the high school we went downtown, looked along the river front and crossed the Arkansas river on a pedestrian bridge. In the end, it was way too hot to spend much time in a city, so we had a quick lunch in an indoor market and went back to the car for our next treck.
We follow the interstate (I-40) to a town caled Dardanelle, where we do some grocery shopping. Nicoline thought it would be funny to drive through this town, which we did. From here we followed various scenic routes towards Mena.
We repeatedly saw signs for a nuclear evacuation route, and wondered if that was a left-over from the cold war. But the signs were new. Some googling showed that "Nuclear One" is actually the first (and only) nuclear power plant in Arkansas, located on Lake Dardanelle. Mystery solved!
The drive through Western Arkansas is beautiful, but then the question of where to sleep comes up. Nicoline suggests calling the Queen Wilhelmina State Park. That park has been intriguing us for a long time, because it's named after a former Dutch queen. So I call and we find that although rooms at the lodge are expensive, they do have some tent sites available. We reserve one, and drive on through Mena onto the Talimena Scenic Drive
The scenic drive is indeed pretty scenic, with a number of overlooks where you can see far over the Ouachita Mountains. We enter the park and arrive at the lodge where we get the pass for the campsite we reserved. In less than half an hour, the tent was set and we were sitting in front of it, reading.
It turns out that a lot of the other campers (mainly with RVs and such, one person had a minivan with probably a mattress in the back) were ham radio enthusiasts. The camping site on top of a mountain ridge, away from major cities must work well for them. I guess many of them had come early in anticipation of the yearly Hamfest (first weekend after labor day). But another thing that works well camping high up away from cities is star gazing. Which we did. We deliberately waited until it was really dark and took a look up to the sky. And of course I spent some time taking photos as well, which actually turned out really well this time. By they way, you may want to click on the photos here to see the full size ones.
I slept reasonably well, given that we were camping. It was amazing at night how much light there was in the tent after the moon (only a half moon right now) has risen.
We didn't get up at the crack of dawn, but did manage to be on the Lovers' Leap Trail before seven. The trail isn't very long (only a mile altogether) but does go down and back up quite a bit. Still, the view was worth the effort!
I did see what I think was a skunk when we were getting ready, and we saw some deer on the trail, but not much wildlife beyond that. Quite a few spiders, though. Anyway, after hiking we packed our stuff, got a shower, went to breakfast in the lodge and left, continuing on the Talimena Scenic Drive.
After Talihina we turned north, for which we had chosen routes also marked as "scenic" on the map. Some of the views were indeed breathtaking, but I have to say that I'm starting to like the Oklahoma landscape overall. Still green, but much more arid than for instance Arkansas. There are trees but they're spaced more. I'm sure the land will become even drying when we get further west.
Our first stop for today is in Muskogee, where we start visiting the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, which looks like it's located in an old railway station. Admission is free, and we were introduced to a lot of the Oklahoma influence on music in the U.S. by a gentleman who works there. I realize of course that every state likes to emphasize its contributions, but I came away really impressed.
By this time it was close to four and we decided to call it a day. We found a Comfort Inn to settle down in. Nicoline did laundry (with this morning's hiking stuff, we had quite a bit of dirty clothes) while I caught up on yesterday's and today's photos.
When on vacation, it is important to remember that you are on vacation and that you don't have to be running around all day, trying to cramp the most into every single moment. After all, this is vacation, which is supposed to be relaxing, not stressing.
We originally planned today to come to Tahlequah in the morning, see the sights, then head towards Tulsa in the afternoon. But when we arrived at the visitor center, we learned that today and tomorrow are the Cherokee National Holiday (always Labor Day weekend), and that as part of the celebrations, there would be an intertribal pow-wow in the afternoon. So we changed our plans: we are going to hang around for the pow-wow and worry about finding a place to sleep later.
We start by exploring Tahlequah on foot, walking past the Cherokee Nation courthouse (which was in operation, not a museum), visiting the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum. Here we learned about the importance of the Cherokee syllabic alphabet, and how Cherokee language newspapers helped maintain the Cherokee identity.
We walked further up and down the town center, which is not that different for many other American towns (Tahlequah was voted one of America's 100 "main street America" towns), except that the street signs are both in English and in Cherokee.
In one of the shops we chat with the artist and Nicoline buys one of the T-shirts (red, of course) with the town name in both the Latin and the Cherokee alphabet. The shirt itself depicts a scene of Indian mythology, with the rabbit which features prominently in most of the artist's work.
We continue to the Cherokee Heritage Center, where we start out with a break in the parking lot, having the cantaloupe we bought a few days before, and just relaxing for a little bit before going into the center proper. There was no entrance fee to the heritage center (because of the Cherokee National Holiday) and we did get a canvas bag with, among other things, a cardboard fan printed with the logo of the National Holiday.
Did I mention before that it was hot? Well, it was and continues to be 90s (Fahrenheit), although not as humid as we'd get in Baltimore (or even in Little Rock). I find the heat bearable outside of the cities, but in urban areas, with the concrete and asphalt that radiates much of the heat back, it's tough.
We arrive at the pow-wow site before three, even though the program isn't supposed to start until five, and the main event (the "grand entree") won't be until seven. So we get out our folding chairs and relax some more - read a book, eat a snack, that kind of thing. As I said, it is important not to be running around all the time, but also allow time to sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the quiet.
There were two events which we attended, both of which starting about 20 minutes after the announced start time. I'll just show a few sample pictures of each event.
The first is the gourd dance, which traditionally precedes the pow-wow:
The second is the grand entry, which is a ceremonial (even sacred) start of the pow-wow session. Here, all participants enter in their finest dresses. The photos don't do the absolute colorfulness of this event justice:
We left after the grand entry, so we didn't see any of the other events. From the description, it seems they are mostly competitions in different categories - kind of like a county fair. But it was already getting close to eight and we knew there was not a single hotel room to be found in the vicinity of Tahlequah.
We drove back, past Muskogee and Wagoner (where the last room in a hotel was booked over the Internet as I was standing at the desk, asking if they had any rooms left). We have had some bad experiences with non-chain motels, so we really wanted a national chain, and as it was getting past 10 by the time we reached the Tulsa area, we settled for a Holiday Inn which was more expensive than we'd normally like.
After yesterday's experience finding a hotel, and given that this is Labor Day Weekend, we decide to book another hotel in the Tulsa area for tonight, and one for the next two nights near Oklahoma City. Which means that we're "stuck" here in Tulsa today, and will be spending all of Labor Day in Oklahoma City.
Our first stop today is the Woody Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa. I have heard of him, of course, but never got a clear idea of who he was and why he was important. Obviously, this has been rectified: he not only has written songs like "This land is your land", but also was socially active in his song writing, during the dust bowl and beyond.
From the Guthrie Center we went to the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which was constructed 80 years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It "tells the story of the African Americans' role in building Oklahoma".
We now drive south, past a Route 66 display to Glenpool, where there is a monument to the Oklahoma oil business. Interestingly enough, the park (aptly named "Black Gold Park") also features a rocket and a canon...
We drive back to Tulsa to see if there is anything else to do in downtown, but the place is deserted on a Saturday afternoon.
We had decided to have our dinner early at Spaghetti Warehouse Italian Grill, a place we'd seen when we visited the Guthrie Center. This turned out to be an interesting restaurant, where we ate inside a trolley car, and the food turned out to be excellent.
What is so special about the former US-66, one of the original highways designated in the 1920 when the United States highway system started? You may want to read the Wikipedia article for more details, but there really are two parts that fixed Route 66 in the American psyche. First, during the depression and dust bowl, the US-66 was a major path for desperate people in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico to migrate to California to find work. Second, when the American middle class discovered vacations after the second World War, Route 66 was a popular route to reach California.
It is mostly from this second period, the one made famous by the "Get your kicks on Route 66" song), than many of the famous Route 66 landmarks originate. They were created by entrepreneurs who tried to attract tourists with clever and outlandish displays.
Few of these displays have survived the decline of the route, which started when the Interstates took over the role of primary travel lanes. But some new ones have also been added, like the "pop" (soda) bottle, in Arcadia. It is at a gas station and sells hundreds and hundreds of different types of soda.
We wanted to visit the Route 66 Interpretative Center in Chandler, which didn't open until 1pm on a Sunday. Which was a bit of a problem, as it wasn't even 11 yet by the time we got to Chandler. So we decided to hang around, enjoying a donut and coffee (we have previously noticed what seems a relatively large number of donut shops in Oklahoma), and driving around town a bit.
Here we see our first residential solar panel. A day or two ago I realized that I haven't seen any residential solar panels at all here, even though the climate would be much better suited for solar panels than Maryland (where you see them all over the place nowadays). So I started to pay attention, and today we finally saw some solar panels.
Anyway, when the interpretative center finally opened it was somewhat interesting. They had sections arranged as seats in a car or beds in a motel from where to watch different video presentations. And we buy our bumper sticker for this trip here.
We continue following Route 66 into Oklahoma City, where we then find the hotel (a Howard Johnson) that we reserved. We go out for dinner in a Mexican restaurant, before dipping into the pool and now working on our daily diary.
Did I already say that it is hot the last few days? Well, it is hot. Yesterday we saw a temperature display at a bank saying 101 degrees, today one at a church with 104. That's still around 40 degrees Centigrade. Even allowing for these displays to be inaccurate, it is still seriously hot. So we were happy to do a number of indoor things today.
First, the memorial of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. No visit to Oklahoma City would be complete without it, although we skipped the accompanying museum. I'm sorry, it may be unfeeling of me, but I keep thinking about the thousands, tens of thousands of people who have died as a result of random violence in the past twenty years. I realize the significance of the Oklahoma City bombing as an unprecedented act of domestic terrorism in the U.S. But maybe we need to talk more about the continuing acts of random terrorism occurring in this country?
The memorial is impressive, I agree with that. What made it even more impressive were the totally empty streets around it. It is Labor Day today, so just about all offices downtown are closed. But the empty streets, at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, were almost creepy, as if the end of the world had arrived.
Next step today is the Oklahoma State Capitol. Surprisingly, the building is open (even though it is as deserted as downtown's streets). There were no tours available (the volunteer-run visitor center was closed) so the guards suggested we start at the fifth floor work our way down from there.
The entrance was actually in the basement, and to get to the elevator we had to pass through corridors with tableaux of Oklahoma hung on the walls. Interestingly enough, these paintings and those elsewhere in the Capitol ended up giving us a better overview of the Oklahoma history than Oklahoma Historical Society museum. Some highlights:
The oil industry. I knew oil was big in Oklahoma, but nothing brought that home like this painting, with the view from the capitol steps. Oklahoma City was actually a whole oil field! Some more oil-related pictures:
The land run. This is how the Western settlement in Oklahoma, which was originally supposed to be Indian territory, started. On that first day, the town of Guthrie (the first capital of Oklahoma) went from zero to ten thousand people. In one day! The Wikipedia article mentions that a few months later it had city water, electricity, a mass transit system and underground parking garages for horses and carriages. That was in 1889!
The Bison, which is Oklahoma's state animal, and which was hunted almost to extinction in one of the early man-induced natural catastrophes in the United States (I didn't see any reference to the second great man-induced catastrophe, the Dust Bowl).
Steamboats on the Red River, from a time when the rivers were the main arteries of the country and the boats going up and down them the main mode of transportation. The Mississippi and its network of tributaries were what made the development of the large parts of the Midwest possible.
The California Road, back when there were no real roads. Where the rivers were the main arteries, horse-drawn carriages formed the byways. Wagon trains crossed the country, crossed the mountains, and brought settlers with all their possessions in the new lands.
Beyond the artwork, the capitol building itself is a beautiful building, with a majestic dome in the middle, and great rooms for the House of Representatives and Senate. All of which we could wander through freely, without anyone asking us what we were doing.
After the state capitol, we went to the nearby museum of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The museum is housed in a big, beautiful building, but it didn't quite give a well-rounded view of the Oklahoma history.
The museum does have some interesting displays of oil-drilling equipment outside (we didn't spend a long time with that display, due to the heat). I always thought that wells were drilled with a drill that rotates, much like the electric drill I have in my toolbox. It turns out that at least the earlier wells were drilled by basically hammering the rock to dust and then hoisting the rubble out. Who knew?
Inside the museum, the display on Indian history was interesting, although of course we had already seen a lot of that. One thing of note was a willow backrest, because that features in the audio book "Centennial" we're listening to when we're on the road.
The final stop today was the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. By this time, we were tired, and we've never been much into the whole cowboy-and-western thing anyway. But obviously this is a big part of what Oklahoma is, so we felt we had to investigate.
To me, the most interesting part was the "Prosperity Junction" section, an indoors replica of a turn-of-the-century (previous century, that is) cattle town. The town is displayed how it looks at night, which was pretty neat. I was grateful for my new camera, which make it possible to get some decent pictures even though it was very dark!
I complained about the temperatures the other day, but it seems that large areas of the U.S. are in a heat wave. The whole South, up the East Coast, as well as California. So we are not alone in being hot.
On the back seat we have our cooler with snacks and water bottles. We only drink from one of the bottles, then refill it from the others. That way, only one bottle has to be cleaned every night. The water is cooled in the hotel room fridge over night, so the cooler stays a little bit cool. Also on the back seat, the box with "stuff" (you always need a "stuff" box with the different odds and ends) and my camera bag.
In the front we have a USB spider from which we charge Nicoline's phone and tablet, as well as my camera's GPS, and a Bluetooth speaker. That speaker we use to listen to books-on-tape, which Nicoline has on her phone. So far, we've been listening to the book "Centennial" and of course the Woody Guthrie CD.
There are clouds over Oklahoma City when we leave, but they will clear up later in the day. We have a couple of places on our list related to the Chisholm Trail that we'd like to seek out. Most of the day, though, is spent driving through the Oklahoma landscape.
After the Civil War, cattle was scarce on the East coast but plentiful in Texas. An entrepreneur built a big stockyard in Abilene, Kansas, and encouraged Texas ranchers to drive their cattle there, from where they would be shipped by train to the East.
The "Chisholm Trail", named after a trader who had several trading posts in "Indian country" (now Oklahoma) and mapped a route between them, was used by the cowboys coming from many different feeder trails in Texas to get through the "wild west" of Oklahoma to Kansas. So the map at the heritage center is actually a bit misleading.
We continue our way through the town of Comanche and decide to take a little detour through Texas, since we're so close anyway. So we cross the Red River into Texas, go through Wichita, and back up into Oklahoma. We continue seeing references to the Chisholm Trail along the way.
We end up in Lawton, where we visit Fort Sill, which is still an active military base requiring us to get a day pass to visit. Here we go to a museum about the historic Fort Sill, and visit the grave of Geronimo. Interesting, Fort Sill played a role in the development of areal photography during and after World War I.
Every day on this trip is a different day, with an entirely different character and theme. I'm not sure how this happens, but somehow it just works out this way.
Yesterday was about the cattle drives, today was about wildlife re-introduced into the state. Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was originally created as a game preserve by president McKinley in 1901, it has buffalo, elk, longhorn cattle and other animals that had gone extinct in Oklahoma re-introduced into the state.
We stop at the visitor center, where a ranger suggests that we start out by hiking up Elk Mountain before coming back for the visitor center exhibits. This is a 1.1 mile hike, rated "moderate to difficult".
On our way to the hike, we stop by a "prairie dog town" and see some of the cute furry animals.
The hike was beautiful, as was the view from the top of the mountain! I'll let the photos here speak for themselves.
On our way back, we managed to get ourselves lost and found ourselves in the midst of some rock fields. You have to realize that this part of the refuge is labeled the "wilderness area" meaning that the trail, although well maintained, is not marked in any way, and the area off the trail doesn't look very different from the area on the trail. We were exhausted by the time we were back at the car.
It's worth noting at this point that the weather was cloudy in the morning, which also made it relatively cool (that is, lower eighties rather than upper nineties). Excellent weather to hike up the mountain. By the time we came down, though, the sun had broken through and started to burn down on us. Hiking in that weather is very hot and sweaty business.
After the refuge, we went north and west, to end up in Elk City. Here we found a reasonably priced Days Inn right when entering town, and a quick Google found us the "Prairie Fire Inn" which turned out to be housed in an old railway station. The food was great, I can recommend this if you ever found yourself in Elk City.
Walking around the site of the Washita Battle makes you wonder how people can do these things to each other, and I realized that part of many of the atrocities was the conviction that the "others" are somehow lesser humans. This made me think that a feeling of superiority is still rampant nowadays. People who think they're better than those on food stamps, better than homeless people, better than homosexual or transgendered individuals, and therefore it's OK if these "others" are suffering. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Anyway, back to our visit of the battlefield site. It is part of the Black Kettle National Grasslands area, which is one of the areas where some of the original prairie is allowed to come back. The grass is at times almost man-high and seems to harbor a lot of different insects. We didn't see many birds, though, who should be having a delicious meal there.
After hiking the mile-long trail through the battlefield site, we went back to the visitor center and watched the movie explaining the background of the battle (I won't go into that, as I'm sure Nicoline will cover that much better than I could), after which we continued our travel through western Oklahoma.
But let's start at the beginning. Our days always start with breakfast. Normally, the hotels / motels we visit offer complementary breakfast (this didn't use to be the case, but is quite common now). Our Days Inn in Elk City, though, had a novel variation of this: they offered vouchers for the Mexican restaurant next door (actually, in the same building) for breakfast. The restaurant breakfast did not have any options, but it was good nonetheless, so this works as well.
After breakfast we visited the National Route 66 Museum. That is, we didn't go into the museum proper (for one thing, it didn't open until 9, and we were there 8:15), but walked around the grounds. This wasn't just Route 66 specific either, more general about pioneer times.
When we were looking at some of the displays in front of the blacksmith shop, the man who runs that particular area drove up and opened it up for us. He was a retired farmer who was interested in collecting and restoring blacksmith equipment, and gave us a tour of the display. He showed us some of the things that students in the blacksmith class make, and it's quite fascinating to see how they can turn old railroad ties and rusty rasps into decorative items.
After the Route 66 museum came the Washita battlefield, after which we continued to the Glass Mountains. On the way, we came across a turkey vulture who was snacking on roadkill. He was forced to fly away when we approached, but I'm sure he continued his snack later on.
The Glass Mountains is a series of mesas and buttes rich in selenite crystals. Oklahoma has a state park situated here which allows you to climb up on top of one of the mesas and walk around it. This is something I always wanted to do (doesn't everybody who sees one of these rocks stick up in the landscape want to climb them) so in spite of the heat and the burning sun there was no holding me back :-). We did climb up, walked all the way to the end, and on the way back took one of the pieces of selenite offered for souvenirs (so people don't disturb the actual mountains) with us.
After the Glass Mountains we went to Woodward, where we found a Candlewood Suites, similar to the one we had in Alabama. Since these places have a fully equipped kitchen, Nicoline was able to do some quick grocery shopping and cook us a real dinner!
American culture has a strong streak of independence, of wanting as little government as possible, of self-reliance. These concepts are hard to take seriously when you live in a city or suburb on the East Coast, in a society that is so complex and intertwined that everyone relies on so many different aspects of government and laws that it is impossible to imagine a society without them.
Things are different in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Up to 125 years ago, this area literally did not have any government or laws. The United States laws did not apply here, nor did the laws of any of the states or territories. The only law that existed was what the pioneers here made it to be. If neighbors agreed that someone should be shot or hanged, that was it. To this day the panhandle has as its nickname "No Man's Land."
The reason for this strange state is mostly an accident of history. When Texas became a state, it should logically have extended up to the border with Kansas, at the 37th parallel. However, due to the Missouri Compromise, any state above the 36° 30' parallel would have to be a "free state" and Texas would only join the union as a slave state. So Texas' northern border was at the 36° 30' parallel. This left a strip of land 166 miles long and 34 miles wide that was not part of any state or territory. No man's land. Inhabited by individuals who did not want or need government. One of the few areas in the United States where people come by the "minimal government" ideas honestly.
We start our tour of the panhandle at the Gateway to the Panhandle Museum in the town of Gate. This little volunteer-run museum is filled to the brim with different artifacts and memorabilia related to the three counties in the panhandle (Beaver, Texas and Cimarron County).
One of the interesting things here is a Studebaker cart - interesting because it compares with the 1951 Studebaker we saw in Oklahoma City. The display there mentioned that the Studebaker brand was an old one.
The museum in Goodwell has many different artifacts, including spear points and other Indian tools, and a wall with pictures of the "pioneer queens" which have been crowned every year since 1940. Contrary to most of these contests, these are "mature women" who become a pioneer queen for a year.
One of the things I have been looking forward on this trip is getting to the end of the panhandle, to the Black Mesa mountain, which contains at its summit the highest point of all of Oklahoma. Part of the reason is that because of both the height and the distance from all population centers, this is a great place for star gazing.
We start out this morning when the sun comes up, driving over to Black Mesa. We come to a marker noting the crossing of (one alignment of) the Santa Fe Trail, which goes through just a tiny little corner of Oklahoma.
We first enter into Black Mesa State Park, thinking that is where the trail up the mesa can be found. Not quite, but we do get a map. So we get back into the car trying to find the trail head. But the drive to the park is beautiful, with cows coming all the way up to the car at moments, and we have a great view over Lake Etling.
In spite of the map, we still miss the trailhead: on the map it's marked as "Black Mesa Summit parking", but it turns out to be the "Black Mesa Preserve" where we need to park. Adding to the confusion, there had been road signs to both the summit and the preserve, but at the parking entrance there was only a sign to the preserve. So we got to make a little detour on dirt roads into Colorado.
Anyway, we finally make it to the trail head, and start hiking. It is 4.2 miles one way to the summit, which includes a climb up the mesa. We quickly agree not to do the whole trail (eight and a half mile round trip), but I do want to get partly up the mesa to take a panoramic picture.
The first two miles are around the bottom of the mountain, and we mostly see different plants. There is an enormous amount of insects (crickets, grass hoppers, beetles, some butterflies), all of which are too fast to be captured properly. One type of them looks like a cricket when it's sitting, looks like an orange/brown butterfly when it's flying, and sounds like a rattle snake. We're calling it the rattling cricket.
We reach a nice viewpoint at about the 2.5 mile mark (our guess) and I get to take the panoramic view I wanted. Click for full size, opens in a new window:
In the evening we have dinner (and desert) at Dairy Queen, then head back to the Santa Fe trail marker, which is in the middle of nowhere, to wait for night to fall and take some photos of the stars. This is the other thing I had really looked forward to do in the western part of the panhandle.
Today we leave Oklahoma behind and head for Denver, Colorado, from where we will be starting on our way home over the good old I-70. Memories of our 2012 I-70 trip coming back!
In Lamar we stop at the Colorado welcome center for a bathroom break and to switch drivers (and to pick up a new highway map) - only to be hit with a strong feeling of déjà vu: we were here in 2012 to take a photo of the Madonna of the Trail. The lady in the welcome center recommended us to visit Bent's Old Fort a little bit further towards Denver.
This "fort" wasn't a fort at all but a trading post, established in the 19th century to help trade between the Mexicans, Indians and the Americans. It provided travelers with a place to rest, repair and lay in supplies. Kind of like a modern Interstate travel plaza.
We toured the fort, including the room that featured an actual billiard table brought up from St. Louis, and continued on our way past Pueblo and Colorado Springs (with the Air Force Academy) to Denver.
When we did our I-70 tour, we learned about governor Carr in Colorado who, during World War II, continued to treat the Japanese-Americans with respect and sought to help them keep their American citizenship. He sacrificed his political career over this, and we had wanted to look up the status of him in Sakura Square in Denver, but never got around to that. So we fixed that now that we were in the neighborhood again, along with the other statues in the same square. There was some sports thing going on, so downtown was empty but the sports bars were full.
From Denver we went out on I-70 until we found a place to eat and sleep. In the hotel I first spend an hour and a half struggling with updating the website with yesterday's diary; something broke and all I can do on the road is patch things. It is clearly time to completely rewrite the vacation website in something a lot more modern and flexible...
We start out getting gas this morning, and you have never seen anything this gross: the gas station, including the handle of the pump, were covered with thousands, millions of little bugs. I'm not sure what what all were, or why they were all over the place, but I made sure I carefully wiped the handle clean before putting it into my gas tank!
The Konza prairie provides a 2.6 mile hiking trail. We didn't want to spend over an hour here so we planned to hike only a part and go back, but the trail was so beautiful that we changed our mind and did the whole 2.6 mile loop.
We had great views, saw many different plants and a couple of animals along the wind-swept trail (we had trouble holding on to our hats). Whoever says Kansas is boring hasn't been to the Konza Prairie!
Today is mostly a travel day. The day starts out cloudy with rays of sunshine in Topeka, where we "wave" to my boss' boss (who works out of the Kansas City office but, as I understand, lives in Topeka) followed by some actual rain towards Kansas City, before we pass into Missouri.
Maybe this is a good time to talk a little bit about our daily routine, which has been firmly established by now. Of course, we've been building up this routine over a couple of road trips by now.
Hotel breakfasts are more or less the same everywhere. We start out with a cup of orange juice and a cup of coffee (adding some of the instant coffee to bring the hotel coffee up to proper strength). I often have a waffle, whereas Nicoline prefers something a little bit more traditional.
After breakfast we return to the room, brush our teeth, pack everything up (including the half dozen bottles of water we refilled in the evening and kept in the fridge) and check out. All in all, without hurrying, it takes us between one and one and a half hours from waking up to driving out.
On the road we switch driver roughly every two hours. We listen to our audio book ("Centennial" by James A. Michener), talk, or just look around us. The only music we listened to was the Woody Guthrie CD, and we never turn on the radio. Too much hassle finding new stations every time you drive out of reach of one (and anyway, one of the few drawbacks of the Honda is that its radio is pretty bad).
Towards the end of the day we start looking for a place to sleep. We've started to get a decent understanding of where to expect hotels: the outskirts of mid-sized or large towns (although hotels are more expensive near large cities), and the intersections of major roads.
Today we stick to I-70, except for the part where it is a toll road (Kansas Turnpike). We're not great fans of toll roads and usually avoid them when we can. We do stop at the various welcome centers, to pick up an updated state highway map (if we don't need them now, they're bound to become handy for some future trip) and to look for ideas of things to visit. Even though we're homeward bound, we don't want to just drive Interstate, so we do look for side trips.
Our side trip today is to Fulton, one of the places we skipped on our 2012 I-70 trip. Fulton is where Winston Churchill held his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946, and the location of the "National Churchill Museum".
The Churchill museum consists of three parts. The first part is an exhibition about the life of Churchill, and I found it to be quite well done. I got a better understanding how the different parts of Churchill's life are connected from this exhibition.
The second part is a memorial to Churchill in the form of a rescued church. Yes, for this memorial they collected the ruins of one of the London churches bombed out in the Blitz in 1940, shipped them to Fulton, and reconstructed the building here. It was unnaturally bright in the church, though, which makes me wonder whether the original may have have stained glass windows (this church had plate glass in its large windows).
The third part is a sculpture called "Breakthrough". It is made by Churchill's grand-daughter from sections of the Berlin Wall, out of which a male and a female figure are cut. It is almost eerie, having this sculpture representing the end of the Cold War at the museum inspired by the speech which was the first to recognize the start of the Cold War. At first I thought, what the heck, but after thinking about this I could see how it made sense to have this statue here.
After the museum we visited the actual spot where the speech was given. The only place large enough to hold the crowd that would come to hear Churchill speak (and see president Truman) was the university's gymnasium. It is still the university's gymnasium, with a little mark at the entrance remembering the world-famous event that took place here. It makes you wonder if the kids who play basketball here even realize what happened here in 1946.
The lady at the chamber of commerce tourist information, where we stopped on our way into town, suggested Saults Drug Store, which has an old-fashioned soda fountain. We decided to have our ice cream lunch here today (we're on vacation, so we can celebrate!)
After Fulton, where we ended up spending almost two and a half hours (much more than we intended) we continued through Missouri and well into Illinois before stopping at a Days Inn. Tomorrow night we'll be sleeping in Columbus, OH where we have a dinner date with Mark and Jenny.
Today we met up with Mark and his girlfriend Jenny in Columbus, Ohio. Since we'd be driving past Columbus anyway, coming home on I-70, we figured arranging dinner with them would only make sense. Today worked with both of their schedules.
Since we went to sleep in Illinois, we had all of Indiana to cross today, and a bit under half of Ohio. Also, we switched back from Central to Eastern Time, so we lost an hour. Still, we were way early in Columbus, so we arranged a hotel first (on the east side of town, to give us a quick start tomorrow) and took a little bit of a nap before meeting with Mark and Jenny.
Mark suggested a place called "bar 145" which is named after the optimal temperature to cook a burger. The place provided little notes on which you could indicate the parts with which to make your own burger.
After dinner we brought Mark and Jenny back to Mark's place and went back to the hotel, where we noticed that the bedside tables had electrical outlets built in. Those who travel may know that having enough electrical outlets to charge all devices is sometimes a challenge. I hope that this solution by Red Roof Inn will catch on!
Today started out with breakfast at Tim Horton's (this was one of the few hotels which did not include breakfast), after which we leisurely got on our way, because the museum we wanted to visit didn't open until 10am. The museum is both about the National Road (which we explored in our 2012 I-70 vacation) and about Zane Grey, an author in the early 20th century whose stories were the basis for many westerns (movies). Personally, I really liked the displays with scenes of the National road.
After the museum we continued, having lunch in West Virginia near Morgantown, and then on to home. So now we're back home, sitting in our own reclining chairs, with Cleopatra on Nicoline's lap and Butterscotch on the deck. We'll worry about the laundry and stuff tomorrow.
We are home again, back from our road trip. Happy to sleep in our own bed again, happy to see Cleopatra and Butterscotch. We actually came home a few days ago, even though this post is dated on the 18th. By now, things are getting back to normal and it's time to look back on this trip.
We've done a lot, seen a lot, driven a lot, walked a lot. It has been a packed few weeks, from leaving really early on Sunday, August 30, starting with the Space and Rocket Center in Alabama, then through Arkansas and Oklahoma, attending a Pow-Wow, climbing on top of two mesas, and returning via our good friend the I-70.
Oklahoma City stands out to me as a city of good neighbors. I've never seen so many fences in any suburb! That, and the fact that they let us wander around the deserted state capitol by ourselves on a national holiday (Labor Day), with only a metal detector checkpoint when we got in. Be able to take photos everywhere. Don't expect anything like that in Annapolis or Washington D.C.!
We all know that Oklahoma is one of the big Oil States. Oil and oil companies have been a huge part of Oklahoma's past, illustrated by the fact that Oklahoma's capital was built on top of a huge oil field. So we were wondering if there would be much alternative energy in Oklahoma. Turns out there are huge wind farms, which makes sense given the proverbial never ending wind on the plains.
Solar energy, on the other hand, was virtually absent, which is something I cannot understand at all. We saw one house (well, a trailer actually) with solar panels. Just about the only other solar panels we saw were on — wait for this — oil and fracking installations. As if only Big Oil is allowed to use solar panels here!
Oklahoma seems to be a state that mostly stays by itself. We saw relatively few out-of-state license plates while driving around Oklahoma, and when we did, it was mostly from neighboring states (Texas, Arkansas). Conversely, we did not see a lot of cards with Oklahoma license plates before Western Arkansas or after Southern Colorado. Which may not be surprising, given the surprised looks we got over the past half year when we told people we were planning a road trip to Oklahoma. “Do you have family there” was a common response, as if there wouldn't be any other reason to visit the state.
I think that this blog has shown that those people were wrong. Oklahoma is a beautiful, fascinating state. We feel as if we barely scratched the surface in the week and a half we were there. We originally had at least twice as many items on our "potential" list, and could have criss-crossed the state much more than we did. As it is, Oklahoma is definitely on our list of states to come back to!