These are Nicoline’s diary entries, with the newest entries at the bottom.
No trip would be complete without a new website. Eric spent hours making an appropriate banner picture. Without the exclamation point, because we tried to watch the musical "Oklahoma!" the other day, but it was so dumb that we gave up after 45 minutes. So today we drove off in search of an appropriately rural background for our profile pics, which is not that easy to find in suburban Howard county. But we managed to find a somewhat derelict barn near Sykesville, just this side of the Howard county line. I have a battered old straw hat that I use for working in the yard, and together with a blade of grass between the teeth, it gave us the hayseed look we were after. Now for that county twang.... :-)
Phew, I just had a beer with dinner and it seems it went straight down into my legs, which now feel as if I ran a marathon or something. Maybe getting up at 3:30, being in the car just before 5, and driving 721.1 miles in 12 hours (10 hours 48 minutes according to Google) had something to do with it, too.
It was a long drive, but blessedly uneventful. We only stopped to switch seats and/or get gas, and listened to James Michener's "Centennial" on the way while munching our way through apples, sandwiches, hardboiled eggs (be a shame to let perfectly good. I eggs go to waste, no?), and, best of all, what was left of the "spekkoek" Louis brought us last year. Thanks again, Louis, it was delicious! Spekkoek is an Indonesian type of pastry; Google it. If you've never had it, you're missing out!
We made it to Huntsville in time to get to the visitors' center. We'd seen signs for the Von Braun center on our way in, so I thought we could visit that after we visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. While you're at it, Google "Wernher von Braun", too, if you don't know who he is. Or watch this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QEJ9HrZq7Ro
As it turns out, the Von Braun center is more of a convention-center type thing, but the historic Burritt house where he used to live is open to the public, so we'll see if we can visit that tomorrow.
For now I'm going to turn in my update and ask Eric to post it when he's done uploading all 3,427 pictures he took today. It's kind of complicated... I write my blog post as an email, so I can save a copy in case the website crashes. It does that sometimes, for unfathomable reasons, and chances are you lose everything you've written, usually at the end of a really long and intricate post, #%@$#*&$@!
Holly Springs, Mississippi, is clearly a town that's seen better days. After spending more time at the Space & Rocket Center than we'd foreseen, and running into what must have been the only traffic jam in northern Alabama, we didn't make it all the way to Memphis. The smart thing to do would have been to find a place to stay in Corinth, Miss., but of course we had to push on just that bit farther. So now we're at the Magnolia Inn in Holly Springs. I don't know what kind of magnolias they grown here, but it's definitely nothing to do with the whiteness of the laundry. The sheets have a decidedly gray cast, half the light fixtures are missing bulbs, and the cover of the ironing board was last changed during Reagan's second term. Not that that matters, since someone stole the iron... And what really takes the biscuit is that a big storm went through last night and knocked most of the town's internet.
The weather has been rather iffy down here, no doubt because of that hurricane raking up Florida's spine over the weekend. It was sticky all day today, but since we spent most of it inside at the Space & Rocket Center that didn't bother us much. I'd found out Sunday evening that the Burritt House is closed on Mondays, but we planned to drive up there anyway, just to see what kind of house the U.S. government made available to a recently decommissioned SS Sturmbannführer. You'd hardly know this Wernher von Braun had lived in Nazi Germany, much less been a party member and a scientist working on two of Hitler's pet projects, the V-1 and V-2 rockets. They actually had a V-2 at the Saturn V exhibit building, but I found out during the tour of the military facility that's part of the Marshall Space Center that it was only a replica built by U.S. scientists after the war. The *real* thing would've been found terrorizing London and Londoners, but from the display you'd scarcely realize it was even a weapon of any kind!
Space exploration has never been my thing. No doubt they learn all sorts of interesting stuff from being in space and having all kinds of devices to look at stars and whatnot, but I'm of the opinion that all that stuff can wait to be discovered until we've solved our problems on earth. Heretical, but there it is. At first I thought the Space & Rocket Center wouldn't be an appropriate venue to bring Marching Monkey to, but he made the acquintance of a very nice space monkey called Ms. Baker. Actually, he made the acquitance with her mortal remains, since she died after a long life at NASA back in the 1980s.
I would have been perfectly content just to visit the Space & Rocket Center and leave it at that, but Eric absolutely wanted to take the bus tour. Still, for all NASA's high tech gadgets and gizmos they haven't progressed to a civilized mode of transportation, so we spent a good two hours being bumped around a huge military base in a #@&$^ schoolbus.
It did have A/C, which was a good thing, because it got stickier and stickier as we drove around, and the sky turned an ominous slate gray. So when the tour was over, we decided to skip the Burritt House altogether and head straight for Memphis, only to run into a huge traffic jam that cost us nearly an hour. So we ended up in Holly Springs instead. Oh well. We'll get to Arkansas tomorrow.
We got off to a somewhat rocky start today, seeing as how a #&@^#$% cricket drove me crazy with his chirping all night, and the good folks at the Magnolia Inn decided that they didn't feel like setting up breakfast today, so we drove away practically at the crack of dawn without so much as a cup of coffee.
After we'd had breakfast at a Waffle House about 20 miles or so farther west, we felt a lot better and definitely less grumpy - I was so angry about the lousy service in Holly Springs that I'd packed everything up and drove away before poor Eric had even had a chance to shave - and we continued our journey towards Arkansas.
It wasn't the first time we'd crossed the Mississippi, but it's always a thrill to cross over that particular body of water! After looking at the map, we decided to give Memphis a miss altogether, having been there before, and headed straight for Helena, Ark. which is on the west bank of the Mississippi. There was a great Welcome Center right across the bridge where an extremely helpful lady gave us tons of information about Arkansas in general and Helena in particular.
Since the bridge didn't have a pedestrian walkway, we were a little disappointed at not being able to get a good view of the river, but the Welcome Center lady pointed us to the River Park, where there's a boardwalk that takes you nearly to the edge of the river, and since the water was low, the floodplain was dry enough to take the stairs down from the boardwalk and walk right up to the Mississippi.
On the way to the River Park we came across a log cabin with a fighter jet in front of it. Now there's a sight you don't see every day! There was a prosaic explanation for it, though. The log cabin serves as the local American Legion post, built in 1919, and the jet was retired to Helena in the 1960s, though it's actually a late 1940s model. Another display showed a "Mercí Train," sent by the people of France after having received American assistance twice in thirty years. I hope they sent some champagne and calvados and cheese ;-)
Helena is very proud of its service in various wars, but especially of its role in the Civil War. A rather important military engagement took place there, but since it coincided with the Battle of Gettysburg on July 4, 1863 it has not received the recognition it deserves according to one of the people at the Delta Heritage Center, who was not only extremely knowledgeable about the history of the blues in the region, but is also a Civil War buff and takes part in re-enactments.
The Delta Cultural Center was high on my list of things to do in Arkansas, and it was quite an experience. It was not a particularly busy day at the center, so he really took the time to take us around the blues exhibits, including the radio studio from where the King Biscuit show is broadcast. It has been hosted by "Sunshine" Sunny Payne since 1951, and today was the 17,331st broadcast. Mr. Payne is a blues musician of considerable reputation himself, having played with the all the greats, including B.B. King and Elvis. He didn't like the latter, because he caught Elvis signing his name on the thigh of a young lady back in '51 or '52, which he considered highly offensive, and he asked him to leave the club where they were playing after that.
As it happened, Mr. Payne had two guests with him in the studio, while Eric and I sat on the spectator benches, but he invited us to join him in the studio, and decided to interview us on air. Even someone who has played with great blues artists and has seen a veritable who's who of rock 'n roll come through his door (the Beatles, the Stones, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Santana, to name just a few) doesn't have people from Maryland come in every day, I suppose. You can listen to the broadcast at www.kffa.com
After the radio show it was high time for us to continue on our way if we were going to get to other places on our list, but not before we visited the site of the 1863 battle, during which the Confederates tried - unsuccessfully - to dislodge Union troop from a bluff overlooking Helena. It helped that Union troops had help from a gun boat down on the Mississippi that shelled the Confederates as they charged uphill.
After Helena we drove to the Arkansas state park that commemorates the 1815 survey of the Louisiana Purchase. The marker, put there by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1926, marks the spot used as the baseline in later surveys, when the newly acquired land was going to be parceled out to veterans of the War of 1812. The area is a swamp, and the boardwalk provided is there to protect the land as well as the visitors, since alligators are native to the area. I'd never realized Arkansas, or at least the eastern part of it is basically a swamp!
From the Louisiana Purchase marker we drove west on US 49 and 79 to Pine Bluff, where we wanted to visit the Delta Rivers Nature Center. OK, the Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center. We truly went there with an open mind, expecting to find a beautiful park, but the closer we came, the less hope we had. It's surrounded by a cotton processing with its own railroad, a discount lumber & building materials place, a sports park with baseball fields, a golf course, and a marina. All endeavors not especially noted for their environment-friendly practices. The nature center building is home to some live animals, mostly reptiles, but also a lone bald eagle, while little effort has been made to provide the animals with anything even approximating a habitat, just pictures thereof in otherwise featureless cages. The "nature trail" on which visitors can walk around the property consists of a badly maintained boardwalk - seriously, they can't send someone down the trail with a screw driver and a hammer to screw or nail boards back into place? - from which we did see some turtles and birds, but nothing much else, except a lot of trash that didn't look as if it had just been dumped there yesterday, either, including an entire oil drum all rusted through. I think the area was just a piece of land of no use to anyone else, so Huckabee and his handlers probably thought it might do him good, PR-wise, to make it a nature center. Or if I'm really being cynical, the whole site is a brownfield, and turning it into a nature center is a cheaper way of dealing with it than doing an actual cleanup...
We had planned a day for visiting Little Rock, but we ended up staying only an few hours, because it was so hot and humid that it made walking around an ordeal.
We started by visiting Little Rock Central High, scene of the infamous 1957 desegregation struggle. To my surprise it's still a working high school, so it wasn't possible to visit the building itself. But the National Park Service has a visitors center less than a block from the school where we could see and hear some background material. I was disappointed, though, that they linked the struggle for women's rights and farm laborers right with the larger civil rights struggle, but not the fight for LGBT rights. I suppose that's still a bridge too far. Let's just hope that it won't come to sending in the 101st Airborne to enforce the Hodges v. Obergefell ruling...
From Central High, which is not really centrally located at all, we made a valiant attempt to explore more of Little Rock, even if we'd already decided to give the Clinton Presidential Library a miss. So we found a parking garage so as to leave the car in the shade, and set out to explore the River Walk, an area along the waterfront much favored by artists & restaurants. We did walk across Junction Bridge over the Arkansas, a former railroad bridge that now provides a walkway between Little Rock and North Little Rock. But it was really too hot to do much walking. Even right next to and over the water it was too hot and sticky to be enjoyable.
Honestly, having lived in Maryland for 18 years, I thought I knew hot & sticky. But Arkansas is in a whole different league. We went back to the car and drove out of the city as fast as traffic and speed limits allowed, and it was just about bearable driving at 60 mph with all windows rolled down.
The heat didn't let up late in the afternoon, either, so when we got to the town of Dardanelle, just south of I-40, which I had wanted to visit because it's named for the approach to Istanbul from the Mediterranean and this year is the centenary of the Dardanelles campaign of World War I, we decided to stay in the car and drive down some scenic byways down toward the town of Mena. We noticed that Arkansas seems to be very worried about evacution in case of nuclear war... We thought we'd find a place for the night somewhere close by, but then we had the brainwave of seeing if the lodge at Queen Wilhelmina state park had any vacancies. They did, but at such steep rates that we thought we'd camp there instead.
Camping would be great if you didn't have to put up with idiot neighbors who come back to a camp site after 11, and proceed to slam the doors of their car 27 separate times while building a huge camp fire, talking loudly and coughing consumptively all the while. It would also be better if you didn't have to strike the tent and reconstruct the complicated origami to fit everything back into its appropriate container and all the containers back into the trunk.
I will say that the view of the night sky was worth the camping troubles, though! We just don't see skies like this back home in Maryland, where there's always way too much light pollution.
We got up later than we had wanted to, courtesy of our neighbors, but went for a hike along the Lovers Leap trail. I did at least have the satisfaction of unintentionally setting off a furious bout of yapping from the neighbors' dog as we walked - quietly - in front of their tent which must have been deafening to them.
After the hike we packed the whole kit & caboodle up again, which took far more time than we'd thought it would. Then we each went for a shower, because it was already hot and sticky even before 9, and after that for breakfast at the lodge, as the restaurant is open to lodge guests and campers alike.
All in all, it was 9:30 before we drove away down the Talimena Scenic byway in the Ouachita National Forest into Oklahoma. If you like seeing spectacular scenery, you should definitely drive this route! The pictures don't really do it justice!
From the there we continued north into Oklahoma on OK 82, another scenic route that was also very beautiful, and from there up OK 2 and US 64 up to Muskogee.
We visited the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame - I never knew the Sooner state produced so many famous musicians! - and the Five Civilized Tribes museum, which gives a good overview of the history of the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Seminole. These tribes were all removed from their ancestral grounds in the east to what was designated "Indian Territory" but which was in fact opened to white settlement as early as the late 19th century. The tribes tried to fight back in 1905 by proposing to form the state of Sequoyah in what is now the eastern half of Oklahoma, but President Theodore Roosevelt refused to consider anything but a unitary state, and so the Sequoyah plan floundered and Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
Tomorrow we'll visit Tahlequa, the capital of the Cherokee nation, and then we're off to visit Tulsa and perhaps drive part of the way to Oklahoma City on US 66.
Well, that shows you the quality of my research, I guess. I did find out a lot of stuff about the Cherokee nation in general and its capital Tahlequa in particular, but I don't remember coming across any mention of Labor Day weekend as their big national heritage weekend. Which is something they're rightly proud of. The Cherokee had an alphabet by the early 1820s, developed by a linguistically gifted tribe member best known by the name of Sequoyah. They began publishing a newspaper by the late 1820s, opened schools and had a higher literacy rate than surrounding white communities. Many even converted to Christianity, and adopted laws based on American versions thereof. In short, they did everything that could reasonably have been expected of them, but there was nothing they could do against the greed and racist superiority ideas of their American neighbors and they fell victim to a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. I know some of you guys won't like to read this, but there are no two ways about it. Any way you slice it, that's what it was.
It's a miracle that some managed to survive and even thrive in their new environment, which is about as different from what they were used to on the East Coast as it gets without getting into the desert southwest. Driving into Tulsa, we saw a church called "Abundant Rain" something-or-other church. No one would ever name a North Carolina church that. If anything, they'd pray that the rain be considerably less abundant than it sometimes is, I'm sure.
Despite the large number of churches we pass on our travels, it was interesting to see at the powwow that we ended up attending in celebration of Cherokee heritage that quite a few people most obviously did not pray when exhorted to do so by the emcee. (Some apparently hadn't been taught proper manners and blithely went on talking during the invocation of the deity.) Maybe people really aren't as religious as they're sometimes portrayed.
The powwow was a whole new experience. I know there's one in Howard county every year, but for one reason or another we've never gone to one. Anyway, I think we got a more authentic experience than we would get in West Friendship by attending it right in the Cherokee capital, on Cherokee heritage weekend. It was certainly very colorful. Pictures are going to have to wait until tomorrow, however, because it'll take Eric time to process all 180 of them. It's already past 11 and I'm going to veto any extensive processing tonight. So there!
Here, at last, are the pictures:
The first item on today's agenda was a visit to the Woody Guthrie Center. We didn't get there until 10:30 because Eric wanted to finish processing yesterday's powwow pictures first, and we also took some time over breakfast because the hotel had a nice little patio area adjacent to the breakfast room. Granted, the view was of US 51, but it was lovely to have breakfast outdoors. For unfathomable reasons, none of the 547 travel soccer team parents and/or their kids wanted to sit there... go figure :-)
The Guthrie Center is well worth your time, should you ever find yourself in Tulsa. Did you know he was named for Woodrow Wilson, who was not yet elected president at the time of his birth? Though he's been known as Woody Guthrie ever since he was a little kid, his full name was actually Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. His influence on American music endures to the present, nearly 50 years after his untimely death from Huntington's disease. When you go through the short informational videos about his childhood and early life, you get the sense that the family endured more than its fair share of tragedy: the family home burned down, his older sister burned to death when her dress caught fire and Guthrie senior also fell victim to burning, though he survived. They didn't figure out until some years later that those fires weren't accidents, but caused by Woody's mom, in what may have been manifestations of the same disease that later killed him. She ended up being confined to an insane asylum. In the case of the elder Guthrie the fire that burned him may have been karma. When Woody was about 5, his father took part in a lynching in Okemah. According to Wiki, it was one of 147 lynchings that took place in Oklahoma between 1885 and 1930.
More karmic justice may be at work in that the Guthrie Center is located two blocks fro the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park that commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It began when a young white woman accused a black young man, of either grabbing her to stop himself from falling, touching her inappropriately while she was a passenger on the elevator he operated, or assaulting her outright.
The accounts of the accident vary, but it sparked a race riot that laid waste to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which was home to a well-to-do black middle class. It is quite possible that greed and jealousy had as much to do with the riot as the black boy touching (assaulting?) a white girl, because the Greenwood district of Tulsa was known as the black Wall Street. The number of people killed also varies considerably, from 39 to 300, with thousands left homeless and business, schools, churches, and the local hospital destroyed.
The great historian John Hope Franklin, whose family lived in Tulsa at the time of the riot, has devoted great effort to improving race relations, through his scholarly work and also by creating the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. Below are some pictures of the park, with its famous tower that gives an overview of the contribution black people have made and continue to make to Oklahoma.
From Greenwood we drove, partly via US/Oklahoma 66, to Glenpool, which is home to the Black Gold Park and a monument to the first Oklahoma oilfield that came into production in 1905, two years before Oklahoma became a state. It's rather a modest monument to a substance that has changed America as profoundly as oil.
For all that Tulsa is or at least used to be the state's oil capital, there was surprisingly little traffic in the city. That allowed me to park safely, if probably illegally, at a monument to Route 66 on Southwestern Boulevard, before heading to Cheyenne and 18th street to see the Creek Council Oak. It is said to be the spot where the very first settlement of what later became Tulsa took place at the western end of the Trail of Tears.
Little traffic also meant that there wasn't a lot going on in downtown Tulsa, either. We made an effort to explore the city at least a little, and we did see some cool murals, but it was 95 degrees and I once again developed a skin rash that has a terrible-sounding name, but is really harmless apart from an absolutely infuriating itch! (if you must know: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymorphous_light_eruption) So we decided to have an early dinner and get out of the sun. At least it gave us plenty of time to update the blog and for Eric to process his pictures.
After a swim and a shower, not to mention an excellent Mexican dinner, we're ready to do the daily update.
Today was a driving day, from Tulsa to Oklahoma City via the Mother Road, Route 66. It's only about a hundred miles or so, but since we took our time and had to wait in the town of Chandler for the Route 66 Interpretive Center (housed in a former National Guard armory, built under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in 1937) to open, it took us the better part of today. But that's okay; vacation isn't about getting from A to B the fastest, but about enjoying the trip.
And we sure did! We listened to our new Woody Guthrie CD and sang along as best we could to "This Land Is Your Land." That song really ought to be the national anthem!
Route 66 isn't always the prettiest, but it's a fun drive, especially on a Sunday morning when there's nary a soul on the road. Tulsa, in particular, was virtually deserted. It wasn't until after we neared Oklahoma City that the roads became busier, but even the state's capital, which is comparable to Baltimore City in terms of population (620K vs. 622K, respectively), was almost eerily empty. Maybe it was a big OSU football weekend? Football seems to be hugely important here.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. As I said, we had some time to kill in Chandler before the center opened, so we treated ourselves to coffee and doughnuts. Those were the best doughnuts I've had in years! It's a shame you can't find decent doughnuts anywhere in Howard county since they closed the Krispy Kreme on Snowden River Parkway in the depths of the anti-carb craze.
To be honest, the interpretive center was not that interesting, but it did have a gift shop where we found a bumper sticker that Eric insisted on adding to the growing collection immediately.
We continued to travel on Route 66 and came to the famous Round Barn and the soda bottle in Arcadia, just northeast of Oklahoma City. I have no idea why anyone would build a round barn instead of the more common square or rectangular versions. Perhaps it deflects tornadoes better?
The Soda Bottle place, appropriately named "Pops" was unexpectedly busy. After seeing so few people on the road, we have no explanation for why that place was filled to overflowing. People were waiting to get in the door, and inside it was an absolute zoo. It was kind of cool to see the giant soda bottle out front and their huge selection of sodas from all over the world, but we had no desire to wait in line for a peanut butter-jelly or a maple syrup flavored soda, so we just looked around, took some pictures, and continued on our way.
We were in Oklahoma City by about 4:30, took some time to install ourselves comfortably - after all, this will be home for the next two nights - and went out for dinner at a local Mexican place called "La Salsa Grille," where I had spicy carne asada and Eric the rather more bland chicken burrito. And that's about all there is to tell about our Route 66 adventure.
We went to the Oklahoma City National Memorial first thing this morning, in part because it was convenient to our route to do so, but also so as not to be out there in the heat of the day. We arrived at around 9 a.m., very near the time of the explosion on April 19, 1995 at 9:02 a.m. The site of the former Murrah federal building is now marked by two gates, one saying 9:01, signifying a time of innocence, and one opposite saying 9:03, the time when that innocence had been shattered by the bomb, but also when healing began. It is a very moving experience to see the 168 chairs, and particularly the 19 small chairs that represent the children who lost their lives that day because the bomb went off so close to the building's daycare center. The SSA building in Woodlawn, where Eric works, used to have a daycare right near the entrance, but it has since been moved to a location outside the office building, but still on campus.
The city was again deserted today. Of course, it's a national holiday and many people are off, but we also learned during our visit to the Oklahoma State Capitol that this weekend is indeed a big football weekend, with the Oklahoma State University playing three back-to-back games, according to a fellow tourist we met on our tour of the capitol.
Of all places, you'd expect Oklahoma City to be the last one to allow people to just wonder about the capitol building on a self-guided tour. But once we'd gone through security (which did not object to a full water bottle, which I think is a big no-no in Annapolis) we were free to wander through the building as we pleased and take pictures wherever we wanted, as long as it was without flash.
Oklahoma's capitol must be the only one in the nation to be built atop an oilfield. It's defunct now, but it was active when they began building it in 1910 and it continued to be so when it was opened in 1917. The constitution that Oklahoma Territory submitted prior to being admitted to the union in 1907 was extremely progressive and attempted to deal with corporate malfeasance in considerable detail. In those days apparently railroads were the most notorious offenders. It was the amount of detail that led William Howard Taft, then Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of War and later president and Supreme Court justice, to campaign against it.
So it wasn't a question of the oil industry or any business interest calling the shots from the get-go, though you'd never know it if you look around the capitol today. Corporate sponsorship is everywhere, and the oil industry features quite prominently, and not just on the capitol dome either. The dome wasn't added until 2002. The original building plans did call for one to be added, and also a structure that looked suspiciously like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but the money ran out. Why they didn't time adding the dome to coincide with the centennial is a mystery, since people are usually big on that sort of thing here. They did add a Ten Comandments monument in 2012.
At the capitol we met a guy from Honduras who put our effort to tic off states from our bucket list to shame. He's on a four month tour to all 50 states, and he had a "passport" that he got stamped in every single state capital. Except Oklahoma, because apparently the Visitor Center is the only place where he could get it, and it was closed for Labor Day. That's a bummer! But I did take his picture standing next to a floor mosaic of the great seal of the state of Oklahoma, so that proves he really was there.
From the capitol it was only a short hop to the history museum, but corporate sponsorship is omnipresent at the Oklahoma History Center. OK, I realize oil and gas exploration, not to say exploitation, is huge in this state, but there's no need to club people over the head with it, all right? And how are you going to have a history center that doesn't even mention the land rush or the dust bowl? In fact, a series of reproductions of postcards sold at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 tell the story of the 46th state better than the History Museum, and that is just sad. Given their subject matter, some must have been produced for later fairs, but still.
Our last stop for the day was the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, which features a collection of art and artifacts from the west. Unfortunately, it seems that opinion is divided as to what, exactly, is the west. I think of it as anything west of the Mississippi, but some people apparently believe it's anything west of the Alleghenies. Go figure.
And with that we'd completed our circuit of Oklahoma City and hastened back to our motel room to get out of this punishing heat. Let's hope we don't get a h thunderstorms. I'm not a big fan of them in Maryland, but I think they'd be downright petrifying in Oklahoma!
Knowing a little history has its uses. For example, when you're looking for a historic military base in a town that doesn't believe in providing signage, but you come across a street that's named for its first commander. Lawton/Ft. Sill: zero; me: one.
As it happens, Gen. Phil Sheridan wasn't Fort Sill's first commander. I learned today that that was actually Gen. Grierson, and that Sheridan was "only" the guy who found the site on which the fort has been located since 1869. He named it for one of his West Point classmates who had been killed in the Civil War.
I didn't expect historic Fort Sill to be part of an active military installation, either. But it's in a rather remote corner of the base, making it necessary to go to an actual background check to get a one day pass. If you have a felony conviction or are on a sex offenders register, you are out of luck. Good thing Eric and I are such law-abiding citizens, or we couldn't have visited the museum, housed in the original barracks, or Geronimo's grave. The Apache chief, who hated Mexicans and Americans equally, was captured during the Indian Wars in 1886 and lived out the remainder of his life as a prisoner of war, until his death in 1909 at Ft. Sill. Some of his family members are also buried there.
We had continued our quest to soak up a little cowboy & western heritage today. After seeing a whole museum dedicated to it, we wanted to see for ourselves what the land where it all happened took place. Of course, little actual prairie is left nowadays. I read somewhere that only about 10% of what used to be an immense sea of tall grass prairie remains. But US 81 between Yukon, just west of Oklahoma City, and Duncan, Okla. about 50 miles southeast of the city, pretty much follows the Chisholm Trail. So we drove down to Duncan to visit the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, where they showed a movie that recreated a cattle drive complete with sound and tactile effects, such as getting sprinkled with a little water during an on-screen thunderstorm.
From there we drove to the small town of Comanche, Okla. where we meant to take Oklahoma 53 west and the US 277/281 north to get to Lawton/Ft. Sill. But then we noticed that we were so close to the Texas line that it seemed a shame not to take a little detour into the Lone Star state... Well, of course, nothing is ever *little* in Texas, so we drove a good extra hour to Wichita Falls and from there back north up the same US routes to get to our Oklahoma destination.
By the time we'd submitted to a background check, and found and visited the museum and the grave site, the sky had darkened ominously and we decided not to continue on to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge north of Lawton. A good thing we did, too, because we got caught in a downpour even before we'd left the base. But we did get a picture of a traffic sign warning about a "Howitzer Crossing." That is just not the kind of thing we're ever warned about in suburban Maryland.
We got rather more of a hike than we'd bargained for today. Because last night's rain had cooled things down significantly, we decided to go for a hike in the Washita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The lady at the visitor center recommended Elk Mountain, a climb of about 1.1 mile which leads to a table land up top. So we decided to follow her advice, changed into hiking gear, complete with boots, and set off to conquer Elk Mountain. The climb was strenuous, but doable, and the views from atop the mountain were breathtaking.
But then came the descent. At first we did well, and went down the path at a fairly good clip. But at some point we wandered down a side trail without realizing it, and just keep on hiking down until we'd tried three or four different ways of getting back to the path, but hitting enormous boulder-strewn fields too steep and dangerous to hike down without climbing gear.
The first thing to do when you're in a hole is to stop digging, right? At long last we decided to hike back up a ways... so disheartening when you've already been to the summit. But we did manage to find the path again and made it back to the car just before our knees gave out. Phew!
Then we drove back to the visitor center, because it had exhibits on both the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, both did a lot of great work in the 1930s to improve the park. We had wanted to see those, but the visitor center lady suggested that we hike first, while the weather was still cool and pleasant (it was overcast and maybe in the upper 70s when we started) and see the exhibit afterward.
Also, I'd collected a bunch of trash on our hike and wanted to dispose of that. I just don't understand why people will go hiking and then get rid of water bottles and assorted other junk by simply letting it drop to the ground. Do these people not know how dangerous plastic is to wildlife? Or when they have a beer at home, do the throw the empty bottle behind the sofa?
And then there are the geniuses who insist on feeding wildlife, despite numerous signs exhorting people not to do so. People food is not only bad for them, it makes them dependent and in the end unable to forage for themselves. When we stopped at the prairie dog town, some of the adorable critters actually came up to Eric and begged. One idiot in a truck with Oklahoma license plates thought it was actually a great idea to make them come up to his car for food. People.... :-(
Unfortunately for us, the road that leads through the park was closed about halfway down, so we had to backtrack and take the OK 115 that runs just north of the park. We knew there was little chance of seeing elk in the middle of the day, anyway, so it was no great loss, and it's rightly designated a scenic highway!
The road to Elk City was long and uneventful, and we were glad to check into a Days Inn, have a shower and change into clean clothes. Eric googled place to eat, and we ended up having a great dinner at a local place called "Prairiefire." According to the lady who owns it, it's housed in a former Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad depot*) dating back to 1910, with a lot of the original decoration, such as scrollwork, a pressed tin ceiling, and some stained glass transom windows still in place. It was lovely, as was the dinner, accompanied by an Oklahoma red wheat ale!
*) When the railroad company was formed in 1865 and reorganized in 1870, Oklahoma was of course still Indian Territory, so that probably explains why Oklahoma doesn't feature in the name, even though it had a station in Muskogee. Besides, this way the name could be abbreviated to the more colloquial "Katy." According to the Oklahoma History Society article, the western branch line that would probably have served Elk City would make the station here a little later than 1910, but I don't know enough about it say the 1910 date is incorrect.
This morning we managed to get a private tour of the blacksmith shop at the National Route 66 Museum. We were walking around the parts of the Route 66/Pioneer Village museum that are accessible outside opening hours and were admiring the blacksmithing work on display there when the guy who runs the blacksmith shop as a museum volunteer drove up. He saw us admiring the work, and offered to give us a private tour. He told us that he'd begun to make Route 66 branding irons, just like the cattle branding irons ranchers still use and sent them to Texas with someone he knew to see if anyone was interested. Wouldn't you know it, they liked the idea, but thought the 3x5" brand too small. So now he's going to make great big ones for the Texas market, and gave us a piece of wood that he'd tried the small iron on. Now there's a one-of-a-kind keepsake!
Then we drove on to Cheyenne, where we walked around the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, where the U.S. 7th cavalry (i.e. regulars, not some out-of-control militia as in the case of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in what is now eastern Colorado) massacred a Cheyenne village lead by peace chief Black Kettle full of women, children, and the elderly. The place was so peaceful, with no sound other than the buzzing of insects and the rustling of tall grass, that it hardly seemed possible a blood bath took place here. Native Americans have religious services there and leave prayer flags, which the Park Service asks visitors not to photograph, as this is considered disrespectful. It is a place where you feel deeply ashamed to be white.
No, I'm not joining the foreign legion, but I had to think of something to protect my poor skin from frying like a slice of bacon while climbing up to a table land in the blazing midday sun. I don't know how we always manage to do these thing during the hottest hours of the day, but Eric had particularly wanted to go up on Glass (aka Gloss) Mountain, and it took us a good two hours to drive there, so up we went. Glass Mountain is named that for visible deposits of selenite that give the impression of pieces of glass embedded in the stone. I suppose that was our Stairmaster workout for the day, though why the Oklahoma State Parks department didn't see fit to extend the stairway all the way up is beyond me. Climbing up is one thing, but going down is a hair-raising experience! Also, they should give out gloves or pot holders or something, because those iron railings were *hot*!
It is really remarkable how varied the landscape in the Oklahoma Panhandle is. I kind of expected nothing but more or less flat grass land, but it's only really flat in places, and quite varied. See for yourself:
We got on the road with the plan of just taking US 412 west, pretty much a straight shot from Woodward to Boise City. But we came across two stone markers at the Beaver county line explaining some of the history of No Man's Land, and then we noticed on the map that there was a "Gateway to the Panhandle Museum" in the appropriately named town called Gate, so that we decided to take the 20 mile or so detour and see if we could visit.
As luck would have it, we were in Gate at about 10.45 and the sign on the door said it would open at 11, so we waited and when a lady showed up who opened the door we pretty much followed her in. Mrs. Karen Bond, as we later learned she was called, was extremely friendly and knowledgeable about the history of Gate and No Man's Land.
For example, the existence of a strip of No Man's Land didn't come about by accident. It was done so that Texas would not have to enter the union as a free state, because if that strip had come with Texas, it would have put the state line north of the 36°30" line delineated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbade slavery above that line. Obviously, Texas couldn't be part free, part slave state, and the southern border of the free state Kansas had already been fixed at 37° latitude. But since Oklahoma was still Indian Territory at that time, Congress was content to leave a part of the country without any kind of government, state or federal, at all.
Mrs. Bond told us that back in those days, whatever authority there was was of the vigilante type. At one time, a guy with a few horses came into Neutral City, a town west of Gate, and the people were convinced that he'd stolen the horses. So they strung him up from the hanging tree, the remains of which reside in the museum (it was hit by lightening). However, the man's family, which lived in Texas, found out about the hanging, and as he really had owned the horses, they got together a posse, rode over Neutral City and burned the town to the ground. There's supposed to be a historic marker on the spot where the town stood along US 64, but we never found it. Cattle rustlers, counterfeiters, horse thieves, bootleggers, outlaws of every description: No Man's Land had them all.
Afficionados of the comic "Lucky Luke" will be pleased to learn that one of the notorious Dalton brothers once rode up to a local ranch, and asked for lodging for the night, which he got on the condition that he turn over his guns for safekeeping. The next morning he got them back, and the stranger rode away, followed after a little while by a posse in hot pursuit of one of the Daltons who was wanted for robbery.
All this sounds kind of funny and confirms to most people's romantic notions of the Wild West, but for the people who moved there trying to make an honest living by farming or ranching, it cannot have been very amusing. For one thing, it meant that it was impossible to gain title to their land, because there was no authority with which to file a claim. But even after No Man's Land was placed under the jurisdiction of a federal court in Paris, Texas, when Oklahoma territory was opened to white settlement in 1889, people continued to have problems with the law. The court was supposed to deal only with felony cases, but federal marshals began to arrest people for even minor infractions, the better to earn the fees they got for arresting people.
Quite a part from legal problems, the people who homesteaded or otherwise laid claim to land in the Panhandle had plenty of trouble making a go of farming or ranching. As we learned at the Oklahoma University No Man's Land Museum in Goodwell, the region is semi-arid and prone to drought, so that crop failures are not uncommon. And when periods of extreme drought combine with severe economic distress, as they did during the 1920s and 1930s, it can be life-threateningly difficult to hang on. In fact, during the Dust Bowl years, many people didn't survive because the very air poisoned them. The topsoil dust clouds contained silica, which gave some people a lung disease similar to Black Lung in miners.
According to Mrs. Bond, those were also the years when the town of Gate first began to decline. In the early 20th century, it was a town of about 1,000 people with its own school system, a library, a post office, two grocery stores, a bank, and a railway station one one of the Katy branch lines. Gradually, people began to move away, until today the town is down to 100 inhabitants, and not much in the way of amenities. The railroad shut down in the 1950s and the elementary school closed its doors in 1991. The bank's vault is now the Parks & Recreation building in the town's small park, and the railroad depot is home to the museum. Just as Wall Street and the financial sector put the economic thumb crews to people nowadays, so they did in the 1930s. In sixty percent of land abandonment cases, this was caused by foreclosure, not by farmers giving up on account of the drought. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose....
Our time in Oklahoma ended the way it did in Arkansas, except we're not camping. Instead we drove about 20 miles west of Boise City so Eric could make pictures of the night sky. To my surprise both Boise City and Guymon, a town farther east, emitted enough light to leave a smudge on the horizon. You wouldn't think they'd be big enough to do that. In fact, Boise City is so small that we both wondered what kids do for amusement on the weekend. Maybe they drive to places in Colorado, Kansas, or Texas. It sure didn't look as though the towns we passed through on the way here were big enough to have a movie theater or anything like that. That must be why football is such a big deal.
This morning we also drove out west, to Black Mesa State Park. We drove out of town just as the sun was coming up, and made our way along OK 325, a designated scenic route. On the way over we came upon a historical marker for the Santa Fe trail that used to run through here from the 1820s to the 1860s, until the railroad made it obsolete. Imagine traveling that trail for weeks on end, covering maybe 12 miles a day or so. The more I see of this country, the more I wonder what kind of people these explorers, traders, and pioneers were and what possessed them to undertake such journeys.
We were close to three states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado) and there was supposed to be a three state marker, but we never found it. So this sign for "Colorado" will have to do. Likely it was a ways farther west, but oh well. We wanted to get to our hike, so we turned and drove back to the trailhead.
The park ranger had told us that the trail up to Black Mesa, which is supposed to be the highest elevation in the state, was 8.2 miles (13 km). That was a bit much for us, so we decided to do about half, to see if we could get a good view over the park. In the end we hiked for about 5 miles (8 km), and it was plenty for us. But the views were worth it!
Afterward we drove into the tiny town of Kenton, which is the westernmost town in the state. It's too small to have a gas station or a grocery store, but it did have a post office, a museum (closed), and at least one church. There was absolutely nothing going on there, so we turned and drove back to our motel.
We're in an off-brand place called "The Townsman," which is run by an Indian (as in South Asian) who is possibly the only Asian in town. Must be lonely on holidays. While the motel isn't a national chain, we at least didn't win the flea bag jackpot like we did in Mississippi. We had a shower and took a nap, and hung around until it was time to find some dinner and prepare for the photography field trip. Tomorrow we start for home, and we'll have plenty of time to get there.
We stopped at a Colorado welcome center in Lamar to pick up a new highway map, because the old one was in pitiful shape since 2012. The welcome center lady suggested that we visit Ft. Bent on the way over to Pueblo. It's a replica of a 19th century trading post and fort astride the Santa Fe Trail. Interesting to see how the people there made themselves quite comfortable in their fort with its thick adobe walls. Cool in summer and warm in winter. But what really took the cake was that they'd actually had a billiard table shipped in from St. Louis, so they could stave of boredom with a game of billiards. Imagine carting such a huge, costly object over the prairies in wagons!
We also wanted to see if we could finally get a picture of the statue to Colorado governor Ralph L. Carr, who was in office from 1939 to 1943. During that time he was one of the few government officials to oppose the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. For that act of bravery, which cost him his chance at a second term, the Japanese community of Denver honored him with a statue in Sakura Square, not far from Colorado's state house. When we were in Denver in 2012, we couldn't find it, but today we had better luck.
That itch having been scratched, we continued down Colfax Rd/US 40/I-70, which means it's pretty much a straight shot home. Turn right at US 29 at the end and that's it. But there are something like 1,100 miles in between, and we have two or three more itches to scratch on the way. Such as Fulton, Missouri, a visit to Mark and Jenny in Columbus, Ohio, and a visit to the Zane Grey Museum, also in Ohio. So we're not finished quite yet. Tomorrow we plan to drive all the way through Kansas, maybe even into Missouri.
What I love about vacations like these is that there's always something new to discover. I thought we had pretty much exhausted Kansas, which everyone tells you is flat and boring, in 2012. But we drove through most of it again today, and not only is it far from flat, it's not boring at all.
Our first stop was in Victoria, which is a center of German culture on the plains, and home to a very large cathedral built from locally quarried sandstone. I'll say this for Catholics: they built proper churches, edifices worthy of the name, and not the sad prefab barns that house many protestant denominations. Yes, I know which bible verses you could quote to justify the ugliness of the buildings, but the fact remains that the Cathedral of the Plains is a damned sight more beautiful than the largest, state-of-the-art mega church, even if they rather spoil the effect by the quote from Matthew 25 engraved in stone outside the entrance. Funny, but it doesn't say anywhere that Christ exhorts his followers to build cathedrals (or mega churches, either)....
The second stop was just north of I-70, south of the city of Manhattan, Kan. where the University of Kansas runs an experiment in restoring native tall grass prairie. They had a 2.6 mile nature walk, just the thing to stretch your legs after a long drive. This is what Kansas must have looked like about 200 years ago. How those settler wagons ever got through such tall grass is a complete mystery to me. The ground isn't at all level; there are many rocks that could possibly damage or destroy wheels, and if oxen or horses or whatever they used made 10 miles a day over the hills.... And have you ever tried to dig up even a small patch of lawn prior to planting something? Imagine the backbreaking work required to plow under tall grass like that, even if you have a plow a draught animals. Just: wow! Yes, it did a lot of damage to the environment, not to mention the associated campaign of ethnic cleansing it involved, and it would have been better if the government had managed it better, instead of letting it be a free-for-all. But for all that, I admire the men and women who moved to such empty spaces and managed to eke out a living there. And check out "Little Monkey on the Prairie :-)
After that we got some groceries and gas in Manhattan, and then decided that we didn't feel like driving all the way past Kansas City, so we headed back to I-70 to find a motel. And here we are, in a Best Western on the outskirts of Topeka. Missouri will have to wait until tomorrow.
A boring day in terms of driving, almost all I-70, and quite a lot of it in heavy traffic, first near Topeka and Kansas City in the morning, and around St. Louis in the afternoon.
But we did visit an interesting place, the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri. For those of you who aren't that much into history, that's where former British prime minister Winston S. Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech on March 5, 1946. The title of the speech was actually "The Sinews of Peace," but it's long been best remembered for this passage.
The museum is housed in a 17th century London church designed by Christopher Wren which had been so badly damaged during the 1940 Blitz that it was slated for demolition. Fifteen years after Churchill's speech, some influential people came up with the idea of transporting what remained of poor St. Mary, Aldermanbury (that's the church's rather unwieldy name) across the Atlantic, both as a permanent memorial of the great man's visit to tiny Fulton, as well as to cement the brotherhood of English-speaking peoples, one of Churchill's pet ideas. So it was brought over and restored and it's now a very beautiful church that's been visited by a great many dignitaries over the years, among them Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Churchill museum is housed in the basement and was not, imho, a very interesting one. It does give an overview of Churchill's life and work, but much more could have been made of his wartime speeches, some of which are oratory for the ages, of his other writings, and his bon mots, some of which are delightfully devastating zingers. But that's just me.
Of course, the Churchill experience wouldn't have been complete without a visit to the place where he actually spoke the famous words, so we crossed the street to walk to the gymnasium where it all happened. At the time, it was the largest venue in Fulton. Churchill's speech is commemorated there with a very modest plaque set into the floor of the entry into the gym, that's all.
Having crossed that item off our bucket list, we headed back into town to treat ourselves to a sundae at an old-fashioned soda fountain in a drug store that the tourist information lady had recommended and headed back on to I-70 to continue our way east.
That was a fun ending to our vacation: dinner with Mark and Jenny. It was great to see them! Wish there was a way to drop by and see Frank, too, though.
One more stop tomorrow, at the National Road & Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville, Ohio, and then it's home to where the cats are.
If there's one thing I found in Oklahoma it's that it's a beautiful state, with a varied landscape, and no, it isn't flat. I'm from Holland and I know from flat, okay?
Not so curious that we made it our first travel destination. But we did intend to see it. Now we find that we may have neglected it to our detriment. We were there for nearly three weeks, and we've barely scratched the surface. Definitely a place to go back to!
One thing that struck me after we'd left Oklahoma - and Arkansas and made our way back up north to catch I-70 in Colorado was that Colorado towns, in the main, looked like they had some economic life, a local café, a gas station, a store of some kind.
In both Oklahoma and Arkansas we saw a lot of towns that were just a collection of houses, some in better shape than others. In Mississippi we even saw some where there the churches looked brand new, while the homes were hovels.
At the same time, it was at a hovel (a trailer) that we saw our only domestic solar panel array. Do you know where they have solar panels? On metering equipment for fracking installations! How's that for irony?
I hasten to add that there are also large windmill parks, which is an excellent thing in a state that's so windy that I've had to tie down my sun hat with a bandana to make it stay on my head!
Why Oklahoma doesn't make more of its unique heritage is a complete mystery to me. Cowboys & Indians, what's not to like? Ask Massachusetts and Rhode Island for advice on how to gloss over the unsavory parts... No, seriously, who ever said that the only vacations are those you have in the mountains or the woods? The Great Plains is where it's at! We don't have space like this back East!