September 10, 2012

« September 2012

Below are the diary entries for September 10, 2012, with the newest entries added at the bottom. Also, check out today’s photos.

Eric Into Kansas City
Eric (September 10, 2012)

Last modified: September 10, 2012 at 21:26:52

We woke up this morning feeling like we really could do with some exercise, so before breakfast Nicoline and I went out for a run into Concordia, Missouri. Running on the streets is not easy if you're used to a treadmill, but we really tried to do some running and afterwards it did feel as if it had helped. We're figuring that we probably want to do this on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, just to keep in some kind of condition.

The first goal for today was Lexington, were Missouri's Madonna of the Trail is located. Lexington turns out to be a very nice little town, they have both a regular book store and a used book store on Main Street. They also have an extensive memorial honoring all "who have served honorably in the armed forces of the United States of America from Lafayette County Missouri." We also took the opportunity to go down to the Missouri river.

After Lexington, we continued on towards Independence, passing through a town called Wellington. In Independence, we started out visiting the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library, after which we had lunch at what looked like an old marble picnic table.

Second stop in Independence was the National Frontier Trails Museum which was dedicated to the Westward movement of the American people. The Lewis and Clark expedition featured prominently, of course, but there were a lot of other exhibits which pressed home how remarkable it was for people (men, women, families) 150 years ago to pack up everything and "go West"... including the diary of a gold digger.

From Independence it wasn't far into Kansas City. I wanted to take photos of the "Wall of Books" on the parking garage of the public library but unfortunately there are a lot of large trees in front of it. We hoped to see the Power and Light district, but I guess there wasn't much worth seeing on a Monday afternoon... We concluded our visit to Kansas City on State Line Road, a road that sits right on top of the border between Kansas and Missouri. So if you drive south on that road, you're in Kansas; if you turn around and drive north, you're in Missouri. I wonder if houses on different sides of the road are served by different police departments, and how to call the right 911...

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Nicoline Frontier Trails & Civil War
Nicoline (September 10, 2012)

Last modified: September 10, 2012 at 21:59:09

With all the driving and sitting still, both of us started to feel our backs and other body parts that you normally shouldn’t notice, so we decided to start the day with a run. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, 70 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze, which helped. After that we showered and went for breakfast. It was one of these motels that are run as a family enterprise and they clearly don’t believe in spending a penny too much. The faucet in our bathroom worked, but it was held in place with gobs of silicon or something similar and at the breakfast buffet there wasn’t a basket of single-serving packets of oatmeal like you usually see, but just a large container of Quaker Oats (old-fashioned, too, not even the quick stuff), as though they were saying “What are you complaining about? There’s oatmeal, isn’t there? Well, then!” But, in defense of the Days Inn at Concordia, MO, I will say that their internet was pretty good.

Anyway, we were soon on our way to see another Madonna of the Trail, this one in Lexington, MO. As it happens, Lexington seems like a pretty pleasant town. It not only has a library and a bookstore/coffee shop right next to one another, but also a second hand book store. Pretty impressive, for a small town of some 4,400 people, even if the second-hand bookstore was closed. I had some cards to mail, so I walked back into the town center to find a mailbox while Eric took pictures and I came across the historic courthouse, where there is a monument to the Pony Express that started there in the late 19th century and right next to it is a sign for the Santa Fe Trail, for which Lexington was a jumping-off point. The courthouse was damaged in the Civil War and to this day a cannon ball from 1861 is embedded in one of the pillars. They also have a monument to the county’s war dead which I thought was particularly nice because it made a point of including sailors in the merchant marine and National Guardsmen, who sometimes tend to be overlooked.

Having found out all that we couldn’t, of course, turn our backs and head back to the interstate. Instead, we meandered our way to Independence, MO via the Missouri 224 scenic byway. It was a very pretty drive and it’s nice to drive at a lower speed so you can have the windows open without the noise driving you crazy. Eric and I are probably never going to agree on that! I’m always hot and he thinks it’s on the nippy side if it isn’t 80 degrees out.

We were a little late getting to the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, but it’s not like we’re running a race or anything, so we took the time to watch the introductory movie. Not really anything new, of course, but it’s fun to see anyway, even if we probably saw the same movie when we visited in 2002. Incidentally, the museum also has a Thomas Hart Benton mural. From the Truman Library website: "Benton began work on the mural in early 1960, three years after the founding of the Truman Library. Out of the mural, a deep and lasting friendship emerged between two of Missouri's most famous sons. In one account, Benton, high on the scaffolding, was listening to the comments of his chief critic and patron below, President Truman. Finally Benton called down, 'If you want to help paint, come up here.' 'By golly, I will,' Truman replied. He climbed up to the platform, seized a brush and began dabbing blue on the sky. Occasions like this, made the President and the artist lifelong friends." We toured the exhibits, and I found out that the Trumans actually visited Amsterdam after he had left the White House. We ate lunch on a picnic bench outside the museum - finally finished the awful Aldi bagels, yay! - before heading to the National Frontier Trails Museum, just a few blocks south of the Truman Library. It’s on a site where there used to be a flour mill owned by the family of Mrs. Truman, but it burned down in the 1960s.

Independence was a jumping off point for pioneers setting off on any of three trails (four, if you count the Mormon Trail): The Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails. When we arrived we were the only people there, and we had the movie theater all to ourselves, but as we began looking at the exhibits other people came in. It’s a bit creepy to be in a museum all by yourself. The museum has a pretty good exhibit on Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery and then goes on to show why people chose to migrate along any of the three trails.

There are probably as many reasons as there are people who migrated, but one of the things that struck me was that it actually had a pretty high success rate. Some 90 percent of those who made any of those three journeys arrived at their destination. Not without plenty of trouble along the way, of course. Disease and weather claimed their share of victims, as did attacks by Native Americans, although that became a problem relatively late in the history of the trails, and not until after treaties made with various tribes had been broken. Often they had to dump some or all of their treasures that they meant to bring along to their new homes along the way to lighten the load and wagons and animals sometimes broke down as well. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what possessed people to make such a long and hazardous journey. Looking at the Lewis and Clark movie at the Arch two days ago and seeing some of their exploits highlighted here at the National Frontier Trails Museum, plus all the thousands who made the journey later, we feel singularly unaccomplished. What sort of people were they? They must have been made of sterner stuff than we are.

After the Frontier Trails Museum we drove on into Kansas City because we wanted to see the Kansas City, KS, library’s parking garage that looks like a shelf of books. I don’t know who came up with the idea to plant trees in the one spot where they shouldn’t be, because half the bookshelf is obscured by them! Then we walked around the Power and Light District, which is supposed to be shopping and entertainment center. I’m sure there’s lots going on there on the weekend, but as we happened to be there on a Monday afternoon, we didn’t see any of it. We did walk past the Kansas City convention center where there was some kind of conference of actuaries going on. That must be fun :-)

On August 26, I came across an article in the New York Times that described off-beat places to visit and things to see, and it happened to mention the State Line Road, which divides Kansas City, MO from Kansas City, KS and was the site of pitched battles between pro-slavery forces and abolitionists during the “Bleeding Kansas” years. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise had stipulated that new states should be added to the Union in pairs, so that the balance between slave states and free states would be preserved. Missouri was at the western end of a belt of states that were above the 36 degrees 30’ parallel, above which slavery would no longer be permitted in new territories. Slave states that sat above that line are Kentucky, , the part of Virginia that is now West-Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the compromise by allowing the inhabitants of a territory to decide whether they wanted to be a slave state or a free state. Since Kansas could go either way, a lot of pro-slavery whites, known as border ruffians, moved into Kansas to help decide the question in favor of slavery. Pro-slavery and abolitionist forces sometimes fought pitched battles, such as the one fought by John Brown and his men against Henry Clay Pate on the Black Jack Battlefield near present-day Ottawa and Osawatomie, KS, in 1856 and in. We’ll visit the John Brown historic site in Osawatomie tomorrow.

It is decidedly disconcerting to drive down State Line Road today. There’s nothing to remind you of its contentious, not to say bloody, history. In fact, it looks just as suburban as Columbia, MD. The only thing is that on one side of the street all the cars have Missouri license plates and on the other side the University of Kansas Medical Center dominates the landscape. I wonder if the two states (and the 15 counties that make up the Kansas City metropolitan area) have some sort of cooperation agreement to run Kansas City as a single municipality? Imagine the hassles trying to figure out whether you should speak to the county or the city on the east or west of the line!

Anyway, State Line Road was pretty unexciting to look at, so we turned to find our way back to I-70 west and from there down Kansas route 7 toward Osawatomie. Unfortunately, that is farther away than we thought it would be, so in the end we decided to stay in Olathe, KS. We had no idea how to pronounce it and there are several possibilities, so I asked the desk clerk. He said it’s pronounced O-LA-tha, with an “a” at the end. I didn’t feel like asking why. I’ve also been mispronouncing Osawatomie. I thought it was OsawaTOmie, but it’s actually OsaWAtomie. Just so you know. Because we got to the motel rather early I decided to do a load of laundry, which took me about an hour or so. I feel very virtuous, also because I had brought two microwavable meals which we heated and ate and which were actually quite edible.

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Eric Some Thoughts
Eric (September 10, 2012)

Last modified: September 10, 2012 at 22:01:55

My diary entries have been mostly factual, reciting where we've been and what we've done. For this entry, now that we're about 2,000 miles into the journey, I wanted to talk a little bit about other stuff, how this trip is going and how I'm experiencing it.

We have established a bit of a pattern, in that each day, we start out with breakfast at the hotel, go back to the room to brush teeth and pack the car, check out, and get on the road. Nicoline and I alternate in driving; some days, she starts out, other days, I start out, and we switch after two to three hours of driving, however it works out.

We don't have a specific schedule, only a list of ideas of things that might be interesting to visit, and we are continuously open to surprises. For instance, today we took a stroll around Lexington, which was on our list because of the Madonna monument, but we didn't expect it to be such a nice little town. Later, we went to the National Frontier Trails Museum because we happened to pick up a flier from them at the hotel.

Whenever we visit a place, we don't spend a whole lot of time. Many places that we visited are interesting enough to spend a couple of days in each, and of course, that doesn't work with the schedule we're having. So we mostly get an impression of a place rather than a thorough analysis. But all the impressions are adding up to an interesting picture indeed.

What this trip is doing is helping us understand better the psyche of the American people. On longer stretches we listed to books on tape (using Nicoline's phone as an MP3 player and "Koala" as the speaker). The first book we listened to was The Big Roads and now we're listening to Why Nations Fail - The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. It turns out that these books are surprisingly relevant to our trip, and what we see on this trip helps understand the books.

The Big Roads book was about how highways and interstates came to be in the United States, how they changes society but how society also changed them. It was about how roads are constructed, where the ideas come from, how decisions are made as to where which roads go, and so on. Since we are actually driving on exactly the roads that the book is talking about, there is an obvious direct connection.

Why Nations Fail is about the American entrepreneurial spirit, how individuals in America made history not because they were born in important families, but because they created something with their own hands. What we're seeing in the monuments and museums we're visiting is exactly that: how people got up and did something.

Meanwhile, we're driving through all these small towns, sometimes with a population of only a few hundred people, and all the time past the farm houses that are sprinkled on the landscape, and it becomes clear that there is a huge part of American still here in the middle, not in the big cities we're accustomed to on the East Coast or the West Coast. Although I don't think I can really imagine what it is to grow up in these small towns, the diversity of American society is tarting to make more sense.

These are the kind of things I am contemplating while we drive through America...

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