Central Plains Road Trip – Part 4

Our road trip had taken us through three of the four central plains states which was the main theme of this trip, along with quick stops across the Mississippi River in Illinois, Memphis, and Tupelo. The focus of our journey became an in-depth perspective of history from a native pre-American culture, western expansion sites including an iconic memorial, two presidential libraries, a national park centered around historic bathhouses, and the birthplace of an iconic singer and entertainer. Now, we were heading west into the last state to visit on this tour, Oklahoma.

After we had finished scraping around a dirt field looking for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, we got in the car and headed west along US Route 70 to Oklahoma. My map planning program had set up a schedule to head south to Interstate 30 West, which would take us into Texas and then connect us to Interstate 35 North up into Oklahoma. However, even though interstate traveling would be consistently faster, it tends to be more disconnected to the cultural perspective around it. The US 70 route led us directly into Oklahoma and allowed us to stop so that my friend could get pictures of himself next to the state line welcome signs between Oklahoma and Arkansas. After that, we had a more distinctive perspective of Oklahoma’s rural aspects. Time was not a major factor since we had a motel reservation in Ardmore, near our first planned Oklahoma visit location. We reached our motel with enough time to find a restaurant in the center of Ardmore, giving us another perspective of the nearby railroad lines which bolstered Oklahoma’s ranching industry.

The next morning was the start of our final day of exploration. In my initial planning of the trip, I had looked up Oklahoma sites on the National Park Service website and found the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. It provided a chance to experience the nature of Oklahoma, and it was the only Oklahoma stop I put on the schedule. I foresaw a potential chance to find a hiking trail and take a quick stroll through a lakeside environment. Our motel was basically just a half hour south of the National Recreational Area, so that morning we headed off for some early recreation. A half hour later, we exited the interstate and headed east towards the National Recreational Area. A few minutes later in the town of Sulphur, we saw a sign directing us south to reach the recreational area. Another sign next to it informed us that this road was also the way to the Chickasaw Cultural Center. As we headed down the side road, we noted the multi-building cultural center as we passed, raising our interest in checking it out on the way back. We reached the entrance into the recreational area and drove in. The road led to a small roundabout next to an open field and a small forested stream in the western corner of the recreational area. If we had traveled just a little farther through Sulphur, we would have come upon the main entrance into the recreational area. However, we still got out of the car and explored the field and stream area. We met a park ranger at the stream who was taking water samples and measuring water levels. She told us that a wetter-than-normal spring season had increased water levels. Our conversation gave us a nice perspective of the nature of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area.

A flowing stream within Chickasaw National Recreation Area, OK

As we drove out of the recreational area, we followed up on our improvised interest and drove into the Chickasaw Cultural Center. What we discovered was a major preservation and informational center about the cultural aspects of the Chickasaw tribal society past and present. We did not have time to go through the main museum exhibits or enjoy the theater, but we were able to check out the art gallery featuring hand-weaving designs among other exhibits and the traditional village spread out on a broad field bordering the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. Displays within the village buildings added to the perspective of a major Native American culture.

Village meeting ground at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Oklahoma

Even though the Chickasaw stops completed my initial schedule list, the reason we were pressed for time was because of an additional stop my friend had requested be added during our trip planning stage. As I noted earlier, my friend is an avid lover of history, and he remembered a history class discussion about a western outpost in Oklahoma named Fort Sill, which was now preserved as a national historic site. Even though I could not find it on the National Park Service website, it was easy to find on my map planning program just sixty miles west of the Chickasaw National Recreational Area. I was also able to track it on my iPad Map App before we headed toward Lawton and Fort Sill. As we reached Lawton and its intersection with Interstate 44, I noted on the iPad Map App that the Fort Sill site was just a few exits north of us and I drove onto the interstate to reach this exit. As I reached what I felt should be proper exit, I saw the exit sign did not identify the street and had a smaller sign indicating proper ID was necessary. I surmised that this was not the proper exit and that I had misread the map app, so I drove on. However, when the next exit proved to be a few miles beyond, I realized that I had judged wrong and exited. As it was around noon, we decided to stop for a quick bite, then we headed back to the other exit. When we got off at the other exit, we found ourselves heading to a military gate. What we discovered from the guard at the gate was that the Fort Sill Historical Site was in the middle of a current US Army base. At one time, US citizens were allowed to enter the base with standard photo ID to visit the historic site, but since 9/11, potential visitors now had to go to the visitor center in Lawton to have their IDs checked before being allowed to enter the base and visit the historic site. Throughout this trip, my friend had razzed me about being passé about using maps, even in digital format, to guide us, when everybody uses GPS on their cell phone to direct them. So now, my friend searched the visitor center address and entered it into GPS Siri. After a roundabout path, Siri guided us to a corner farm machinery storage area, a far cry from the visitor center. By this time, we figured it was time to move on.

Since there were no more scheduled stops and my friend’s flight was scheduled to leave Denver the next day, there was no reason for us to worry about staying at a motel along the way home. We drove north on Interstate 44 through Oklahoma City, where we transitioned onto Interstate 35, then continued north into Kansas, passing through Wichita. When we reached Interstate 70, we got off for dinner, then jumped back onto 70 West towards Denver. It was about eleven thirty at night when we reached my home. We crashed for the night and I drove my friend to the airport the next morning.
It was amazing just how many sites we had explored in the center of our country within a single week. We had covered a lot of history, experienced the nature of the plains region, and had sampled some iconic barbecue flavors. We also experienced the wonderful assets and occasional limitations of our modern technology to help guide us through this trip. It was also amazing to experience this trip with a longtime friend.

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 3

Our road trip journey had already taken us through two central plains states, Kansas and Missouri, with a chance to see some western expansion history, two presidential libraries, the preservation of a Native American culture, an iconic national memorial, and a wonderful taste of Kansas City barbecue. Now, our trip was heading into the southern part of our Central Plains Road Trip. Even though the focus was on Arkansas and Oklahoma, the two states remaining on my pre-age two visited states’ bucket list, I had added a quick shot into Mississippi to view a couple of sites in Tupelo. I had only visited Mississippi consciously once before when my family drove me from Florida to Los Angeles just before I started college at UCLA. There was no stopping along the way for most of this trip, so even though I was at a conscious age, I still listed Mississippi as a state I needed to revisit and experience. Tupelo was just an hour away from Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.

When I first explored taking a quick zip into Mississippi, I went on to the National Park Service website and looked for historic sites near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and found the Tupelo National Battlefield. This appeared to be a worthy historic look at some Civil War history, so I marked it on my mapping program. I noticed on the program that Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was nearby and marked this as a stop as well. I expected that Elvis’ home would be a quick tour through a small home, so I planned it as the first stop before going over to view the major battlefield. I was in for a major surprise.

My friend and I left our Missouri motel stop and headed south into Arkansas. An hour later, we turned east towards the Mississippi River and Memphis. We circled around the south side of Memphis and went southeast towards Tupelo. When we reached Tupelo, we headed for the park where Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was located. What we found was more than just the two room house where Elvis grew up in. Next to the visitor parking lot, there was a decent size museum and gift shop where we bought our tour tickets. The tour included not only a walkthrough in the two room home and the museum displays, but also a tour and presentation inside the small church where Elvis and his family were members. The film presentation was a church service where the preacher encourages a young Elvis to perform with the choir. The museum tour was not only full of photos and memorabilia from Elvis’ childhood, but also items and photos that the older and more famous Elvis provided to his longtime childhood friends. In the adjoining park, a walkway took us to a memorial circle with a statue of an older performing Elvis standing spread eagle over a younger guitar-holding Elvis. It was quite a display of the life of Elvis Presley. Fully impressed, we headed over to the Tupelo National Battlefield, only to find it was just a white marble memorial surrounded by two cannons in a small corner lot park. There were no National Park center, just a small pamphlet holder next to the memorial. Within the small park, there were a couple of labeled cemetery markers that identified the final resting places of a couple of soldiers and a scattering of unmarked stones where unidentified soldiers died and were buried after the battle. This small park was just a representation of the full-scaled battlefield that extended around and beyond Tupelo during the Civil War.

Amphitheater statues and wall at Elvis Presley birthplace in Tupelo, MS

It was now time to head back to Memphis. My original thought in the planning was that after seeing Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, we would compare this to Elvis’ celebrity home at Graceland. However, we had taken up a lot of time at the boyhood home and had discovered a far greater perspective of Elvis’ full life within the adjoining museum, so we decided that we needed to drop Graceland from the schedule. Yet, according to friends, we did have to experience the Memphis music scene and take in the Memphis style barbecue by stopping at Beale Street in the downtown area. The famous section of Beale Street is within a single block, just two blocks from the Mississippi riverfront. When we got there, we found this section blocked off for a motorcycle rally, so we found street parking close by and walked into a street brimming with music. On the corner, we found BB King’s Blues Club and decided to try the Memphis barbecue there. It was a stroke of luck for us that Memphis Jones and his band performed live various blues and pop classics that were actually written and performed in the recording studios in Memphis, while we were eating. It was a wonderful dinner.

Motorcycle Rally on Beale Street, Memphis, TN

After Memphis, our next scheduled adventure was the only designated national park on the trip, Hot Springs National Park. Since Hot Springs was about a half hour off the interstate, I had suggested to my friend that it would be best to set up our motel reservation just before the exit heading off to Hot Springs, but he felt that we would have no problem driving on into Hot Springs, and I reserved our motel in Hot Springs. After our wonderful blues dinner, we headed off into Arkansas and drove towards our destination. By the time we got to Little Rock, the sun was setting. I recognized the hotel I had suggested as we passed before exiting the interstate and driving a northern arc up towards Hot Springs. There was no lighting on the US route into the city and we took the wrong turn off. We temporarily got lost, but thanks to my iPad map program, we finally tracked down the motel and settled in for the night.

The next morning, we drove up Central Avenue in Hot Springs to reach the national park. From what I understand, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park and the only park where one can take a taxi to visit, so I did not go up to the NPS website and download the official PDF map of the park. Instead I used my iPad map program to direct me to the park entrance. According to what I saw on the map program, the park boundaries covered the small mountain ridge surrounding the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs. The program marker directed us to a spot on the east side of this ring where Central Avenue turns left after entering the boundary ring. As we headed up Central Avenue, we noticed a national park service visitor center sign outside one of the buildings along the street, but there was no available street parking to make a quick stop, so we went on to reach the park entrance. However, as we turned and headed east, we never came upon a gate entrance into the park. After a few miles, we stopped and checked the map program, discovering we had already gone through the park. We drove back, found a sign pointing off to a campsite within the park, and turned down the road toward it. We passed the campground as we looked for trailhead parking, but the road led back to Hot Springs and Central Avenue. We drove back up past the visitor center and turned down a side street next to a corner park a half block away where we fortunately found an open parking space on the street. We got out and walked down to the corner park where a national park ranger had set up a small table display. What we discovered from the ranger was mind-blowing. Even though park boundaries had been mapped out, protecting the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs, the very focus of this national park was the hot springs themselves and the preserved bathhouses that tapped into those springs along Central Avenue. Much of the park was within the city limits of Hot Springs, so no park entrance gates or entrance fees. All of the park service employees were stationed in the buildings on this block of Central Avenue.

Hot Water Cascade Spring, Hot Springs National Park, AR

As we saw on the table display of expedition paraphernalia, the springs were explored by a small expedition sent by President Jefferson. The steamy waters were considered to be very healthy and curative, attracting many people. In 1932, Congress and President Jackson “reserved” the waters for the benefit of all, many years before Yosemite was the first protected land set aside by Congress under President Lincoln, and Yellowstone was officially protected as a national park some years later. However, this “reservation” did not set aside official land boundaries, so in 1921, the National Park Service convinced Congress to turn Hot Springs into the 18th National Park. After my friend and I listened to the history from the park ranger, we walked over to one of the open springs nearby and stuck our hands into the steaming waters. Then, we walked along a ridge path behind the bathhouses, taking in the surrounding natural greenery, before heading down to the visitor center, which was one of the major bathhouses that Hot Springs grew from. Inside the visitor center, we took the small tour to see how the popular spa treated its customers and clients. Of the 41 national parks that I have visited, Hot Springs is unique in its preservation of the business of natural relaxation and health.

After finishing up our visit with Hot Springs, we drove out of the city and headed southwest to another iconic location in Arkansas, the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Arkansas is the only state in the US where diamonds have been found and mined, all because of an ancient volcanic vent that brought many crystallized minerals up near the surface around the current town of Murfreesboro. When a farmer discovered the first diamond on his farm in the early 1900s, a diamond rush occurred in the area. In the 1950s, attempts were made to open sections of the diamond field to the public, but it was in 1972 when the state purchased the land and protected the land for the public. Once visitors pay the park admittance fee, they are allowed access to the plowed ground field to search for diamonds, which are still being discovered. The “finder’s-keeper’s” rules allow visitors to keep whatever potentially valuable gems they uncover. Serious gem hunters can rent digging and screen sifting tools from the visitor center, but for me and my friend, it was just interesting to walk along the dirt ridges and kick up some stones. We didn’t find any diamonds, but I did take an interesting conglomerate stone I found as a souvenir. After an hour of kicking dirt, we got back into the car and headed west for Oklahoma.

To be continued…

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 2

My one week Central Plains road trip with my friend through Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma had just begun in Kansas with a quick look at a preserved western town in Dodge City and a walk-through look at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a major western military location on the Santa Fe Trail, but now, on our first full day of travel, we were attempting to visit two major presidential libraries in the same day in order to give my friend’s suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to our schedule a chance. We reached Abilene, Kansas around lunchtime and stopped off for some subs before heading over to the Eisenhower Library.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was designed to preserve and honor the life, work, and history of the 34th president of the United States for both general tourists and historical researchers. Abilene was Eisenhower’s hometown, and the location of the museum and library was chosen to include his original boyhood home. We were able to take a tour within his house, viewing original preserved furniture and a family bible. The house, museum, and library surround a long, grassy courtyard, and at one end of the courtyard is a church-like Place of Meditation, which houses the final resting place of President Eisenhower and his wife. On the other end of the courtyard, a statue of Eisenhower in his general’s uniform, surrounded by honorary pylon plaques, looks down toward the Place of Meditation. We went into the museum and traveled through a maze of rooms that took us through historical objects that demonstrated Eisenhower’s childhood, his early military service, his military leadership during World War II, his presidential campaign, and his accomplishments during his terms as President. The library, which is reserved for serious historical research, was not a part of the tour.

Eisenhower memorial at Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS

After taking in the perspective of the Eisenhower administration, it was time to try and zip over to Independence, Missouri and see if we can check out his predecessor’s library in the same day. Independence is basically a connected suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, so the distance wasn’t far. However, not only did our time at the Eisenhower Library and Museum take a lot of time in the afternoon, but the Truman Library and Museum was not readily near the interstate, so we arrived at the museum at its closing time. I really did not expect to visit both museums in the same day, so I was fully prepared to calmly inform my friend that we had no time to add Hannibal to the schedule. We checked in at the motel where I had made reservations, then headed back into Kansas City to find a good barbecue meal. Kansas City is one of a select group of cities known for its unique barbecue style of cooking, and just before we started the road trip, a neighbor of mine gave me four top barbecue places to choose from. For our dinner, I selected the place closest to our motel, unaware of its longtime reputation. Arthur Bryant’s is housed in a brick building in a bare industrial section of the city, and diners get their food through a fast food buffet style line before paying a cashier and finding an empty table with their food, but a quick taste of the barbecue meats quickly shows why the walls are covered with pictures of celebrity patrons including former President Obama. It was a perfect example of Kansas City barbecue.

The next morning, we headed back up to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The Truman Library was smaller than the Eisenhower Library, since it was did not have extra historical buildings like a boyhood home or meditation chapel. Both the library and museum were in the same building which wrapped around a small garden. In the garden were the gravesites of both Harry and Bess under flat stone markers. Just like the Eisenhower Library, the Truman Library section was reserved for serious historical research, but the museum portion which took up most of the building covered Truman’s life from childhood and starting life running a haberdashery to being elected to office, being selected as FDR’s final Vice President, and having to take over the Presidency after FDR’s death near the end of World War II. Of course, this led to Truman faced with having to make the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The museum included a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman’s administration and his home office after leaving the Presidency. After our tour of the museum, we were given directions to Truman’s home in Independence. We did not have time to find the separate location of the visitor center in order to get tickets to tour inside the home, but we did stop to take pictures of the quaint two story house before heading on to St. Louis.

Harry and Bess Truman’s grave sites at Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO

St. Louis is mainly known as the home of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch. However, just fifteen minutes across the Mississippi River in Illinois is a World Heritage Site, protected as an Illinois State Park, which is known as Cahokia Mounds. Since my research showed me that the Arch would be open a lot later than Cahokia Mounds, my schedule was set up to zip over to the Mounds first and come back to the Arch. By mid-afternoon, we parked in the lot next to the visitor interpretive center and cultural museum. The Cahokia Mounds were large mounds of earth constructed by a Native American culture that flourished around Europe’s Medieval Age and declined just before Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Although more natural in construction with wood and earth, the mound structures and surrounding village features were very reminiscent of Aztec culture. The site had many miles of nature trails within the surrounding woods, but we just had time to walk the short trail around the Twin Mounds near the interpretive center, then go across the street to the large double mound structure called Monk’s Mound. A wide set of stairs has been built into one side of the Monk’s Mound, enabling easy access for visitors to climb to the top. From there, we were able to see urban and natural landscapes around us, including the nearby Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis to the southwest. We got back into my car and drove back to St. Louis.

Monks Mound close up at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, IL

The Gateway Arch is nestled up to the west shore of the Mississippi River and anchored in the heart of downtown St. Louis, which means getting to the Arch and finding parking brings up the same obstacles one would find navigating any central downtown area. We wound up finding street parking, but luckily, since it was late in the day after normal work hours, we were not bound by parking time limitations. We were also within a few weeks of the first day of summer with daylight savings time hours, so we still had plenty of sun to view the memorial. The visitor center is in the nearby Historic Old Courthouse, which is where we had to go to get tickets for the tram car to the top of the Arch. The scheduled time for our tram access was an hour away, so we went across the street to an Italian restaurant for dinner, then we walked over to the Arch. Renovations were currently in process around the Arch which had temporarily closed the north tram, so all visitors were lined up for the south tram, a set of claustrophobic cubicles that transported us to the top of the Arch. The low hanging sun may have made looking down at St. Louis somewhat difficult, but seeing the shadow of the Arch stretched out across the Mississippi and toward the east was amazing.

Looking across the Mississippi River into Illinois from the top of the Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) in St. Louis, MO

From St. Louis, it was now time to head south. In order to get us closer to the southern loop through Arkansas and Oklahoma, with jaunts into north Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee, I had set up a reservation at motel close to the Missouri border with Arkansas. It was late at night when we got there, but we would be prepared for the next day’s schedule.

To be continued…

Central Plains Road Trip – Part 1

In one of my earlier posts from a few years ago regarding the accounting of my travel bucket lists, I noted that I ranked the states I had checked off on the “US states visited” list in several categories. These categories were based on when in my lifetime I had visited these states and the quality of the visit. The lowest category was marked for those states I had visited before the age of two. It refers to the earliest period of my life when my father had a job maintaining military radar installations across the country, which resulted in our family packing and moving three times across the country until we moved to Florida where my father changed jobs, allowing us to buy a home and stay put during the rest of my childhood. Since that time, several of my travels had led me to come back and explore many of the states that I passed through during these early pre-conscious period moves, thereby allowing me to upgrade the visited states to a higher category. At the time of my earlier post, there were five states left in this category, but last year’s road trip upgraded Nebraska from this category, leaving just Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This year I planned a road trip to focus on these four bordering states in the Central Plains of North America.

I began planning my trip last year, setting out a general course and looking for interesting sites to visit within or near these states. Around the holidays, I called a longtime friend back in Los Angeles to wish him well and mentioned my summer road trip plans. Almost immediately, he asked if he could come along. It felt great to consider having a travel partner to share a trip. However, he was limited to one week and had a set flight schedule in and out of Denver, restricting our capability to adapt the basic road trip for improvised added stops, but my friend seemed very eager to suggest new additions to my original stops list as the time for the road trip neared. Finally, as June arrived, he flew in to join me on a trip through the Central Plains.

On my original base trip, I had only one stop to represent Kansas, Fort Larned National Historic Site, which I found on the National Park Service website. It was just an hour south of I-70, making it a quick stop along the route. One of the first suggested additions from my friend was the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, also just off of I-70. It reminded me that the Truman Presidential Library was in Independence, Missouri, also just north of I-70, so to keep the trip politically balanced, I suggested adding this as well, which he excitedly accepted. Then, with about a month before the trip was to begin, he added another suggestion for Kansas, stopping in Dodge City, where a portion of the original Western town had been preserved. Looking at the map, Dodge City proved to be a major side trip off the interstate, so to please my friend and add Dodge City to the itinerary, we had to forgo the one day rest and prep following his early morning flight into Denver and drove off right after lunch to our first stop. Unfortunately, our arrival in Dodge City was just as the Boot Hill Museum, which preserves the original western town buildings, was closing for the day. There was no time to come back the next morning, so we took pictures of the town buildings through the surrounding fence and picked up a few souvenirs from the gift shop before it closed. Then, we headed to our motel.

Old wagon alongside the officers’ buildings at Fort Larned NHS, KS

The next morning we drove from Dodge City to the Fort Larned National Historic Site, which provided us with an interesting perspective of the US Cavalry during the western expansion and settlement during the post-Civil War period. Because this was a major fort positioned where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Pawnee River, one’s initial impression would be that it would be surrounded by a tall protective wall, but there was no wall. The fort’s barracks and quarters were built in a rectangular fashion around an open field, but there were no protective defensive barriers around the buildings. As we discovered, this was unnecessary, as Native American tribes within the central plains region realized the futility of attacking a major military installation full of armed soldiers. Conflicts came about when troops were sent out to defend settlers or remove Native Americans from lands now claimed for a rising new country. After a quick hour of gaining this new understanding of American history, we set off northeast toward I-70 and onward to Abilene, the home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library.

Just about a week before my friend flew in to begin our journey, he had sent me a suggestion to add Hannibal, Missouri to the schedule. As one can readily surmise, my friend has a very big love of American history and gaining a close-up perspective on American literary legend Mark Twain was exciting for him. However, his pre-set one-week flight schedule was already putting a strain on our current scheduled stops and planned travel loop, and Hannibal would expand that loop off the interstate by several hours. In addition, our next two scheduled stops at two major presidential libraries were major time fodders for history buffs. I told him that the only way we would be able to fit Hannibal into the schedule was if we were able to reach and go through both presidential libraries in the same day. It was still morning on our first full day of travel as we headed towards Abilene, Kansas. Could we see two presidential museums in the same day?

To be continued…

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.

I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…

A New Life Adventure – Moving to Denver

In my last three posts, I shared about my road trip from Los Angeles to Denver in order to attend the wedding of my friends’ daughter. Even though my posts focused on the national parks and sights I visited on the way to Denver, my trip had another purpose behind it. Although I had grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, I had spent the majority of my life and my career in Los Angeles, but I had come to realize that circumstances were directing me to choose a new direction and adventure in my life. It was time to move to a new location and lay down a new foundation for the next stage of my life. As I mulled the options over, I realized that my friends had spent the last twenty years in the Denver area and saw this as a good balanced option. My hidden goal in this trip was to ask their opinion regarding my idea to move near them. If their answer had been anything close to “Are you crazy?”, my plan would have shut down immediately. However, their response was exactly the opposite as they were excited at the thought of me moving to Denver. For the last few months, I became very busy in putting my plans into high gear.

Having a solid base in life, a home, is a common goal for most people. However, no place remains constant over the course of time. I had found a nice townhome close to the beach. I kept it well maintained and remodeled it to my tastes several years back. I had good neighbors and a solid base of good friends within a very vibrant world-renowned city. Yet, after I had lost my job nearly four years ago, the ability to maintain a base lifestyle while covering promotional expenses for my self-published novel had begun to eat into my standard savings, and I am still too young to tap into my retirement funds without penalty. Except for a mortgage, I had no debt, but should I tap into the various avenues of debt available to me to support me and keep me in my “home” until I find a new source of income or reach retirement age? For many, keeping that center of their life, their home, would be worth the debt, but for me, the center of my life is me and my friends, not a inanimate structure, so my decision had to be based on what was best for me. Because of the location of my townhome, its value had skyrocketed over the years and there were many places in this country where housing and the cost-of-living were a lot cheaper.

Still, financial considerations are only a small part of a major life-changing decision. The sense of exploration that I have developed in my love of traveling became the major part of my decision. Traveling to new locations for a quick vacation helps to balance one’s perspective, but setting down stakes in an entirely new neighborhood and environment really stokes the explorative spirit and provides an in-depth lesson in the operation and evolution of my true home, Earth. I grew up in a location on Earth where warm tropical waters extended a humid atmosphere most of the year over a landscape that stayed within a thousand feet of sea level and a laid-back Southern culture struggled against a wave of Northern transplants. Upon graduation from high school, I announced to my parents a college selection that would take me to an opposite coast in this country where cooler ocean currents and a series of small and large mountain ranges had created a drier and sunnier set of basins and valleys which had attracted a diverse population dependent on the automobile and proud of the entertainment culture that attracted worldwide attention and acclaim. Now, I was seeking a new environment, far from ocean breezes and a sea level altitude, and what appeared to be a very politically balanced culture. The Denver area, somewhat centrally located in this country and continent, situated a mile high from sea level at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and experiencing growth from a diverse influx from across this country, seemed to fit the bill in my selection to start a new life adventure in a new home with a new set of neighbors to discover as friends, while exploring the wonders of this Earth from a broad new perspective.

So here I am, writing this in my new home in the Denver area, waiting for the moving company to deliver my furniture and past history of accomplishments sometime in the next week, anxious to begin the next major exploration of my life. It will be exciting to start living the next great adventure.

Bucket Lists and Road Trips

I love traveling, exploring the vast complexities of this little orb circling a massive globe of energy in a little section of infinity. I am fascinated by the artistry of this constantly changing natural world and the amazing interaction of our species within this world in such a short span of time. Constantly flowing currents of air and water carve rock, transform landscapes, fluctuate temperatures and transport life on this spinning globe. Amazingly, here I am with the ability to move faster around this earth than my ancestors and the technology of a camera to freeze and record these wondrous sights for the temporary span of my lifetime. However, I am a part of this eternal miracle and responsibility comes with the gift of my life within the tapestry.

For some, travel means finding another place different and exotic from the regular patterns and flows of their home turf, then returning to this place year after year to enjoy a different regular pattern and flow. For me, it means more to uncover a new pattern and perspective with each trip I take. Sometimes, this can be accomplished within my own home backyard by hiking a different trail or checking out a local community or historical site previously unvisited. However, to really expand my perspective, I need to look beyond and see how natural elements and cultures fill in the mosaic. The best way for me to do this is to examine the adventures of those before me and to create a plan of adventure for myself. The first step is to create a series of bucket lists to set out as goals. In my case, my bucket lists are more places to see and experience, rather than activities to accomplish.

My bucket lists begin with the main list of hoping to set foot on every continent. On this list, I can check off North America, Europe and, nominally, Africa. Branching off the main list, I have lists to visit every country in Europe and to explore listed wonders worldwide both natural and cultural, but my longest bucket lists are set within the United States. One reason is obviously the proximity and ability to explore more with less resources. There is a large area to investigate and admire without crossing international borders. I have created three bucket lists to explore this country – to visit every state, to visit every US national park, and to visit an ever-growing list of US cities and sites (currently 141 items). Officially, I can state that there are only three states I have never been in. However, there are five other states in which I was younger than 2 years old when my parents drove through them and two other states in which I changed planes at a major airport, so I only count 40 states as actually visited and experienced. Of those 40 states, I have marked 12 that need to be re-visited since I feel the experience to be more cursory on the first go-round. On the extraneous list of 141 cities and sites, I have checked off 72 items as having been visited and explored. Quite a feat, but still only halfway through the list.

I placed the US national parks in a separate list. It was America that first decided to separate, protect and maintain nature’s grand displays, allowing people from around the world to gain the perspective of the forces that nourished this earth. Other countries have followed America’s example and many of their parks are on my international lists. There are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States and its territories. The newest national park is Pinnacles National Park which was elevated from national monument status in January. I have checked off 32 of these parks from my list. I am not sure which will be the hardest to visit on this list, American Samoa National Park or the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I am going to do my best to visit them all.

Most of these parks I have visited and explored in the last ten years through the most American type of travel, the road trip. The advent of the automobile brought about a vast network of asphalt and concrete that turned months of harsh travel to go from ocean to ocean into days in air-conditioned comfort. Modern mapping technologies and Internet reservations allow one to plot a general route and organize reservations on a day-to-day basis in order to travel economically while maintaining flexibility in the overall schedule. It allowed me to plan a Rocky Mountain circuit, a grand Californian tour, an Arizona parks tour, a southwest Nevada to Colorado trip and an Eastern parks tour. An $80 annual entrance pass covers my vehicle entrance fees into the national parks along the way, and in the process, I gain a greater appreciation for the geologic forces that shape this planet from the volcanic geysers of Yellowstone and the sea of grasses in the Everglades to the uplifting forces that allowed the Colorado River to carve a Grand Canyon. This country hosts the tallest living things (Redwoods), the largest living things (Sequoias), the oldest living things (Bristlecone Pines), the longest cave system (Mammoth Caves) and the tallest land-based mountain (Mount McKinley, also known as Denali) in the world. Getting to experience these wonders hopefully prepares me to find a way to experience the rainforests of the Amazon, the great bio-diversity of the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the largest sandstone monolith known as Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. Some day…

Learning to Fly

In the 80s, shortly after I had graduated from UCLA, a college friend who had just gotten his pilot’s license invited me and a couple of our other college friends to fly down to San Diego and back for a day. It was a clear crisp October day and I had my new Nikon. It was amazing to be seemingly floating along over the Santa Monica mountains, Los Angeles and the Southern California coastline. The pictures I took were great, but could only hint at the perspective I found in the experience. A few years later, after I had gotten my first job with ABC in their printing department, I decided that I wanted to take on a little adventure in my life and learn how to fly before I turned 30. I headed over to Santa Monica Airport and signed up for lessons.

Los Angeles was and still is one of the busiest airspaces for general aviation. Besides the well-known LAX, commercial air travel is conducted out of Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne Orange County and Long Beach airports. Smaller private airports like Santa Monica, Van Nuys, Hawthorne and Fullerton dot up all around the metropolitan area. Learning to fly a Cessna single engine plane by visual flight rules in this airspace was like taking Drivers Ed training on a freeway during rush hour traffic, but I loved the challenge. It is one thing to read about the physics of lift versus gravity and thrust versus drag, but quite another to feel these forces around you as you pull up the elevator to take off or lower flaps to prepare for landing. Practicing the coordination of the turn and adjusting my flight direction to counteract the effect of the winds around the plane gave me a much better understanding of weather and navigation. True learning is an adventure that brings all of your senses into play. The best part of a flight was reaching altitude, setting trim and allowing myself time to take in the landscape stretched below me. The more prominent curve of the horizon around me reinforced the reality of this orb of rock, water and life we live on in this universe. It was a precious feeling for me.

Soloing for the first time is a major rite of passage, but in the crowded airspace of Los Angeles, it proved to be a test of my ability to adapt to unexpected challenges. Santa Monica Airport has a tower to control takeoffs and landings, but does not monitor airspace beyond its landing patterns. However, LAX’s controlled airspace extending from the ground up was just a few miles to the south of Santa Monica and extended like a ceiling starting at 5000 feet over Santa Monica. Crossing into this airspace without permission was forbidden. It was late in the afternoon when my instructor and I started some elementary pattern takeoffs and landings practice. As I finished the second landing, he directed me to head over to the tower area. After I taxied over to the tower, he got out and told me to do a pattern on my own. I was both excited and nervous as I taxied to the runway, received clearance to takeoff and soared up toward the ocean. After getting to pattern level, I turned south, flew a few miles, then turned east on the downwind leg. As I reached the point directly in line with the tower on this leg, I brought up my mike, waited for a few other radio calls to complete, than announced my plane ID to the tower and stated that I was “south abeam, ready for landing.” The response was totally unexpected. Having to deal with a sudden influx of traffic, the controller told me to break off from the pattern and go someplace else as he did not have time to deal with me. Of course, the time to tell this to me, a student on his first solo, would have been before takeoff, not when I am in the air! Even worse, where was I to go? There was very little distance between the downwind leg and LAX controlled airspace, but I had to turn south, then turn back west and fly just barely outside of the controlled airspace, while still maintaining proper distance from any other planes that may be heading on the downwind leg. I was able to fly to a point where I could turn back into the downwind leg and get back into the pattern. This time when I reached the south abeam point, I was given clearance to land. Needless to say, my instructor was absolutely livid at the controller, but I managed to complete my solo pattern without causing an FAA investigation.

I earned my VFR private pilot’s license and had opportunities to fly to Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and even took off and landed at Burbank. However, the cost of staying current in my logs, the increasing amount of time my career at ABC was taking, and the difficulty of finding an FAA approved doctor within the company’s health insurance program forced me to take a temporary break from flying, a break that I am still on. But I do not regret the adventure and the lessons of flying that are still a part of my essence and perspective.