Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Swirling Around Nebraska

No, CC and I never entered Nebraska on our recently concluded week-and-a-half trip. We decided before leaving Chicago that there was nothing we wanted to see in the Cornhusker state (no offense to the fine upstanding huskers of corn who populate the place), so we decided to broadly circumnavigate the state’s borders. We took a southerly route on the way west, through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah, and we took a northerly route on the way back, through Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

My initial approach to documenting our trip was to do it in traditional chronological order. But as I considered the many and varied moments we experienced, I realized that we will not remember the trip chronologically, so it would be inappropriate to record it that way. An old friend of mine was fond of saying, “Life is a collection of moments,” so I will present this trip as a collection of moments grouped into individual narratives and broad categories.

This isn’t by any means a complete record of the places we visited. For example, we spent an enjoyable hour or so visiting the Cottonwood County Historical Society in Windom, Minnesota, but there’s neither a story to tell nor cool photos to show, so I won’t go into any further detail. I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and photos I’ve chosen to share here.

This Doesn’t Look Like Tatooine

CC and I both enjoy visiting old houses and museums, and we did a lot of that on this trip. When we saw that the Hamill House Museum in Georgetown, Colorado was right along our path, we decided to pop in (Note: There is also an old building called Hamill House in New Jersey. It has nothing to do with the place we visited. We didn’t go through New Jersey, okay? Maybe another time).

Anyway, Hamill House Museum is a gorgeous Victorian mansion built in 1879 by silver baron William Arthur Hamill. It is still lavishly furnished and decorated with a great deal of original material. As we approached the house, we joked that it could be the home of actor Mark Hamill. Well, it isn’t. HOWEVER, we discovered that William, the old silver baron, was actually the great-great grandfather of Mark “Skywalker” Hamill! For the record, the Hamill family still occasionally comes back to Georgetown for family reunions at the mansion, but we were told that Mark has not been in attendance as of yet. Bottom line: We will now begin telling people that we were in Mark Hamill’s house. And to those of you who would say “That’s not true!” I have only this to say: Picky, picky, picky.

St. Joan of Wichita

Well of course we went through Wichita! You don’t drive all that way just to skirt its borders and glimpse the city walls through the mountain mist! And besides, there were museums we planned to visit there. They were all closed, by the way, so our tour of downtown was very brief. But on our way back to the car, we passed the Wichita Public Library. Why is there a statue of St. Joan outside the place?… Anyone?… That’s what I thought. So I had to take a picture of it. After my return to Chicago, I learned that the original statue was a gift to Wichita from the city of Orleans, France in 1970. The original was carved from stone and is now in storage somewhere in Wichita, but this bronze copy now classes up the library. Still unanswered is the question of why Orleans felt so enamored of/indebted to Wichita. Perhaps an emergency airlift from Wichita had quelled the Great Orleans Corn Riots, but I’m just guessing here.

They Sure Are Fond of the Letter K in These Parts

You may be reading this sign as “Kabing”. That was certainly my first instinct. Ah, but you see – we were staying in a Kamping Kabin at a KOA Kampground in Springfield, Missouri. The sign actually reads “Kabin 6”. I may drop them a note of quick tips on the subject of letter spacing. I will omit any critique of their spelling, as I try not to take on lost causes. Here’s a proper view of the Kamping Kabin we stayed at in the Alma Center, Wisconsin KOA:
Aside from two nights in hotels, we stayed at KOAs all along the way. I want to take just a moment to recommend them to a certain kind of traveler. I have never in my life slept in a tent or a sleeping bag, but I can totally dig the KOA Kabin experience. They go for an average price of around $65 a night. What you get is a cabin with one large bed and a set of bunk beds (bring your own linens), a front porch with a swinging chair, electricity, wi-fi, and usually a heater and/or air conditioner. There is no running water, so you have to walk a short distance for lavatories and showers. There is some variation in specific amenities since they are franchises. Many of them have laundry facilities, TV and game rooms, and pancake breakfast deals. Most of them are quieter than you might think and offer a good night’s sleep. For my money, they’re preferable to most $65 a night motels. Just to be clear, most of the campground consists of parking areas for conventional campers, but they all have at least a handful of cabins, usually at the edge of the property. So not only were the KOAs enjoyable, but for a long trip like ours, they represented a substantial savings compared to booking hotels every night.

While I’m on the subject, the absolutely nicest KOA we stayed at was in Alma Center, Wisconsin. It was exceptionally beautiful and well run. Since there’s a photo of it just above, I should mention that it was slightly larger than the usual one bedroom cabin. We were upgraded to a two bedroom that night at no additional charge. By chance, a large patch of wild raspberries and blackberries was growing right behind our cabin. We were told that we were welcome to pick all the berries we wanted. While we did pick and eat a few right off the vine (they were delicious), inclement weather denied us the chance to do any serious berry picking. But we’d go back to that one in a heartbeat.

Not Just Any Old Tree

No, indeed not. That, my friends, is an American Elm. Once common, it has become a rare sight in most of the U.S. since Dutch elm disease wiped out most of them in the mid-20th century. This one is also exceptional because it is the largest and oldest elm I can recall ever seeing. I wish I could have taken a wider angle shot to show the true extent and majesty of this tree, but I couldn’t get to the proper vantage point to make the shot possible.

This tree dates to the 1830s. It is located right in front of the Historic Indian Agency House at Fort Winnebago in Portage, Wisconsin. It was planted by the family of the man for whom the house was built – John Kinzie. Kinzie Street in Chicago was named in his honor. John and his wife Juliette were remarkable people and I commend them to your attention for further study. We toured the home in Portage and had a great time. If you’re ever in the area – about 40 miles north of Madison – and you want to see some cool history, it’s well worth the drive.

Dinosaurs in the Desert

This sign is in far western Colorado. It is presumably tens of millions of years old and provides a rare glimpse into the spiritual lives of dinosaurs.

Not far from there, just into Utah, we visited Dinosaur National Monument. If you’re an aficionado of that kind of thing, you must go there. You must. Your counter-arguments are invalid. Go.

Dinosaur National Monument is in a dry rocky desert, but millions of years ago, the area was green and swampy and teeming with – you guessed it – dinosaurs. Countless thousands of them died and sunk to the bottom of a river bed, where they became fossilized when the river dried up. This photo shows me, your intrepid explorer, belt askew after cheating death in the wilderness yet again, standing in front of the actual river bed next to actual dinosaur fossils that have been left in situ:
For a better perspective, here is CC standing next to the exposed river bed. If this photo were larger and had higher resolution, you would be able to see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fossils here. Many important fossils and nearly complete skeletons have been pulled from this area in the past century, and they have been displayed in museums all over the world. If you’re still not convinced that you have to go there, I give up.
While we were poking around in the gift shop, attempting to unearth new contributions to paleontology, we learned that there were ancient petroglyphs etched onto nearby cliffs and rock walls. Well golly – as long as we were in the neighborhood, how could we pass up the chance to see them? It turned out that the petroglyphs were on National Park Service land and we got directions from a gift shop employee.

In retrospect, I don’t think that employee had ever visited the site herself, as finding the location turned out to be about a 30 mile drive, mostly on rugged, unpaved, one-lane desert roads, to a non-obvious location. Still, we persevered and ultimately found it. This first shot was taken using an extreme zoom lens, as the location was high up and not apparently accessible without climbing equipment:
A little further along, there was a zig-zagging path up the rocky hill that only required a little bit of climbing in order to scale. It led right up to the etching you see here, though I did need to climb up onto a four-foot boulder in order to get this angle.
I should note that there was a sign nearby placed by the National Park Service asking visitors to please refrain from touching or defacing the petroglyphs, though there were no rangers guarding the place. It doesn’t look as if anyone has done much damage to them, probably because this isn’t the kind of place one wanders into on a drunken joyride, and the walls are far too massive to simply haul away.

How old are the petroglyphs? Archaeologists aren’t sure. They were put there by a group we call the Fremont Culture, though it is unlikely that’s what they called themselves. I mean, c’mon – what rival tribe would be afraid of the “Fremonts”? Then again, this inability to intimidate anyone could explain their disappearance. But there I go speculating again. They lived there from about 200 A.D. to 1200 A.D., so they certainly predate Columbus and his successors, but there’s a lot we don’t know about them. The only other thing I’ll say is that it is really awesome to stand directly in front of something that was etched on that very spot probably over a thousand years ago. It imparts a kind of understanding that cannot be put entirely into words.

A footnote to our journey through dinosaur country: Later that day, we bought gas at a Sinclair station. Considering their traditional logo, it could not have been a more appropriate place for us to replenish our fossil fuel. Also note the presumably yummy elk and bison jerky for sale there. We had just eaten dinner or we’d have been all over that.

You Make Me Feel Like Branson

We only spent a few hours in Branson. We’d stayed an hour away from there the night before, and we were a few hundred miles away by the end of the day. Staying in Branson at the height of tourist season is a bad idea for reasons too numerous to list here. We made a surgically precise break-in and break-out with only one Branson location on our agenda: The Titanic Museum. Within the parameters of this trip, we were not interested in attending the Baldknobbers Jubilee or visiting The Dick Clark Theater, the Andy Williams Theater, or any of the other sites traditionally associated with Bransonian culture.

It is downright bewildering that the largest collection of Titanic artifacts anywhere in the world (other than the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean) should be found in Branson, Missouri, but hey, I don’t make these decisions. The fact remains that it is a well designed and fascinating place to visit if you’re into Titanic-related stuff, and it isn’t nearly as cheesy as the Branson connection might lead you to expect. Shown here is an archival photo of CC’s great grandmother as she prepared to board the R.M.S Titanic in Dusseldorf.

Deadwood is Alive and Well

We would go back to Deadwood, South Dakota anytime. It looked like an attractive and fun town, full of diversions and edifying experiences. A lot of people probably go there for the casinos or the shopping – and those would be fun to do another time – but we rolled into town having researched only one local attraction – the Adams House:
It was built in 1892 by a well-to-do Deadwoodian and is chock full of furnishings that date back either to its original construction or to its 1930s state of décor. As historic homes go, it’s an exceptionally fine example and a treat to tour. As with most such historic homes, photography was not permitted, but I pulled this photo off their website:
What’s So Bad About the Badlands?

One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. One of its secrets is how it sneaks up on you. You’re driving along through fairly flat grasslands. Even as you’re approaching the main gate of the park, you wonder what’s so bad about this benign if somewhat arid plain. Then suddenly, you realize that you’ve been approaching it on the high ground. The terrain suddenly shifts and you find yourself looking into jagged canyons and beautiful, albeit harsh, vistas of rock walls displaying a chronology of millions of years of changing climates and topography, followed by millions more years of erosion and tectonic upheaval.
Here is an example of what one may see there, though with a couple of notes: We were there when the sun was high in the sky, so the colors are not as vivid as they would be in the morning or evening. Also, it’s difficult to discern the scale of this photo since it contains no human or animal figures as points of comparison. The drop-off shown here is probably at least a couple hundred feet, though parts of the park are considerably higher.

As we stood admiring the view, a large animal suddenly appeared, trotting along almost straight at us. It was a pronghorn antelope! I quickly snapped this photo, and I was very fortunate to have it come out as well as it did.
Here’s an enlarged close-up of our antelope friend:

Baseball with a Side of Sausage

Near the end of our trip, we stopped in Milwaukee to attend a baseball game between the hometown Brewers and the New York Mets. Though the Mets won that night on a late home run, we had a great time. Before the game, we encountered a group of local celebrities: the sausages from the world-renowned sausage race that takes place at every Brewers home game. CC had the rare honor of meeting the Chorizo and putting her arm around his sausage:

Alas, the Chorizo came in last at that night’s sausage race. I’m not sure how this was CC’s fault, but she was surely culpable in some way.

That’s a quick overview of some of our trip’s highlights. We did a variety of fun things and drove and drove and drove. I’m home right now and I didn’t get into the car even once today, and I’m very happy about that. But I’ve got to tell you – I had so much fun. I saw things I’d never seen before. Some were things I’d heard about and had always wanted to see; some were things I had seen before, yet I had completely new interactions with them; some were utter surprises that I didn’t expect on any level until they appeared before my eyes. I think travel is an important thing. I think it teaches us things that can’t be put into words; things that can’t be written down in a textbook – or in a blog. So this post is ultimately only a set of hints and clues to what we experienced. To learn more, you need to do it yourself.

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