Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A RUDE ADIEU

 Kansas was not nice to me at the end. The last three days were marked by thunderstorms, then hail the next night, vicious winds and torrential rains on the last complete with  tornado sirens. The power in the City of El Dorado and the park (That is El DorAdo there, sort of a kin to "AmblAnce" and other odd A's in the mid-western colloquial style) went off. It was about 4 AM when it did. The refrigerator of course was working on electric and not the optional Propane when it happened. Why not? After all, when we went to bed it was a lovely night.
Once I hauled myself up to fix that I decided I might as well start screwing down all that moves, get unhooked from the land lines at first light and get on the on the road. I pulled out about 6:00 AM and enjoyed a peaceful and lonely drive across the gypsum "hills" of western Kansas on an overcast morning. Kansas is essentially closed on Sundays so until the church goers appeared I had the roads to myself and found the next scheduled stop about noon. The NOAA radio said it would be 102 there with a chance of rain later so, with another five hours available, and the temperature beyond even the pale of mad dogs and Englishman, I soldiered on for an additional 350 miles to the place I was supposed to be on Monday. I stopped at a favorite side of the road campsite in Tucumcari and found the temperature there less than 100 but the much advertised winds of New Mexico were present. However, I had gained both a day on the schedule of the worst part of the trip and and hour on the clock. The good people of New Mexico are wise enough to adopt daylight time unlike there less informed neighbors to the west.
I vowed the next day not to drive any more than I had originally planned. One day of over 500 miles seemed sufficient. So I had breakfast at the diner, read the paper and left in what still seemed a cool day. Climbing off the desert floor to pass through Albuquerque and on to a small and uninteresting RV park at Grants, NM. The altitude of 6500 feet made the day a delight, The air required no conditioning and a good book was finished in the early evening. Cable Television was available and I learned it would be 42 degrees when the sun rose there on the first day of summer. Quite a difference, but one that would last only as long as the altitude was maintained. As I passed through Gallup and into Arizona and Pacific Daylight Time I was descending again and reached Flagstaff AZ at either 2:30 PM or 3:30 PM depending on which clock one looked at for assurance.
The road between was a grinding bore, a landscape of the moon by comparison to my previous bucolic journeys on the National Highway and the farm roads of Missouri and Illinois. There is a meteor crater one can go look at if one wishes, there are ruins from the earliest human settlers here about which little is still known that are best seen in the early spring or late fall when the temperatures are livable. There is also between Grants and Two Gun, AZ a  higgily- piggily village of squalor at the side of the Interstate  that should make you sad to be related to the people who put the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo out here to suffer the indignity they now enjoy. The grinding poverty from there to the end of the state and the beginning of the Mojave is occasionally interrupted by a perky  town like Winslow and Flagstaff singing the praises of the famous Route 66, "America's Road" as they would have it and where the pale faces settled for there own reasons and live in what can only look to those who reside between the Sante Fe Railroad Tracks and Interstate 40 as the lap of luxury. It is a sad journey, a figurative walk along the trail of tears that brought them to this place, these noble and, in most cases, gentle people.
Tomorrow I will saddle up as early as sleep will allow to pass through Needles CA, a place no one should have to live, but where there is a remarkably good place to eat breakfast. Then it is south on U.S. 95 past Twenty-Nine Palms where  every combat Marine that ever served has been taught to do scary things, on to Desert Center which is simply that, then Riverside, down Interstate 15 to home.
The journey will have covered more than 7,500 miles by then and I for one will be glad it is over. Juan agrees and La Coachasita will be very relieved, although she returns in excellent condition for a machine of her age.
I look forward to a day of high 70's. no rain or threat of it, no sirens to warn of impending doom, no smoke to remind of man's carelessness with his planet.
There are things there waiting to be done, but as always as my journey ends in this overheated wasteland this time of year--a place capable of remarkable beauty at other times--I will be glad to see the people and places of home.

Until next time, stay well, do good works, and stay in touch.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

IT IS JUNE-TIME TO GO HOME

We have been enjoying a reasonable paced and stress free drive across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois for two weeks resting at the idyllic reconstructed village of New Salem outside of Springfield Illinois at the end for four days. The Illinois River is nearby. It is more nearby than usual since it was three feet above flood stage when I pulled out in the rain and fog on Monday.

After the family Reunion to celebrate of a member of the family’s law school graduation and not coincidentally her engagement the night before, we caught up with a few old friends, suffered the 95-degree of Washington D.C.’s suburbs, and then went north in search of the Pennsylvania section of the Lincoln Highway, now U.S. 30. Much has been done to restore some of the older surviving sections and the road itself is a wonderful drive through the very green countryside. We passed through Gettysburg, more quickly perhaps than we had wanted since the heat was still with us. As we pressed on West, Chambersburg, site of a much less famous battle hove into view. The cooler hills of the western part of the state were beckoning so we stopped for four days short of Pittsburgh at Laurel Hill State Park. It was quiet, full of wildlife, visited occasionally by rain at night. The humidity  lifted in the Park. It was originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s as are so many of these wonderful leafy wildlife filled places. Three days of cool weather, much bike riding, and a few campfires with nice neighbors put me back in the “camping” mode. As we left for Ohio in a drizzle and after a night of horrific lightning and thunder. Somehow, it seemed the right time to go.

We followed U.S. 30 a bit further and then the “National Road”, U.S. 40. Unlike the Lincoln Highway, the national road was a government funded project which was seen as the overland equivalent of the Erie Canal in its importance in moving goods the markets in the East. Congress appropriated $30,000 to build a road to the West and the bill was signed by President Thomas Jefferson in March or 1806. Once Ohio had been admitted to the Union there were calls for the road to be built. It was, by any standard a modest effort and eventually only reached the middle of Indiana but it was the start of a network of roads throughout the states as the nation looked and headed west.

There are two significant things about it. It left Washington following “Braddock Road” which was the name of a British General and still a heavily traveled suburban road in Virginia. It was started in Cumberland Maryland with workers moving both east and west and often referred to as the Cumberland Road which always confuses me if no one else. Second, the largest problem 200 years ago was wagon ruts and mud. In the early 1800s, a Scottish engineer named John Loudon Mac Adam became using crushed rock as the base for the road which could stand up to weather and wagon traffic. Such roads were known as “macadam roads.” The method was applied to the National road, done without any machinery, rocks broken by the strong backs of men. To see reclaimed sections of it today is to appreciate the extraordinary difficulty of the task of sledge hammering, raking and placing the stone and then compacting it by rollers. into place.
The National Road slowly continued westward, and eventually reached Vandalia, Indiana in 1839. Plans existed for the road to keep going all the way to St. Louis, Missouri, but as it seemed that railroads would soon supersede roads, funding for the National Road was not renewed.

The Lincoln Highway was a semi-private endeavor, documented a here on an earlier trip.: http://www.thereamus.com/2009/06/americas-road-my-quest-for-good-weather.html
It was one man’s vision to have a road run from Times Square to the West Coast in one continuous paved wonder. It was done much later and eventually finished. It too these days is being restored in some places, particularly Pennsylvania and Ohio. U.S. 30 exists across the country still and is a peaceful alternative to noisy Interstates and plastic buildings as it takes you often through the middle of  many small towns. We passed the hometowns of Lillian Gish, Glenn Miller and a few other that a few of my older readers may remember.

Should you travel the National Road through Ohio, you will pass through Marion, the place where President Warren G. Harding was born and died. His homes as well as his tomb are memorials there. I went through on a Monday with the hope of seeing the both. This famous—many would say infamous—President who presided over as so many scandals during his administration (including the Teapot Dome, a massive oil manipulation) that he still consistently finishes near the top of the list of worst Presidents. I would only add that his time in the White House may have been much like trying to visit his memorials on Monday. There was no one there. They are closed, which may say much about his popularity and his Presidency.

The second place, just south of Lima Ohio in Wapakoneta is the Space Museum that exhibits many of the artifacts of the first man to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Incredibly to me, was the “Hall of Fame” which includes 42 Astronauts born in the state. They include Judith Resnick, killed in the Challenger disaster that took the "teacher in space," Christie McAuliffe as well in January 1986. Sally Ride, the first woman ever to orbit the earth was born there. Most have flown in the Space shuttle but a few were among the earlier space pioneers such as John Glenn, the first man in space aboard Friendship Seven who also became the oldest ever in space when he flew as a mission specialist on a Shuttle mission at the age of 76. I would doubt any other state could match it. Ohio, once known as the “cradle of Presidents”  is also the cradle of space explorers. Except for the exceptionally poor mannered help, it is an interesting place of memories, perhaps of a more outward looking, “can do” America on this warm Monday afternoon in June.

Illinois brought cooler weather, excellent camping for the next seven days or so, and a hiccup in the life of La Coachasita, her first of the trip. Near Danville IL is one of the prettier state parks I know. It is also, as the good ones often are a wildlife reserve. The deer have just had their young three to four weeks ago here and the woods are rich with small fawn and nervous doe trying to protect their young from the den of coyotes present here and other predators. As I entered after a long days drive, I saw a fox, part of a large band here, crossed the entrance road in front of me. It seemed a harbinger of my three day stay. In the early evening, in the places where the park has let the grass grow longer, both because they want to give the wildlife better habitat and because the meadows are so vast it has become economically prohibitive to cut it all both of these and the ubiquitous raccoons and rabbits are found in abundance. The Rangers now cut trails through the grass allowing a far more natural experience. It seems that necessity is still the mother of invention since the effect is both pleasing to the eye and has had the desired effect for the fauna that inhabit this quiet and vast place.

Eschewing the likely route of Interstate 70, U.S. 136 provided a pleasant drive across the mid-state area to “New Salem” the now former town at Petersburg near Springfield IL. Aside from the swarming gnats that could drive one mad at sunset, it was a pleasant stop, with rain coming the first day and the last night. There was a festival in the village over the weekend which brought out the period dressed “people” of New Salem, a knowledgeable crowd who recruit youth with a vigorousness that is impressive. One meets many college students from all sorts of majors “interning’ as experts on the ways and crafts of old New Salem. The excavation of the village was done many years ago when it became known that it was the place Abraham Lincoln—who for all practical purposes is the patron Saint of the State of Illinois—returned to run a store after his time as a soldier in the Indian Wars. As many buildings as could be have been replicated as they would have been in the early 1800s. They grow vegetables and spices, feed livestock, spin yarn and make candles all summer so that we might learn something of how it was done.

The park includes the campground and a picnic area as well as an outdoor theater. The weekend I was there, I was fortunate enough to see Shakespeare in the Park as Romeo and Juliet was the offering by a young talented company. The next night down the road there was a Blue Grass Festival not as well attended but easily as well performed.

My neighbors included “Buck” Raglan, who is a retired farmer and inventor of a number of construction innovations for livestock enclosures and the locks and hasps that hold them. He visited Wales some years ago and met the current Earl of Raglan. He relates the story that he presented the Earl with a jacket from his company and was as surprised as the Earl when they both discovered that they were made with “Raglan sleeves” which you fashionistas know are different from the more common sleeve seams. The Earl was delighted that he was carrying on the family tradition as the sleeve derives its name from their ancestors. Buck was as proud of that as he was to show off his new dog “Shadow,” a rescued Beagle/ Terrier mix that is the only dog I have given serious consideration to kidnapping on the road. She is a very friendly sort, known as Shadow because wherever Buck goes, she is sure to follow.

Three young men and their families were the closest neighbors. They were all farmers from near Springfield. They did it full time and were college graduates in Agronomy. One was a “tenant” farmer and raised beef cattle. Another farmed the same land that has been in his family for three generations. The third was new to it and seemed less committed and content. Only time will tell how he fares. They were as pleasant and likable company as were their families and a great help when La Coachasita decided to have her nervous breakdown on a Saturday morning. There is something to be said about camping near locals who know all about machinery and local parts sources.

We left on Monday in the pouring rain and fog which had little effect on the gnats but provided me with an additional opportunity to don the full rain suit as we visited the used water facility on the way out. Somewhere in mid Missouri we achieved frontal passage and passed into warm sunlight and a far less humid day. We reached Kansas with a long driving day, plugged in and went to sleep. The next day was, for Kansas, remarkable for its lack of wind, humidity and heat. Once again we took to the back roads to reach El Dorado State Park in mid-Kansas. With bad weather predicted for the next day, I decided to make this the last long stop of the trip. It is a park of vast dimensions. There is a lake of the same name, 1100 campsites (a number that boggles the mind) 40,000 acres dedicated to recreation here in the area known as the Flint Hills area of Kansas. It is crossed by many biking and hiking trails as well. 100 degree heat was expected today, yet instead we woke to tornado warnings, 30 mph winds and slashing rain and that may have been Toto that few by the camper in the early morning. The heat will come tomorrow with the wind. After all, this is Kansas.

From here we will go quickly home. I am reliably informed that the renovations of the house will be completed on Friday except for minor matters. From the pictures I have seen I no longer recognize my bedroom and bath. So it will be a stop at Meade KS followed by Tucumcari, NM and the two stops more before home. It is too far to drive in too few days, but the heat and the New Mexico fire means there is not much left I want to do now.

It has been a wonderful peaceful trip of 6,200 plus miles thus far, with few problems and many new places and friends. A trip back to the East may not be in my future again, but we will see what spring will bring and how Juan, La Coachasita, and I all feel by then. As for the fall, we will think of that later this summer.

And so it goes.