Tuesday, June 1, 2010


My route changed at a point south if Branson when the calculations said that the time available and the destination desired would not match. Dreams of the Smoky Mountain National Park faded for this year with the news that water logged state parks in Tennessee were closing before Memorial Day so they could be cleaned for when most United States residents proclaim it summer for three days and then disappear again until July and the camp grounds become far less crowded. Turning north my destination of choice became The Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna Illinois, just south of Galena. Galena is an artsy little town now, but is remembered in earlier times for where President U.S. Grant repaired after what was at the time considered a failed presidency and lived out his years writing his memoir. The memoir is not memorable. Grant’s standing as a President has risen over the last 50 years, however, either because of a new revisionism history or a subtle commentary on the state of politics then and now.

The park in Branson was a small one on Table Rock Lake. If one didn’t have a jet ski or a fishing boat, the most exciting moment every evening was when the paddle wheel gambling boat from Branson came down the lake passed the isthmus the park was on , went two miles further down the lake and turned to return , giving a loud blast on its horn when it passed. The park is one of the many with a total of 210 campsites maintained by the Corps of Engineers that cling to the lake and the underside of Missouri not more than a mile from the Arkansas border. It is beautiful hilly green country. The park I visited was called The “Old Hwy 87 Recreation Area.” It is a pleasant place but on that weekend it was full. Campsites are close together and it was well past warm and by the last night there was humid and hot. The kindly host told me it was the first weekend that was rain free in the past four, which explained the crowd. Following my usual practice of never making reservation, I always arrive early when weekends are involved. I was surprised to find there were only eight sites left. Happy as I was to be living in the van again, it seemed not to matter. I spent a good part of the next day finding routes that would shorten the trip given my three week sojourn in Kansas, ultimately deciding that I wanted to spend Memorial Day camping rather than hiding in a motel somewhere and that the park in Savanna that I had visited before also gave me the opportunity to take day trips from there until the big weekend arrived.

Palisades State park has many wonderful things. The birds and other wildlife are abundant, it is near the River and the people are both fun and interesting. The ratio of tents to monster motor homes clearly favors the tents, a trend I am noticing more this trip. They seem to enjoy the time outdoors more. That is, of course a huge generalization, but about the fourth time you see a 45 foot Class A “building” pull in with windows both heavily tinted and the shades down, the air conditioning on and the satellite television dish in place, you wonder why they left home at all.

The weather has cooperated, a hot Sunday was followed by a few showers but real rain hasn’t been seen since last Tuesday. It is Monday afternoon now as a type this, and the crowds are gone, returned to Chicago and places in between. A few of us remain, enjoying a partly cloudy and much cooler day. It is a peaceful time to pack more carefully than those who left early today and in the smug knowledge that we will enjoy a wonderful night with far less wood smoke and cool enough to perhaps even close a few windows.

Day trips from here included two notable places. Sebula Iowa, just across the bridge here is the only “island city” in the state of Iowa. This is perhaps not remarkable except for the fact that it is in the Mississippi River on the main channel and has never been flooded. How this improbable wonder has occurred remains a mystery to even most of the natives here since the River has been well into this Park many, many times in the past at it is but five miles away. I find it curious, but something I prefer to leave as something curious rather than scour the Internet to know why it is so. There was a music festival there this week end in a field that offered country and folk music, no shade, and camping for $25 dollars a night. There was not a level spot in the field and by the time my neighbors here went over to see what was up, it was as deep in mud as Woodstock must have been only on a much smaller scale.

I have passed the signs for West Branch Iowa enough times to finally be ashamed that I have never gotten off I-80 to see the President Herbert Hoover Museum located there. I spent Wednesday there and was delighted that I did. While “Bert,” the first of three children born to Jesse and Hulda Hoover, lived there only until he was six, when his father who was a blacksmith, died at 36 years old and he was separated from his other siblings and went to live with his Hulda’s, brother in Oregon when she died a mere 18 months later.

During his very distinguished career as an engineer and public servant, he acquired the two room house that he was born in and his father’s blacksmith shop. Over time he restored it and the rest, as they say is history.

He is remembered here for many things. He was the first President born west of the Mississippi River. He was an engineer, a diplomat, organized the relief effort for the devastated countries of Europe after World War I, which became the model for the UN agency, UNICEF as well as the prototype used by President Truman for the Marshall Plan after World War II. Yes, Black Tuesday occurred as the Stock Market crashed and banks closed on his watch, and his engineering and organizational talents left him without the intellectual tools or advisers to fix it. It is not memorialized here. It is his boyhood and the “values’ he took from this place to the first graduating class at Stanford University that is stressed. The Village of West Branch looks much the same in the old Hoover neighborhood. A blacksmith works in the shop. The streets are lined with homes from the same period. Hoover and his wife are buried here on a hill overlooking the restored Friends Meeting House much like the one Bert Hoover attended as a child. It is a charming place. Whatever one’s thoughts of Hoover as a President, it was a nice way to spend a spring afternoon.

West Branch is both quaint but not overcome by the memorial and museum. The blacksmith, a gregarious and knowledgeable man, quizzes the group of sixth graders in the tour group ahead of me as to what other President has a connection to West Branch. When none guess, he hints the he too, was a Quaker and a teacher finally recalls Richard Nixon. I learn then that The Millhouses, Mr. Nixon’s grandparents lived here in a craftsmen style house just three streets over and the young Nixon would visit here often in the summer as a child.

The “neighborhood” in the campground over the weekend was an interesting one. The sites are sufficiently removed that one can chose to ignore each other if that is your choice. To my left in a tent was a remarkably funny fellow with his girlfriend, both from Chicago. She was camping for the first time. He is a veteran and is hoping to take her with him this summer when he goes to a remote small lake in the Michigan where he camps on an island with a group of friends annually. She is a Choir Director. He is a trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with all the sound and fury in his voice that one would assume of that vocation. He was once a profession indoor soccer goalie and a fanatic fan of the Black Hawks who are currently competing for the Stanley Cup with the accent of a true native of South Side Chicago. When they left on Monday, she seemed happy to have been here and he seemed hopeful that there would be more camping in their future. Despite their dispirit backgrounds they seemed remarkably well suited.

Across the road was a man and woman from Minnesota,, who travel with his Harley in a trailer behind a moderate sized RV. He and his companion were equally funny and charming. His son is finishing Medical school. He one of those “bikers” I have met who are sensitive to the noise it makes, moves slowly in the campground, has it because he loved to ride it, and would leave everyday for one of the many local events held around here this weekend. They both came back with funny anecdotes about what they had observed.

My travelling companion appears to have regained full form and strength and is as anxious as I to move on. We will go north and back west tomorrow toward Minnesota. Beyond that is yet to be announced. That is fine. The lack of Internet the past few days has left me without the ability to further plan the route. Soon we will go west to the Black Hills. Until then we will see what there is to see, and surely enjoy it as always.


  1. So, did you catch any acts in Branson? Kidding. Glad to see your travels are allowing you to meander as you wish.

  2. Glad to hear that La Coachacita is fit as a fiddle once again. I love the photos down the right side of your page, especially "The Mighty River From The Palisades," "The Birthplace of President Hertbert Hoover," and "A Misty Dawn."

    Somewhere in the back o' me gray matter there is still enough activity to remember without looking it up that Herbert Hoover's wife was named Lou, and that once back in the infancy of radio the announcer Harry Von Zell (I think) said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Hoobert Heever."

    Keep doing what you're doing. It plays well out here in the hinterlands.

  3. P.S. - Be sure to stop at Wall Drugs in Wall, South Dakota, on your way to the Black Hills.

    Was your park really on an isthmus? Or did you mean a peninsula? Hard for the paddlewheel boat to go past an isthmus.

  4. Another good read. I'd quibble over your characterizations of Grant – I think his memoir is a classic, and am not impressed by his presidency – but thoroughly enjoyed the visit to West Branch.

    God speed.

  5. NYC: All goes well, thanks.

    RWP: A lovely place, yes,a peninsula. Thanks for keeping me honest as always.

    Semp: Actually, I have never read the whole memoir, you would know better than I. Guess the Prresidency is debatable. Thanks for coming by

  6. Happy to read you made a stop in Iowa! Hoover's wife was Lou Henry from Waterloo, Iowa....in my home area.