It’s not as exotic as Ernest Hemingway’s other famous haunts — Paris, Cuba or Africa, for example. But travel to Walloon Lake in Michigan, and you’ll experience the outdoors and love of nature that set Hemingway on his path to a Nobel Prize in literature.
It’s not easy being an Ernest Hemingway fan these days. The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary “Hemingway,” on PBS has once again whacked the #metoo hornet’s nest that surrounds Hemingway, one of America’s most famous writers. Hemingway was a hyper-macho fellow (a trait much admired in his day), a philandering “man’s man” who reported on wars around the world, admired bullfighting and drank like fish, much to the detriment of his personal relationships.
Yet, the Nobel Prize winner changed American literature the way jazz changed American music. One of my favorite writers, Edna O’Brien, said in the Paris Reviewthat the first time she heard a lecturer read aloud the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, “I couldn’t believe it—this totally uncluttered, precise, true prose, which was also very moving and lyrical.”
So, let’s pause our #metoo judgement for a moment. Instead, read Hemingway’s books and essays about the places in Michigan where he got his start as a writer and outdoorsman long before he was famous.
Ernest Hemingway was just three months old when his family took him to Walloon Lake’s north shore for the first time. In those days, the trip from Chicago required a combination of trains, boats, and buggies. He spent time there at the family’s cottage, Windemere, every summer until he was about twenty. The woods and waters of the area shaped Hemingway’s life and outlook in fundamental ways. That environment inspired his love of nature and the “strenuous life,” as his hero Teddy Roosevelt called it, of hunting, fishing and physical risk seen in all his writing. And, at Walloon Lake, Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley, who became known as “The Paris Wife.”
Nick Adams Country
I grew up in Michigan and spent time each summer at a cottage (that’s what Michiganders call them no matter how big the structure) in the same area, mainly on Mullett Lake, near Cheboygan, at the tip of the Michigan mitten. I can attest to the area’s power to inspire the love of the outdoors, though I didn’t experience as many bootleggers and tramps as Hemingway. Plenty of boaters, water-skiers and fishermen, though. And it wasn’t always a “strenuous” existence. Hemingway said, “It’s a great place to laze around and swim and fish when you want to. And the best place in the world to do nothing. It is beautiful country … And nobody knows about it but us.”
Yet, now, the village of Walloon Lake wants to be sure everyone knows about it. This year they’re celebrating Hemingway with a series of events, including The Hemingway Birthday Celebration which takes place July 21. Labor Day weekend, September 3-6, brings the Hemingway Homecoming featuring the unveiling of historical installations downtown focused on Hemingway as well as other aspects of the village’s development such as early rail travel, hotels and resorts, boating and more.
They’ve also been reading The Nick Adams Stories, a collection of short stories that Hemingway wrote about his boyhood in northern Michigan. The stories cover hunting, fishing, life, death–all the most important things– with descriptions that make you feel you’re there with him. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” for example, he describes, “holding the rod far out toward the uprooted tree and sloshing backward in the current Nick worked the trout, plunging, the rod bending alive, out of the danger of the weeds into the open river.”
So, don’t #cancelpapa or dismiss Hemingway without first reading his work. He makes an excellent tour guide for adventure, the love of nature and an understanding of the human condition.
Though it’s called “driftless” the terrain of southwestern Wisconsin makes an ideal road trip for people who love to drift and explore.
Ten thousand years ago, the Ice Age took a detour around southwestern Wisconsin. That’s why it’s called the Driftless Area. Without the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand and silt called drift that flattened the rest of the upper Midwest, this region’s winding backroads reveal picturesque limestone bluffs, spring-fed waterfalls, blue-ribbon trout streams and a rolling pastoral landscape—all nurturing iconic small towns, interesting people and acres of happy cows.
Located halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, and encompassing roughly a quarter of the state, Wisconsin’s Driftless Area packs in an eclectic blend of natural beauty, outdoor action and culture. The region’s most famous citizen, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, built his home and studio here, called Taliesin. Wright said of the area, “I meant to live, if I could, an unconventional life. I turned to this hill in the Valley as my grandfather before me had turned to America – as a hope and haven.” Little did he know the area would become a favorite for anyone who enjoys fishing, birding, biking, hiking and more.
But it’s easy to overlook the Driftless. We’ve blasted by it countless times on the way to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee from our home in Minneapolis, always thinking “gotta go there.” So this time, forgoing the cities, we made the Driftless our destination, dipping south from I-90 to explore the region at our own meandering pace.
Finally, for those who like to imagine their destination before they go, several books give an accurate idea of the Driftless. David Rhodes’ prizewinning novels Driftless and Jewelweed beautifully capture the people and the land of this region and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank offers an account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in Chicago and Wisconsin.
Parks & Rec
Our route followed State Road 23 to Governor Dodge State Park, located between Spring Green and Dodgeville, which we made our basecamp for the trip. Named after General Henry Dodge, the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, the park contains over 5,000 acres of idyllic natural beauty.
At Governor Dodge we hiked up cliffs, under waterfalls, over fields of grass and wildflowers and along spring-fed creeks where you can step into the cool air of the old spring houses that early settlers built as natural refrigerators. When we weren’t feeling so ambitious, we cooled off in the park’s two lakes which have large picnic areas, fishing, and boating (electric motors only). The Dodgeville Kiwanis club operates a concession stand at Cox Hollow Lake offering boat and canoe rentals as well as treats such as pizza and king-sized ice cream cones at a bargain price. That lake also features a dog beach just right for our golden retriever, Duffy, and other wet, ball-chasing friends.
Yet, due to its unique geology and abundant rivers and streams—the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Kickapoo and Baraboo, to name a few—the Driftless region abounds with recreational opportunities beyond the boundaries of its state parks. Over forty percent of North America’s migrating birds pass through the area annually along the Mississippi River Flyway because of its abundant water and vegetation. Depending on the time of year, sandhill cranes and bald eagles nest on the riverbanks while tundra swans and white pelicans stop in for a visit. Smaller species from orioles to ruby-throated hummingbirds make their home here, too.
Along the Driftless Area’s northern edge is the Elroy Sparta State Trail, a family-friendly three-tunnel bicycle trail that has been inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. To the south, cyclists may ride the Military Ridge State Trail from Dodgeville all the way to Madison. Prefer paddling to pedaling? The many rivers flowing here make it paddlers’ heaven and there are canoe/kayak liveries in Ontario, Rockton, La Farge, Readstown, and Prairie du Chien, among others.
Finally, the Driftless area is known for thousands of miles of designated trout streams that Outdoor Life called “the best kept secret in the trout world.” And, for fisherfolk who prefer boats to waders, area lakes and and rivers offer walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike as well as panfish, including bluegill, crappie, and rock bass in abundance.
The Wright Stuff
One reason the Driftless area is so appealing is that visitors can weave a love of the outdoors with opportunities to enjoy the area’s fascinating culture and history. Those things come together just outside Spring Green at Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate, Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”). As a child Wright spent summers in this valley on his uncle’s farm where he witnessed the patterns and rhythms of nature. He incorporated his observations of nature’s design into his philosophy of “organic architecture” maintaining that a building should be suited to its environment, purpose and time. Wright’s Prairie Style, so prominently displayed at Taliesin, is considered the first uniquely American architectural style and he expanded and refined those ideas in his studio and school for architecture here, concepts that continue to influence architecture around the world. That’s why the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently named it a World Heritage site. See my post on Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
Taliesin is only available via guided tours that start from the visitors center and go by bus across the road to the estate. Strolling outside Wright’s home, with dramatic horizontal lines and limestone construction that seems to rise straight from the land, it’s easy to understand his thinking. A house, he said, should be “of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Inside, Wright’s starkly simple interior spaces offer commanding views of the valley. The tours downplay it, but many stories from Wright’s own life add to the drama of Taliesin. For example, 1914, while Wright was away, a worker at the estate murdered seven people and set the house on fire. Read about it in Nancy Horan’s somewhat fictionalized bestseller Loving Frank.
Over-the-Top on the Rock
Not far from Taliesin, but light years away from Wright’s austere aesthetic, Alex Jordan built his House on the Rock atop a chimney-like rock formation. Leading his own “unconventional life,” Jordan started building his dream house in 1945 and kept adding until it resembled, as one Boston Globe writer said,”the lair of a 1970s James Bond villain,” a testament to over the top excess.
Inside Jordan’s home, opened to the public in 1960, you’ll see his lifetime of collections including the world’s largest indoor carousel with 269 carousel animals and 182 chandeliers. Also on display: 200 model ships, a 200-foot tall sea creature, hundreds of musical instruments, model airplanes, dolls and suits of armor. And, don’t miss the glassed-in Infinity Room that extends 218 feet over the valley floor. Kitsch, or art, depending on your taste, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
From Taliesin or the House on the Rock, you’ll want to swing into Spring Green, a great place to get supplies, artsy gifts and to visit its excellent book store, Arcadia Books.
A Taste of Switzerland
From Spring Green it’s about 45 miles southwest to New Glarus, a bit of Switzerland transplanted to Wisconsin. Swiss immigrants came to the area in 1845 from the Canton of Glarus and settled here because they found the region similar to home, just without the Alps. You’ll feel like yodeling when you see the town’s Swiss-inspired brown and white architecture adorned with happy cow statues and window boxes filled with red geraniums. The town displays its heritage to the fullest during its many festivals including the Wilhelm Tell Festival, Polkafest, the Heidi Folk Festival and, naturally, Octoberfest. New Glarus celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2020.
Even if Ieiderhosen and polka dancing aren’t your thing you’ll enjoy New Glarus’ history on display at the Swiss Historical Village, a collection of 14 buildings where tours and exhibits trace the Swiss colony’s growth into a prominent dairy farming community. And if the way to your heart is through your tummy, you’ll fall in love with New Glarus’ authentic Swiss bakeries, butcher shops and restaurants . For our campsite dinner we stocked up on cheese at the Eidelweiss Cheese Shop, Swiss sausages at Ruef’s Meat Market and an assortment of gorgeous leckerli, bratzeli, and pfeffernüsse cookies from the historic New Glarus Bakery.
Wisconsin wouldn’t be Wisconsin without breweries and one of the state’s best is the New Glarus brewery on the south edge of town. We walked from the parking lot up to the brewery’s hilltop site with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside from its rustic outdoor terraces. We sampled flights of Spotted Cow ale, Two Women lager, and fruity beers that are their specialties.
Artisans and Artists
Without the layers of glacial rocks and sand, the Driftless Area’s lodes of lead, zinc and other minerals rested tantalizingly close the the surface attracting miners from Cornwall, England in the early 1800s to what is now the town of Mineral Point. The story goes that the first of these prospectors made shelters in makeshift holes in the ground called Badger holes, thus giving the state its nickname.
They didn’t remain in Badger holes long, however, because these miners brought with them expertise in stone building construction. Their sturdy and fireproof stone legacy remains the trademark of Mineral Point. The city was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the town one of America’s “Distinctive Destinations.” Another Cornish legacy: the pasties (meat pies) and figgyhobbin, a cinnamon and raisin pastry concoction you can savor at Mineral Point’s Red Rooster cafe.
Mining faded, leaving the historic buildings empty until 1935 when two foresighted gentlemen, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, began restoring a group of stone houses, now called Pendarvis, on Shake Rag Street. You can visit the buildings and hike the 43 acre Merry Christmas Mine Hill Trails & Prairie to see remnants of mining equipment along with one of the largest restored prairies in southwest Wisconsin. Over the years, artists have continued Neal and Hellum’s work, taking up residence in derelict buildings and turning them into art studios. Now, the 70-plus artists who reside in Mineral Point are delighted to show you their work and share their stories. In addition, anyone who wants to foster their creative side is welcome at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts where they offer classes that range from blacksmithing to fiber art, pottery, photography and much more. Even non-students are welcome to stroll Shake Rag Alley’s collection of historic buildings and its oasis of trees and gorgeous gardens.
You’ll find more of the Driftless Area’s natural beauty and local culture along its scenic rural roads. Dozens of small family farms, seemingly plucked straight from a Norman Rockwell gallery, dot the landscape and many supply award-winning farm-to-table restaurants in Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Amish buggies and Mennonite roadside stands with crafts and baked goods evoke a simple, local lifestyle. In the warmer months, music lovers can enjoy a variety of outdoor festivals, especially Larryfest, a terrific annual festival of bluegrass, folk and old-time music in LaFarge.
So what’s the best way to enjoy the Driftless? Ironically, by just drifting through it. Meander. Stop and sample. Meet the locals. Transport yourself back to a simpler, yet surprisingly rich, time and place. And be thankful for those wonderfully fickle glaciers.
If You Go:
Wisconsin’s Driftless area makes a great getaway for every kind of traveler, even the family dog. Wisconsin state parks welcome well behaved dogs on leashes and Governor Dodge state park has a special dog beach. Most bars and eateries welcome leashed pets on their outdoor patios. All of the sites mentioned in this article have easy parking for large vehicles and trailers. As with most of the Midwest, the Driftless area can be humid and buggy in summer, so come prepared with insect repellent and a fan.
Wisconsin State Parks are very busy in summer and during the fall leaf-peeping season, so book in advance with the Wisconsin State Park System Reservations site https://wisconsin.goingtocamp.com
Wisconsin State parks with camping in the Driftless area include:
Visiting South Dakota State and National Parks on a Road Trip from Minnesota to Wyoming
South Dakota seems synonymous with family road trips, summer vacations and heading “out west.” Every time we drive that direction from Minneapolis, there’s a feeling of anticipation as the landscape gradually changes from hills, to flat prairie, to a more rugged and rocky type of Great Plains geology.
Recently, my husband and I set out like Lewis and Clark to explore South Dakota—only with much more pleasant accommodations in our little Winnebago Rialta RV. Our itinerary ran from east to west along I-90 where we hoped to see stunning rock formations, historic locales, uncrowded spaces and the wildlife for which this region is known. Our journey included stops at three parks: Palisades State Park, Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.
Hitting the plains fires up my imagination with images of rugged pioneers, native Americans and western life–images that came from books I’ve been reading since childhood, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. In fact, De Smet, where Laura lived as an adult is about an hour and a half north of our first stop in Palisades Park. So if you’re a fan you might want to veer north for a visit. Be sure to read the less happy but more accurate story of Laura’ real life, Prairie Fires (a great for book groups).
Split Rock Creek, the centerpiece of Palisades State Park in eastern South Dakota, isn’t a huge body of water but it’s had an outsized impact on this rocky gem of a spot about 20 miles from Sioux Falls.
Here, the creek cut deep gorges through the billion-year-old Sioux quartzite rock that lines its banks. That resulted in 50-foot vertical cliffs and intricate rock formations that are popular with kayakers, rock climbers and photographers.
Back in the mid-1800s, the rushing creek also powered a flour mill on the bluff that overlooks the park. Starting in 1862, the tiny town of Palisades grew up around the the mill. However, with the promise of free lots, the railroad soon lured businesses away to the nearby town of Garretson where its rail yard was located and the town of Palisades faded away.
Palisades State Park opened in 1972 and has remained one of the South Dakota’s smallest parks—until now. For comparison, at 71,000 acres, Custer State Park at the opposite end of I-90, dwarfs its little cousin, Palisades. But in spring of 2020, about 270 acres were added to the park for a total of nearly 435 acres. Park officials expect to add 75 new camp sites for a total of 109 sites along with more cabins, hiking trails, day use areas, improved habitat for wildlife viewing, and park programs.
Midway across South Dakota, the Badlands gouge through the flat plains with eons-old rock formations that resemble a moonscape. On previous trips to points further west we simply drove through the park for a quick look. We thought it didn’t offer much more than barren (though pretty impressive) rock. This time we stayed for two days. Our hikes and scenic drives revealed not only fascinating geological formations but also plenty of life including wildflowers, agitated prairie dogs and mountain goats galore.
But it surely doesn’t seem like great farmland. That didn’t stop the hopeful homesteaders who arrived in this area after the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for folks to head west to acquire land. It was theirs for, say $18 for 160 acres if they lived on it for five years. You can view the some of the land they settled at the Badlands National Park’s Homestead Overlook. Most of the land claims turned into “Starvation Claims” and were abandoned or sold.
Here’s a story I’ll bet you haven’t heard about: African Americans were prominent among the region’s homesteaders. Many were introduced to the area when they were Buffalo Soldiers. You can read about these pioneers in a gripping novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. The book starts out with a family lowering their little girl down a well to scoop out the last of the water on their drought-stricken farm. It grabbed me from the very start. Also, The Conquest by Oscar Micheaux is a semi-autobiographical novel of a black homesteader in Gregory County during the early 1900’s
We visited on the way to Custer State park we visited South Dakota’s trademark, Mount Rushmore. The four faces appear on promotional material, license plates and have been featured during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cool if you’ve never seen it before, but crowded. We headed to a similarly giant sculpture nearby, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I liked better because it has a nice little museum and Native American programming.
At the opposite end of I-90, we explored Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest state park. At 71,000 acres the huge park seems more like a national park. It offers hiking, boating, fishing and plenty of wildlife including bison traffic jams.
One of my favorite hikes was the one up Black Elk Peak, a 7,242-foot granite mountain with an historic stone firetower at the top. It’s considered the highest peak east of the rockies, depending on if you think the 8,749-foot Guadaloupe Peak in Texas is east of the Rockies or part of them . The beginning of the 7.6-mile loop trail is bedazzled with shiny mica rock which makes it look like it’s paved with rhinestones, quite magical.
For non-campers, Custer offers historic lodges and cabins, including State Game Lodge built of native stone and wood in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Book ahead and stay in their historic rooms. Even if you’re not staying there, the Lodge welcomes diners in the restaurant and you can carry out food to eat outdoors. We enjoyed cocktails on the Lodge’s front porch before returning to our camp site.
Anyone interested in enriching their South Dakota travel experience will find an abundance of great books about both the state’s history and modern life, too. Here’s my list:
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Life of Two American Warriors–Stephen Ambrose
Book and travel ideas to inspire “outdoor therapy” and to plan for #travelsomeday.
Shut in because of the Corona Virus pandemic, opportunities for quiet contemplation, soul searching, and spiritual retreat abound. Too bad I don’t find those pursuits more appealing. Hugs, shared meals, raucous laughter, talking with strangers I meet when I travel, reading a person’s facial expressions without the cover of a mask. Those are just a few of the things I miss during this time of isolation during the Corona Virus pandemic.
I’ve tried all sorts of remedies for my shelter-in-place malaise—cooking, puzzles, cleaning, Zoom chats and Netflix galore. Yet, the only place I really find solace is outdoors. Nature and open spaces, along with the physical exertion of walking mile after mile, sooth my mind and spirit.
Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for some time. Hence the term nature therapy. The Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing . Nature deficit has also been diagnosed, a “dose of fresh air” prescribed. And writers have written about the beauty and adventure of connecting with nature for years. Now is a great time to tap into their observations of the universe, our environment and our fellow human beings.
For literature to inspire your outdoor journeys I recommend Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces about her time in Wyoming and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire about his stint at a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. Or, for a more recent read, I enjoyed Richard Powers’ Pulitizer Prize winning book, The Overstory, about a wide-ranging cast of characters whose experiences all relate to trees.
Finally, for approachable nature poetry, you can’t beat anything by Mary Oliver. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” she says that despite our problems, the world goes on.
…”Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Dreaming of Places to Go
I have friends who haven’t left their New York City apartment for weeks. And who can blame them? I feel fortunate that here in the Twin Cities we have a massive number of parks and recreation areas at our finger tips where we can spread out from one another. I asked some of my friends at convention and visitors bureaus about the outdoor spaces they love to show off to visitors. I started with the Midwest. You may be surprised at the beautiful open spaces they offer, not far from large cities. They make for beautiful viewing and inspiration for places to go in the future.
Kondo books in hand, I set out on an exploratory and organizing journey through my house, ready to ponder what possessions spark joy and which to “thank for their service” as Kondo says, and set free. I started with the pantry cupboard, always an adventure with mysteries and discoveries on each shelf. I slowly realized that while some people have been acquiring truckloads of toilet paper, I’ve been hoarding chutney.
The takeaway here is that if you squirrel away bottles of chutney in different places, you can’t find them when you feel the urge to stew up Indian food. You run out and buy more. Then you don’t make whatever dish you planned on and stash the chutney in yet another location and forget about it. Repeat. The result: we have a lifetime supply of chutney.
I also discovered several boxes of Chinese Gunpowder Tea. Let your imagination run wild with its possible uses because I have no idea why we have that. Most interesting, I found two bags of an exotic Greek herb called Dittany that I received from our tour leader last spring on the island of Crete. Dittany is in the mint family and grows, according to the package, 650 meters above the village of Anopoli Sfakion. (Extra geography points if you look this up.) According to the package, “We collect the herb early in the morning to retain all the essential oils and aroma and we dry it naturally. It is considered tonic, antiseptic, inflammatory and a poultice. It helps the headaches, stomach and skin inflammation.”
Wanting to verify this, I consulted one of the Internet sites I most trust for medical advice, the Harry Potter Wiki. It says, “Dittany is a magical plant used in Potion-Making. It is a powerful healing herb and restorative. Its use makes fresh skin grow over a wound and after application the wound seems several days old.”
I’m telling you, this is powerful stuff, especially if you need a poultice. Come on folks, a bag of Dittany is certainly worth at least a four-pack of toilet paper. And chutney? Perhaps Major Grey’s isn’t in huge demand, so I’m hoping for two rolls in trade. We can meet in my driveway and exchange products by tossing them at each other from a safe distance.
Other Reading for In-House Travel
You probably haven’t heard of him, but a fellow named Alexander von Humboldt made an expedition around South America from 1799 to 1804. Before that, he practiced by making an expedition around his bedroom. It’s in the public domain so you can read the timeless travel story, Journey Around My Bedroom, even though the library is closed.
According to the excellent site, Library Hub, von Humbolt undertook this rather small-scale exploration because he was sentenced to house arrest for something related to a duel. They say, “In the centuries before ankle-monitoring bracelets and the like, the authorities relied on the honor of young noblemen” to stay put. Sounds like the honor system of the current stay-at-home order. Humbolt enjoys the fact that this type of journey costs nothing. And, he points out that bedroom travel is especially great for those who are scared of robbers, precipices, and quagmires. And who isn’t these days? His dog and manservant also make appearances just as Duffy and Scott do in my bedroom.
And, don’t miss Hank Azaria’s hilarious play-by-play of making his bed, a substitute for sport announcing these days. It was broadcast on National Public Radio… “going, going, Bed Bath & Beyond!”
At Home with Bill Bryson
My favorite book by author Bill Bryson is the one about his travels in Australia, In a Sunburned Country. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. But you might find another Bryson book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, more appropriate right now. I wrote about it in a previous post. In At Home, he takes an investigative and historical tour through his Victorian home in England. Seriously, it’s interesting. His house is much more fascinating than my late-60s vintage suburban home in the American Midwest.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 2020.
Most people know that Kansas City is a great sports town—go Chiefs! But not everyone knows that KC is where the country’s first successful organized black baseball league got its start. So, it’s appropriate that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is in Kansas City. It’s a great destination for baseball fans and fans of Black History and Civil Rights history, too.
Empowerment and Entrepreneurial Spirit
African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military , college , and company teams and on professional teams with white players, too. Sadly, by 1900, racism and Jim Crow laws forced them out. So, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.
In 1920, a few Midwestern team owners met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City and joined to form the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in eastern and southern states, bringing the skillful and innovative play of black baseball to major urban centers and rural areas in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues were known not only for their high level of professional skill but they also became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities.
Telling the Negro Leagues’ Story
Exhibits at the museum introduce teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Chicago American Giants with mementos that include pristine uniforms of the era. Exhibits show what it was like for teams to travel in the days of segregated hotels and restaurants and “The Green Book” that was a directory of places that welcomed people of color.
There’s a life-size baseball diamond inside the museum with bronze statues of the Leagues’ most famous players and I particularly enjoyed watching members of a college baseball team that was in Kansas City for a tournament as they experienced the museum and and the stories they heard.
One of the best stories I encountered at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was that of “clown teams.” Not clowns with red noses but the kind that “clowned around” doing funny tricks such as “shadow ball,” in which the ball was thrown around the field during infield practice at a faster and faster speed. They then threw out the ball and kept doing the same thing without the ball, an idea the Harlem Globetrotters later put into practice.
The most famous of them played for the Indianapolis Clowns. They nicknamed him “Pork Chops” because he ate only pork chops and french fries on road. “Pork Chops” went on to become one of the game’s most celebrated players of any color. He went on to play in Major League baseball, smashed Babe Ruth’s home run record (714), and became the all-time home run leader in the Major Leagues.
“Pork Chops” was Henry “Hank” Aaron.
In addition to Hank Aaron, some of baseball’s greatest played in the Negro Leagues before baseball was integrated. The great Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Robinson from the Monarchs and he became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League team.
It was an historic event in both baseball and civil rights history. But, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. Other Major League teams recruited African American players and their fans followed. The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum “Where History Touches Home.”
If You Go: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Neighborhood, which is also the city’s famous jazz district. It’s right next to the American Jazz Museum, which is also a great place to visit. Hungry? Pay a visit toto Arthur Bryant’s for its legendary Kansas City barbecue.
Read Up: You’ll find excellent books on the Negro Leagues and their place in American Civil Rights history as well as biographies of some of the most famous players. Here are a few:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House, Taliesin, Taliesin West and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are just a few of the places to see Wright’s all-American architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright has been having a big year. Sixty years after his death in 1959, both his life and his architecture continue to fascinate, influence and inspire. So much so that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently named a group of his great works World Heritage Sites.* Spanning 50 years of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career, these buildings represent the first modern architecture designation in the U.S. on the prestigious list.
Here, I cover one of my favorite Wright sites, the Allen House in Wichita, Kansas, and three of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the UNESCO list —Taliesin in Wisconsin, Taliesin West in Arizona, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The prolific architect built more than 400 buildings so you can find examples of his work all across the country. There’s even a fantastic Wright-designed gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota. But to really enjoy the experience, I recommend a little reading to”find Mr. Wright” before you visit his buildings.
Reading the Wright Stuff
Even if you’re not an architecture buff or a design maven, you should add a Frank Lloyd Wright site to your itinerary when you’e traveling—for two reasons. First, Wright’s Prairie Style is considered the first uniquely American style of architecture. Before Wright, prominent American architects followed the more ornate style of European designers, like the Beaux-Arts style that dominated the “White City” buildings and monuments at the Chicago World’s Fair. Wright hated that. Instead of piling on the classical embellishments, he sought to make buildings blend with the landscape.
If your house has an open floor plan, wide expanses of windows or an attached garage, you can thank Frank. These are his among many ideas that were considered radical at the time but are common now. Wright embraced new technologies, designs and materials ,to push the boundaries of architecture, sometimes resulting in failure or really expensive repairs for those trying to maintain his buildings. If you talk to people who live in Frank Lloyd Wright houses, you’ll seldom hear stories of cozy comfort. They’re drafty. And take a look some of the angular furniture and you’ll see why form doesn’t always follow function. Nonetheless, he had a huge impact that continues today. and most of the currently trendy mid-century modern style bears a remarkable resemblance to Wright’s designs. To better understand his design philosophy see, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright by Neil Levine.
The second reason to visit Wright buildings isn’t quite so intellectual. He was simply a fascinating character. Not exactly a paragon of virtue, he left his first wife and six children for Mamah Borthwick, the spouse of a client. That tragic story is the subject of Nancy Horan’s fictionalized work, Loving Frank. Even his fans admit he was an arrogant self-promoter and a flawed genius. I suggest Meryle Secrest’s book, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography by Meryle Secrest for the whole story. for the whole story.
At the Allen House, located in Wichita’s historic College Hill neighborhood, you’ll find all the traits of Wright’s Prairie Style residential architecture in one lovely home . Named after its first owners, newspaper publisher Henry Allen and his wife, Elsie, it was the last of Wright’s famous Prairie Houses. Outside you’ll see Wright’s distinctive long, low horizontal lines with low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, and long rows of casement windows. Explore a bit of the area around Wichita and you that see how that horizontal theme and earth tones of the house match the landscape.
Said Wright, “In organic architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,”…“The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.” The Allen house is one of the best examples I’ve seen in which spaces open to the outdoors. And it retains.more than 30 pieces of Wright-designed furniture, all of its original art glass and several new-for-their-time innovations, such as wall-hung toilets and an attached garage.
As a child Wright spent summers on his uncle’s farm in the rolling farmland of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. There he witnessed the patterns and rhythms of nature that came to influence his work. He returned to this valley to build his home and studio called Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”) on an 800-acre estate outside Spring Green. Wright said of the area, “I meant to live, if I could, an unconventional life. I turned to this hill in the Valley as my grandfather before me had turned to America – as a hope and haven.”
Strolling outside Wright’s home, with its dramatic horizontal lines and limestone construction that seems to rise straight from the land, it’s easy to understand how his architectural philosophy developed. A house, he said, should be “of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Inside, Wright’s starkly simple interior spaces offer commanding views of the valley. The tours downplay it, but many stories from Wright’s own life add to the drama of Taliesin as described in Loving Frank. For example, 1914, while Wright was away, a worker at the estate murdered seven people including Borthwick and her children, and set the house on fire.
The rugged desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona, are a stark to the lush rolling hills of Wisconsin. Yet, after several bouts of illness, Wright built Taliesin West for greater winter comfort. He called it his desert laboratory with buildings that were largely experimental and always changing and expanding. Taliesin West grew to include a drafting studio, dining facilities, two theaters, a workshop, Wright’s office and private living quarters, and residences for apprentices and staff. Each building is connected through a series of walkways, terraces, pools and gardens that meld with the surroundings.
Still experimenting with geometric shapes and volumes, Wright designed much of the interior furniture and decorations. He convinced young architecture students to not only pay for a Taliesin apprenticeship but also to build some of the furniture and appear in plays in the Taliesin West theater. Taliesin West is now the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School of Architecture at Taliesin where you can see students at their drafting tables..
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Wright’s last building celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2019. It opened in 1959, the year he died. It’s a complete departure from his Prairie Style days of the Allen House and shows the evolution his thinking over a long career. With the Guggenheim, the low-slung buildings with sharp angles and earth tones are gone, replaced by soaring circular white spaces. At the time, critical opinions varied from “the most beautiful building in America . . . never for a minute dominating the pictures being shown,” to “less a museum than it is a monument to Frank Lloyd Wright.”
After a three-year restoration of its interior, the Guggenheim reopened to great acclaim. Now the entire Wright building is open to the public for the first time with spaces that had been used for storage and offices converted into galleries. As a capper to his long career, it seems just fine that the Guggenheim is a monument to Frank Lloyd Wright and his “unconventional life.”
* The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritiage Sites are Unity Temple (Oak Park, IL), Frederick C. Robie House (Chicago, IL), Hollyhock House (Los Angeles, CA), Fallingwater (Mill Run, PA), Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House (Madison, WI), Taliesin West (Scottsdale, AZ), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY).
The second half of a road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas reveals more about modern life on the prairie and the pioneer spirit of the ranchers, entrepreneurs and artists who make the Flint Hills their home.
In my previous article, I covered a few of the surprises that await travelers to the Flint Hills if they leave the freeway and explore the tallgrass prairie of Kansas. But, the fun of a road trip here in the center of America is as much about meeting the people as seeing the unique environment of the prairie.
They’re the people bestselling Kansas author Sarah Smarsh wrote about in a New York Times op-ed “Something Special is Happening in Rural America” where she reported “a prairie trend of young people, drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to rural and small-town homes” and bringing new life to the region.
Says Smarsh, “From where I sit, they are heroes of the American odyssey — seeing value where others see lack, returning with the elixir of hard-won social capital to help solve the troubles of home.” Some are young, yes, but you’ll also meet people staking a claim in the Flint Hills as a second career. They’re all pioneers, re-settling parts of this region that have emptied out. Like their forebears, they’re ready to take risks and pack with them an outsized dose of imagination and optimism. The newcomers are joining Flint Hills folks who have stayed for generations. They’re happy to share their ranching heritage whether you’re putting down stakes or just passing through.
Where the Deer and the Antelope and the Symphony Play
For imagination and optimism, you can’t beat The Symphony in the Flint Hills. Who would think of hauling gigantic pieces of sound equipment, generators, huge tents, stages, and the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony to a location in the wild tallgrass prairie? That’s while working to protect the delicate terrain below the feet of the 7,000-plus people who attend the annual event. And gutsy? Consider the likelihood of the Kansas weather holding out for an outdoor event in this land of twisters.
The Symphony in the Flint Hills debuted in June 2006 and has moved every year to different Flint Hills sites. The event also features educational activities and speakers who explore a variety of topics including the ecology, the people and the future of the region. It gained followers, plenty of press, and drew people in to experience the area’s small towns, activities, and art…until last year.
In 2019, storms slammed the concert venue with howling winds that shredded the huge tents and saturated the ground so completely it made parking in the pastures impossible. The event was cancelled and that left Symphony in the Flint Hills with huge bills to pay. Yet, with true prairie gumption, they’ve sprung back and plan to hold the next big event in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, on June 13, 2020.
New Life in Small Towns
Bill McBride loves the prairie. You have to have an overwhelming passion for open spaces, nature and trains, too, to trade Chicago for tiny Matfield Green which sits adjacent to the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and the BNSF railroad. McBride, a Harvard-trained architect ran a successful firm in Chicago and designed prize-winning buildings until he chucked it all and moved to Matfield Green about 13 years ago. Once a small town of 350 with shops, a post office and a school of its own, the village almost vanished into the prairie like a tumbleweed until a small band of artists, writers and musicians came here lured by the beauty of the prairie and and affordable real estate. They’ve upped the population to around 60.
Now McBride concentrates on sculpture. Our journey with Prairie Earth Tours stopped to see his work along the PrairyArt Path. It makes a great place to take in McBride’s large sculpture installations while strolling through prairie grass and flowers, over a stone arch bridge, and through the remnants of Matfield Green’s historic cattle pens. Also on the property: old railroad bunkhouses that once housed workers for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. They’re among the very few such bunkhouses left in the country and lasted only because they were used as storage. McBride and friends restored the bunkhouses and turned them into guest casitas now called Matfield Station, and you can rent them on Airbnb.
For a more posh place to rest your head, check into the Historic Elgin Hotel in Marion, Kansas, where you’ll meet other modern-day prairie pioneers. Wichita natives, Jeremy and Tammy Ensey operate the Elgin which was built in 1886 and billed as “a monument to Marion’s glory and a common pride to citizens.” The hotel offered 42 rooms and shared bathrooms. From those glory days, it gradually collapsed into disrepair before it was renovated and re-opened in 2009.
Guests of the Elgin’s shared-bathroom days in the 1800s would be astonished to see its 12 plush suites with bathrooms equipped with jacuzzi tubs and spa showers. The Enseys took over the property three years ago and added a restaurant, Parlour 1886, and imported executive chef Michael Trimboli from New York City.
Back at the Ranch
A good portion of the Flint Hills lies in Chase County, or simply “the county,” to many locals. In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon describes Chase County as the most easterly piece of the American West. The county, he says, “looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.” Drive the backroads here—with vast open spaces, cattle ranches and wild mustangs—and you’ll see just what he’s talking about.
The county looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.
We stopped by Pioneer Bluffs Center for Ranching Heritage, a 12-acre homestead that is now a National Historic District. Their mission is to preserve the heritage of the Flint Hills and to educate the public about ranching in history and how it’s practiced today. You can tour Pioneer Bluff’s classic 1908 farm house and log cabin. They’ve also amassed vintage film clips and filmed a series of interviews with Flint Hills ranchers and cowhands that are great to watch. It’s especially interesting to hear the pride everyone takes in their long family connection to the land, something few people experience.
For an extra dose of cowboy and cowgirl culture, we spent the night at the Flying W, where fifth generation cattle ranchers Josh and Gwen Hoy run cattle and entertain guests on their 7,000 acre ranch. I was delighted to learn that Josh Hoy is related renowned plainsman Charles Goodnight, who was the inspiration for the Woodrow Call character in Larry McMurtry’s classic novel, Lonesome Dove. See more about Goodnight in my article about Amarillo, Texas.
After a chuckwagon dinner, we saddled up for a sunset horseback ride, ride, posse-style–no boring nose-to-tail riding here. Guests may also participate in cattle drives, go hiking or simply put their boots up and relax in accommodations that include a large lodge, a bunkhouse, and smaller cabins, all appropriately western and rustic.
Mosey Into town
With its old brick streets and vintage buildings, the town of Cottonwood Falls in Chase County looks like a great watering hole for not only the cowboys of the 1850s, but also modern-day cowhands and girls in search of a weekend getaway, too. Read about the historic red-roofed Chase County Courthouse that crowns Broadway street in my post about the jail there. Stroll the Broadway’s three-block span and you’ll find art galleries (including the lovely Symphony in the Flint Hills shop/gallery), boutiques, Metamorphosis Day Spa, restaurants and antique stores with merchandise that would please HGTV “Fixer Upper” fans.
After living in southern California for over 20 years, Kris and Pat Larkin settled in Cottonwood Falls to pursue what seems like a very ambitious “second act” in life. They bought and renovated numerous historic properties (including a church) around town and in neighboring Strong City and turned them into guest houses. They also opened the popular eatery, Ad Astra. “We love it here,” says Pat. “The values, affordable entrepreneurialism, and especially the people.”
You can kick back with Flint Hills residents at Emma Chase Friday Night Music. These free jam sessions take place indoors at the Prairie PastTimes artist cooperative. Or, in summer, bring your lawn chair and plunk it down right in the street for a concert in front of the Symphony in the Flint Hills gallery. Depending on the Friday, you’ll hear local musicians perform bluegrass, country and gospel music.
You may not want to move from your home in the city to put down roots here on the tallgrass prairie. But for a short time, even visitors can tune into the Americana vibe that is part of life in the Flint Hills.
Tucked inside the beautiful Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, you’ll find the nastiest, roughest little jail you’ve ever seen. It seems like one night here would be enough to set anyone on the straight and narrow. Still, judging from the names repeatedly scrawled on the walls, there were several inmates who just couldn’t stay away.
Unlike other old jails I’ve seen where cells are enclosed by bars, the cells here are made from crossed slats of heavy metal. They form a pattern of rectangles and squares that creates a dreary feeling, impenetrable and unforgiving. Nonetheless, it’s fun to see if you’re only there for a visit. You get there through the jury room adjacent to the imposing courtroom.
The ugliness of the jail contrasts with the beauty of the rest of the building which was built in the French Renaissance style. Completed in 1873 the Chase County Courthouse is the older Kansas courthouse still in use. It’s constructed constructed of walnut and limestone, topped with a red mansard roof that stands high over this Flint Hills prairie town.
The courthouse is characterized by the distinctive shape of the roof. Standing 113-feet tall, you can see the courthouse and its red mansard roof from vantage points throughout the county on most days.
While you’re at the courthouse, be sure to look for more shapes in the architecture.
Now, partly as a result of her brother’s unexpected death and her mother’s move to a memory care facility, Near the Exit takes a slightly different approach to travel. She investigates how cultures confront death, from the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, to Mayan temples in Mexico, to Maori communities in New Zealand, and to plenty of more commonplace sites such as nursing homes and graveyards. It’s a very readable, wise and, yes, funny book that will certainly inspire me to appreciate many of the places I travel in a new light, hopefully with the Grim Reaper on another bus.
Here Lori answers my questions about travel inspiration and our ultimate destination:
How and when did you decide to combine spirituality and travel?
I’ve been interested in these two topics for much of my adult life. About 15 years ago I realized that I could actually combine them–in fact, pilgrimage is almost certainly the oldest form of travel, and is still of major interest to millions of people today. So at that point I decided I wanted to specialize in the intersection of travel and spirituality, which I define very broadly. While I’m Christian, I’ve wandered a lot in my faith journey and draw inspiration from many other traditions, especially Buddhism.
Your book focuses on mortality as well as travel. Would you briefly discuss a couple of places you’ve been where the culture offers exemplary ways to deal with our own mortality? Can such cultural travel help ease the fear of death or the loss of loved ones?
In my book I write about the small Colorado town of Crestone, which has the nation’s only non-denominational, open-air cremation site. While I didn’t see a cremation there, I talked to a variety of residents about what it means to have this option in town, and what it’s like to see their neighbors’ remains go up in smoke. It’s clearly a powerful experience and a profound teaching in impermanence. They also do the preparation for death very well, with strong community support and communal rituals that help ease the transition, both for dying people and for their loved ones. Crestone has a lot to teach us about dying well.
The other place that I found to have a very healthy attitude toward mortality was the Day of the Dead Festival I attended at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. On November 1-2 in Mexican communities, the dead are said to return for a visit. People create altars that honor their loved ones with photos, mementoes, and their favorite foods, and picnic on their graves. I like the idea that the dead come back for those days, and then leave again. It’s a very healthy response to death, I think. You don’t focus on it all the time, but you know that for those two days, you can remember and grieve and celebrate, all at the same time.
I focus on literary travel; you target spiritual/religious locales. Your interest has certainly taken you to some unusual places—grave yards, cremation grounds, pyramids. In what ways does having a particular focus or field of interest enhance your travel? For example does it offer a way to go beyond routine tourism and to interact with the people who live in your destination? Do you have other suggestions for subjects/interests around which to organize a trip?
I love all kinds of travel, but I think having some kind of focus for trips deeply enriches the experience. It might be gardens or art or food or beaches or a wide variety of other topics. The point is that you’re able to focus on certain things and ignore others, which can deepen your understanding and enjoyment. Travel can sometimes feel like a firehose of impressions. Having a sense for what’s most important to you can help you deal with that rush of too much information and too many new experiences. Pretty much anything can be a focus for travel. People should think about what gives them pleasure and what they’re curious about.
I loved the story about your New Age travel companions in Mexico who constantly reported having past-life experiences and spoke “galactic.” One in particular said she had received a message from the Egyptian god Thoth. OMG. I think it would be difficult to travel with a group like that and it sounds like they drove your husband, Bob, a philosophy professor, a little nuts. We’ve all been in trips and tours with travel companions who were a tad irritating. Any suggestions for how to deal with all this? Lessons learned?
Well, all the best travel stories involve misery, don’t they? Or if not misery, at least trials and irritations. It’s helpful to remember that travel and travail share the same root. It also helps to keep your sense of humor and realize there are times on nearly every trip when you’re going to be irritated or miserable. Just accept that and know that these moments almost always pass pretty quickly. And you can be grateful that those problematic traveling companions won’t follow you home, unless they’re a family member.
I know you strive to meditate and be a contemplative person. The way travel can be nowadays—airport lines and cancellations, overcrowded tourist sights, rushing from place to place—it seems more like wearing a hair shirt than a soul-satisfying experience. How do you maintain your lovely, composed self? Maybe you rip off your clerical collar and yell at people, but I don’t think so.
Hah! That’s funny. I have my moments, believe me. But it helps that I grew up on a dairy farm and never went anywhere growing up. I try never to lose sight of the fact that I’m incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities and experiences that I do. And as I said, even the hard parts make for interesting stories and rich writing material.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.