All posts by Terri Peterson Smith

A Road Trip Through The Flint Hills of Kansas: Part Two

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

the audience at Symphony in the Flint Hills,
The massive audience enjoys the Symphony in the Flint Hills, which presents the Kansas City Symphony annually in spectacular prairie settings. (Photo courtesy of Kansas Tourism)

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 is a Chicago architect turned prairie sculptor and conservationist in Matfield Green, Kansas.

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.  

Artist Bill McBride stands aside his work, “Timber Arches,” on the PrairyArt Path in Matfield Green, Kansas.

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.

Tammy Ensey greets guests at the door of the Historic Elgin Hotel in Marion, Kansas.
salad at Elgin Hotel
A colorful salad at the Historic Elgin Hotel’s restaurant, Parlour 1886.

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.

Kristen Cloud and her dogs help drive cattle and guide guests on horseback at the Flying W ranch.

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

The “calaboose” in one of many guest accommodations at Flying W ranch.

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.

The Chase County Courthouse sits at the end of Cottonwood Falls’ main street, Broadway.

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.



A Road trip through the flint hills of kansas: Part One

On a road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas, travelers experience the otherworldly beauty of America’s prairie and meet the people who make the Flint Hills their home.

 The middle of the U.S. seems like a featureless place, “Flyover Country” and for road trippers, “Drive-By Country,” that’s easy to dismiss on your way to a more interesting destination. Even though I live in Minnesota, which often falls in that “flyover” category, I’ve been as misguided as all the other travelers who eschew the plains and prairies for more dramatic place with mountains and oceans.  Without slowing down to look, I didn’t see the quiet drama of the land here, or the interesting people who are so proud of the land where their families have lived for generations.

Actually, if you’re looking for dramatic scenery, put prairie fires near the top of your list.

For example, on road trip to the southwest last spring, we blasted by the Flint Hills of Kansas making a beeline down the center of the country on I-35.  The only thing we noticed on the way past the edge of the Flint Hills was that much of the land was on fire.  “Those poor people,” I thought. “Their land is in flames.”  (Actually, if you’re looking for dramatic scenery, put prairie fires near the top of your list.) But I didn’t know the significance of those flames, which are far from accidental.

The Lure of the Prairie

Our trip started in Wichita, the largest city in the state of Kansas. Before the trip I read Sarah Smarsh’s bestseller Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  Her book covers many of the reasons why farm families and women in particular stay trapped in a cycle of poverty.  She depicts what was both beautiful and sorrowful growing up in this region. 

However, Smarsh’s New York Times op-ed “Something Special is Happening in Rural America” offers a more upbeat view of what’s going on in rural areas across the country. She reports “a prairie trend of young people, drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to rural and small-town homes around college graduation. They’re opening restaurants or starting small, unconventional farming operations.” 

Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours discusses native grasses and plants in the Flint Hills
Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours

We met these folks in the Flint Hills, starting with our tour guide, Casey Cagle, owner of Prairie Earth Tours. He grew up in the region, traveled the world as a tour guide for other operators, then came home to start his own business.

First Stop:  Elderslie Farm

goats in goat barn at Elderslie Farms in Kansas
Friendly goats at Elderslie Farm. Check the farm’s website for timing of farm dinners, often featuring their own goat milk cheese.

Drive just a few minutes from the Wichita city limits and you’ll find yourself in farm country.  We stopped at Elderslie Farm on our way to the Flint Hills, a cool place where George Elder (a former teacher) and his family have turned family land into a “small unconventional farming operation” like those in Smarsh’s essay. They offer an array of opportunities for visitors to enjoy “agritourism” at its best. 

For example, their family home has become a restaurant  where you’ll see family portraits in the dining room and menus that incorporate regional food. George’s wife, Katharine, is the executive chef. You can pick blackberries, meet their herd of goats and slurp tasty goat milk gelato and outstanding goat milk cheese, too. At Elderslie Farm they also mill local black walnut trees into boards and slabs that architects and carpenters value to create stunning furniture and other decor.

Katherine and George Elderslie at Elderslie Farm in Kansas
Katharine and George Elder at Elderslie Farm.
Mouthwatering goat cheese from Elderslie Farm goats in Kansas.

Grace Hill Winery

From Elderslie Farm, you may want to stop at Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater which the Sollo family launched in 2008  on an abandoned homestead.  Their wines revolve around cold climate grapes grown on the farm and from other parts of Kansas.  

Grace Hill Winery incorporates art and humor on its wine labels.

The 23 types of wine they offer tend to the sweet side and come with distinctive names such as their best-seller, Peckerhead Red, as well as Dodging Tornadoes, Flatlander and Cloe’s Cuvee (named after the family dog) with equally clever labels to match.  For me, the dryer white Vignoles offers more crisp and fruity appeal. They’re happy to sell you a few bottles to take along on your trip.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

sign at entrance of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Welcome to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It’s a partnership of the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.

The Flint Hills run through Kansas roughly from Wichita in the South to Topeka in the north.  In the southern Flint Hills, you’ll find Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which the National Park Service operates in partnership with the Nature Conservancy.

Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequester more carbon than a forest.

This 11,000 acre preserve is a portion of the vast tallgrass prairie that once covered more than 170 million acres of the United States, from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas. Nearly all of it is gone, plowed under for agriculture or urban development. Of the roughly 4 percent that remains today, about two-thirds survives in the Flint Hills of Kansas and in Oklahoma.

Early explorers considered the tall grass prairie “the Great American Desert” but on a park service tour of the preserve, I learned there’s much more going on in the waving grasses than meets the eye.  Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequester more carbon than a forest.

Tall grass and flowers stretch as far as the eye can see at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas.

Author William Least Heat-Moon wrote in great detail about this section of the prairie in his 1991 book, PrairyErth (A Deep Map).  I mean huge detail, so you may want to do some skimming to get through this 600-plus-page volume, but it’s worth it for the background and wry observations that Heat-Moon offers.

Standing in the middle of this sea of grass, one feels as William Least Heat Moon described it, “open to the elements—wind, rain, cold and fire.” 

Especially the wind. He says “the grasses are the “offspring of the wind.”   The wind he says, “works to the detriment of trees, but grasses bend and keep their wild parts under ground.” Stretching 18-to 20 feet deep, the massive root system of prairie grasses–big bluestem, wild alfalfa, switchgrass, Indian grass and buffalo grass–sequesters more carbon than a forest.

naturalist at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Hold onto your hat. The wind is factor in prairie ecology as you’ll understand on a visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

And, though you’d never expect it, prairies are second to the rainforests in biodiversity. The preserve holds 500 species of plants, nearly 150 species of birds, 39 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals. It’s a critical habitat for monarch butterflies and prairie chickens, too.  In 2009, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service reintroduced bison to the preserve. The herd has reached 100 bison and you may see them on your tour.

Prairie Fires

Even this small remainder of tallgrass prairie wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the layers of chert (flint) in the ground here that gave the Flint Hills region its name.  Thankfully, the rocky terrain the Flint Hills region was too rocky to farm, saving it from the plow. However, the rich grasses were perfect for animal grazing, first buffalo, then cattle.  But, without the natural prairie cycle of weather, fire and animal grazing the land would become forested.  That’s why, since the days of the earliest human occupants of the prairie, people have burned the land to renew the grass and keep trees from taking over. 

fire on flint hills prairie at night'
a controlled burn of the prairie grassland in Kansas

Each spring, Flint Hills ranchers set fire to the grassy land, often dragging a device called a fire stick (basically a long pipe connected to a gasoline tank) behind an ATV. Unlike other regions of the U.S., fire here means renewal, not fear.  In a few weeks, the land is green with fresh grass and the cycle resumes.

See my next post for more on the Flint Hills.

(The striking fire photos at the beginning and the end of this article come courtesy of Kansas Tourism.)

The Old jail, cottonwood falls, Kansas

rectangles and squares formed by metal slats in the old jail in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas
Heavy metal slats are riveted together to form a grid of squares and rectangles in the old jail of the Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.

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.

With its red mansard roof, the Chase County courthouse is a Kansas landmark

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.

Look up from the bottom of the spiral staircase Chase County courthouse
more shapes to see in the staircase at the chase county courthouse
Looking down from the third floor of the Chase County courthouse

Spirituality and Travel

cover of book Near the Exit offthebeatenpagetravel.com

Death and travel don’t seem the happiest pairing for a travel book.  Honestly, that’s not a trip I’m eager to take any time soon.  Yet travel writer Lori Erickson weaves those topics together in her new book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper with surprisingly upbeat results.  

cover of book Holy Rover offthebeatenpagetravel.com

She’s a deacon in the Episcopal church so, it’s not surprising that Lori’s travels have a spiritual direction.  Her previous book,  Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God, is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world. 

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:

photo of Lori Erickson author of book Near the Exit www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Author Lori Erickson

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.

sign pointing to the cremation grounds near Crestone, Colorado
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Near the town of Crestone, Colorado which has America’s only non-denominational, open-air cremation site. (Photo: Bob Sessions)

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?

angel weeping on a tomb in Rome www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
An angel in Rome’s protestant cemetery. (Photo: Bob Sessions)

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. 

Six ways to to Explore Las Cruces, New Mexico

Add Las Cruces, New Mexico, to your list of U. S. travel destinations.  You’ll find farms and food, history, “doggone” friendly folks, fossils and the great outdoors.

Looking for more on New Mexico? See my previous posts:

Roswell New Mexico and Space Aliens, Kimo Theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico Chiles, Canyon Road in Santa Fe.

giant roadrunner statue in New Mexico
This 20-foot tall roadrunner perches at the rest stop on I-10 near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The roadrunner is New Mexico’s state bird.
closeup of roadrunner statue made of trash in New Mexico
Look up close and you’ll see this roadrunner is made from discarded junk such as old tennis shoe soles.

Located about 45 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces has long been a destination for more modern travelers and traders. In the late 1500s, explorer Don Juan de Oñate trekked into what is now New Mexico in search of gold on behalf of the king of Spain. On a route that was later known as the Camino Real, his group worked their way through the great Pass of the North (modern-day El Paso) and then north to what would become Santa Fe. Las Cruces makes a great destination for modern travelers following that route to Albuquerque and Santa Fe or on the route my husband and I followed on an RV trip westward to San Diego. Here are some tips to explore the area.

Farms and Farmers Markets 

sheep at New Mexico Farm & Ranch Museum www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Sheep–shorn and unshorn–at New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

For such dry country, the Las Cruces area offers remarkable agricultural bounty.  As you drive around you’ll see fields of chile plants, nut trees, vegetables and livestock. For an up-close look, visit the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.   It’s an outstanding, interactive museum with indoor exhibits, and outdoor demonstrations about all aspects of New Mexico Farm life and  plenty of live farm animals to see.  

blacksmith at New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum Las Cruces, New Mexico www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Find out about iron working and blacksmithing from Billy Provence.
white horse at New Mexico Farm & Ranch Museum www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Horses and many other farm animals are at home at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

The bounty of those farms and ranches is on display at the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces, typically on Saturdays & Wednesdays, 8:30 am to1 pm. You’ll find nearly 300 local merchants, goods and growers lined up along seven city blocks on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces.

baked goods vendor at Las Cruces Farmers Market www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Pick up a loaf of bread to take home.
New Mexico State Students teaching nutrition www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Friendly students from New Mexico State University were on hand to teach about good nutrition.
painted gourds at Las Cruces Farmers Market www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
You’ll find fantastic crafts and homemade products.
selling honey at Las Cruces Farmers Market www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Luchador Food Truck at Las Cruces Farmers Market www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
The Luchador food truck is one of several at the market. Be sure to try their fabulous breakfast torta.
Rio Grand Theater Las Cruces
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While you stroll Main Street you can drop in at several of the city’s museums and check out the tile work at the Rio Grande Theater

Wine & Dine

Las Cruces is proud of its wine production, too.  We sampled wine and ate dinner at the Lescombes Winery & Bistro (formerly called St. Clair Winery) where you can also purchase a variety of New Mexico wines.

counter with wine and food menu at NM Vintage www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Friendly greeting at NM Vintage in Mesilla, near Las Cruces.

Another day we visited the tiny town of Mesilla, just outside Las Cruces. We hunkered down at a little bistro called NM Vintage to share a wine flight and a few snacks.

menu and snack food at NM Vintage
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man sipping wine at NM Vintage
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Relaxing on the patio at NM Vintage.

Mesilla is also one of my favorite stops in the area for dining. Not surprisingly, the area abounds with great Mexican food.  At ¡Ándele! Dog House! adjacent to the fancier IAndele! restaurant, we drank craft beer and ate tacos and enormous burrito plates on the covered patio where we could take our dog.

A Bit of History–and Shopping!

statue of Virgin Mary and exterior of Basilica of San Albino in Mesilla www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com'
The Basilica of San Albino graces the main plaza in Mesilla, new Las Cruces.

Mesilla reminds me of how Santa Fe must have looked before it was discovered by all the tourists. Many cultural and historical activities take place on the plaza. At the north end, rises the Basilica of San Albino, one of the oldest missions in the Mesilla Valley, originally established in 1852 to give religious support to refugees from Mexico. Another Mesilla building was the site where Western Legend Billy the Kid once stood trial for murder.

In Mesilla, you’ll also find gift shops, galleries and Native American jewelry shops. Nambe, the design company that creates contemporary serveware, barware, home décor and gift items, has a terrific outlet on the plaza.

Dog-Friendly Destination

family patting golden retriever at Las Cruces Farmers Market www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
At the Las Cruces farmers market.

We often travel with our dog, Duffy, so I was particularly happy to find that the Las Cruces area prides itself on being dog-friendly. Canines are great at breaking the ice with strangers and that was doubly true in Las Cruces. You can hardly get through the farmers market without chatting with everyone who wants to see your dog, hear about where you’re from and offer advice on places to visit in the area.

golden retriever at COAS books in Las Cruces www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Dogs are welcome at COAS books in Las Cruces….
Chihuahua looking out of doorway in Mesillia, NM www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
and may welcome you at Mesilla Book Center.
inside Mesilla Book Center www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Buffalo and books at the Mesilla Book Center.

On a long RV road trip, it’s great to stay in a hotel once in a while. In Las Cruces we checked into TownPlace Suites, a dog-friendly Marriott brand where the staff offered a friendly greeting to the dog owners, too.

two women greeting golden retriever at TownPlace Suites Las Cruces offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Our greeting at TownPlace Suites.

Get Outdoors in Las Cruces

view of Organ Mountains Las Cruces New Mexico www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com
Watch out for fossils while hiking in the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Finally, New Mexico is an outdoor-lover’s paradise and Las Cruces is no exception. Sadly, howling dust storms kept us away from White Sands National Monument about an hour from Las Cruces.  It was amazing to see how the wind whipped up a giant white cloud of gypsum dust from the monument, which made it impossible for hiking, let alone the photography I had hoped for. Next time.

However, other outdoorsy possibilities abound. We headed for the Dripping Springs Natural Area located about 10 miles east of Las Cruces, on the west side of the Organ Mountains. It features easy trails that show off desert scrub and low elevation pinon-juniper and oak woodlands and sometimes wildlife viewing, including rattlesnakes.

warming sign on trail in Organ Mountains www.offthebeatenpagetravel.com

Be careful. It seems like hikers regularly stumble over fossils around Las Cruces. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have wandered around New Mexico, for millennia and this dry and rocky Chihuahuan desert ecosystem provides the perfect conditions to preserve ancient fossils. That’s why they’re still around for trip over. I love these stories!

For example,  in 2017, a nine-year-old boy named Jude Sparks stumbled over the remains of a rare stegomastodon while hiking with his family in the nearby Organ Mountains.  The boy told the ABC-TV affiliate in El Paso, that his older brother told him it was “just a big fat rotten cow”  but it was actually a fantastic a find for the world of paleontology.  In 2014, a bachelor party also stumbled over a stegomastadon.  So, watch your step. Or, head to the hallways of New Mexico State University where the Zuhl Museum contains a large number of fossils of invertebrate and vertebrate animals from all over the world, including trilobites, corals, ammonites, insects, and fishes.

Roswell, New Mexico and Space Aliens

This cheerful little green man greeted us at Bottomless Lakes State Park near Roswell, New Mexico.

You have to hand it to space aliens.  Like our most unruly relatives, when they visit they can cause a stir that we just can’t get over. On a recent road trip through southern New Mexico, we couldn’t resist a side trip to Roswell, the center of a classic UFO story that includes an extraterrestrial visit and a government coverup.  

The Roswell Incident

A display at Roswell’s UFO Museum depicting what may have happened during the “Roswell Incident” in 1947

Roswell, a ranching town, launched into international fame in 1947 when a sheep rancher northwest of town found strange metallic objects on his property and reported the incident to officials at the local military base.  According to the Roswell city government website,  “on July 8, 1947, public information officer Lt. Walter Haut issued a press release under orders from base commander Col. William Blanchard, which said basically that we have in our possession a flying saucer. The next day another press release was issued, this time from Gen. Roger Ramey, stating it was a weather balloon. That was the start of the best known and well-documented UFO coverups.”   For more, see a history.com explanation.

Little Green Men

McDonald’s has spacy architecture in Roswell, New Mexico.

Did that rancher find parts of a flying saucer or just a weather balloon?  Was it the “cover up” of an alien landing or merely the government explaining away hush-hush scientific research that couldn’t be revealed to the public?  Who knows?  Still, you can’t beat a good alien story whether it’s fact or fiction and the city of Roswell has made the most of it.  The city features two notable art museums, the Roswell Museum and Art Center and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art and other attractions, but space aliens are it’s claim to fame.  Consequently, the city receives thousands of visitors each year who are either true believers or lovers of kitsch.  Count me in the latter group.  I couldn’t resist.  

Greetings donut eaters!

In Roswell, the globes of downtown streetlights have alien eyes painted on them.  The city hosts an annual UFO Festival. The local McDonald’s skipped the golden arches in favor of spaceship architecture. At the Dunkin’ Donuts a green space alien holds the sign inviting you in, much the way high-schoolers advertise their team’s car-wash fundraisers. Even at the nearby Bottomless Lakes State Park, a campground host sign welcomed us with a little green man.

UFO Museum

Welcome to the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico.

For all things UFO, head to Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center.  Whether you’re serious about aliens or not, you gotta go.  The price is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for children and they let my dog in for free.  It offers a compilation of clippings, letters, and faded photos regarding the Roswell Incident.  You’ll find other information about sightings of UFOs, alien abductions and a section about Roswell in the movies.  Best, of all, even skeptics enjoy the steam-filled landing of aliens in a display in the museum’s center, pictured above.

Sci-Fi Classics

If you can’t make it to Roswell, you can indulge your sci-fi side with classic books of the genre.  They include H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, that classic of aliens invading earth, anything by Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, Foundation), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepadapted for film as Bladerunner), and Octavia Butler (Lilith’s Brood.)

See more about New Mexico’s gorgeous and “alien” landscapes in my next post.

“The Widow of the South,” and Franklin, Tennessee

Robert Hicks’ bestseller, The Widow of the South, an excellent historical fiction novel to read before a trip to Franklin, Tennessee.

The Battle of Franklin near Nashville, Tennessee, may not be the most famous battle of the American Civil War. Yet, for lovers of historical fiction, the story told in Robert Hicks’ novel The Widow of the South is gripping enough to inspire travel to Franklin, Tennessee, to see Carnton Plantation and other sites where the story takes place. If you go, you’ll discover why the Battle of Franklin is considered the last great battle of the Civil War.

And, you’ll find plenty of modern-day activities that make Franklin a great destination above and beyond the battlefield. It’s so cute, it even inspired a Hallmark movie, based on Karen Kingsbury’s The Bridge.

The True Story and the Fiction

The Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, was one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate Army, with nearly 7,000 casualties.  (For a detailed explanation, see the Battle of Franklin Trust website.) During the battle, which raged not just in fields but also in people’s back yards, Carrie and John McGavock’s plantation, Carnton, served as a field hospital for hundreds of injured and dying Confederate soldiers. Today, you can tour their the Greek Revival house and the adjacent cemetery. (See my previous post on the Carter House where the battle also raged.)

 Robert Hicks served on the board of Carnton Plantation and became fascinated with its story. He says in the book’s author’s note, “Carrie McGavock became a ‘living martyr and curiosity.’  She became famous without ever leaving her farm, renowned for her daily wandering in the cemetery, for her mourning clothes, for her letters to the families of the bereaved, and most of all, for her constancy.  From the day the last of the dead was buried in her back yard, she never really left her post in the cemetery, continuously checking her book of the dead.”

Hicks constructed his book using letters and diaries but added a number of fictional characters to the factual mix, including Zachariah Cashwell, a young soldier from Arkansas whom Carrie nurses back to life– and she falls in love with him. Serious Civil War buffs no doubt roll their eyes about the book’s fictional additions.

Hicks says in the book, “I submit my sincerest apologies, to those who require it, for meandering from the history in the interest of telling a story.  Other than Carrie and her immediate family and slave, most of the other characters are either composited of historical figures from Franklin’s past or were born in my imagination.”

sign describes Carrie McGavock as "The Good Samaritan of Williamson County."
Cemetery at Carnton Plantation where this sign describes Carrie McGavock as “The Good Samaritan of Williamson County.”

As you tour, you’ll discover that the Battle of Franklin was anything but imaginary.  Here, the blood stains remain on the floor.

Outside, the cemetery that Carrie created and tended for the rest of her life contains the graves of 1,481 young soldiers, a staggering reminder of the epic battle.

Hundreds of headstones mark the graves at Carnton Plantation in Franklin Tennesse
A Civil War soldier’s grave marker in the cemetary at Carnton Plantation.

Updated and More Inclusive

The Carnton tour used to somewhat glorify the business acumen of Carnton’s white owners. That neglected the horror of slavery and the fact that all of us could succeed in business if our laborers worked for free. I’m happy to report that the plantation has added a Slavery and the Enslaved: Tours at Carter House and Carnton.

So, I maintain that quality historical fiction serves an important role to spark interest in historical events and sites, even though it may not be 100 percent accurate. I, for one, had never have heard of the Battle of Franklin before reading the book. More importantly, historical sites must present their stories from multiple perspectives and with an eye in include the facts, not just those with a nostalgia for the old South.

…And While You’re in Franklin

Yet, everything in Franklin isn’t about war and death. The charming town makes a great girls’ getaway or weekend trip, not just for history buffs. There’s unique shopping an abundance of live music and some charming inns, too. Don’t miss Landmark Booksellers, inspiration for Karen Kingsbury’s novel, The Bridge.

Independent Landmark Booksellers of Franklin, Tennessee was the inspiration of the New York Times bestselling novel ‘The Bridge.’ Photo courtesy Visit Franklin.
Music at Gray’s on Main in Franklin. Photo courtesy of Visit Franklin.

Where to Stay

The new Harpeth Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton luxury hotel, is the only hotel in downtown.  There are also a wide array of charming B&Bs.