All posts by Terri Peterson Smith

A Literary Road Trip Across South Dakota

Visiting South Dakota State and National Parks on a Road Trip from Minnesota to Wyoming

Geese float peacefully among the cliffs of Palisades State Park.

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). 

Palisades State Park

Climbing is popular in Palisades State Park in South Dakota. Courtesy of SD Tourism

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.  

Badlands National Park

Fascinating geology in the Badlands

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

The faces at Mount Rushmore don’t wear masks. Neither do the tourists who visit.
Crazy Horse Memorial offers a nice little museum and Native American cultural programming.

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.

Custer State Park

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. 

Buffalo calves in Custer State Park, South Dakota

A view from atop Black Elk Peak.

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.  

The porch at State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. The lodge was the summer white house for presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower.

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.

Read Up

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

Dakota : A Spiritual Geography–Kathleen Norris

The Last Stand–Nathaniel Philbrook

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee–Dee Brown

The Golden Bowl –Frederick Feikema Manfred

Buffalo for the Broken Heart–Dan O’Brien

Travel to the World of Author Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache

In Quebec, Canada’s Eastern Townships, fans of mystery writer Louise Penny step into the world of Three Pines and Inspector Armand Gamache.

This painting illustrating Louise Penny’s murder mystery Still Life is at the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

It’s a sunny day on the village green in Knowlton, Quebec, a.k.a. “Three Pines.”  It’s the real-life place that inspired the fictional town where Louise Penny sets her bestselling mystery novels. They’re serving steaming coffee and camaraderie at the bistro. You’ll find a cheery welcome and plenty of reading tips at the bookstore.  A fiddler plays while shoppers stroll the nearby farmers market. Seriously, here in the Eastern Townships of Quebec life seems so idyllic you can’t believe it. 

Except for all those murders.…

Sixteen Murders and Counting

All The Devils are Here is the 16th in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.

Welcome to the world of bestselling author Louise Penny —one of the biggest names in crime fiction.  Set amidst the rolling countryside and lakes of the Eastern Townships (about 60 miles from Montreal and just north of the Vermont border) Penny fills her books with the history and charm of Quebec.  That makes a terrific contrast with murders—strictly fictional!—that have included a woman killed by a hunting arrow, a prior conked in the head with an iron door knocker, a woman crushed by a falling statue and one person who is simply frightened to death. The list goes on. 

Yet, as Penny told USA Today, the books are “about goodness, as well.”  Penny said in a CBS Sunday Morning interview that the books are about many things, least of all murder. They’re about life, choices, love and friendship, and food. That’s one of the keys to their popularity. The first book in the series, <a href=”http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781250145239?aff=Duffy%216313″>Still LifeStill Life, came out in 2005.  Since then Penny has released a new book about every year and holds the first event promoting each book here in Knowlton where she lives.  <a href=”http://<a href=”https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781250145239?aff=Duffy%216313″>All the Devils Are HereAll the Devils Are Here, the 16th novel in the series comes out in 2020.  

The books offer the thrills and sleuthing of crime novels without the violence and raunchiness of many murder mysteries.  They’re often described as character-driven mysteries and central among those characters is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the  Sûreté du Québec.  Gamache has become known as the the “Hercule Poirot of Canada.”  Penny was influenced by Agatha Christie and Georges Simmenon’s Maigret. Like Poirot and Maigret, Gamache is a man of principle and ethics.  As a result he’s often beleaguered and at odds with his superiors at the Surete.  The eccentric residents of Three Pines play an equally important role. Readers get to know them as they change and develop over the course of the series. The setting that Penny paints in the books also serves as an important and appealing character, too.

Eastern Townships

The Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada are both charming and evocative of the region’s history as a haven for British royalists during the American Revolutionary War.

The Eastern Townships, les Cantons de L’Est, are located in southeastern Quebec, on the edge of the American border.  During the Revolutionary War, the area offered refuge to the British royalists fleeing from the revolution. While the rest of Quebec is thoroughly French, the Eastern Townships bear the marks of British culture including villages with names such as Sutton, Sherbrooke and Georgeville.  The fictitious town name of Three Pines is nod to the fact that royalists often planted a cluster three pine trees as a signpost of safety for British royalists fleeing across the border.

British as the towns were, they’re still in the midst of culturally French Quebec and people here switch back and forth between English and French as easily and most of us flip a light switch on and off. They also offer the fabulous food, wine, shops and joie de vivre of the region’s French Canadian heritage which Penny weaves into her stories. Characters are constantly eating meals that make my mouth water, enjoying a glass or two of wine or taking in the peace of their surroundings. It’s no wonder that people from around the world visit the area every year to see the landscape and cultural life they’ve read about in Louis Penny’s books.

The region is also famous its outdoor activities including biking, hiking and skiing.  With so much to do, see and taste, the territories make a fabulous place for book clubs and Louise Penny fans to visit, well beyond their interest in the books.

A Gamach-Inspired Tour

Dani Viau guided us on a tour of sites in Quebec’s Eastern Townships that inspired locales in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.

We toured the rolling hills, green woods and sunny little towns of Gamache’s world with Danielle Viau of Three Pines Tours to see “where the bodies are buried,” so to speak. 

While revealing the places that have inspired Louise Penny’s mysteries, Dani explained the area’s culture and history. We sampled the food and drink and met a few the folks that live in the Eastern Townships who make the destination so engaging—all quite a contrast to the deadly deeds that take place in the stories.

The friendly booksellers at Brome Lake Books in Knowlton, Quebec are happy to guide you to the Louise Penny books or offers suggestions for other reading

We started in the historic town of Knowlton, aka Three Pines.  Readers will want to head to Brome Lake Books, a cozy store with nooks that invite readers to settle in and explore new titles.  Penny’s readers will find it reminiscent of Myrna’s new and used bookstore in the novels. 

This German Fokker airplane from World War I is housed at the Brome Country Historical Society and is one of only three in the world with the original fabric.

Also in Knowlton, The Brome County Historical Society Museum is a surprising gem, especially for its size. It features an exhibit about the thousands of orphaned British Home Children who who passed through it in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. And, it houses a WWI Fokker airplane believed to be one of only three planes of that type in the world with its original fabric. But, don’t miss the painting “Fair Day”used in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s movie, Still Life, based on Penny’s book of that name.

We ate a tasty gourmet lunch at the charming Auberge Knowltong.

Later, we lunched on duck and a local favorite, maple sugar pie with caramel sauce, at Le Relais Bistro at Auberge Knowlton. Built in 1849 the bistro features cushy chairs, large wooden dining tables and cozy rooms for overnight stays upstairs, all reminiscent of the Bistro in A Brutal Telling.

the setting of one of louise penny's books
A view of the Abbey of Saint Benoit due lac, in Quebec, Canada the setting for one of Louise Penny’s novels.
Downstairs at the Abbey, the monks sell products they make including cheese and chocolate.

Then we headed to the Abbey of Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, home to Benedictine monks on the shore of Lake Memphrémagog featured in A Beautiful Mystery.  Visitors can attend services, listen to the monks’ Gregorian chant and also purchase the products the monks make including cheese (named after saints), chocolate and other goodies.

Another day, we visited the tres charmant village, North Hatley, located on Lake Massawippi. Here, you’ll find the elegant Manor Bellechasse, which makes an appearances in Louise Penny’s The Murder Stone. We strolled the waterfront, hit a few shops and stocked up on goodies at the village farmers market. (Click on the photos above to see them in a larger format.) It doesn’t get more charming.

You’ll be glad Louise Penny lured you here.

If You Go

We stayed in another great Eastern Townships village, Sutton, where we ate and drank at the Auberge Sutton Brouerie and slept at Bite Vert le Mont Bed & Breakfast where owner Lynda Graham shared her stories and fabulous cooking.

If You Can’t Go Right Now

Can’t make it to the Eastern Townships any time soon? Read Louise Penny’s books and enjoy her comments about them as go. Armchair travel at it’s best!

Open Spaces—The Best antidote for Corona Virus Isolation

Book and travel ideas to inspire “outdoor therapy” and to plan for #travelsomeday.

Springfield, MO: The Edwards Cabin at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield sits in a lush field just outside Springfield, Missouri. www.nps.gov/wicr/incex.htm : Instagram: lovespringfield

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.  

In the Quad Cities, the Mississippi River takes a bend to run directly east to west for roughly ten miles giving way for beautiful sunrises and sunsets over the water. Legend has it the Father of Waters was so tantalized by the land’s beauty, he turned his head to admire the view. (The Quad Cities are Davenport and Bettendorf in southeastern Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, in northwestern Illinois.) Credit – Visit Quad Cities Website – http://www.visitquadcities.com Instagram – @visitquadcities

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.  

Nature Reading

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. 

Bismark/Mandan, N.D.: Step back in time at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park to the 1500s when the Mandan Indians lived at the On-A-Slant Indian Village, or to 1875 when Gen. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry resided in Dakota Territory. Located along the majestic Missouri River, not only does it whisper the history and stories of hundreds of years, but it’s also a breathtaking experience for nature lovers to hike, bike, walk and explore. Photo Credit: Bismarck-Mandan Convention & Visitors Bureau Website: NoBoundariesND.com Instagram: @bismancvb

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.”

–Mary Oliver

Dreaming of Places to Go

Minneapolis: Theodore Wirth Regional Park is in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis, with plenty of green, open spaces to socially distance and explore the outdoors in the City by Nature. (Note the little deer in the foreground.) http://www.minneapolis.org Instagram: meetminneapolis
Credit: Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board, Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

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.

Kansas’ newest State Park, Little Jerusalem: Long ago, this area in Kansas was a great sea. In addition to the present-day wildlife, the remains of swimming and flying reptiles dating back 85 million years have been found here. www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/little-jerusalem-badlands-state-park/ https://www.instagram.com/kansastourism/

Wichita, Kansas: The Keeper of the Plains has become the emblem of Wichita. It includes a plaza where the Keeper sits and a riverwalk that extends around the area. Credit: Mickey Shannon. www.visitwichita Instagram: visitwichita
Petoskey, Michigan: Guests love to walk the Petoskey breakwall – especially during one of the area’s Million Dollar Sunsets. www.PetoskeyArea.com Instagram: Petoskeyarea
Cleveland, Ohio: Edgewater Park offers lakefront trails, open green space and panoramic views of Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline. Credit: Cody York for ThisIsCleveland.com https://www.thisiscleveland.com/locations/edgewater-park Instagram: This is CLE
Kansas City Missouri: Jerry Smith Park sits on 360 acres and was previously a working farm. Presently the park supports equestrian and walking trails and provides access to a rich variety of flora and fauna.Website – https://kcparks.org/places/jerry-smith-park/ Instagram: Visit KC
 
Iowa: The Loess Hills, along the western border of Iowa, provide some of the most beautiful scenery, wildlife and overlooks in the country. Photo credit: Iowa Tourism Office. traveliowa.com Instagram: traveliowa
Lake of the Ozarks, MO: Ha Ha Tonka State Park at Central Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks was named the most beautiful place in Missouri by Conde Nast Traveler. Ha Ha Tonka’s fourteen walking trails, covering more than 15 scenic miles throughout the park, make it easy for visitors to enjoy solitude while experiencing the honeycomb of tunnels, rock bridges, caverns, springs, sinkholes and other natural areas. Credit: www.FunLake.com. Instagram: funlakemo
Fort Wayne: Promenade Park is the Midwest’s newest attraction located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This one-of-a-kind park joins Fort Wayne’s natural rivers to its vibrant urban center, and features a treetop canopy trail, water features for kids to play in, and many modern amenities.
Photo Credit: Visit Fort Wayne
VisitFortWayne.com/PromenadePark Instagram: visitfortwayne
The Badlands of South Dakota is 244,000 acres of awe-inspiring landscape. Great for hiking, a scenic drive, or wildlife watching the Badlands are a perfect escape from people, sights, and sounds of everyday life. https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm Credit: Travel South Dakota
Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana offers plenty of outdoor space to enjoy. Take advantage of trails, fishing, picnic areas, and more.  https://indianasabelincoln.org/listings/lincoln-state-park/  Instagram: @IndianasAbe and @IndianaDNR Credit: Spencer County Visitors Bureau

Will trade chutney for toilet paper

What to read when you’re stuck at home: guidebooks for travel through your house.

You know I’m pretty desperate when I resort to cleaning and organizing my house.  But like so many during the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m Corona cleaning. Fortunately, I own two of Marie Kondo’s books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up that had been gathering dust. Too bad just owning the books doesn’t make your house tidy. It seemed like a good time to actually put them to use.

My Tidying Adventure

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.

But, I’ll bet he doesn’t have as much chutney. 

 

A visit to The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League in 2020. 

The Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball Leagues started it all.

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

Exhibit at the Negro Leagues baseball museum tells of the challenges of travel in Jim Crow America

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.

The Green-Book for Negro motorists.

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.  

A college baseball team sits on the bench during a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

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.

Pork Chops

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.

Jackie Robinson

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. 

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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:

Where to Stay

These hotels are fairly close to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The Crossroads Hotel, the Westin Crown Center Hotel and the Hilton President.

Four Favorite Frank Lloyd Wright Destinations

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. 

Interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House in Wichita, Kansas

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.  

Now for some exploration:

Allen House, Wichita, Kansas

exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House in Wichita Kansas

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.

Taliesin—Spring Green Wisconsin

Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin

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.” 

A view of the valley from Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin

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. 

Taliesin West—Scottsdale, Arizona

Angles on the exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

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—New York City

exterior of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York city designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, New York by Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo by David Heald, courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

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 circular interior of the Guggenheim Museum stands in stark contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright’s early work at the Allen House. (Photo by David Heald, courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

* 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).

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
offthebeatenpagetravel.com
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.