Travel to Seneca Falls, New York, the hub of women’s history in the U.S. for an education on the history of women’s rights and a hefty dose of historic charm.
The struggle for human rights never seems to end. Yet, in Seneca Falls, New York, you’ll find inspiration when you learn about the historic leaders of women’s rights. Located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, at the tip of Seneca Lake, the town makes a great stop on your tour of the area.
Seneca Falls was the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention held on July 19-20, 1848. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park commemorates that event and depicts women’s struggle to gain the right to vote and for other rights that come with equal citizenship in this country.
One of the meeting’s organizers, Seneca Falls resident Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began the event with a speech on the convention’s goals and purpose:
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.” The Convention culminated in the Declaration of Sentiments, which is full of ideas that were quite revolutionary at the time.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park is actually a collection of historic sites, all within easy walking distance. Start at the Visitors Center (check the hours they’re open!) which presents a great film on the first convention and its leaders. Exhibits further explain that event and women’s progress since then. The Visitors Center also has an excellent book shop. Other buildings in the park include the Wesleyan Chapel where the convention took place and the houses of other prominent leaders of the movement including the homes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Ann M’Clintock. The Park offers outdoor ranger-led tours.
Beyond the Park
Down the street from the National Women’s Rights Park Visitors Center, you can also tour the National Women’s Hall of Fame, where plaques and photos pay homage to America’s most famous women. In addition a stroll along the The Cayuga–Seneca Canal (which links to the Erie Canal) is a must.
Finally, many believe that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Frank Kapra’s fictional town of Bedford Falls in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s even an It’s A Wonderful Life Museum. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie so they’ve got big plans for a festival December 8-22, featuring anyone and everyone who is still alive and connected to the movie such as the actors who played the Bailey children, including Zuzu.
A Wyoming vacation delivers gorgeous western scenery, Native American art, cowboys, polo players, hiking and open spaces. Read these great books to conjure up the spirit of the west before you go.
You won’t find many people in Wyoming. At about 600,000, the Cowboy State tallies the smallest population in the U.S. That’s around six people per square mile. Cattle outnumber humans by far. So, if you come from a more populated place—such as either of the U.S. coasts—Wyoming’s open space in itself makes an amazing sight.
Though low on people, Wyoming’s emptiness is packed with some of the most unusual sights and citizens in the U.S. That includes the beloved and often crowded Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton National Parks. They’re great, but be sure to include other destinations in your road trip to experience some of this most iconic spots in the American West.
All those unblocked vistas leave plenty of room for the imagination. Its no wonder so many classic western novels are set in Wyoming—Shane, The Virginian, and My Friend Flicka to name a few. More contemporary authors also find inspiration in Wyoming’s rugged plains, mountains and canyons. Wyoming crime solvers such as Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire (books and Netflix series), C.J. Box’s game-warden-hero Joe Pickett and others (usually on horseback) always get the bad guys and stand against corruption despite any challenges nature throws at them. The region also inspired Annie Proulx’s story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories of which “Brokeback Mountain” is one. Finally, I have to add Hank the Cowdog, our boys’ road trip favorite when they were little.
Close Encounters with Devils Tower
On our recent Wyoming road trip we drove from east to west along the state’s northern tier starting at Devil’s Tower, one of Earth’s most impressive geological features. Rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, the monolith creates a sight so unusual it made the perfect location for aliens to land in Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Watch it before you go.
From the highway, you can see Devil’s Tower off in the distance but don’t just pass by. It’s worth a closer look. Hike the 1.3-mile Tower Trail around the base to see how different it looks (often resembling a giant bunch of rocky pencils from various sides and in different light. You’ll see small, colored bundles of cloth around the base of Devils Tower that are sacred offerings left by Native Americans for whom the tower is a cultural and religious focal point.
Cowpokes, Polo Ponies and Art in Sheridan and Big Horn
Not far from Devils Tower we veered north on I-90 to visit Sheridan, a town of almost 18,000 people set next to the 1.1 million acres of forested mountains and rolling grasslands of the Bighorn National Forest.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Frackleton’s then headed down Main Street to King’s Saddlery which carries tack any “cowboy, cowgirl and city-slicker” could need such as saddles, ropes, bridles, bits, headstalls, reins, halters, roping equipment, barrel racing equipment, saddle bags, saddle blankets and slickers. Even if you’re not in the market for a new saddle, you have to see King’s. In the back of the store you’ll find folks finishing ropes and working on saddles to customers’ specifications.
Ask to see the Don King Museum, a little gem out behind the store. It’s free. You’re welcome to explore the collection of old west memorabilia including a collection of hand-tooled saddles for which Don King, the store’s founder, was famous along with wagons, coaches, Indian artifacts, guns, Western tack and original artwork.
Head down the street to take a peek at the famous Mint Bar, the watering hole that’s been wetting whistles in Sheridan since 1907. I felt like I should be wearing cowboy boots and spurs. The ultimate in farmhouse decor, the Mint’s walls feature over 9,000 cattle brands from around Wyoming.
In its early years Sheridan’s social life centered on bars, pool halls and brothels around Main Street. The Sheridan Inn must also have been a lively place then. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody used it as his headquarters during tryouts for his Wild West show. You can stay at the Inn where each room is themed around the iconic Western personalities.
Stroll down Main Street and you’ll soon get the idea that, despite its western roots, Sheridan is no mere “cowtown.” An abundance of terrific statues line the street and other areas. The city’s public art project has brought at least 60 unique pieces of outdoor art to the downtown and made it something of a community phenomenon.
In the tiny town of Big Horn, right next door to Sheridan, they focus more on polo ponies than cattle horses. The posh sport of polo seems a bit out character for this rugged region, yet Big Horn has been a polo hub since the 1890s when aristocrats from England and Scotland made their way to Wyoming. For example, William and Malcom Moncreiffe settled in Big Horn and established a successful business raising registered sheep. They also played an important role in bringing the sport of polo to the area. Now, notable players from all over the world head to Big Horn every year for the summer polo season.
Also tucked back in the Big Horn area, we found the elegant Brinton Museum located on the 620-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch that originally belonged to William Moncreiffe. You can tour the historic ranch house as well as the museum dedicated to Native American art and culture as well as American fine and decorative art.
We left Big Horn and headed south on I-90 toward Buffalo, the town upon which author Craig Johnson’s modeled his fictional town of Durant in his Longmire crime series. Take special note of the landscape in this area. You’ll see the terrain of “Absaroka” County that Sheriff Walt Longmire and his smart-alecky crew inhabit. Buffalo celebrates “Longmire Days” annually.
Traveling from Buffalo, we took U.S. 16 which becomes the stunning Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway. It rises over the southern portion of the Big Horn Mountains and offers breathtaking scenery, worth all the chugging our little RV did as we climbed to the peak at 9,666 feet. Then the road winds through the spectacular Tensleep Canyon. Thankfully it offers plenty of pullouts so even the driver can stop and ogle the view.
We’re members of Harvest Hosts, a program for RVers that allows members access to a network of wineries, farms, breweries, museums and other unique attractions where they can stay overnight. We spent the night at a farm near Shonshoni, on the Wyoming prairie with the mountains off in the distance.
Land like this is the setting of One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker, set in the 1870s. In the story, a man kills his neighbor after he catches him “in flagrante” with his wife. He then goes to jail, which leaves the two wives alone with their children to fend for themselves during the brutal Wyoming winter. It’s action-packed and gives a pretty good idea of the hardship of life in Wyoming at that time.
On the westernmost side of the state, we arrived at our final destinations of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. We visit those places over and over, but we were happy that this time we had also included in our trip a few of the other great destinations–and that wide open space– that Wyoming offers.
Though it’s called “driftless” the terrain of southwestern Wisconsin makes an ideal road trip for people who love to drift and explore.
Ten thousand years ago, the Ice Age took a detour around southwestern Wisconsin. That’s why it’s called the Driftless Area. Without the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand and silt called drift that flattened the rest of the upper Midwest, this region’s winding backroads reveal picturesque limestone bluffs, spring-fed waterfalls, blue-ribbon trout streams and a rolling pastoral landscape—all nurturing iconic small towns, interesting people and acres of happy cows.
Located halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, and encompassing roughly a quarter of the state, Wisconsin’s Driftless Area packs in an eclectic blend of natural beauty, outdoor action and culture. The region’s most famous citizen, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, built his home and studio here, called Taliesin. Wright said of the area, “I meant to live, if I could, an unconventional life. I turned to this hill in the Valley as my grandfather before me had turned to America – as a hope and haven.” Little did he know the area would become a favorite for anyone who enjoys fishing, birding, biking, hiking and more.
But it’s easy to overlook the Driftless. We’ve blasted by it countless times on the way to Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee from our home in Minneapolis, always thinking “gotta go there.” So this time, forgoing the cities, we made the Driftless our destination, dipping south from I-90 to explore the region at our own meandering pace.
Finally, for those who like to imagine their destination before they go, several books give an accurate idea of the Driftless. David Rhodes’ prizewinning novels Driftless and Jewelweed beautifully capture the people and the land of this region and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank offers an account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in Chicago and Wisconsin.
Parks & Rec
Our route followed State Road 23 to Governor Dodge State Park, located between Spring Green and Dodgeville, which we made our basecamp for the trip. Named after General Henry Dodge, the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, the park contains over 5,000 acres of idyllic natural beauty.
At Governor Dodge we hiked up cliffs, under waterfalls, over fields of grass and wildflowers and along spring-fed creeks where you can step into the cool air of the old spring houses that early settlers built as natural refrigerators. When we weren’t feeling so ambitious, we cooled off in the park’s two lakes which have large picnic areas, fishing, and boating (electric motors only). The Dodgeville Kiwanis club operates a concession stand at Cox Hollow Lake offering boat and canoe rentals as well as treats such as pizza and king-sized ice cream cones at a bargain price. That lake also features a dog beach just right for our golden retriever, Duffy, and other wet, ball-chasing friends.
Yet, due to its unique geology and abundant rivers and streams—the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Kickapoo and Baraboo, to name a few—the Driftless region abounds with recreational opportunities beyond the boundaries of its state parks. Over forty percent of North America’s migrating birds pass through the area annually along the Mississippi River Flyway because of its abundant water and vegetation. Depending on the time of year, sandhill cranes and bald eagles nest on the riverbanks while tundra swans and white pelicans stop in for a visit. Smaller species from orioles to ruby-throated hummingbirds make their home here, too.
Along the Driftless Area’s northern edge is the Elroy Sparta State Trail, a family-friendly three-tunnel bicycle trail that has been inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. To the south, cyclists may ride the Military Ridge State Trail from Dodgeville all the way to Madison. Prefer paddling to pedaling? The many rivers flowing here make it paddlers’ heaven and there are canoe/kayak liveries in Ontario, Rockton, La Farge, Readstown, and Prairie du Chien, among others.
Finally, the Driftless area is known for thousands of miles of designated trout streams that Outdoor Life called “the best kept secret in the trout world.” And, for fisherfolk who prefer boats to waders, area lakes and and rivers offer walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike as well as panfish, including bluegill, crappie, and rock bass in abundance.
The Wright Stuff
One reason the Driftless area is so appealing is that visitors can weave a love of the outdoors with opportunities to enjoy the area’s fascinating culture and history. Those things come together just outside Spring Green at Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate, Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”). As a child Wright spent summers in this valley on his uncle’s farm where he witnessed the patterns and rhythms of nature. He incorporated his observations of nature’s design into his philosophy of “organic architecture” maintaining that a building should be suited to its environment, purpose and time. Wright’s Prairie Style, so prominently displayed at Taliesin, is considered the first uniquely American architectural style and he expanded and refined those ideas in his studio and school for architecture here, concepts that continue to influence architecture around the world. That’s why the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently named it a World Heritage site. See my post on Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
Taliesin is only available via guided tours that start from the visitors center and go by bus across the road to the estate. Strolling outside Wright’s home, with dramatic horizontal lines and limestone construction that seems to rise straight from the land, it’s easy to understand his thinking. A house, he said, should be “of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Inside, Wright’s starkly simple interior spaces offer commanding views of the valley. The tours downplay it, but many stories from Wright’s own life add to the drama of Taliesin. For example, 1914, while Wright was away, a worker at the estate murdered seven people and set the house on fire. Read about it in Nancy Horan’s somewhat fictionalized bestseller Loving Frank.
Over-the-Top on the Rock
Not far from Taliesin, but light years away from Wright’s austere aesthetic, Alex Jordan built his House on the Rock atop a chimney-like rock formation. Leading his own “unconventional life,” Jordan started building his dream house in 1945 and kept adding until it resembled, as one Boston Globe writer said,”the lair of a 1970s James Bond villain,” a testament to over the top excess.
Inside Jordan’s home, opened to the public in 1960, you’ll see his lifetime of collections including the world’s largest indoor carousel with 269 carousel animals and 182 chandeliers. Also on display: 200 model ships, a 200-foot tall sea creature, hundreds of musical instruments, model airplanes, dolls and suits of armor. And, don’t miss the glassed-in Infinity Room that extends 218 feet over the valley floor. Kitsch, or art, depending on your taste, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
From Taliesin or the House on the Rock, you’ll want to swing into Spring Green, a great place to get supplies, artsy gifts and to visit its excellent book store, Arcadia Books.
A Taste of Switzerland
From Spring Green it’s about 45 miles southwest to New Glarus, a bit of Switzerland transplanted to Wisconsin. Swiss immigrants came to the area in 1845 from the Canton of Glarus and settled here because they found the region similar to home, just without the Alps. You’ll feel like yodeling when you see the town’s Swiss-inspired brown and white architecture adorned with happy cow statues and window boxes filled with red geraniums. The town displays its heritage to the fullest during its many festivals including the Wilhelm Tell Festival, Polkafest, the Heidi Folk Festival and, naturally, Octoberfest. New Glarus celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2020.
Even if Ieiderhosen and polka dancing aren’t your thing you’ll enjoy New Glarus’ history on display at the Swiss Historical Village, a collection of 14 buildings where tours and exhibits trace the Swiss colony’s growth into a prominent dairy farming community. And if the way to your heart is through your tummy, you’ll fall in love with New Glarus’ authentic Swiss bakeries, butcher shops and restaurants . For our campsite dinner we stocked up on cheese at the Eidelweiss Cheese Shop, Swiss sausages at Ruef’s Meat Market and an assortment of gorgeous leckerli, bratzeli, and pfeffernüsse cookies from the historic New Glarus Bakery.
Wisconsin wouldn’t be Wisconsin without breweries and one of the state’s best is the New Glarus brewery on the south edge of town. We walked from the parking lot up to the brewery’s hilltop site with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside from its rustic outdoor terraces. We sampled flights of Spotted Cow ale, Two Women lager, and fruity beers that are their specialties.
Artisans and Artists
Without the layers of glacial rocks and sand, the Driftless Area’s lodes of lead, zinc and other minerals rested tantalizingly close the the surface attracting miners from Cornwall, England in the early 1800s to what is now the town of Mineral Point. The story goes that the first of these prospectors made shelters in makeshift holes in the ground called Badger holes, thus giving the state its nickname.
They didn’t remain in Badger holes long, however, because these miners brought with them expertise in stone building construction. Their sturdy and fireproof stone legacy remains the trademark of Mineral Point. The city was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the town one of America’s “Distinctive Destinations.” Another Cornish legacy: the pasties (meat pies) and figgyhobbin, a cinnamon and raisin pastry concoction you can savor at Mineral Point’s Red Rooster cafe.
Mining faded, leaving the historic buildings empty until 1935 when two foresighted gentlemen, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, began restoring a group of stone houses, now called Pendarvis, on Shake Rag Street. You can visit the buildings and hike the 43 acre Merry Christmas Mine Hill Trails & Prairie to see remnants of mining equipment along with one of the largest restored prairies in southwest Wisconsin. Over the years, artists have continued Neal and Hellum’s work, taking up residence in derelict buildings and turning them into art studios. Now, the 70-plus artists who reside in Mineral Point are delighted to show you their work and share their stories. In addition, anyone who wants to foster their creative side is welcome at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts where they offer classes that range from blacksmithing to fiber art, pottery, photography and much more. Even non-students are welcome to stroll Shake Rag Alley’s collection of historic buildings and its oasis of trees and gorgeous gardens.
You’ll find more of the Driftless Area’s natural beauty and local culture along its scenic rural roads. Dozens of small family farms, seemingly plucked straight from a Norman Rockwell gallery, dot the landscape and many supply award-winning farm-to-table restaurants in Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Amish buggies and Mennonite roadside stands with crafts and baked goods evoke a simple, local lifestyle. In the warmer months, music lovers can enjoy a variety of outdoor festivals, especially Larryfest, a terrific annual festival of bluegrass, folk and old-time music in LaFarge.
So what’s the best way to enjoy the Driftless? Ironically, by just drifting through it. Meander. Stop and sample. Meet the locals. Transport yourself back to a simpler, yet surprisingly rich, time and place. And be thankful for those wonderfully fickle glaciers.
If You Go:
Wisconsin’s Driftless area makes a great getaway for every kind of traveler, even the family dog. Wisconsin state parks welcome well behaved dogs on leashes and Governor Dodge state park has a special dog beach. Most bars and eateries welcome leashed pets on their outdoor patios. All of the sites mentioned in this article have easy parking for large vehicles and trailers. As with most of the Midwest, the Driftless area can be humid and buggy in summer, so come prepared with insect repellent and a fan.
Wisconsin State Parks are very busy in summer and during the fall leaf-peeping season, so book in advance with the Wisconsin State Park System Reservations site https://wisconsin.goingtocamp.com
Wisconsin State parks with camping in the Driftless area include:
Visiting South Dakota State and National Parks on a Road Trip from Minnesota to Wyoming
South Dakota seems synonymous with family road trips, summer vacations and heading “out west.” Every time we drive that direction from Minneapolis, there’s a feeling of anticipation as the landscape gradually changes from hills, to flat prairie, to a more rugged and rocky type of Great Plains geology.
Recently, my husband and I set out like Lewis and Clark to explore South Dakota—only with much more pleasant accommodations in our little Winnebago Rialta RV. Our itinerary ran from east to west along I-90 where we hoped to see stunning rock formations, historic locales, uncrowded spaces and the wildlife for which this region is known. Our journey included stops at three parks: Palisades State Park, Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.
Hitting the plains fires up my imagination with images of rugged pioneers, native Americans and western life–images that came from books I’ve been reading since childhood, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series. In fact, De Smet, where Laura lived as an adult is about an hour and a half north of our first stop in Palisades Park. So if you’re a fan you might want to veer north for a visit. Be sure to read the less happy but more accurate story of Laura’ real life, Prairie Fires (a great for book groups).
Split Rock Creek, the centerpiece of Palisades State Park in eastern South Dakota, isn’t a huge body of water but it’s had an outsized impact on this rocky gem of a spot about 20 miles from Sioux Falls.
Here, the creek cut deep gorges through the billion-year-old Sioux quartzite rock that lines its banks. That resulted in 50-foot vertical cliffs and intricate rock formations that are popular with kayakers, rock climbers and photographers.
Back in the mid-1800s, the rushing creek also powered a flour mill on the bluff that overlooks the park. Starting in 1862, the tiny town of Palisades grew up around the the mill. However, with the promise of free lots, the railroad soon lured businesses away to the nearby town of Garretson where its rail yard was located and the town of Palisades faded away.
Palisades State Park opened in 1972 and has remained one of the South Dakota’s smallest parks—until now. For comparison, at 71,000 acres, Custer State Park at the opposite end of I-90, dwarfs its little cousin, Palisades. But in spring of 2020, about 270 acres were added to the park for a total of nearly 435 acres. Park officials expect to add 75 new camp sites for a total of 109 sites along with more cabins, hiking trails, day use areas, improved habitat for wildlife viewing, and park programs.
Midway across South Dakota, the Badlands gouge through the flat plains with eons-old rock formations that resemble a moonscape. On previous trips to points further west we simply drove through the park for a quick look. We thought it didn’t offer much more than barren (though pretty impressive) rock. This time we stayed for two days. Our hikes and scenic drives revealed not only fascinating geological formations but also plenty of life including wildflowers, agitated prairie dogs and mountain goats galore.
But it surely doesn’t seem like great farmland. That didn’t stop the hopeful homesteaders who arrived in this area after the Homestead Act of 1862 provided the opportunity for folks to head west to acquire land. It was theirs for, say $18 for 160 acres if they lived on it for five years. You can view the some of the land they settled at the Badlands National Park’s Homestead Overlook. Most of the land claims turned into “Starvation Claims” and were abandoned or sold.
Here’s a story I’ll bet you haven’t heard about: African Americans were prominent among the region’s homesteaders. Many were introduced to the area when they were Buffalo Soldiers. You can read about these pioneers in a gripping novel, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber. The book starts out with a family lowering their little girl down a well to scoop out the last of the water on their drought-stricken farm. It grabbed me from the very start. Also, The Conquest by Oscar Micheaux is a semi-autobiographical novel of a black homesteader in Gregory County during the early 1900’s
We visited on the way to Custer State park we visited South Dakota’s trademark, Mount Rushmore. The four faces appear on promotional material, license plates and have been featured during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cool if you’ve never seen it before, but crowded. We headed to a similarly giant sculpture nearby, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I liked better because it has a nice little museum and Native American programming.
At the opposite end of I-90, we explored Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest state park. At 71,000 acres the huge park seems more like a national park. It offers hiking, boating, fishing and plenty of wildlife including bison traffic jams.
One of my favorite hikes was the one up Black Elk Peak, a 7,242-foot granite mountain with an historic stone firetower at the top. It’s considered the highest peak east of the rockies, depending on if you think the 8,749-foot Guadaloupe Peak in Texas is east of the Rockies or part of them . The beginning of the 7.6-mile loop trail is bedazzled with shiny mica rock which makes it look like it’s paved with rhinestones, quite magical.
For non-campers, Custer offers historic lodges and cabins, including State Game Lodge built of native stone and wood in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Book ahead and stay in their historic rooms. Even if you’re not staying there, the Lodge welcomes diners in the restaurant and you can carry out food to eat outdoors. We enjoyed cocktails on the Lodge’s front porch before returning to our camp site.
Anyone interested in enriching their South Dakota travel experience will find an abundance of great books about both the state’s history and modern life, too. Here’s my list:
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Life of Two American Warriors–Stephen Ambrose
In Quebec, Canada’s Eastern Townships, fans of mystery writer Louise Penny step into the world of Three Pines and Inspector Armand Gamache.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 TheMurder 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.
Book and travel ideas to inspire “outdoor therapy” and to plan for #travelsomeday.
Shut in because of the Corona Virus pandemic, opportunities for quiet contemplation, soul searching, and spiritual retreat abound. Too bad I don’t find those pursuits more appealing. Hugs, shared meals, raucous laughter, talking with strangers I meet when I travel, reading a person’s facial expressions without the cover of a mask. Those are just a few of the things I miss during this time of isolation during the Corona Virus pandemic.
I’ve tried all sorts of remedies for my shelter-in-place malaise—cooking, puzzles, cleaning, Zoom chats and Netflix galore. Yet, the only place I really find solace is outdoors. Nature and open spaces, along with the physical exertion of walking mile after mile, sooth my mind and spirit.
Psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for some time. Hence the term nature therapy. The Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing . Nature deficit has also been diagnosed, a “dose of fresh air” prescribed. And writers have written about the beauty and adventure of connecting with nature for years. Now is a great time to tap into their observations of the universe, our environment and our fellow human beings.
For literature to inspire your outdoor journeys I recommend Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces about her time in Wyoming and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire about his stint at a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. Or, for a more recent read, I enjoyed Richard Powers’ Pulitizer Prize winning book, The Overstory, about a wide-ranging cast of characters whose experiences all relate to trees.
Finally, for approachable nature poetry, you can’t beat anything by Mary Oliver. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” she says that despite our problems, the world goes on.
…”Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Dreaming of Places to Go
I have friends who haven’t left their New York City apartment for weeks. And who can blame them? I feel fortunate that here in the Twin Cities we have a massive number of parks and recreation areas at our finger tips where we can spread out from one another. I asked some of my friends at convention and visitors bureaus about the outdoor spaces they love to show off to visitors. I started with the Midwest. You may be surprised at the beautiful open spaces they offer, not far from large cities. They make for beautiful viewing and inspiration for places to go in the future.
Kondo books in hand, I set out on an exploratory and organizing journey through my house, ready to ponder what possessions spark joy and which to “thank for their service” as Kondo says, and set free. I started with the pantry cupboard, always an adventure with mysteries and discoveries on each shelf. I slowly realized that while some people have been acquiring truckloads of toilet paper, I’ve been hoarding chutney.
The takeaway here is that if you squirrel away bottles of chutney in different places, you can’t find them when you feel the urge to stew up Indian food. You run out and buy more. Then you don’t make whatever dish you planned on and stash the chutney in yet another location and forget about it. Repeat. The result: we have a lifetime supply of chutney.
I also discovered several boxes of Chinese Gunpowder Tea. Let your imagination run wild with its possible uses because I have no idea why we have that. Most interesting, I found two bags of an exotic Greek herb called Dittany that I received from our tour leader last spring on the island of Crete. Dittany is in the mint family and grows, according to the package, 650 meters above the village of Anopoli Sfakion. (Extra geography points if you look this up.) According to the package, “We collect the herb early in the morning to retain all the essential oils and aroma and we dry it naturally. It is considered tonic, antiseptic, inflammatory and a poultice. It helps the headaches, stomach and skin inflammation.”
Wanting to verify this, I consulted one of the Internet sites I most trust for medical advice, the Harry Potter Wiki. It says, “Dittany is a magical plant used in Potion-Making. It is a powerful healing herb and restorative. Its use makes fresh skin grow over a wound and after application the wound seems several days old.”
I’m telling you, this is powerful stuff, especially if you need a poultice. Come on folks, a bag of Dittany is certainly worth at least a four-pack of toilet paper. And chutney? Perhaps Major Grey’s isn’t in huge demand, so I’m hoping for two rolls in trade. We can meet in my driveway and exchange products by tossing them at each other from a safe distance.
Other Reading for In-House Travel
You probably haven’t heard of him, but a fellow named Alexander von Humboldt made an expedition around South America from 1799 to 1804. Before that, he practiced by making an expedition around his bedroom. It’s in the public domain so you can read the timeless travel story, Journey Around My Bedroom, even though the library is closed.
According to the excellent site, Library Hub, von Humbolt undertook this rather small-scale exploration because he was sentenced to house arrest for something related to a duel. They say, “In the centuries before ankle-monitoring bracelets and the like, the authorities relied on the honor of young noblemen” to stay put. Sounds like the honor system of the current stay-at-home order. Humbolt enjoys the fact that this type of journey costs nothing. And, he points out that bedroom travel is especially great for those who are scared of robbers, precipices, and quagmires. And who isn’t these days? His dog and manservant also make appearances just as Duffy and Scott do in my bedroom.
And, don’t miss Hank Azaria’s hilarious play-by-play of making his bed, a substitute for sport announcing these days. It was broadcast on National Public Radio… “going, going, Bed Bath & Beyond!”
At Home with Bill Bryson
My favorite book by author Bill Bryson is the one about his travels in Australia, In a Sunburned Country. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. But you might find another Bryson book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, more appropriate right now. I wrote about it in a previous post. In At Home, he takes an investigative and historical tour through his Victorian home in England. Seriously, it’s interesting. His house is much more fascinating than my late-60s vintage suburban home in the American Midwest.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House, Taliesin, Taliesin West and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are just a few of the places to see Wright’s all-American architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright has been having a big year. Sixty years after his death in 1959, both his life and his architecture continue to fascinate, influence and inspire. So much so that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently named a group of his great works World Heritage Sites.* Spanning 50 years of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career, these buildings represent the first modern architecture designation in the U.S. on the prestigious list.
Here, I cover one of my favorite Wright sites, the Allen House in Wichita, Kansas, and three of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the UNESCO list —Taliesin in Wisconsin, Taliesin West in Arizona, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The prolific architect built more than 400 buildings so you can find examples of his work all across the country. There’s even a fantastic Wright-designed gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota. But to really enjoy the experience, I recommend a little reading to”find Mr. Wright” before you visit his buildings.
Reading the Wright Stuff
Even if you’re not an architecture buff or a design maven, you should add a Frank Lloyd Wright site to your itinerary when you’e traveling—for two reasons. First, Wright’s Prairie Style is considered the first uniquely American style of architecture. Before Wright, prominent American architects followed the more ornate style of European designers, like the Beaux-Arts style that dominated the “White City” buildings and monuments at the Chicago World’s Fair. Wright hated that. Instead of piling on the classical embellishments, he sought to make buildings blend with the landscape.
If your house has an open floor plan, wide expanses of windows or an attached garage, you can thank Frank. These are his among many ideas that were considered radical at the time but are common now. Wright embraced new technologies, designs and materials ,to push the boundaries of architecture, sometimes resulting in failure or really expensive repairs for those trying to maintain his buildings. If you talk to people who live in Frank Lloyd Wright houses, you’ll seldom hear stories of cozy comfort. They’re drafty. And take a look some of the angular furniture and you’ll see why form doesn’t always follow function. Nonetheless, he had a huge impact that continues today. and most of the currently trendy mid-century modern style bears a remarkable resemblance to Wright’s designs. To better understand his design philosophy see, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright by Neil Levine.
The second reason to visit Wright buildings isn’t quite so intellectual. He was simply a fascinating character. Not exactly a paragon of virtue, he left his first wife and six children for Mamah Borthwick, the spouse of a client. That tragic story is the subject of Nancy Horan’s fictionalized work, Loving Frank. Even his fans admit he was an arrogant self-promoter and a flawed genius. I suggest Meryle Secrest’s book, Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography by Meryle Secrest for the whole story. for the whole story.
At the Allen House, located in Wichita’s historic College Hill neighborhood, you’ll find all the traits of Wright’s Prairie Style residential architecture in one lovely home . Named after its first owners, newspaper publisher Henry Allen and his wife, Elsie, it was the last of Wright’s famous Prairie Houses. Outside you’ll see Wright’s distinctive long, low horizontal lines with low-pitched roofs, deep overhangs, and long rows of casement windows. Explore a bit of the area around Wichita and you that see how that horizontal theme and earth tones of the house match the landscape.
Said Wright, “In organic architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,”…“The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.” The Allen house is one of the best examples I’ve seen in which spaces open to the outdoors. And it retains.more than 30 pieces of Wright-designed furniture, all of its original art glass and several new-for-their-time innovations, such as wall-hung toilets and an attached garage.
As a child Wright spent summers on his uncle’s farm in the rolling farmland of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. There he witnessed the patterns and rhythms of nature that came to influence his work. He returned to this valley to build his home and studio called Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”) on an 800-acre estate outside Spring Green. Wright said of the area, “I meant to live, if I could, an unconventional life. I turned to this hill in the Valley as my grandfather before me had turned to America – as a hope and haven.”
Strolling outside Wright’s home, with its dramatic horizontal lines and limestone construction that seems to rise straight from the land, it’s easy to understand how his architectural philosophy developed. A house, he said, should be “of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Inside, Wright’s starkly simple interior spaces offer commanding views of the valley. The tours downplay it, but many stories from Wright’s own life add to the drama of Taliesin as described in Loving Frank. For example, 1914, while Wright was away, a worker at the estate murdered seven people including Borthwick and her children, and set the house on fire.
The rugged desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona, are a stark to the lush rolling hills of Wisconsin. Yet, after several bouts of illness, Wright built Taliesin West for greater winter comfort. He called it his desert laboratory with buildings that were largely experimental and always changing and expanding. Taliesin West grew to include a drafting studio, dining facilities, two theaters, a workshop, Wright’s office and private living quarters, and residences for apprentices and staff. Each building is connected through a series of walkways, terraces, pools and gardens that meld with the surroundings.
Still experimenting with geometric shapes and volumes, Wright designed much of the interior furniture and decorations. He convinced young architecture students to not only pay for a Taliesin apprenticeship but also to build some of the furniture and appear in plays in the Taliesin West theater. Taliesin West is now the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School of Architecture at Taliesin where you can see students at their drafting tables..
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Wright’s last building celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2019. It opened in 1959, the year he died. It’s a complete departure from his Prairie Style days of the Allen House and shows the evolution his thinking over a long career. With the Guggenheim, the low-slung buildings with sharp angles and earth tones are gone, replaced by soaring circular white spaces. At the time, critical opinions varied from “the most beautiful building in America . . . never for a minute dominating the pictures being shown,” to “less a museum than it is a monument to Frank Lloyd Wright.”
After a three-year restoration of its interior, the Guggenheim reopened to great acclaim. Now the entire Wright building is open to the public for the first time with spaces that had been used for storage and offices converted into galleries. As a capper to his long career, it seems just fine that the Guggenheim is a monument to Frank Lloyd Wright and his “unconventional life.”
* The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritiage Sites are Unity Temple (Oak Park, IL), Frederick C. Robie House (Chicago, IL), Hollyhock House (Los Angeles, CA), Fallingwater (Mill Run, PA), Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House (Madison, WI), Taliesin West (Scottsdale, AZ), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY).
The second half of a road trip through the Flint Hills of Kansas reveals more about modern life on the prairie and the pioneer spirit of the ranchers, entrepreneurs and artists who make the Flint Hills their home.
In my previous article, I covered a few of the surprises that await travelers to the Flint Hills if they leave the freeway and explore the tallgrass prairie of Kansas. But, the fun of a road trip here in the center of America is as much about meeting the people as seeing the unique environment of the prairie.
They’re the people bestselling Kansas author Sarah Smarsh wrote about in a New York Times op-ed “Something Special is Happening in Rural America” where she reported “a prairie trend of young people, drawn by family ties and affordable entrepreneurship, returning to rural and small-town homes” and bringing new life to the region.
Says Smarsh, “From where I sit, they are heroes of the American odyssey — seeing value where others see lack, returning with the elixir of hard-won social capital to help solve the troubles of home.” Some are young, yes, but you’ll also meet people staking a claim in the Flint Hills as a second career. They’re all pioneers, re-settling parts of this region that have emptied out. Like their forebears, they’re ready to take risks and pack with them an outsized dose of imagination and optimism. The newcomers are joining Flint Hills folks who have stayed for generations. They’re happy to share their ranching heritage whether you’re putting down stakes or just passing through.
Where the Deer and the Antelope and the Symphony Play
For imagination and optimism, you can’t beat The Symphony in the Flint Hills. Who would think of hauling gigantic pieces of sound equipment, generators, huge tents, stages, and the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony to a location in the wild tallgrass prairie? That’s while working to protect the delicate terrain below the feet of the 7,000-plus people who attend the annual event. And gutsy? Consider the likelihood of the Kansas weather holding out for an outdoor event in this land of twisters.
The Symphony in the Flint Hills debuted in June 2006 and has moved every year to different Flint Hills sites. The event also features educational activities and speakers who explore a variety of topics including the ecology, the people and the future of the region. It gained followers, plenty of press, and drew people in to experience the area’s small towns, activities, and art…until last year.
In 2019, storms slammed the concert venue with howling winds that shredded the huge tents and saturated the ground so completely it made parking in the pastures impossible. The event was cancelled and that left Symphony in the Flint Hills with huge bills to pay. Yet, with true prairie gumption, they’ve sprung back and plan to hold the next big event in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, on June 13, 2020.
New Life in Small Towns
Bill McBride loves the prairie. You have to have an overwhelming passion for open spaces, nature and trains, too, to trade Chicago for tiny Matfield Green which sits adjacent to the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and the BNSF railroad. McBride, a Harvard-trained architect ran a successful firm in Chicago and designed prize-winning buildings until he chucked it all and moved to Matfield Green about 13 years ago. Once a small town of 350 with shops, a post office and a school of its own, the village almost vanished into the prairie like a tumbleweed until a small band of artists, writers and musicians came here lured by the beauty of the prairie and and affordable real estate. They’ve upped the population to around 60.
Now McBride concentrates on sculpture. Our journey with Prairie Earth Tours stopped to see his work along the PrairyArt Path. It makes a great place to take in McBride’s large sculpture installations while strolling through prairie grass and flowers, over a stone arch bridge, and through the remnants of Matfield Green’s historic cattle pens. Also on the property: old railroad bunkhouses that once housed workers for the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. They’re among the very few such bunkhouses left in the country and lasted only because they were used as storage. McBride and friends restored the bunkhouses and turned them into guest casitas now called Matfield Station, and you can rent them on Airbnb.
For a more posh place to rest your head, check into the Historic Elgin Hotel in Marion, Kansas, where you’ll meet other modern-day prairie pioneers. Wichita natives, Jeremy and Tammy Ensey operate the Elgin which was built in 1886 and billed as “a monument to Marion’s glory and a common pride to citizens.” The hotel offered 42 rooms and shared bathrooms. From those glory days, it gradually collapsed into disrepair before it was renovated and re-opened in 2009.
Guests of the Elgin’s shared-bathroom days in the 1800s would be astonished to see its 12 plush suites with bathrooms equipped with jacuzzi tubs and spa showers. The Enseys took over the property three years ago and added a restaurant, Parlour 1886, and imported executive chef Michael Trimboli from New York City.
Back at the Ranch
A good portion of the Flint Hills lies in Chase County, or simply “the county,” to many locals. In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon describes Chase County as the most easterly piece of the American West. The county, he says, “looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.” Drive the backroads here—with vast open spaces, cattle ranches and wild mustangs—and you’ll see just what he’s talking about.
The county looks much the way visitors want rural western America to look.
We stopped by Pioneer Bluffs Center for Ranching Heritage, a 12-acre homestead that is now a National Historic District. Their mission is to preserve the heritage of the Flint Hills and to educate the public about ranching in history and how it’s practiced today. You can tour Pioneer Bluff’s classic 1908 farm house and log cabin. They’ve also amassed vintage film clips and filmed a series of interviews with Flint Hills ranchers and cowhands that are great to watch. It’s especially interesting to hear the pride everyone takes in their long family connection to the land, something few people experience.
For an extra dose of cowboy and cowgirl culture, we spent the night at the Flying W, where fifth generation cattle ranchers Josh and Gwen Hoy run cattle and entertain guests on their 7,000 acre ranch. I was delighted to learn that Josh Hoy is related renowned plainsman Charles Goodnight, who was the inspiration for the Woodrow Call character in Larry McMurtry’s classic novel, Lonesome Dove. See more about Goodnight in my article about Amarillo, Texas.
After a chuckwagon dinner, we saddled up for a sunset horseback ride, ride, posse-style–no boring nose-to-tail riding here. Guests may also participate in cattle drives, go hiking or simply put their boots up and relax in accommodations that include a large lodge, a bunkhouse, and smaller cabins, all appropriately western and rustic.
Mosey Into town
With its old brick streets and vintage buildings, the town of Cottonwood Falls in Chase County looks like a great watering hole for not only the cowboys of the 1850s, but also modern-day cowhands and girls in search of a weekend getaway, too. Read about the historic red-roofed Chase County Courthouse that crowns Broadway street in my post about the jail there. Stroll the Broadway’s three-block span and you’ll find art galleries (including the lovely Symphony in the Flint Hills shop/gallery), boutiques, Metamorphosis Day Spa, restaurants and antique stores with merchandise that would please HGTV “Fixer Upper” fans.
After living in southern California for over 20 years, Kris and Pat Larkin settled in Cottonwood Falls to pursue what seems like a very ambitious “second act” in life. They bought and renovated numerous historic properties (including a church) around town and in neighboring Strong City and turned them into guest houses. They also opened the popular eatery, Ad Astra. “We love it here,” says Pat. “The values, affordable entrepreneurialism, and especially the people.”
You can kick back with Flint Hills residents at Emma Chase Friday Night Music. These free jam sessions take place indoors at the Prairie PastTimes artist cooperative. Or, in summer, bring your lawn chair and plunk it down right in the street for a concert in front of the Symphony in the Flint Hills gallery. Depending on the Friday, you’ll hear local musicians perform bluegrass, country and gospel music.
You may not want to move from your home in the city to put down roots here on the tallgrass prairie. But for a short time, even visitors can tune into the Americana vibe that is part of life in the Flint Hills.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.