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Drifting in Wisconsin

Though it’s called “driftless” the terrain of southwestern Wisconsin makes an ideal road trip for people who love to drift and explore.  

Kayaking, swimming, fishing and more in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region

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.

Wildflowers abound on this nature trail

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. 

Fishing is a popular activity in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.

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

a view of the Wisconsin countryside at Taliesin
A view of the valley from Frank LLoyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin
For background, take a look at Neil Levine’s book Frank Lloyd Wright.

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

Nancy Horan’s book “Loving Frank” tells a juicy tale of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.

Over-the-Top on the Rock

The amazing House on the Rock near Dodgeville Wisconsin. Photo courtesy The House 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

Obviously, New Glarus, Wisconsin is a major international destination.

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.

The town of New Glarus, Wisconsin proudly displays its Swiss heritage

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

The Cornish settlers in Mineral Point Wisconsin built structures to last. Many are now artists’ workshops and galleries

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.

Artists in Mineral Point Wisconsin are happy to chat with visitors while they work.

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: 

Governor Dodge https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/govdodge/

Wildcat Mountain https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/wildcat/

Wyalusing https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/wyalusing/

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 Widow of the South,” and Franklin, Tennessee

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

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

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

The True Story and the Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated and More Inclusive

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

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

…And While You’re in Franklin

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

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

Where to Stay

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