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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

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.)

Move over, Jack Kerouac. Five Books by Women to Inspire Your Next Trip

The most famous travel books have been written by men: Travels with Charley, On the Road, and Blue Highways, to name a few. But women have been “on the road,” too, and not just Route 66.

I love reading books about women’s adventures. I especially like funny stories, with plenty of travel mistakes, misadventures, mix-ups. And, I appreciate most the stories that weren’t inspired by trauma, bad boyfriends, dead or abusive husbands, or the authors’ search for new love. Eat…pray…you know what I’m talking about. Instead, I go for the stories that were simply rooted in a woman’s daring and love of adventure. Here are a few favorites.

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella BirdUnknown
The amazing Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who lived a life of continual travel and was, as a result, the first woman to be elected the the Royal Geographic Society. She came to Colorado in 1873, three years before it became a state. She traveled solo through the wilderness and covered more than eight hundred miles during her journey around Colorado, which she described in letters that she wrote to her younger sister in Scotland. The letters were published in 1879 as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, part travelogue, part memoir, part character study of the people who settled on the frontier, especially “Mountain Jim,” a handsome trapper and desperado with whom she was fascinated. Bird was also one of the first of a genre that we now call “environmental writers.”

By Motor to the Golden Gate, Emily PostUnknown-7
Emily Post was a travel writer. Who knew? This book is a reprint of articles originally published on Colliers Magazine seven years before she became famous for her book on etiquette. In 1915, Post documented her New York-to-San Francisco road trip investigating whether it was possible to drive comfortably across the country an automobile. That was a valid question since few women of her Gilded Age background did such daring things and because she was driving on the Lincoln Highway, this country’s first transcontinental highway. 

The Wilder Life, Wendy McClurewilderlifecover-e1287450561388
Do you travel to visit places where you can pursue hobbies or a particular interest? Wendy McClure sets the bar high for anyone who travels in pursuit of a particular passion. In her case it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books and her effort to re-create “Laura World” for herself. She investigates the settings and activities that have made several generations of young readers flock to the Little House books and to the sites across the Midwest where they took place. See my article my previous post on this book and my article, Novel Destinations, for my own encounter with Laura World.

The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost, Rachel FreidmanUnknown-8
We’ve read plenty about bad boys on the road; Jack Kerouac is the most famous.  That’s why it’s nice to learn that good girls like Rachel Friedman can take risks and open themselves to great new experiences. She goes to Ireland on a whim where she forms a friendship with a free-spirited Australian girl, a born adventurer, who spurs her on to a yearlong odyssey that takes her to Australia and South America, too, and learns to cultivate her love for adventure.

No Touch Monkey, Ayun Halliday
If you’ve ever made grievous errors in judgement while traveling, you’ll relate to Halliday’s experiences, which she doesn’t hesitate to share— from hygiene to intestinal problems to a collagen implant demonstration during Paris fashion week with her mother.Unknown-9I enjoyed her sarcastic writing style, her impressive globe-trotting, and her openness to adventures that wouldn’t even occur to me. She’s a witty observer of the details that most travelers see but forget about. For example, the title comes from a sign she saw in Bali with rules to assure “your enjoymen and safety” including: “Never grab a monkey. If a monkey gets on you, drop all your food and walk a way until it jumps off.”

 

 

Beer and Books in Wisconsin

The Bookmobile headed for Wisconsin.

Mark Twain said, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”  One of my book clubs travels fairly often, usually on short jaunts to members’ cabins, and we’ve found out that we like each other a lot, even with the extra large dose of “togetherness” that comes with group travel.

Last week ten of us piled into a 33-foot R.V. and drove to Three Lakes, Wisconsin. That’s about five hours from Minneapolis, and not far from Rhinelander, home of a mythical creature called a Hodag.  We stayed at a member’s cabin there, using the R.V. as an extra bedroom.  We used the opportunity to plan our reading list for the coming year (check it out below) and to discuss a book that takes place, in part, in Wisconsin, Wallace Stegner’s classic, Crossing to Safety.

Though we try to retain a bookish façade, I have to admit that much of our time was

Jake's provides most of the things one needs on vacation.

spent on the activities for which Wisconsin is famous, with Jake’s Bar at the center of intellectual pursuits such as darts and pool, beer and cheese curds.  We just call it “promoting literacy.”

The List

Driftless — David Rhodes

In Caddis Wood — Mary Rockcastle

Breakfast at Tiffany’s —Truman Capote

Cutting for Stone
— Abraham Verghese

The Postmistress
—Sarah Blake

The Paris Wife —Paula McLain

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks —Rebecca Skloot

The Irresistible Henry House —Lisa Grunwald

Unbroken
—Laura Hillenbrand.

The Language of Flowers —Vanessa Diffenbaugh

My Nest
Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space —Lisa Scottoline