We were really looking forward to our visit to the Independence-Kansas City area. From the little bit of pre-visit research I had done I knew we’d find quite a few things to keep us busy. Finding neat things to do in a new city is rarely a problem, usually our biggest concern is finding a safe and reasonably priced place to park our rig. Over the years we’ve been able to hone our system for selecting an RV park. Not that it always works out well—we’ve certainly found ourselves in a few less than satisfactory places. Thankfully, our chosen spot in Independence was just our kind of park: great location, reasonable rates, clean facilities, and best of all it was run by some real nice folks.
The comfortable facilities combined with the incredible diversity of curiosities to explore convinced us to extend our stay. I think it safe to say that we are history buffs not in the dress-in-period-clothing-and-reenact-events way but in the learning-about-the-past-enhances-our-understanding-of-the-world way.
We covered a lot of ground during our stay (both literally and figuratively) and though the stories are diverse and span well over a hundred years we found some commonalities running through them. The characters we encountered share some traits that we admire: moxie and industriousness.
You know when we first dreamt of our RV travels we had a long list of amazing places that we wanted to check out—places that probably would make most travelers’ lists: Portland (OR and ME), Seattle, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Austin, Boston, etc. Once we actually hit the road and planned our trips we added in hundreds of other stops based on recommendations or the people who lived there. Over the past four years we’ve explored a great many places but we’ve also retraced our path in spots.
This summer since we knew we were nearing the end of our RV travels we decided to spend some time in that narrow band of states that we had often flown over or driven through, the Frontier Strip. In the 1880s the region, stretching from Texas to North Dakota, was considered the edge of civilization where the rowdy Old West took over.
During our stay in the two northernmost states we kept busy as we had gleaned many ideas over the years. Dropping south out of the Dakotas, however, was a different story. When we entered Nebraska we had very few expectations and no demands. With the exception of checking out some famous birding areas along the Platte River we had a clean slate. In other words, a lot to learn.
The state’s name derives from a French translation of a native expression meaning “flat water” in reference to the wide yet shallow Platte River (platte is French for flat). In other words the “flat river” runs through the “flat water” state. The river has long been known to be shallow and wide, though it is even more so today due to increased agriculture. Early settlers said it was “a mile wide at the mouth, but only six inches deep.”
On our journey north earlier in the summer we hugged the western boundary of South Dakota. A few weeks later we skirted the eastern edge of the state. Our first stop was the little farm town of De Smet. The town owes its name to Father Pierre De Smet, a Jesuit missionary who worked among the Plains tribes during the mid 1800s. The town owes its fame to a series of children’s books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I devoured those books as a young girl—oh how I connected with Laura: her spunk, her tomboyishness, and of course, her stubbornness. So, no question about it—we had to take a side trip over to De Smet (lucky Lance).
Laura’s family was like many of the young pioneering families of the time that roamed across a wild and rugged landscape in hopes of creating a better life. What made Laura’s story so special was that years later, she took the time to write down her memories of her family’s many trials and tribulations. After several false starts in Minnesota, Iowa, and Indian Territory the Ingalls moved west one final time in 1879.
Charles Ingalls, Laura’s Pa, landed a job with the railroad working at the end of the line in the Dakota Territory. When Pa moved his wife and their four daughters into the Surveyor’s House they became the first residents of the newly minted town of De Smet. Laura, their second oldest child was twelve years old. It was a cold and lonely winter but in early 1880 Pa wisely homesteaded a section of nearby land and by late spring a bustling town had sprung up. Soon there were shops, hotels, a church, and even a school.
Needless to say we tried our darnedest to cheer the road up! (Found on a lonely stretch of road in North Dakota.)
After leaving Medora we headed east to the state capital. We spent a week along the banks of the Missouri River before continuing on our way to the state’s largest city. As we toured various sites near Bismarck and Fargo we followed a few interesting threads woven through North Dakota’s story.
The tapestry, for our purposes, begins with the Mandan. Originally from the Ohio River Valley the Mandan moved up the Missouri River into what is now North Dakota around a thousand years ago. The first documented contact with the Mandan was by the French in 1738. At the time it was estimated that 15,000 Mandans lived in villages scattered along the Missouri and Heart Rivers. Compared to the other tribes in the Great Plains the Mandan led a very settled existence.
For most of the year they lived in large earthlodges surrounding a central plaza on the bluffs above the rivers. Women tended crops (and tanned hides, and gathered seasonal foodstuffs, and maintained the homes, and cared for the young, and…) while the men hunted game (primarily bison) and defended the village. During the winters the Mandan left their wind-prone villages and moved to homes along the river bottom where the trees offered protection from the elements and a ready source of fuel.
It was going to be a long day; we were leaving Loveland, Colorado headed for Spearfish, South Dakota. A distance of 400 miles (give or take a few)—roughly double what we usually tackle. It may not sound like all that far to those of you in a passenger vehicle but considering that our top (safe) speed is 65, it was going to take us all day. Oh and, let’s not forget my absolute least favorite thing about RVing—gassing up.
Not because of the dollar signs that ring up, but because of the maneuvering. Fueling a vehicle is a relatively simple concept: pull in, pump, pay, leave. Unless you happen to be in a behemoth that measures 52’ long (when towing our car) and is over 12’ tall. Oh, and did I mention that when towing it is impossible to back up? Clearly, not just any old gas station will do. We both breathe a sigh of relief when we are safely on the road after a refueling stop.
Leaving Colorado behind we entered Wyoming. Someone in their tourism department must have a sense of humor because one of their slogans is “You Could Say We’re Fortified!” In reference to their four outposts: Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger, Fort Caspar and Fort Fetterman. Of them, Fort Laramie—which is now a National Historic Site—has the longest timeline and arguably the most important one. Even better, it was along our route.
First things that came to mind when I used to think about Colorado: Rocky Mountains, snow, Rockies (baseball team), Colorado River, Continental Divide, Coors beer, wheat, cows, and gold (not necessarily in that order). Well, I can toss some of that out of the window now. After visiting Colorado for two weeks the Centennial State now means great scenery and good friends (oh, and still beer).
For our first long visit to Colorado (both of us had been in the state briefly before) we stayed along the Front Range as the east side of the Rocky Mountains are known. It is where the High Plains meet the Rockies, where the undulating fields run into towering uplifts. Though most people think of mountains when they think of Colorado roughly a third of the state falls within the Great Plains. The majority of Coloradans live in the Front Range Urban Corridor which runs from Pueblo in the south of the state all the way up into Wyoming.
We stayed in the Denver area, first week just south of it, the second week just north of it. We had lots of great reasons for choosing the Denver area: Brian and Carrie, Jeff and Maryann, Sharon, Rocky Mountain National Park, and WordCamp Boulder. In addition to all of that we took advantage of the many local parks, multi-use paths, went Letterboxing, and of course, worked (hey, it can’t all be fun and games).
We arrived on the Fourth of July with plenty of time to get all set up before heading over Jeff and Maryann’s place. It was great to see them again—it had been a couple years since we’d last been together. We missed the lazy summer nights that we’d spent in Tucson hanging out together at Bob Dobb’s sharing a pitcher and some good conversation. One of the best things about having friends in the places we visit is that they have the inside scoop on the area. Jeff and Maryann were no different. Our first stop was a brewery located in someone’s backyard. How awesome is that?
When the thermometer reached 107 degrees we knew it was high time for us to hit the road. Don’t get me wrong, we love Tucson, but sometimes enough is enough. The funny twist to the high temps is that they are usually required in order to bring the conditions that typify our monsoon season. According to the National Weather Service the North American Monsoon, a season of high temps, high humidity and often violent rain storms, starts in mid-June and runs through September.
That may be the official time period but many people in the Southwest anxiously watch another indicator, the dew point. If the dew point is 55 degrees or higher for three consecutive days, the potential for actual precipitation increases greatly. Though it is still not a guarantee that southern Arizona will get thunderstorms or much needed rain. Considering that the monsoon season usually delivers half of our annual rainfall you can see why it is eagerly anticipated. Last year’s monsoon season was pitiful and everyone is hoping that this year’s will be much better.
The last leg of our summer trip found us in familiar territory: southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. Several members of my family moved out to the San Simon Valley over a dozen years ago and we love visiting them; not only for their wonderful company but for the gorgeous views. The rhyolitic Chiricahua Mountains dominate the southern skyline while the unsettled Peloncillo Mountains meet the sky to the north. Our weekend visit was a quiet and pleasant affair, mostly just lingering over meals and catching up on each others’ lives.
About mid-day on a Sunday we left on our RV’s last road trip of the year—we were heading home. Odd word, home. It seems to have several different levels of meaning. In the most concrete sense (a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household) our home was wherever we parked our RV. Even in the emotional sense our RV certainly fits the meaning of home: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered” or “any place of residence or refuge.” Those definitions may be technically correct but during these past few years of travel we have discovered that home isn’t just the building in which we live.
After our mammoth of a drive from St. Louis, Missouri to southern New Mexico over the weekend we were in need of a quiet week. Especially since Mound City had kept us so busy during our stay. We had heard good things about St. Louis from our friends Rich and Karen but we were still pleasantly surprised by all the Gateway City had to offer.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to drive all the way to Tucson in such a short period of time so we pored over the map of New Mexico. Always looking for something new to discover we skipped over places where we’d stayed before. That put us south of Socorro and north of Las Cruces. Finally we decided to check out Elephant Butte, a place we had driven by many times before. Though fossilized mammoths and mastodons have been uncovered in the area the name comes from a distinctive landform; a large volcanic core—now an island in the lake—that purportedly resembles an elephant. I dunno, we stared at the misshapen rock but couldn’t find the elephant. Maybe we needed a different angle.
There are three entities that share the name Elephant Butte: a tiny community, the state’s biggest lake, and New Mexico’s largest state park. Of the three we were most familiar with the lake since it had piqued our interest when we skirted it on I-25 on road trips past. The town, the lake and the state park all owe their existence to the Elephant Butte Dam that impounded the Rio Grande in 1915. The embankment was authorized in 1905 as part of the Rio Grande Project (a water compact between three U.S. states, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, and Mexico).
The Project, originally designed to control flooding and provide water for irrigation, now also generates power through the hydroelectric plant at Elephant Butte. Though all water projects in the arid southwest have downsides, one positive effect of the dam was the creation of a recreation and tourism industry in the area. Simply put, the town and state park wouldn’t exist without the lake. Though we aren’t into fishing or water sports the sparkling water of the lake enticed us to stay and play.