Saturday, September 26, 2020

Visiting America's Heartland Enroute to RV Warranty Work

 We departed the China Hat Mountains and Blackfoot Reservoir to begin our slow migration to Indiana for some warranty work to be completed on Suite Retreat, our 2020 DRV Mobile Suites 5th wheel.  But we did considerable touring along the way, including a visit to Branson, Missouri, to meet up with friends, which I will share with you in this post.

Our first stop was at the Oregon California Trail Visitor Center in Montpelier, Idaho, which gave us a flavor for the trials and tribulations encountered by the pioneers.  They faced a daunting mission, but through perseverance and Divine Intervention, they succeeded in their quest to settle the West.  The Visitor Center normally holds a huge quilt show/exhibit, but it succumbed to COVID cancel culture.  The 45-minute guided tours by costumed docents didn’t start for another half hour.  Mom’s a responsible owner of an ornery pet.  So, she didn’t want to leave our tabby cat in the truck for that extended period of time.   We opted instead to peruse the sections of the Visitor Center that were free of charge and readily available to view.  Our tabby cat was satisfied with this decision, so she spared us her usual meowing for an hour to air her grievances.

Art exhibit depicting the pioneers along the westward trails.

Hello Wyoming!  We were greeted immediately by road work on Wyoming 89.  And, truth be told, this roadway offers no scenic views, just oil and natural gas wells.  We boondocked that night at Rock Springs, operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  I spotted 2 pronghorns staring at us as we entered.  However, since they can sprint at 60 miles per hour, there was no way they were hanging around long enough for me to grab a photo.  We took a stroll through the surrounding high plains.  The visual effect is very deceiving.  From a distance, it appears the land is flat; but as you traverse the open range, you learn the hard way that there are drop offs, washes, and lots of holes where wildlife burrow.

A trucker stopped to check out our swivel wheel set-up.  After chatting a bit and discussing routes, he gave us a tip to use the service road to bypass more construction, this time on I-80.  So, the next morning we set out at 7:45 and said “so long suckers” to those stuck in traffic!  As a bonus, I saw 2 coyotes hunting for breakfast.  It was very hazy as we traveled past Rawlins, a result of smoke from area wildfires.  A quick stop at the Wick/Buemee Wildlife Management Area proved fruitful:  I saw a herd of pronghorn.

We made it to Laramie, where we were visiting with friends Sherry/Matt, who were finishing up their volunteer gig at the Laramie Territorial Prison.  We had visited Laramie in 2018 and enjoyed visiting attractions like Laramie Territorial Prison by boondocking at Gelatt Lake. (You can read about that experience and why we ended up at Gelatt Lake here: Regrouping and Relaxing at Gelatt Lake May 2018). However, that was with our 2015 Keystone Montana 5th Wheel, which was about 2 feet shorter in rig length and sans the swivel wheel.  We remembered how tight it was then to get through the entrance gate, so we knew it was no longer an option with the new set-up.  Instead, we stayed at the Albany County Fairgrounds.  For $30/night, we had full hookups, but the camping area lacked ambience and maintenance (ruts, overgrown weeds, and many of the sites were not level).  We got settled in, said a quick howdy to the horses stabled nearby, and met up with Sherry/Matt for dinner at Sweet Melissa’s.  Dad may never leave this town now that he has sampled the food at this establishment!  Though all plant-based/vegan, the menu is extensive, offering several different cuisines:  Mexican, Indian, Thai, and American fare.  We all picked different entrees, and all of us were quite pleased (even Mom the carnivore!)     Great food, good prices, some nice specialty beers, and terrific dining companions.  It doesn’t get any better!  A Rambling RV Rat 5-cheese award!

We enjoyed the food so much, my family went back to Sweet Melissa’s the next day for lunch.  Then we headed to Cheyenne, the Capital of Wyoming and its most populated city.  It was a Friday afternoon with few folks around, so we took the permissible masked self-guided tour of the Capitol.  We walked the grounds as well, then visited the State Museum, which was quite educational.  I learned mining is abundant in Wyoming.  For example, jade is considered Wyoming’s “green gold”; Wyoming has the world’s largest deposit of trona (a sodium compound processed into baking soda); and that coal was formed here when ancient swamps dried up and plants rotted.    Wyoming was the first State to allow women the right to vote back in 1869.  In fact, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (at last, something good to remember about 2020!).  I also learned the precursor to the RV was the sheep wagon.  Invented in 1884 by James Candlish, it provided housing for shepherds herding their sheep through the mountains of the West.   The Museum has so many wonderful exhibits--I highly recommend a visit should you find yourself in Cheyenne.  We walked and drove throughout the City, admiring the huge, decorative cowboy boot artistry positioned throughout the downtown area.  We also visited the Cheyenne Train Depot.  When built in the 1880s, it represented the largest Union Pacific station west of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  It is very cool that it has been restored to its original design.

One of the stained glass ceilings in the Capitol.
A sample of the grandeur within the Capitol.

This was my favorite exhibit at the State Museum. The Sheep Wagon is offered now at some campgrounds out West as a lodging option.

Really loved these rustic wood furnishings and how the burls were incorporated into the design.

Cheyenne Train Depot.  More examples of the decorative cowboy boot artwork in front of the building could be found throughout the city.

The restored interior of the Station.

The next day we drove along I-80, towards Medicine Bow National Forest.  It is cool that this is the same Interstate that we had occasion to traverse when we lived back East.  I-80 is known as Lincoln Highway, and we stopped at the statue that commemorates Lincoln’s achievement of connecting the East and West through the construction of the railroad.   

The I-80 landscape is filled with the “Giants of the Plains”—wind turbines.  Interestingly, Wyoming has the largest per capita wind power capacity in the U.S.A.  All energy, whether fossil or renewable sources, comes with environmental challenges, and wind turbines are no exception.  Seemingly, when their blades reach the end of their lifespan, they turn into a waste nightmare.  Researchers estimate that the U.S will have in excess of 700,000 TONS of blade material to dispose of by the year 2040!

Along our route, we stopped at Tree Rock, a prime example of nature fighting for survival—and succeeding!  

Tree Rock

We hiked along the popular Turtle Rock Trail among the Vedauwoo rock formations within Medicine Bow National Forest.  Despite it being a Saturday afternoon, it was not heavily populated.  Simply beautiful!  

We then visited the Ames Monument in an area that was once the town of Sherman.  At 8,247 feet above sea level, the monument commemorating these railroad brothers stands at the highest summit of the Union Pacific’s First Transcontinental Railroad.  The monument took 4 years to construct—because it was completed only with hand tools!  Nothing remains of the bustling town of Sherman now, but come back in 10 years.  Land is being purchased all around the summit, probably wealthy folks relocating from coastal states.

Ames Monument

Lots of openness in the area of "Sherman", but probably soon to change based on all the "Land for Sale" signs we saw.

We returned to Laramie to meet up with Sherry/Matt and their co-volunteer for dinner—yet again at Sweet Melissa’s!  (A trifecta of great meals for us!).  We walked along the downtown district, taking leave of our friends and the great state of Wyoming.

Downtown Laramie

It was a windy day as we departed Laramie (luckily we missed the snow storm that hit the area 48 hours later) and were welcomed to Nebraska   The topography changed dramatically, from sage lands to cornfields.  We visited North Platte, home to the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard.  Touted as the world’s largest rail yard, its locomotive repair shop encompasses the area of 3 football fields and works on 750 engines per month!  Its Golden Spike Tower provides an awesome panoramic view of the 8-mile-long rail operation.  The Tower and Museum are well worth the $7/adult ticket price.  It amazed me that people “grew up” working on the railroad, all the live long day.  Take for example Ed Bailey, the yard’s namesake.  He started out as a carman’s helper in the repair shop at 18 years old.  Working his way through the ranks, he eventually became President and CEO of Union Pacific Railroad--all without a college degree.  Pretty impressive, I’d say! 

Me and Dad worked on the railroad--for about 10 seconds to take this photo!

The Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles in Lexington, Nebraska was another fun stop.  Operated by volunteers and admission through donation, this museum had some interesting specimens.  I particularly liked its M3 Bradley Calvary Fighting Vehicle.  It can go 41 miles per hour despite its weight of 50,000 pounds, and it is aquatic!  And this museum offers visitors the unique experience of climbing INSIDE the unit to get a bird’s eye view!  We had so much fun, Mom had to drag me and Dad out!  As we walked through another section of the Museum, we were touched with the efforts of the students at Lexington Middle School.  The Museum’s “Teddy Bear Project” displayed bears crafted by the students from the uniforms of military personnel.

Here I am taking a ride in the M3 Tank! 

The Teddy Bear Project.  And look, that bear at the wheel is bigger than I am!

Another of our stops was at the Hastings Museum in Hastings, Nebraska.  Unfortunately, the Museum  was closed the day we arrived.  Despite the rain, we enjoyed the few exhibits on the Museum grounds and the statues and fountains in the nearby Hastings Utility Park and Highland Arboretum Park.  Here in Hastings I learned that Spring migration makes Nebraska the sand hill crane capital of the world.   Approximately a half million of these birds make their sole migratory pitstop in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley during February and March.

The Kool-Aid Guy was here!

Of our tourist stops in Nebraska, my favorite place was the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney.  The archway is made of logs and spans across the lanes of I-80.  More impressive than the archway itself is the terrific Museum on the premises!  The audio tour complements the exhibits by making history comes to life, from the Indians to the prospectors, to the Mormons and pioneers, to the Pony Express riders who covered 2,000 miles over a 10-day period.    I was immersed in my surroundings, becoming 1 of the 80,000 Mormons who attempted to make the harrowing trek from Iowa to the Great Platte River Road, the confluence of the California, Mormon, and Oregon Trails.  Sadly, 1 in 17 would perish before reaching his/her destination.  I looked out the archway window panels at I-80, which is part of the historic Lincoln Highway system that covered 3,400 miles across 13 states between New York City and San Francisco.  To me, $12 per adult was money well spent, and this Rambling RV Rat considered the visit a 5-cheese experience!


We were welcomed to Iowa with Gretchen, our GPS, shouting that we are going the wrong way (i.e., against traffic) as we were traveling East on a major Interstate highway.   What the H-E-double hockey sticks is she talking about!  Seemingly, Gretchen got confused when the highway construction detour had us cross onto what is normally the westbound lanes.  Whew, that was scary!  Gotta love technology!  We stopped at various roadside attractions like the site near Anita, Iowa that denotes the location of the first train robbery attributed to the James Gang.  And Freedom Rock in Menlo, Iowa, has a changing exhibit of patriotic themes painted on a rock formation.

We traveled through the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, which celebrates the farms and related industries that serve agribusiness.  Very apropos, since Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the entire U.S.A.

We couldn’t come to Iowa without visiting the Sprint Car Museum and Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa.  It brought back fond memories of my parents taking me to the races in New Jersey during the early years of their marriage.  It is amazing how the sprint car has evolved since its first “wingless” renditions in the 1930s!  We watched some cool old race films in the theater and perused the Hall of Fame pictures and momentos.


I'm ready to join the Midget Race circuit.

A New Jersey sprint car.

Bottlecap artwork

We encountered another miserable, rainy driving day, but that did not deter the Amish.  Many were traveling via buggy along Iowa 14, braving the weather.  As we traversed US-34 near Charlton, I realized my perception of Iowa being all flatland is not accurate.  There are lots of rolling hills in this area, reminiscent of Hill Country in Texas.

Welcome to Missouri, with diesel available for under $2/gallon!  I notice the leaves are already undergoing fall foliage here.

We arrived at St. Joseph, home of outlaws and disorder, the real Wild West.  We visited the home where notorious robber and gangster, Jesse James, was killed.  A very cordial, informative docent provided us the back story to Jesse’s demise.  I cringed as I examined the bullet hole in the wall near the crooked picture Jesse was hanging when he was shot.

Notice the crooked picture and framed bullet hole on the left.

Right next door is the Patee House.  It opened in 1858 as an upscale hotel, complete with indoor plumbing, to service rail travelers.   It achieved recognition as a National Historic Landmark for being the headquarters of the Pony Express in 1860.  Today the Patee House is a wonderful museum showcasing Missouri achievements and the westward expansion.  From its famous residents (hometown of newscaster Walter Cronkite and actress Jane Wyman, first wife of Ronald Reagan), to its commercial successes (Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was invented here and Quaker Oats housed its headquarters here), to its depiction of “Main Street” Missouri, complete with Victorian home, barber shop, printshop, blacksmith shop, general store, and apothecary.  There is also an extensive collection of local transportation, from wagons, to rail cars, to fire trucks.

Imagine the Pony Express Rider coming right inside the Hotel!

Depiction of Main Street's General Store

There are a few hotel rooms that were restored to their original grandeur, too.  The hotel ballroom contained “Westerners on Wood”, an art exhibit by George Warfel.  It consisted of more than 3 dozen life-sized exquisitely- and intricately- carved wood portraits of well-known folks who embody the spirit of the West, like Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Will Rogers, Annie Oakley, Abraham Lincoln, and Chief Joseph.  I was enthralled!

Restored hotel bedroom

Quite a nice bathroom set-up for the time period!

Restored hotel lobby


A small sampling of the "Westerners on Wood", including Chief Joseph.

But my absolute favorite exhibit at the Patee House was “Wild Thing”, a vintage 1941 carousel carved by Bruce White.  Of all the merry-go-rounds I have ever seen, this one had the most unique animals:  an eagle, a hummingbird, a fish, even a rhinoceros!   

The Patee House earns a coveted Rambling RV Rat 5-cheese award for its personification of Americana.  We enjoyed this museum so much, we lost track of time, spending 2 hours perusing all the exhibits.  Truth be told, we would have stayed longer had it not been for Mom worrying about feeding time for our tabby cat and fish (as you can see, our pets have Mom well-trained).

We then headed to Cabella’s in Kansas City, Kansas.  It is in the heart of Village West, a major tourist area of the City, so there is tons of shopping, restaurants, sports complexes, and entertainment venues in the area (not that much was opened due to COVID).  After making adequate purchases at Cabella’s to reciprocate for the “free” overnight parking, we walked to the Yardhouse Restaurant for dinner.  Though their in-restaurant menu selections were fewer than shown on their website, they still had several options for Dad’s plant-based diet.  The food was good and our server Larry provided exceptional service.  I slept fitfully with a full belly and a happy heart.

We awoke to another dreary driving day as we made our way to Branson, Missouri.  Mom was at the wheel as we traversed the roadways of the Ozarks with their steep inclines and sharp turns.  We were  heading for our first visit to Escapees Turkey Creek RV Park. Mom was doing a great job driving—until she and Dad realized too late that Gretchen the GPS screwed up.  Gretchen instructed us to go down a particular road to access the Park.  Except when we went down that road we learned we were on the opposite side of the creek from the Park, with no access across the water!  Mom was livid, claiming sabotage. She wanted to terminate Gretchen for her incompetence by throwing her out the window.  Thankfully, Dad is a bit more forgiving, so Gretchen is still intact.  Turkey Creek is similar to Escapees’ Rainbow’s End RV Park—an older facility, no cable, no Wi-Fi, just a place to put your jacks down.  And like the office staff at Rainbow’s End, Linda and Beverly at Turkey Creek were personable, accommodating, and a pleasure to deal with. 

The next day, we walked one mile from the campground to The Branson Landing.  This promenade along Lake Taneycomo offers shopping, restaurants, arcades, and assorted lodging options.  But the best feature is its hourly “Fire and Ice” water fountain show.  The fountain’s water is synchronized to patriotic music and illuminated.  In these troubling times of political division, it was so heartwarming to watch folks stop walking, postpone conversations, remove their hats, and place their hands over their hearts to pay respect to our flag as a recording of the late great Whitney Houston belted out our National Anthem.     And all while staying socially-distanced!


We continued to trek to the historic Downtown area, making a pitstop at Dick’s 5 and 10.  What a walk down memory lane!  This 50-year-old iconic store sell everything from band-aids to embroidery patterns, from penny candy (although now each piece costs 10 cents!) to toys.  Not just any toys, but good old-time toys like Shrinky Dinks, Raggedy Ann/Andy, Gumby/Polky, Slinky, Parchesi, Colorforms, Etch-A-Sketch, Silly Putty, and Paint-By-Number.  They even had old school paddle ball.  You know the paddle that had the ball attached to it with elastic?  Mom reminisced how my Grandma would detach the ball so the kids wouldn't hit themselves in the eye.

A small sampling of toys from yesteryear at Dick's 5 & 10.

We ate lunch at Dimitri’s Greek Deli, another half-century-old Branson establishment.  The owner is super nice, stopping to chat with all his patrons.  And I loved seeing his family tree—a wall containing photos of all the family members involved with the operation through the years.  We ordered a vegetarian gyro lunch platter for 2 and some Greek fries.  While the food was tasty, the portions were VERY small for the touristy prices.  We did a bit more window shopping Downtown, then walked back to our RV to shower and change clothes before going to King’s Castle Theater for a viewing of “Anthems of Rock.”  We were required to wear our masks while in the lobby and when walking to our seats.  Once seated, you could unmask since we were seated 6 feet from one another—front, back, and to the side.  Very sad how much money the theater is losing at less than 50% capacity.  Anyway, it was a great show, with some young, talented folks with terrific voices.  They sang everything from Tina Turner, Queen, Elton John, even Whitesnake!  Rather than play the National Anthem before the performance, the Theater did a heartwarming tribute to veterans and active members of the Armed Forces.  We all gave a standing ovation for these selfless folks who serve/served our Nation and protect/protected our Freedoms! 

Inside the King's Theater to see "Anthems of Rock"

Since we have visited Branson previously, we had already patronized several of its attractions like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Shepherd of the Hills, and the Butterfly Palace and Rainforest, to name a few.  Therefore, we strived to see new things this time around.  Hence, we went hiking at the Ruth/Paul Henning Conservation Area.  What a good workout!  Elevation plus footing made its “moderate” rating from the All Trails App spot-on accurate.  Afterwards, we visited the Silver Dollar City Veterans’ Memorial Garden to express gratitude, respect, and honor for our veterans.  Kudos to the local volunteers who do all the plantings and maintenance.  After a tasty dinner at Rancho Villa Mexican Restaurant, we called it a night.

A nice view from the hiking trail.


Our fellow Escapees friends, Anne/Briggs, David/Carol (and my canine buddy Mackie), and DeeAnn/Dave came into town, so we enjoyed their companionship over the next two days.  We all went together one evening to the Sight and Sound Theater to see “Noah”.  This theater was not in existence during our first visit to Branson in 2007.   But we saw “Noah” in 1999 at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Though it was a wonderful show back then, this production was even more impressive, particularly with the advancement in technology and animatronics.  A spectacular show and one I highly recommend for children and adults alike.  The next day we went to Billy Gail’s with the gang.  This is our type of restaurant:  delicious food, hefty-eater portions, and efficient, friendly service.  Their pancakes are the size of a medium pizza!   Add in the camaraderie, and it’s a 5-cheese experience!


The Escapees Gang at Billy Gail's

We said our goodbyes to our Escapees friends then hit the road.  We were taking a rather weird route to get to Indiana, but Dad wanted to by-pass St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois, both stressful driving areas and COVID hotspots.   Hence, we found ourselves in Arkansas near the Buffalo National River.   The Buffalo River was the first river to ever receive “national” designation by Act of Congress, which protects it from debilitation from industry and obstruction (like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trying to dam it). As we passed through Heber Springs, I waved at the headquarters of Workamper News, what I consider the best resource for finding work and volunteer opportunities for RVers.  I see lots of paddy fields around--who would’ve thought that Arkansas is the largest producer of rice within the USA!    We stopped at Parker Pioneer Homestead for a tour, but unfortunately full tours were not being offered, and Harvest Days, their upcoming festival was cancelled due to COVID.  However, owner Theresa Parker, graciously gave us some history.  She and her husband wanted to demonstrate what a typical mid-1880s town in this neck of Arkansas would look like.  So, they built this replica in 1984 and now operate it with multiple generations of their family.  What a labor of love!  We could not enter any of the buildings.   However, we were invited to walk the grounds, which included a pen containing 2 annoyed pigs and 1 pesky goat that kept ramming them.  I learned that pigs growl ferociously and get quite nasty when they are antagonized!   The Parkers farm sorghum, an ancient cereal grain that comes from a flowering plant, which they convert into a molasses-type syrup.  Mom purchased a jar and looks forward to testing it in her baked goods. 


That's sorghum grain in the truck that will be processed into syrup.

View from Parker Homestead

The culprit who pestered the pigs

Welcome to Starlight, Indiana, home to Joe Huber Family Farm.  What a great place:  farm store, soda pop shop, pumpkin patch, corn maze, and ponds filled with huge, hungry koi!  Best of all was the family restaurant!  The smell of fried chicken called to me and Mom.  Dad got their vegetable platter, which met his dietary needs and pleased his palette.  The restaurant specializes in “fried biscuits”.  Not big fans of biscuits, we almost rejected them as part of our meal—that is until we saw they are actually what we call zeppoli.  Mmm, Mmm, good!


Well, we made it to our destination:  the DRV Mobile Suites plant in Howe, Indiana.  I’ll tell ya about our experience and our the fun stuff we did on our way home in my next blog.  Talk to you again soon!