Kansas – Getting in and out of Dodge

IMG_3593I have memories from my adolescence of marathon drives through Nebraska, certain that part of the journey from Pennsylvania to the Tetons on 80 West would never end.  Looking back, I wonder how many Nancy Drew books I consumed just during that drive across that one eternal flat state.  It was a useful way to measure time and distance at that time in my life, so I could hardly complain.  What I wouldn’t give now for unending hours with nothing to do but read!

As I planned this year’s western road trip to Colorado from Virginia, I determined not to drive through Nebraska.  While I’m fairly sure my current self would not be as bored with the whole thing as my preteen self, I’m taking precautions and staying a bit to the south.  Kansas would be the flat state of choice, and I was kind of excited about it as I’d never been there before.  Surely it isn’t just all corn and flat, straight roads!

Ok so it kind of is, but there were enough interesting quirks about my route through it that made it worth the drive.  You just never know what you’re going to come across when you choose the “alt” road.  It would have been easy to just hop on Highway 70 and go, but I stayed south, steering clear of city life with the exception of a quick jog around Wichita.  Honestly I was looking forward to this part of the trip, as it was new and counted as adventure.

One of the last “family” farms I saw in eastern Kansas, before big business and gigantic grain elevators took over the landscape.

I’m from north central Pennsylvania, but have lived in Northern Virginia for the last 27 years.  I’m used to green mountains and valleys, quiet farms and small towns, as well as busy highways and lots of people.  All of this can be found in between my two home states.  Neither of these provided any context for Kansas.  I was so curious about how people live there.  No big grocery store or easy access to so many of the day-to-day things we take for granted.  How far do these kids have to travel to go to school?  To church?  Just to see another human being??  Unless you live directly in town – ok, so town is a negligible word, as many towns boast populations like 235 (Severy, for example)  and 150 (Fall River), you may not have a neighbor for miles.  While I’m pretty independent and don’t need a lot of folks around, that would be a little extreme.

And it was interesting.  And spooky, to be honest.  In the eastern beginnings, the terrain was fairly flat and the farms were large, but there was still a sense of town and community, with the occasional family farm – self-contained and noncommercial.  The deeper in I went, however, the flatter and sparser it got.  The consistent scenery included windmills, corn, soybeans, the occasional farmhouse, and a giant grain elevator now and again, with train tracks running alongside.  And cows.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Many grazed peacefully on farmland as it whizzed past my window, but the real bulk of them were jammed into cattle feeding lots by the tens of thousands, which brought with it its own special brand of stench.  I love beef, (it’s what’s for dinner!) but I may have to think about it just a little bit more before I order the delmonico for dinner.

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When we left Missouri that morning, I had asked our hipcamp host for any ideas where to stop with Lexi, my puppy golden retriever.  There have to be parks somewhere in Kansas, right?  We can’t just run around in someone’s cornfield.  She has proven to be a great traveler, but at least once a day I try to find a place where she can run and swim, if we’re lucky.  My host recommended a place called Fall River State Park.  It seemed like a good place for a short respite, as our goal for the day was Dodge City.

As we drove, I just couldn’t imagine that somewhere in the midst of all these fields would be any water at all, let alone a potentially beautiful state park.  Surprise again!  Actually double surprise as we drew closer to the entrance, we began to see debris on the road.  It looked like there’d been a storm.  This proved to be an understatement and I reminded myself that I was in Kansas – home of Dorothy and Toto, tornadoes and misplaced houses that land on witches.

The park was officially closed, and no one was around.  Bummer for the locals I’m sure!  However, a few downed trees simply served to call us to investigate, not turn around (my Nancy Drew background at work).  One other car, coming behind us, seemed to have the same idea, so we pressed on, skirting trees and big branches as we made our way through. After all, we just wanted a place to walk and swim, so it seemed likely both could still be accomplished.  Plus, I felt just a little bit daring, knowing we were heading into a place we should have been heading out of.

The entrance to the park was littered with trees, and even the propane tank had been flung around and lay sideways.

Swimming was not an issue.  There was what normally would be a beautiful lake, (and honestly, why it was called Fall River instead of Fall Lake I never really grasped) but it had run over the campground, and high water was  evident in every direction.  Lexi swam in the lakeside campsites instead of near them.  And there were no shortage of sticks to chase and drag around.  Retriever paradise!  It’s always amazing to see what wind and water can do, especially when you arrive in the aftermath and everything looks normal – until it doesn’t.  It will be a massive clean-up effort, but hopefully they’re able to reopen before the end of summer.  It was also a solid reminder that Kansas does storms – big time.

But on to Dodge City.  I had reserved a very affordable AirBnB – called “The Western Bunkhouse”  just outside of town, in a mini house that was part of a larger compound of cabins and buildings that appeared to be some sort of retreat, complete with church, meeting buildings and sports facilities.  The little house was perfect for us, and the folks that managed it were very attentive and helpful.

Our perfect little AirBnB cabin for the night, just outside of Dodge City.


The draw, of course, was the town itself.  I was so curious to see what remained of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Turns out the town is all in on preserving their memories, both in the genuine historical sense and by creating every  kitschy reference imaginable.  While it was a busy town in its own right, with the requisite grain elevator, typical downtown, etc., it was obvious that selling the “Wild West” was its biggest draw (pun intended!).  I enjoyed checking it all out, and posed with Doc Holliday at his poker table, checked out the giant steam engine at the museum, and admired the storefront of the “Great Western Hotel”, which I believe is a re-creation but still cool.  If you love all these old stories and the movies that go with them (think Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), then it’s worth a visit.  I barely touched the surface of it all, but would have loved to dive in deeper.  This is one of the downsides to traveling with a dog in the summer – you just can’t go in anywhere for more than a minute!

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I can, however, highly recommend Red Beard Coffee!  I dashed in there for some caffeine on the way out of town, and found a cool storefront and a very engaging interior. (Not to mention the cool factor that they are located on Gunsmoke Avenue.)   The staff was super-friendly and helpful, especially to the older gentleman in front of me who may or may not have ever had a cup of coffee before and needed lots of handholding through the process.

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This little gem sits in downtown Dodge City, just a few blocks from the tourist attractions.

Biding my time, I noticed their prayer wall – a huge chalkboard filled with scrawlings and scribbles of prayers, ranging from petitions for a great harvest (clearly on the minds of most in this part of the country) to community unity and prayers for children.  Love!

The “Prayer board” at Red Beard Coffee.

This last bit left me with a sweet memory for Dodge City, which of course stands in complete contrast with the bang-bang-shoot-’em-up history which draws most folks here.  Clearly it’s a kinder, gentler town these days.

Iced latté in hand on this very hot day, Lexi and I excitedly headed west.  Next stop, Colorado!  We were gettin’ out of Dodge.  (I’ve always wanted to say that.)  Happy trails!

Journey through Missouri – Part 2

IMG_4600For six days at the beginning of July, Lexi the Golden and I traveled westward from Virginia to Colorado.  We were past the half-way mark now, and after a lovely day exploring eastern and central Missouri, we were more than ready to call it a day as we approached the city of Springfield.  Clearly we had just missed a thunderstorm, so everything shimmered  in the golden light of the late afternoon.

In the week or two leading up to our trip, I had scoured the internet looking for a good camping option in that area, but nothing jumped out at me.   I’ve discovered through some trial and error, and just observation as I drive by so many places,  that my kind of campground is quiet, definitely not an RV park, and preferable in some sort of wooded area.  No luck in Springfield.  I did, however, stumble on a site called hipcamp.com.  If you camp, you’re likely familiar with it.  If not, then let me tell you about it, because I think it’s pretty darn cool.  Think AirBnB for camping.  That means not normal campgrounds, but as they advertise, “. . . unique camping experiences on over 300,000 campsites, ranches, vineyards, public parks and more.”

Not really comprehending exactly what that meant when I booked “Dream Meadows Gardens” for one night, I went for it based on great reviews and a cost of a mere $10.  Turns out, we were camping on the rear end of the owner’s 12-acre plot of land.  Yup.  Basically camping in the back yard, and just us.   Ok, so I was a little put off at first, but it didn’t last.  Let me back up and set the stage a bit . . .

The approach to Dream Meadows Gardens.

As I pulled off the country-ish road onto the long driveway of Dream Meadows, both sides of the lane boasted of welcoming wooden fencing and a field of wildflowers.  IMG_4587I continued up the slight rise until I grew closer to the main part of the property and immediately felt as though I had stepped into Mary and Colin’s Secret Garden.  In every direction, color burst forth in beds, on walls of the small barn, and in the trim of the doors and windows on the outbuildings.  Whimsical signposts and funky yard art were littered throughout the yard and beyond,  but the incredible display of perennials were the real show-stoppers.

Homeowner Terry guided me to the back of the property where a picnic table and fire pit were at the ready.  I backed in the SUV and quickly set up the tent.  Due to the afternoon storm that had come through,  everything was wet – the ground, the table, the firewood – and now of course you can add my dog to that list.  She’s never as happy as when she is wet.  Though the weather was clear the rest of our stay, the overwhelming dampness never moved on – the one “yuck” of the experience.

It was such an interesting stay, and I enjoyed some time on the patio with Terry and his wife, Jean, sharing about my trip and learning a bit about them.  Hipcamp definitely lends to a bit more of a personal experience, which I have enjoyed so far.  Jean, who is a art teacher, is clearly the inspiration behind all the amazing flower beds as well as the painted murals on the barn and in her home.  Pure whimsy.  Terry contributes with his yard art, which takes many varied forms throughout the property.  It all feels a little bit reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s brightly-arrayed and quirky chocolate factory,  but think  flowers instead of chocolate!  Scrumdiddlyumptious!

Lexi took an uninvited dip into the waterfall built next to the house. Where there’s water – there’s Lexi.

As I’ve had Little House on the brain lately, it seemed amazing and perfect to discover that they live in an earth contact house.  In other words, the front of it, which was a long ranch-style home, looks normal, but the entire back is built into the earth and from the rear of the yard, you’d never know there’s a home there at all.  Remember the “dugout house” in On the Banks of Plum Creek”?  While Terry and Jean’s earth contact home was far more modern than the Ingalls’ primitive dugout, I liked the idea of the continuing connection on my trip though Missouri.  (See Journey through Missouri – Part 1 for the story of my visit to Laura and Almanzo’s Mansfield, Missouri farm.)

The photos here don’t do justice to the whole experience, but the good news is that Hipcamp makes it possible for you to pay them a visit yourself!  I love that this unique experience was part of my trip.  I’ll remember it always.  I’m only sad that I didn’t take more pictures.  If you’d like more information and beautiful photos of the property, see their Hipcamp page here:  https://www.hipcamp.com/discover/missouri/dream-meadows-garden?pic=b3e579ae-da19-4a19-be12-35a2cbe49353.

Lexi and I set off fairly early the following day, as I determined to finish off Missouri before lunchtime and make major headway into the very long and repetitious state of Kansas.  I had no real agenda but to drive as far as Dodge City, Kansas, and do my best to stay off highways to accomplish that goal.

The best things happen when you get off the highways!  First off, I had no idea that I had stumbled onto Historic Route 66.  If you look at a map, Highway 44 is the obvious choice west from Springfield, but Route 96 was more my style – full of rolling hills, barns and farms and plenty of local patriotic flare for the Independence Day holiday.

I began seeing signs that said “Historic Byway – Missouri Route 66”.  So cool!  And so much history.  IMG_4613A little digging shows that this famous road, which originally went from Chicago to Los Angeles, has completely been overrun by highways now, and went off the register of official highways in 1985.

Steinbeck’s Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath will always evoke symbols of hardship and dust, though the images that movies and songs portray later in the 20th century tend to evoke feelings of nostalgia for the road trip.  I definitely related to the latter, which seemed perfect for my purposes!

And so I found myself meandering down modern-day 96/historic 66 in the bright weekend sunshine.  As I crested a hill, a sign and a building on my right caught my eye.  I couldn’t stop in time and so whizzed on past, but it nagged at me, so we turned around about half a mile later and came back.  These are the moments that almost always payoff.  “Turn the car around”, I say to myself, not for the first time.  “I’m not on a schedule,” I remind myself.  Too often I just keep going.  It’s a shame but it’s true.  Hard to break those busy-girl habits.  I’m trying.

This is how I met Willie Washam at the Phelps School, which operated as a one-room schoolhouse from 1888-1952.  The building was a handsome white clapboard building, patriotic bunting hung from the small porch.  The doors were wide open and a truck sat out front, so I parked and walked up.  I’m a sucker for historic buildings, and especially schools.  (And yes, the whole Laura Ingalls theme just keeps perpetuating!  Is this Walnut Grove???  You can’t make this stuff up!)

Restored Phelps one-room schoolhouse, Phelps, Missouri
The Phelps one-room schoolhouse, currently in the midst of restoration. The bit of road in the bottom of the photo is actually the historic route 66.

I poked my head into the space to find an older gentleman, down on hands and knees, working on the hardwood floors.  After announcing myself, he invited me to come have a look.  He poured himself into a chair and began to hold court, providing me with a much-desired history lesson on the building itself as well as the one-room schoolhouses of the area.  It was fascinating.  This particular school is one of the few that still survives, and I believe the only one that was able to be restored.  The project was taking far longer than expected, but clearly the work was being done with great care.

The original stove and chimney still stood front and center, just in front of the 12 feet of chalkboard.  Willie let me know that some of the windows panes were original as well.  They had tried to preserve as much as possible, though time and neglect had taken its toll.  Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine a room full of students of all ages, working through their McGuffy Readers, reciting math facts and poetry.  The chalkboards had just been completed, and the teacher in me wanted to run my hands over them and at least write a sentence for these long-ago students to diagram!

Willie Washam, part of community group working to restore the Phelps schoolhouse.
My new friend Willie, glad for a short break to share the history of the schools. Note the photos of one-room schoolhouse classes across the county.

But I refrained and instead looked over the wall of photos, as Willie explained that the goal was to collect a class photo from each of the many schoolhouses in the county. There were many photos framed and on display, but those in charge of the project were hopeful to track down many more.  My new friend Willie did not attend this particular school, but reported that he did go to another schoolhouse as a child.

While Willie seemed glad for the break, I could tell he was ready to get back to work.  I thanked him for the tour and the history lesson, and wished him well.  He encouraged me to come back next year to see the finished product.  I think I liked it just the way it was.

Later, I found an article from the Joplin newspaper, corroborating what I learned and providing even more detail.  https://www.joplinglobe.com/news/local_news/renovation-of-one-room-schoolhouse-bringing-phelps-back-to-life/article_65e8311e-5919-5e23-ab70-5bb6c1edda24.html.  Here is a photo of what the school looked like prior to its renovation this caring community. 

What a wonderful and unexpected stop in our morning.  I stepped outside to my car, parked on what I thought was a little service road that ran along route 96.  Now, thanks to Willie’s careful explanation, I now know I was in parked on the crumbling concrete of what was the historic highway.  Looking up, I could see Lexi waiting patiently in the car, but she was ready to move on too.  We were ready to get our kicks on the rest of Missouri’s Route 66!






Journey through Missouri – Part 1

IMG_2447 2As I planned my road trip from Virginia to Colorado, the midwest state of Missouri stretched out on the map as a giant question mark.  For this East Coast girl (PA for the first half of my life, and VA up until now), Missouri was mostly unknown, and an overlooked state about which I knew very little.  Ok, so that’s not entirely true.  I have spent time in Kansas City – twice, and both soccer-related.  I can attest that they are futbol crazy people with some pretty great bar-b-que.   Both super-important and fun facts, but not relative to my current travels!  In fact, I just had to remind myself that Kansas City was actually in Missouri!  My route was somewhat southerly compared to that, so on my road trip to Colorado I wouldn’t be anywhere near it, nor St. Louis.  I’m hopeful to spend some time in St. Louis on the return trip as an ending to my Mississippi River travels, but that will be a story for the weeks to come!

The “Show Me” state turned out to be such a fun surprise.  I had a bit of an agenda, but the unexpected will be what cements it in my memory.  The plan?  To start, head a little northwest from my current location of Paducah, Kentucky and cross over both the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers just south of Cairo, Illinois. Turn west, stopping off in Mansfield to see the home of childhood favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder. The day would end in Springfield, and then continue on through the western portion of the state the following morning.  I’m happy to say that Lexi the Golden and I did do all those things, and they were all great.  The experience proved to be somewhat like a really great dessert.  You ask the waitress what she recommends, and then wait to be surprised.  When it comes, the presentation makes your mouth water a little, but it isn’t until you take that first bite that you discover all the ooey unexpected goodness of chocolate ganache, nuts, cream filling or peanut butter (or all of it!) hidden in the middle.  Soooo satisfying and rich.  That was how I felt about Missouri by the time we reached the Kansas border the following day.

I eagerly anticipated the crossing of the rivers.  First off, it made me feel like we were really making progress to know we’d be on the west side of the mighty Mississippi.  Also, just the name Cairo made me nostalgic for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  While I wasn’t going to be rafting down the river, I felt equally adventurous and just a little bit mischievous. https://i0.wp.com/www.capecentralhigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Aerial-Ohio-Mississippi-Rivers-confluence-08-13-2014_8969.jpg The experience didn’t disappoint.  Wide, wide water at the crossing, as the road curved left onto a bridge that first crossed the Ohio.  IMG_5277The two-lane road, with intricate expanses of steel beams overhead, provided plenty of opportunity to look both left and right.  Barges gliding through the water, small islands of trees gathered like intimate conversations dotted here and there between the far-reaching banks of Kentucky and Illinois, and then as I crossed the Mississippi a moment later, between Illinois and Missouri.  It was easy to feel tiny in the midst of the greatness of it all.  I’m used to rivers – I grew up on the Susquehanna, and live relatively close to the Potomac in Virginia, but these were a whole different breed.

With our feet (and our SUV) now firmly on Missouri ground, we made our way to route 60 and began working our way through land that was now flattening out a bit, with farmland become the predominant scenery.  Not huge farms yet, but enough to warrant large farm machinery taking up most of the road now and again.  Route 60 turned out be more of a highway, so we jumped off and decided for the long way around to Mansfield.  This is hardly ever a bad idea!   First off, the charming small town of Eminence welcomed us, with many a flag flying for the Independence Day holiday week.  It still boasted of old but well-kept storefronts with places like “Winfields Fine Food“, an old restaurant and soda fountain.  Just beyond we headed into an area called the “Ozark National Scenic Riverways“.  A complete unknown, I decided it sounded interesting.  So with little to no cell service to do any advance research, we just drove. IMG_3837

Pay dirt for us both when we discovered beautiful rolling hills and narrow clear spring-fed streams and rivers, their banks and bottoms lined with mostly smooth sedimentary stones.  (When you have a dog who loves the water, finding a place like this is heaven – and zero mud!).  IMG_8966We stopped for a hike and a swim at Jacks Fork River.  A well-kept campground lined the riverbank, and Lexi eagerly tested the water, happy to discover she could wade it gradually.  There’s nothing this dog loves more than water, and if there are rocks to dig and dive for, the better.  I’ll always remember this as the place where she finally learned to all-out swim, and if a Golden could shout with joy, she would have.  She wanted to stay forever.

But Laura Ingalls awaited, and I wanted to be on our way.  I knew we wouldn’t be able to tour the house (no dogs allowed!) but just seeing the farm and grounds would be enough, and it was.  I hadn’t really done much advance scouting for this stop, and truly only discovered  it when I looking at my Missouri map.  A quick Google search to read over what it entailed, and I was hooked.  So I left much to discover when we were there.

As a child I obsessed over Laura, Mary, Ma, Pa and the rest of the family.  I truly wanted to live on the banks of Plum Creek, or on the prairie, beloved Pa at my side, exploring the wonders of the midwest in the late 19th century.  These people were as real to me as my own family, and I joyfully and eagerly read and reread each book multiple times in my childhood.  It didn’t hurt that not long after I devoured the books, NBC debuted the television series.  Melissa Gilbert, now in full technicolor for me to see every Monday night at 8:00 p.m., was perfection in her copper-colored braids and calico dresses, tomboy as she was.  And that Nellie Olson.  How I hated her, and secretly relished the moment my brave and wise Laura let Nellie’s wheelchair rattle down the hill into the lake, proving that Nellie was in fact, faking her paralysis.   So many memories of book and screen flooded my mind as we drove closer to the farm.

Sitting serenely and humbly on the side of Highway A, a small sign confirmed we had reached Rocky Ridge Farm, home of Laura, Almanzo, and daughter Rose.  Turning in, it just felt like arriving at a friend’s house.  Just a few miles out of the small town of Mansfield, the farmhouse sits perched on a rise above the road.   It’s much larger than I would have expected, with its white-painted wood and beautiful stone chimney.  It has the look of a well-loved place that has been added to over the years.  The front steps and small porch actually face the side, with mature beautiful trees creating a small grove-like setting.  It looks welcoming and pleasant, with what look like golden cotton curtains hanging in the front room.

We had the place to ourselves, save the woman who was just coming out the side door, letting me know that they were closing for the day.  Since I couldn’t go in anyway, I was content to wander the grounds for a while.  In its day, the farm was a dairy, fruit and poultry farm.  Chickens still remained, clucking away at Lexi as we walked past their coop and the barn.  The Wilders moved here in 1894, after a covered-wagon trek from South Dakota, in search of a new place to call home.  They bought the land, originally 40 acres which expanded to 200, and built the house and farm.   Laura lived here for 63 years, until she died at age 90 in 1957.  I loved that I was standing here, just steps from where she penned all of the “Little House” books, telling of her childhood and coming-of-age on the prairie.  She wrote and published the books between 1932 and 1943, enhancing the imaginations of children for generations to come.  And I think now, as I stand here admiring this beautiful place, how unusual a woman she was to set out on a course to write and publish the series at a time when women certainly didn’t have much to speak of for careers, especially those who lived and worked to keep a farm running every day.

IMG_6291 2Lexi and I wandered happily around the property, transported back a century ago, relishing that I walked and wondered in the very places she spent so much of her life.  Behind the house, the terrain steepens a bit and a trail climbs the hill behind the barn.  We roamed for a bit, taking in the fields of queen anne’s lace and brown-eyed susans, with golden afternoon sunshine painting the fields in the distance, carried through time.

Sentimentally, I snapped off a single flower to take with me, knowing it would dry and wither in the car, but confident that it would find its permanent home on a bookshelf at home, tucked into the pages of my favorite Little House book.

Content with our afternoon of discovery, Lexi happily bounded into the car.  We moved out for the last leg of our travels for the day, heading to Springfield to set up camp for the night.  It proved to be a fairly unique experience!  I can’t wait to write and share it with you.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow my blog so you know when part 2 of my journey through Missouri posts!

Sweet and Simple Samplings of Southern Kentucky

Thoroughbreds, basketball, bourbon and bluegrass.  Those are the images of my uninitiated mind when I think about Kentucky.  On my road trip west, I wanted to explore this state for myself, and look in some of the nooks and crannies to see what else I could find.  After spending a night camping at Koomer’s Ridge in the Daniel Boone National Forest, we headed first south and then west to Paducah.  Perched on the banks of the Ohio River, Paducah is nestled in one of those western little crooked crannies across the river from the southernmost tip of Illinois.

It’s one of those towns that would come up in something I’d read or as part of a conversation.  I really didn’t know much of anything about it, but the little research I did piqued my curiosity.  As a long-time fan of singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman (we even named our first dog after him – ridiculous but lovable mutt that he was), I’d always remembered that he was from this funny-sounding Kentucky town.   And so I endeavored to check it out for myself, not really knowing much of what I’d find.  Sometimes those are the best adventures, because everything is unexpected!

Initially, Lexi the Golden and I had planned to camp that night in The Land Between the Lakes in southwestern Kentucky.  A place I’d never heard of, but the name pulled me in as part romantic and just super literal.  Sure enough, it’s a huge north/south stretch of land designated as a National Recreation Area, poised between lakes that are created from waters of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Land Between the Lakes A few weeks earlier I’d found a great campground and we were all set.  As we began heading in that direction, two problems arose.  One, it was 95 degrees and humid.  (Sounds lovely for camping with a dog – not.)  Two, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from the campground manager, letting me know that he was very sorry to tell me that a tornado had gone through and made camping impossible for a few weeks to come.  Yikes.  So plan B.  I didn’t currently have one, but this did seem like a good opportunity to seek out air-conditioned accommodations for the night.

In the end we stopped at the Land Between the Lakes main visitor center, and found a good place to stretch our legs and hike a bit.  As the park covers such a huge area of land, much of it was unaffected by the tornado, and our hike was uneventful as all the trees and buildings remained in their proper places.

But back to the earlier portion of the day – yes, this is the same day as from the earlier post “Fear…less”, where Lexi and I escaped Koomer’s Ridge and her near-death experience.  Once we were on the road,  I was happy to make an unexpected discovery.  First off, I love barns.  Especially old ones and even falling-down ones.  Brown, green, white, red, even blue – there’s so much character and you just know they all tell a long story of the land on which they reside.  Kentucky is full of this kind of barn.  I think that my most frequent reason for pulling off the side of the road for a photo is for the sheer joy of encountering a photogenic barn.

In parts of Kentucky though, they are made all the richer and more charming with the addition of a painted quilt block.  The first one I saw caused me to turn the car around to check it out more closely.  Quilt Barn KentuckyI thought it was a novelty, a cool splash of color that some farmer added to the barn as a gift to his quilting wife, or that she may have painted as a nod to the rich quilting history of the area.  Coming across it was like finding a four-leaf clover when you weren’t even looking.  As we continued on, I began to see more and more of them.  Amazing!  All these country roads, dotted with small farms with livestock and healthy fields and gardens, boasted of at least a few of these “quilt barns”.

I wanted to photograph them all, but the roads just weren’t conducive to it, so I have but a few to share.  It was actually a full day later, in the far western reaches of Missouri, that I would my final and favorite one – a beautiful wedgewood blue barn boasting not one but two squares.  The farm, outside Joplin not far from the sweet town of Carthage, was adorned with a more traditional patchwork square and also a beautiful and unique version of our American flag, as it was 4th of July week.

My very favorite “Quilt Barn”, just outside of Carthage, Missour. I love the patriotic colors and stone on the barn!

A little Googling provided some background for the quilting artwork.  Kentucky has several “Quilt Barn Trails” that travelers can explore, all off the beaten path.  The first quilt barn block was actually created by a woman in Ohio, who had a panel made to honor her quilter mother.  Upon further digging I discovered that many states in the midwest and south, including Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and North Carolina have organized quilt barn trails.  Hmmm.  The idea has expanded and been embraced in several areas.  I loved it, and I loved that I just stumbled upon them, completely clueless that such a marvel existed.  Not to mention it could be a fun concept for a roadtrip!

I was also oblivious to the fact that Paducah is referred to as “Quilt City USA”, but it seemed fitting with the theme of the day that we were headed right into the heart of it.  As a side note, we opted for our one hotel stay of the journey, well worth the expense.  Lexi learned about elevators, and decided that for the most part they are not for her.  As our room was on the 6th floor, we compromised.  Down the stairs, but up the elevator.  Tricky stuff!


In any case, I was charmed by Paducah.  Maybe it was thanks in part to a great night’s sleep and escape from the humid and sticky heat, but our tour of the town the following morning taught me a thing of two of its history, and I was thoroughly charmed by the shops and restaurants of the art district.  IMG_4738There’s also just something about a city on a river, and this was no exception.  The wide expanse of the Ohio River ran just beyond the northernmost cobblestoned street.  While there is a river wall to protect from flooding, a pleasant walkway and park area is hidden just on the other side, and Lexi took her time getting her feet wet and shrinking back as the little waves lapped at the shore. IMG_0829

My favorite tidbit of our time in Paducah was learning that in 1827, William Clark, half of the notable duo Lewis and Clark, purchased 37,000 acres of land, including the area that would become Paducah, for the sum of $5.   Quite a good deal.

All in all, it was a pleasant stay in a friendly town.  I found this colorful quote on a historical marker in the middle of the city, written over a hundred years ago.  The author is Irvin S. Cobb, a Paducah-born American author, who would go on to write for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper in New York and rival Mark Twain in popularity during his lifetime.  I love the images he creates as he makes his case for his hometown. IMG_3232

“Here in Paducah one encounters, I claim, an agreeable blend of Western kindliness, and Northern enterprises, superimposed upon a Southern background.  Here, I claim, more chickens are fried, more hot biscuits are eaten, more corn pone is consumed, and more genuine hospitality is offered than in any town of like size in the commonwealth.”  Irvin S. Cobb

Though I wished I had encountered Steven Curtis Chapman in my wanderings, I can well imagine him here in this kindly, enterprising, semi-Southern quilters town.  For us, though, it was time to move on to the next.  Missouri here we come!

Fear . . . less

Beautiful mountain laurel and these few cool steps were probably the highlight of this hike!

I’m learning that on every trip, there will be moments that throw me out of my comfort zone and cause me to scramble a bit, pray harder, and just meet the anxiety head on and deal with it.  To be sure, I’ve already had a few of those this week, and ultimately they’re good as they remind me that I am most surely not in control of this rodeo (I feel the need to say rodeo since I am headed into cowboy country).  These moments also take me back to some pondering I did on last summer’s trip, as I considered fear.  It can come in the form of a white-knuckle drive, or a bear in my path (nope, not this year), or just that feeling that things are out of my control.

So I remind myself to take a breath and not let it control me, rob me, steal my contentment.  I’m all His, so even if it’s momentarily out of my comfort zone and control – God’s got me in His gracious grip.  Or in Aaron Rodgers’-speak, R-E-L-A-X.

This particular experience is a walking metaphor, served up on a platter.   After our night at Koomer’s Ridge camping, Lexi and I took off early the next morning to explore a few trails and see some of the natural rock arches that are dotted all over the landscape of the Gorge.  I had the sense that our campground was perched high on the cliffs, and once on the trail, that proved to be accurate.  About 5 minutes in, the rain came – a hard, quick and beautiful summer rain.  It didn’t last but 20 minutes, but enough to make the trail slick and add a shroud of mystery to the morning.

Arch Photograph - Silvermine Arch by Chuck De La Rosa

We were headed to Silvermine Arch – I’d read about it and purposely camped at Koomer’s Ridge because the trailhead was in our campground, not 100 yards from where we slept.  The first half mile or so, easy peasy.  Beautiful path with mature trees all around and the quiet that comes after a morning rain. IMG_0445 We had the trail to ourselves, but I kept Lexi on a leash since we were in unfamiliar territory.  And then it took a downward turn – quite literally.  Ok, the giant steps in the middle of the jungly forest were actually pretty cool, though I had the sense we were descending into something spooky.  At the bottom, the trail wound down past gigantic outcroppings of rock, which on a sunny day with friends would have seemed pretty awesome.  But, as I held on to Lexi’s leash partially in fear over her taking a mean tumble, partly to let her strength provide balance for me, I just had that hair-standing-up-at-the-back-of-my-neck feeling.  I pressed on because I was sure the payoff would be worth it.  It wasn’t.  It was so dark and slippery and the gigantic boulders seemed more ominous than awesome.  Not to mention that it just seemed that something had to be living in and around that rocky arch, and if there was a need for a quick getaway. . . well, I really really hoped that wasn’t necessary.  And I need to add that if you check out the link to the trail at the top of this paragraph, I strongly disagree with the “easy hike” comment!

Dejected, dirty and a little rattled, we turned back.  I was thrilled to finally reach the massive stairway out of hell.  At the top, catching my breath with shafts of sunlight peeking through the rain-soaked canopy of trees, Lexi heard something in the brush, dashed after it, and I lost the leash.  I knew that to my right loomed a cliff with a deathly drop off.  She and the squirrel went right for it.  I thought that was it, and she’d be gone.  I could taste the fear in that brief moment.  She stopped herself, poised at the top, and came running back to me with that goofy happy golden face that all retriever owners know well. I don’t know if she was oblivious to the danger or she knew exactly where she stopped.  A bad moment.  Fear again.  Shaking and grateful, I berated myself for not holding on tighter.  For not being more in control of the situation.  We moved away from the edges and put our feet back on solid ground, heart pounding.  Honestly it was already pounding from the climb – anxiety just increased the tempo!

Lessons abound from this, and while it made me feel a little sick living the Lexi part of it over again, it reminds me to trust Him again today, with whatever comes.

IMG_5884Also, the recognition that we went down into the pit, chasing after something that looked good on paper.  (The reviews were great, after all!)  It started out harmless enough, and I was drawn in by the cool staircase and the confidence that many others had gone before me on this path.  But in the end, it wasn’t for me.  I even pressed on further than I should have, as the trail got downright treacherous.  And then fear, even if it was somewhat irrational in hindsight.  And then peace, with that Francesca Battistelli line “I am free.  Got my own identity, so fear, you will never be welcome here!” flashing through my head.   Songs are good for stuff like that :).

But then I think, what God showed me most clearly was in that moment when Lexi darted away towards the edge of the cliff (and please know that cliff is exactly the right word here – gulp).  He reminded me that when He pulls me out of the pit, to be thankful, to praise Him for it, but not just for that convenient moment.  He is worthy to trust with my next steps, and the ones after that.  Because for me, in that quick turnaround between gratefulness to be back in the sunlight and fear that my sweet puppy was about to do something horrific, my trust and my faith was shaken.  Badly.  And then there she was, happy and oblivious and ready to go anywhere with me.  I remember berating myself at that moment, frustrated with my own lack of faith.  While yes, I know she’s “just a dog”, she was God’s perfect provision for me last winter.  He wasn’t going to take her now.IMG_5406

Honestly, this story was meant to just be a side note, not an entire post.  But there you have it.  Know that God will pull you out of the pit and that He is faithful!  And in the meantime, we are rolling on into the sunshine and heading west, ready for whatever adventures await.



“Be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. (Hebrews 13:5)   And “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Phil. 4:11,13)


Girl Power in the Red River Gorge

IMG_4752Girl power.  Yup, it’s a real thing, though I’m technically past what most may consider my “girl” years.  It may only be night #2 of “Bing and Lexi’s wild west adventure”, but I’m feeling pretty accomplished at the moment.  Currently, I’m relaxing next to a very comfortable campfire, blazing just enough to ward off the dang biting flies without cooking us.  On my left sleeps a very tired and content golden retriever, and just 20 feet away, our SUV and tent are waiting, all ready for what I hope will be a great night’s sleep under the stars.  While it may not seem like much to some, the fact that I carefully researched and then ordered the tent, practiced putting it up at home, and then was actually able to accomplish this in the campground today counts as a victory.  Thank you Jesus!  I love it.  It’s an extension of my vehicle, so the back hatch is wide open and the tent connects right to it.  Hopefully it proves to be the best of both worlds.


Our home for the night sits  just on the precipice of the Red River Gorge, in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky, USA.  Tomorrow morning is reserved for hiking the gorge and cliffs before we head out.  The scenery is lush and wild, but the campground is charming and peaceful.  I had been concerned it would be packed, but there are probably no more than 10 sites claimed for the evening.

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So basically all of eastern Kentucky is on a giant bed of rock. Here in the Red River Gorge it is obvious in so many rugged and spectacular forms.

But getting here . . . We began our morning in the fog that hung over the farm where we spent the night.  At 2,500 feet up, it just didn’t want to give in to the sun waiting patiently for its turn to bless the day.  Makes me think of a favorite poem that used to hang on my classroom wall:

The fog comes on little cat feet.  It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.  Carl Sandburg

In any case, Lexi bid adieu to her new Appaloosa pal, and we headed out, leaving our sweet cabin shrouded in the mist of the morning.   As we began heading down into the town of Lewisburg, the sun streamed through and the day grew warm. In the end I determined there really wasn’t time for more than a quick drive through of the town, though it seemed hospitable and sweet.  Instead, we steered south about 90 minutes to Lindside, where we made a much anticipated stop, but as it deserves a post all its own, it will wait for another day.  Sorry!


After leaving Lindside,  we worked our way through the ragged southern edges of West Virginia before popping back into Virginia, then repeating the whole business over again. This went on for hours.  Windy, curvy, mountainous, thankful-I-have-no-human-passengers-to-throw-up-in-my-car kind of roads.  Four lanes, then two, dump trucks flying by at breakneck speed.  Yikes.  Perhaps not my best choice of roads, though I think the alternatives were worse.  I got a little taste of coal country, and I say little only because I didn’t dare look left nor right very often, though I wanted to check out all that was whizzing by us.  In the end I was left with the impression that for at least 50 miles, there was nothing but sheer rock on my right, leaving whatever inhabited world existed solely to my left.  Not that I could really tell you what was there.


I suppose that’s not entirely true, for as I sit here reflecting on the day, it occurs to me that there was a certain visual symmetry to that part of the trip.  Both rail tracks and a river were constant companions throughout the drive; the three bands cutting along together through the narrow valleys between these mountains.

Last year on my southern adventure, I noted that every town unfailingly boasted of a Dollar Store and at least one Baptist church, regardless of the population.  As I worked my way across western Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the Dollar Store continues its place of prominence in every village large and small.  However, King Jesus is worshiped in places with much more colorful names than simply Baptist36722709_857277037816129_2066422990760837120_oI can just about hear His name being called upon, fiercely and with conviction, in places that bear names such as Holiness Victory Temple , Holy Redeemer Temple, and this one, which left no doubt as to who is the guest of honor, “simply” called I am Jesus Tabernacle.  Perhaps my favorite, though, was End Time Tabernacle.  For real.  These fine folks may be a bit short on subtlety, but there’s no gray areas.  Preach!

Even the names of the roads leave little doubt for interpretation. My favorite one of the day, which showed up as such right on my GPS, was Route 19, Trail of the Lonesome PineIMG_4261 2I never saw the aforementioned tree, and am guessing he turned to sawdust a while back.   Other notables and fun facts included Country Music Highway, otherwise known as Route 23, and the town of Pikeville claims the Hatfield and McCoy feud as its bit of fame.  And Grundy, which by all indications appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, boasted the single grandest Walmart I have ever seen – bar none. IMG_0167 Two stories, glass front windows shining in the sun, calling all inhabitants from likely 75 miles to come park in its 2-story attached garage and buy all the things.  (Check out the link.)  And yes, Grundy is a real place.

Are these the things I set out to see when I planned this trip?  Well, not exactly.  But you just never know what you’re going to find around any given corner.  Today, it was rarely what I expected.

When we finally headed into the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky, I was more than ready to end the drive.  The drive itself, or at least a large portion of it,  just wasn’t that much fun today.  As with each day on a road trip, though, I doubt I’ll forget it. Ironically it mayt be the WalMart that rules in my memory.  That thing was ridiculous.

Sitting in my office at home planning this drive a few weeks ago, it seemed like a perfectly grand idea to take the longish route around the gorge to the campground.  “See the sites”, I told myself.  “Get a feel for the place”.  At that point in my drive today, the only feeling I had was queasiness.  I didn’t know you could make yourself carsick when you were the driver!  As we entered the area, I really wanted to change course, but with no service of any kind, my paper map was my only guide, and it wasn’t exactly detailed.  So we took the very very long way to Koomer’s Ridge.  It was also windy and narrow, but also wild and beautiful.  And now we are here, feet up, embers glowing under a billion stars.  Totally worth it.



Beginning anew – adventure awaits

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have it only we seek them with our eyes open.  – Jawaharlal Nehru

This is a portion of my prayer as I set out again, exploring my way across much of our beautiful country, though  I wish to seek it with not just eyes to see, but an open heart and mind as well.  I have no idea what I’ll find. IMG_7749 2

Last summer I set out on my own and drove south to the Florida Keys.  Investing two weeks to drive there and back proved to be one of the best decisions of my adult life – equal parts liberating and empowering, exhilarating and adventurous.  It was also addicting – I couldn’t wait to strike out again this year with a new destination.  And so here I am on Day One, Adventure #2, tucked away in the middle of the mountains of West Virginia in the most idyllic cabin, with fireflies lighting up the pasture as the horses in the barn next to me softly whinny their way towards sleep.  IMG_4330 2Best of all, my 9 month-old Golden, Lexi, is sleeping hard at my feet.  She’s the big addition to my travels, and so far, so good.

I started this blog during last year’s southern summer sojourn (Maybe too much alliteration – sorry!).  I was awed to discover that people actually read it . . . and talked to me about it and told me how much they were looking forward to reading about where I’m traveling now.  Crazy.  And so I think I’ve now spent too much time trying to figure out what my “point” is.  What to write about, exactly?  Ugh.  It’s possible that I’ve just spent too much time thinking about this trip – period.  Mercifully, today finally arrived, which really is just saving me from myself and my obsession about planning.   Can you break Google Maps? I’ve even tracked down every fold-up paper map left in Barnes & Noble’s inventory.  (Yes, they still exist – both of them!)  Need to know a campground in Missouri?  Kansas?  Southern Wisconsin?  How far it is from Paducah to Dodge City? I’m here to help.

You know that feeling when a plan turns out way better than expected, so you decide do it again – but in the process you overthink it because now you know enough to be dangerous?  Hand raised here.  That’s ME!  The first-time road trip seemed to take on a magical life of its own, and now I find myself wanting to recreate the genie in the bottle.   I’ve thought and planned this trip to death.  And then I worried that with all the extreme planning I have ruined it before it started.  (Like I said, it was a mercy that today came.) So back to the original question here – what is my point?  I think it is simply to share the joy of the journey with anyone who may possess a bit of their own hidden (or not so hidden) wanderlust.

A warning – it’ll be weird.  My journey is likely not like anyone else’s.   I notice odd things, take roads that look semi-interesting for completely indefensible reasons, and stop incessantly to snap photos of oddities.  I will, no doubt, throw out some hard thought-out plan just because someone casually mentions something that piques my interest while I’m getting gas, or just because we come upon a place to hike that catches my eye.  But that’s the fun.  It’s my trip, so plans can change on a dime – and my very amenable golden retriever will likely be cool with it all, provided there’s a slot for a hike and a belly rub built into the day.

And so we are off – about 275 miles in at this point, with likely another 3,500 more until we arrive back home.  Yup – I may have bit off a slightly bigger chunk of the US of A this time.  With a puppy.  (Yes, and potentially some wine.)

This first post will hopefully just set you up to read on in the weeks to come.  It may be a little more light-hearted as I try to find my voice again – it’s been a while.  But I’m excited, and hopefully that comes through.  Here are the facts – we are driving from Manassas, Virginia to Breckenridge, Colorado, in large part without highways.  As you look at a map, that means no “blue lines”.  We could have, conceivably, driven it in two days.  For me that is akin to torture.  My curiousity couldn’t take it!  It’s the stopping and weaving and wondering around each corner that is the draw, and exploring whatever strikes me.  A highway is a very useful thing, but not the point of this trip AT ALL.

So, this morning we headed west and south through the Shenandoah Valley, through towns like Luray and Grottoes, Waynesburg and Staunton.  The mountains in the summer just puIMG_1472ll me right in, and the joy and relief of stopping at an overlook at 3,000 feet to discover the temperature in the high 70s instead of 90 confirms the choice of route already.

I find that barns and churches draw my eye as much as the mountains.  So many deserve a pause and a photo, but I try to limit it to ones that take my breath away just a little.  Maybe it’s the colors – worn red  and gray barnwood with a background of forest green and billowing blue sky, or white steeples paired with red or black doors, again with a backdrop of good green earth.  It’s all so solid somehow, and reassuring.

Once through the valley, we head south a bit to Lexington, home of VMI, Washington and Lee University, and most notably in my life, the Ruby Tuesday parking lot where I first set eyes on my sweet Lexi.  Her story – our story together – is worth sharing.  I’ve been thinking about it for months now, and in the weeks to come I’ll use these pages and this trip to tell it.  The arrival of her little golden self proved to be one of the few times in my life where God’s voice spoke so clearly to me that I knew to ignore it would have been with the full knowledge of deliberate defiance.  But for another day . . .

The rest of our trip to Renick, (also known as Falling Spring) had us climbing and winding through the Allegheny Mountains of the George Washington National Forest. We passed through wonderful small villages, rocky rivers and farmland as well as forests.  Somehow I didn’t realize the road would even take us past  the famed Homestead, and all the water towns – Warm Springs, Rockbridge Baths, Bath, Hot Springs.  I’ll state the obvious here – Virginia is magnificent.  If you live here, get out and see the rest of it.  If you don’t, come visit.  It never fails to surprise and surpass my expectations.

Our last leg brought us across the West Virginia border to Lewisburg, which we will explore tomorrow.  For today we skirted around it and headed north to Renick and the Greenbrier River Trail, which is right down the road from our cabin.

We settled in and then strolled down the lane in search of a creek for my water-loving dog to splash in.   She happily made friends with the folks passing the evening on the porch swing of the farmhouse next door.  Further down the dirt road – the first fail of the trip.  While water was found, it came in the form of a large and very muddy puddle.  (She doesn’t discern the difference.  In her book, all water=fun.)  She wallows in it, blissfully cooling off her warm body, and is so very proud of herself.  IMG_1229Upon our return to the cabin, after my now Oreo-colored dog romped with the owner’s dog, we determined to head to the river and get a bath and a short hike on the Greenbrier River Trail.  The trail spans 75 miles of converted railway track, mimicking the lines of the river.  A good way to burn up some of the puppy energy and try to find the white dog underneath the now brown one.

One tired and dirty girl

It seems perfect to end this first day, relaxed and content on the wide front porch of our cabin, watching the fireflies wink and bob in the fading light.  Before long their allure is lost to the somehow brighter heavens, as the stars shine through the black night.  How wonderful it is to be where the sky is clear and the heavens are endless.  God is so good, and His mercy will be new tomorrow.  Another beautiful and wonderful adventure of a day!

Thanks for reading, friends.  We are off to a very good start!  Next stops . . . a little more of the country roads of West Virginia and the hills of Kentucky.  Until then!

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Saying goodbye to our new friends