During my southerly migration from Maine back to Texas, I had a chance to kick a few items out of the bucket. Here are some things seen along the way:
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Making it to all 59 National Parks with official “Park” status is a lofty goal, particularly given that a few of them require unorthodox access methods from expensive plane rides down to dog sleds to reach them. But still, seeing as many as possible makes for a good outline to fill in along the way.
My theory has always been that there must be something particularly noteworthy for a park to achieve this esteemed official “Park” status. Last summer, that theory was put to the test when I visited Pinnacles National Park in California. Granted there were some beautiful hiking trails there, but I saw nothing to boost it up into the upper echelon of national park sites. Finally, an off duty park ranger confirmed my suspicions…its promotion to “Park with a capital P” rode in on the back of political pork.
However, visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park mades Pinnacles look like the Grand Teton of National Parks. I found myself once more standing across the desk from an official park ranger asking the pointed question, “What features enabled this once National Recreation Area to be promoted to official “Park” status?” The explanation once again began with “Well, when Senator….” Say no more. I’m sorry, but when a National Park visitor center touts raccoons and skunks as “wildlife,” my new motto is “Don’t go out of your way.”
Gateway Arch, St Louis, MO
Next up on my mini-bucket list along my chosen route back to Texas is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. This visit will also tick the state of Missouri off my “On the Road to Fifty” states list, leaving only the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska still on my “uncharted territory” list. However, I quickly figure out why my friend Box Canyon Mark calls it the land of Les Miserables, as Missouri feels a bit more like “Mis-er-ee.” Driving across the state, I never shake the feeling of “bleak, gray, depressing, and a little unnerving.” Of course, the cloudy skies don’t help.
I have read online that the park surrounding the arch is under construction, and parking is very limited. In fact, the attraction itself currently offers no parking whatsoever while under construction, directing all visitors to public lots. So I plan to leave the Winnie in the Casino Queen parking lot across the Mississippi River and take the Tracker across to visit the arch. But I don’t even have a chance to turn the engine off before I am met by the security guard, telling me RV parking for ANY length of time is now prohibited in their parking lot. He offers me parking in the adjacent RV Park for $24 for four hours. Ummm, I don’t think so…
I drive to the closest Walmart five miles away to leave the Winnie so I can drive the Tracker back into the downtown area. The area feels a bit “oppressed,” leaving me somewhat uneasy. It’s the first time I’ve ever gone in to ask Management if it is okay to park….during the daylight!
The ride up to the arch is a little unnerving if you think too much about it….five people squashed up and hunched over in a tiny “pod” for the four minute ride 630 ft to the top. There is a little shaking and vibration to add to the uncertainty. Not for the claustrophobic…or the view snobs. 😉
Crystal Bridges American Art Museum
While both attractions above fall into the category of “I’m glad I went, but I wouldn’t go again,” that is not the case for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The beautiful grounds and exhibits are well worthy of time spent and more.
Named after Crystal Spring which flows into the reflecting ponds, it wasn’t the Crystal Bridges museum that put Bentonville on the map, but rather the brain-trust of the founder, philanthropist Alice Walton’s father, Sam Walton. It’s difficult to associate a fine art collection with the name “Walmart,” so it’s no surprise that distance is maintained between Walmart and the ownership and development of the museum collections. However admission is sponsored by Walmart, thereby making it free, every day, all day. Attractions like Crystal Bridges museum, an abundance of green space, and over 100 miles of mountain biking trails, 75% of which were built in the last 10 years, contribute to Bentonville’s growing popularity. In fact, International Mountain Bicycling Association held its world summit in Bentonville in 2016.
A great way to explore the Crystal Bridges museum is on a night when the museum is open until 9:00pm (Weds, Thurs, or Friday.) Crowds are lighter, there are fewer kids, and the changing light on the angles and curves of the buildings reflecting in the ponds is a work of art in of itself. The restaurant, “Eleven” offers happy hour specials at the bar, or full dinner service. It’s a great way to break up the visit with some fancy cocktails or craft beer to rest our weary feet and “cleanse the palate” without overdosing on artwork.
I had the good fortune to arrive during the “Chuhuly in the Forest” exhibit. The lighted displays of the blown glass placed in the woods truly made it seem like an enchanted forest.
The last thing “seen along the way” was an unscheduled overnight stop at an abandoned nuclear plant outside of Gore, Oklahoma. On the horrible, jarring stretch of road that is I-40 out of Fort Smith, AR, I looked in my back-up camera to see the Tracker “tracking” to the right. One of the expandable arms of the tow bar had jammed in the collapsed (compressed) position, and the Tracker was towing to the side of the Winnie with one arm collapsed and the other extended like a stiff-armed dance partner.
Thankfully, I was less than a mile from an exit, but in the middle of nowhere. In pulling off to the shoulder, I felt a sense of relief at the sound of hay balers on the other side of a row of trees. I quickly unhitched, threw the bikes into the Winnie for safe keeping, then went into the nearby field to ask Farmer Larry if I could leave the Tracker there on his land while I went in search of a repair shop. He agreed, concurring that there would be nothing left of it if left parked on the side of the freeway. When asked for his advice on where he would go if he needed a similar repair, Farmer Larry’s answer was “I dunno, I fix everything myself.”
The spring in the extending arm was beyond repair, so after an hour of trying, we agreed he had no choice but to jam a bolt in under the lever locking it in the extended position, rendering permanent damage to the collapsing arm. (The tow bar is old anyway, and when last serviced at Blue Ox in Quartzsite, they recommended replacement soon.) As long as the bolt held, I would be fine to make it on in to Texas. But by the time he got it jerry-rigged, it was near dark. I typically try to avoid driving after dark in the best of conditions.
Farmer Larry stores all his hay baling equipment in the parking lot of an old abandoned nuclear facility. Having few options, I accepted his offer to overnight there in the abandoned parking lot. Surrounded by $100K of farm equipment on all sides of me, I felt fairly safe despite Farmer Larry’s repeated questions about my traveling alone. I am not typically a risk taker on the road, but this was one of those times when I had little choice but to operate on Blind Faith. Farmer Larry seemed kind and harmless enough, but that didn’t stop me from snapping a discrete photo of his license plate.
The following morning, I started out slow and steady with one eye peeled on the back-up camera and a whole lot of trepidation with each brake and turn for the final 250 miles back to the Texas farm. It may be the only time in a long time that I can recall letting out a sigh of relief in crossing the Texas state line…