The Final Frontier

Okay, so it’s not the *final* frontier, but North Dakota was one of the harder-to-reach States we visited. Wait, wait! Don’t leave!! It was so much more fun and interesting than even we thought it would be. Stick around a bit.

So… let’s get the Big Question out of the way. The first thing people ask us is, “Why in the world would you go to North Dakota?” (BTW, they asked the same thing about Arkansas, and Hot Springs was awesome too. Stay ’til the end and we’ll prove it.)

First, the official answer:
Stephanie and I want to visit every state. North Dakota was one we termed “state locked” because we had visited every bordering state, and had no choice but to make a direct run there.

Now, the real answer:
For this we must travel back to Stephanie’s childhood. In New Brunswick, NJ, where she and her siblings went to Rutgers, is a little ice cream shop called Thomas Sweet with perhaps the best ice cream treat in the world. A Thomas Sweet Blend-In is to a Dairy Queen Blizzard what a BMW is to the beat up old Volkswagen I drove in my youth. To achieve this airy, creamy mix of ice cream and toppings/candy, they use a very particular mixer called a Whirla-Whip. These machines were prevalent in the 1950s, but have long since been out of business. (Even the ones Thomas Sweet uses are replicas.) The only known Whirla-Whips still in operation are at Dakota Drug in Stanley, North Dakota.

So off we went. We flew to Minot and drove to Stanley for a couple of nights. Stanley is a small town, so it was easy to find Dakota Drug and welcome ourselves to Stanley with an authentic Whirla-Whip. I thought the staff might be tickled that we traveled all the way from Philly, but we aren’t even the farthest-traveled clients they’ve had.  They’ve had people from as far away as Egypt come all the way to Stanley for a Whirla-Whip.  I had vanilla ice cream with Whoppers and oreos.  Stephanie dove right in and went for chocolate ice cream with whoppers and brownie cake batter.

06 First things first..

First things first!

10 Not one, but TWO Whirl-A-whip machines!

Not one, but TWO Whirl-A-whip machines!

We had the full following day to spend in Stanley, so we went to check out Flickertail Village Museum. This is a collection of buildings and artifacts from North Dakota’s pioneer days in the late 1800s/early 1900s. All the buildings and their contents are 100% authentic and from the local area. It really felt like traveling back in time as we checked out the train depot, the jail, the bank, the schoolhouse and several homes.

 

55 A pound of dry goods, please

A pound of dry goods, please

Feel free to use the above photo of the sled school bus as proof to any older generation that they didn’t really walk to school in the snow, uphill, both ways.

As we were exiting one of the preserved homes, we met a guy named Jerry who told us that the very house we had just visited used to belong to his grandparents, and he spent a lot of time there as a boy. He took us into the bedroom (off limits to visitors) and showed us portraits of his grandparents who emigrated from Norway, as did many residents of Stanley and the surrounding area. He also told us about his grandfather who ice skated until well into his 80s, and showed us his grandpa’s old skates hanging on the wall.

Jerry was so great; he even met up with us later to show us a civic site in Stanley.  The Sibyl Center was once a church, but is now a community and cultural center.  We ended up just hanging out and shooting the breeze with Jerry for a while.

When we finished up, we had no choice but to go back to Dakota Drug for another Whirla-whip. (Rumors abound that the following morning, we stopped in at 9:00am for a final shot of ice-creamy goodness, but I ain’t confirming nuthin!)

As we continued west, we stopped at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. This place was a critical stop where the frontier settlers would trade goods for furs with the local Indians (as they were called at the time).

Further into the heartland we reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. A brief stroll from the interpretive center took us to an overlook where we could see the joining of the rivers.  It’s kind of hard to see from the photo but this is where two rivers meet.

135 Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers

Confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers

Well! With all the excitement of ice cream and old-timey living and proof of the decimation of America’s Bison population, I need a break from writing. Join us next time when we see cannonballs, meet the dogs of the prairie, and learn first-hand that the American Buffalo is still alive and well.

Oh, and as promised, here’s proof of how much fun Hot Springs, Arkansas was…

246 A day in the old-timey life

And a good time was had by all. (Featuring us and Stephanie’s dad and stepmom)

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Kentucky’s Giant Holes in the Ground

Out of so many national park sites on this road trip, this one was literally the largest of them all – Mammoth Cave, National park in Kentucky.  With over 400 miles of tunnels mapped, and plenty more to go, Mammoth Cave is aptly named.  The cave network has formed as acidic water seeps through insoluble sandstone, and dissolves the limestone underneath.  (This type of formation is called karst, for all you geo-techies.)  We gave our tent another workout, and camped onsite, walking distance from the visitor’s center.

On our first day, we opted for the Historic Tour.  This tour follows much of the same path that people have been touring for almost 200 years.  One of the first things we saw was (a recreation of) saltpeter mining operations.  In the early 1800s saltpeter, aka calcium nitrate, was extracted from Mammoth Cave to make gunpowder.

Many sections of the cave have names that have been around for quite some time.  For instance, we squeezed through a narrow path called Fat Man’s Misery, but fortunately, good diet and exercise habits made it easy passing.

After two hours underground, we emerged back at the Historical Entrance.

19 Looking back out the historic entrance

Looking back out the historic entrance

Our first day in Mammoth Cave was a success, so we decided to explore some of the above ground offerings of Mammoth Cave National Park.  In addition to the river (and the occasional deer), we came across the Mammoth Dome Sink.  This sinkhole is right above an underground feature called (you guessed it) Mammoth Dome.  Water funnels into this sinkhole, filters through the ground, and over time has worn away the huge (and oh-so-creatively named) Mammoth Dome.

The next day we took the Grand Avenue tour.  Described as the most strenuous, this four-hour, four-mile tour took us about as deep into the cave system as people are allowed to go.

The culmination was a marvelous set of drip-stone formations known as Frozen Niagara.

51 Frozen Niagara

Frozen Niagara

52 Frozen Niagara

Frozen Niagara

Again, we didn’t want to ignore the above-ground world, so we did some more hiking.  We went to check out Cedar Sink – a giant sinkhole in the woods caused by the softer rock underneath being eroded away.

At Sloan’s Crossing Pond, there were hundreds of well-camouflaged frogs calling to each other.  Once they got used to our presence, they let us see them.

As we drove through Kentucky on this Lincoln-heavy trip, we stopped at Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace where they have preserved the cabin in which our illustrious 16th president was born.  Oh, and I got to play with Lincoln logs!  There was also Abraham Lincoln’s Boyhood Home, Abraham Lincoln’s First School and Abe Lincoln Sat Under This Tree Once.  (I might have made up that last one.)

We stayed for two days in Shelbyville since it was midway between Louisville and Lexington.  After all, Kentucky is more than a big ol’ cave and some fast food chicken.  It had been a long few weeks on the road and we were getting a bit tired out, so we stayed low key in those cities.

In Louisville, we returned to the underground cave theme and visited the Mega Cavern.  The cavern was a limestone mine from the 30s through the 70s.  During the Cuban missile crisis in the 60s, it was on reserve to serve as a fallout shelter for 50,000 people in case of nuclear attack!  Now, reinforced with roof supports, it qualifies as a building – the largest in Kentucky.  It also features an underground ropes course/zip line.  We spent about 2 hours navigating the entire thing, and got quite a workout in the process.

Remember that fast food chicken I mentioned?  Well, Colonel Sanders is buried in Louisville, so we stopped at Cave Hill cemetery to visit his grave as well as that of Mohammed Ali.  The cemetery itself reminded us a lot of Pere la Chaise which we loved during our tour of Paris, so we took some time to explore the rest of the grounds at Cave Hill.

After that is it was a brief spin through Lexington on our way home to see the former Dixie Cup plant.  Their water tower is shaped like a giant Dixie cup – perfect for those nostalgic flashbacks.

141 Dixie cup water tower

Dixie cup water tower

Kansas City, Here I Come

Kansas City! Blues, Barbecue and…something else alliterative.  On our way into the city we visited Harry S. Truman’s home.  The house hasn’t changed much since the Trumans lived there.  The whole neighborhood looked like Disney’s Main Street, USA; it had a charming turn-of-the-century feel to it.

01 Harry S. Truman's House

Harry S. Truman’s House

In Kansas City proper, we went to the Federal Reserve to see the money museum.  It’s pretty cool to see what 40 million dollars in cash looks like.  It’s also fun to watch the robotic forklifts fetching pallets of money from the depths of the vault (even if you’re not allowed to photograph them).

 

Across the way from the Federal Reserve is the National World War I Museum.  This is the official United States memorial museum.  We had no idea it was in Kansas City.  We also had no idea it was so comprehensive.  We bought a two-day ticket, and spent a total of about ten hours reading everything we could find.  It still wasn’t enough.  World War I was an extremely complex event.  The world at the time was basically a powder keg, and the assassination of the Arch Duke of Austro-Hungary by a lone radical was all it took to set everything in motion.

 

After all that history, it was time for some science.  Specifically, a scientific comparison of Kansas City Barbecue to St. Louis Barbecue.  We headed over to world-renowned Gates Bar-B-Q for the test, where I (sadly, for the home team) determined that St. Louis won.

29 Struttin' on in

Struttin’ on in

Another day, another museum, and I was particularly looking forward to the American Jazz Museum.  The museum was fun, but small considering the scope of Jazz music. There were detailed exhibits on some of the big names like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, but not as much coverage as I had hoped.  (There was nothing on Herbie Hancock, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, Dave Brubeck, Louis Prima, Vocal Jazz, or Smooth Jazz, to name a few.)

 

That afternoon, it was off to Country Club Plaza – a 15-block district of fountains, Spanish-style architecture and upscale shopping.  Oh well…two out of three ain’t bad.  We strolled over to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and found that someone left a few badminton birdies on the lawn.  After careful consideration, we decided not to move them.

 

54 Badminton birdie

Badminton shuttlecock

There were actually numerous sculptures on the grounds including a glass labyrinth and a giant chrome tree.

 

That evening we headed to our couch surfing hosts on the Kansas side of Kansas City.  On the way, we decided to grill.  We didn’t find a park, but we did find an office building (closed for the day) with a picnic table.  Good enough.  Let’s grill!

88 Roadside burgers

Roadside burgers

In Kansas proper, we went off in search of more history, and found it at Fort Scott.  That means it’s time for…

***BEGIN HISTORY LESSON***
Fort Scott was established in 1842 at the edge of American territory.  At this point, most of the Native American tribes to the east had been shipped to the other side of the Mississippi River, courtesy of the Trail of Tears.  A chain of forts – including Fort Scott – was established to protect the Indian from any more encroachment by settlers onto their lands. (Ha!)  There really wasn’t much military work to be done, and so the army abandoned the fort and sold the buildings to civilians who converted them to hotels.

As Kansas was getting set to enter the Union, it was up to the citizens to decide whether it would enter as a free state or a slave state.  Settlers began to pour in from both pro-slavery and anti-slavery regions in order to sway the vote.  These highly polarized groups found themselves in two hotels across the quad from each other at Fort Scott.  Naturally, they wasted no time in getting into fights, and murdering each other.  These conflicts and many like them led to the term Bleeding Kansas.

Kansas was eventually admitted as a Free State, and Fort Scott was used to house and train Black soldiers during the civil war.
***END HISTORY LESSON***

 

Fort Scott marked the most western point this trip would take.  From here we began the trek back to Philly, and on the way, we celebrated our second 1000 miles by continuing to drive.  Just because we were looping back didn’t mean we were out of history and sights to see!

We stopped at Abraham Lincoln’s Boyhood Home in Indiana.  This is where he lived from the time he was 7 until he was 21.  It is currently a living historical farm in that the National Park Service still raises some crops and livestock here.

 

We ended our day with a treat.  A southern fried treat.  Some time ago, we discovered Ryan’s – a buffet restaurant with all kinds of Southern Goodness including fried catfish, hush puppies and my all-time fave – fried okra aka Southern Popcorn!  Woo hoo!

135 Ryan's!

Ryan’s!

Dark Side of the Moon

So this was it…the whole reason for this road trip: The Great American Eclipse of 2017. We decided with only a few weeks to go that we wanted in on all the celestial fun, and now we had to figure out where to go that still had places to stay.  Stephanie found there was still lodging in Jefferson City, Missouri.  The hotels were full, BUT…the city had set up affordable camp sites in some of their day use parks.  Even better, as the only U.S. capital city in the line of totality, Jeff City was going all out with a huge weekend packed with events and celebrating.  We decided to spring for the VIP package and really get into the whole thing.  The only thing left to do was to make sure we were actually able to see the eclipse when it happened.
Current count of eclipse glasses: 0

Before we even hit the road, we ordered some eclipse glasses from Amazon.  I hadn’t wanted to tempt fate, despite Stephanie’s assurances that they would be available in Jefferson City, so we even paid for expedited shipping.  But they didn’t arrive when they said they would and now it was just a few days before our trip.  Ack! When I called Amazon, they were a great help, but the only other glasses that could now reach us in time came in a 10-pack.  Amazon reduced the cost and waived the overnight shipping charges and sent us ten pairs of glasses.  Yay!
Current count of eclipse glasses: 10

When we arrived in Jefferson City two days before the eclipse, we checked in to our campground, and received a welcome packet with, among other things, two more pairs of eclipse glasses.  (Stephanie was right!) The site was really nice – a shady tree under which to pitch our tent, indoor bathrooms with running water, and even vendors selling necessities like ice and snacks.  In addition, since there were no showers, the city had arranged for free shower usage at various locations throughout town.  We set up camp, and went to join the festivities that evening.
Current count of eclipse glasses: 12

Downtown, a street party was in full swing with vendors and live music.  We checked in for our VIP package, and received everything we needed including (Can you guess?) two more pairs of eclipse glasses
Current count of eclipse glasses: 14

That evening, we went to check out the crop-circle-themed corn maze.  A local farmer had plowed his corn field into a maze just for the occasion.  The only corn maze we had ever done had been Halloween themed.  It was nice to wander through this one at dusk without worrying that someone with a hockey mask and a chainsaw would leap out and scare the pants off us.

Morning, Day before the Eclipse:
Our VIP package included tickets to Breakfast with an Astronaut.  In this case, said astronaut was Mike Hopkins, former resident of the International Space Station.  While we dined on a catered breakfast, Colonel Hopkins fascinated us with his story of being in space, and life on the ISS.  It went way beyond the typical how-do-you-go-to-the-bathroom-in-space lecture, and was thoroughly fascinating.  Breakfast included Eclipse gum (get it??), and all the Tang we could drink.  Oh yeah.  Each place setting also had a pair of…wait for it…eclipse glasses!
Current count of eclipse glasses: 16

We met Mike afterwards (I feel I can call him Mike, now), and while he signed our photos of him, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of the movie Gravity.  He was very diplomatic, and did not come out and say that it was about as scientifically accurate as Mario Kart.  We also met Jefferson City mayor Carrie Tergin, who did a live Facebook stream with us.  Does she remember me at this point? Probably not.  Do I still tell people that I’m Facebook friends with the mayor of Jefferson City, MO?  You bet I do!

Live Stream with the Mayor:

So…not eclipse related at all, but the MO State Capitol building in Jefferson City is just beautiful.  We signed up for an afternoon tour, and got up close with some of the design of the building including the House Lounge and its beautiful murals by Thomas Hart Benton entitled “A Social History of the State of Missouri.”

Being constructed of limestone, the interior walls of the capitol building have many fossils embedded in them.  We took a self-guided scavenger hunt, and found every one of them.

Up next was a VIP only panel of eclipse experts which included NASA engineers, astronomy teachers and even an eclipse photographer.  They had lots of great info on what eclipses are all about, and of course how to photograph them.  The best advice was that the time of the actual eclipse will fly by, so get as many photos as you can, but don’t forget to enjoy the actual experience.

To me all the festival events so far paled in comparison to the next one: A concert at the capitol by Pink Floyd tribute band Interstellar Overdrive. They performed the entire Dark Side of the Moon album – which ends in the song “Eclipse” – as part of a full two hour set.  Since this is closest I will ever come to seeing the mighty Floyd in concert, I was excited.  Our VIP package included VIP seating which was fine with me.  I insisted that we get there 45 minutes early since there were only 150 VIP seats.  When we arrived, we found about nine other people there – all at the back of the VIP section; they had thoughtfully left the front-and-center seats wide open for us.  Stephanie was a little bored being there so early, so I entertained her with a full history of Pink Floyd from inception to dissolution to resurrection.  Time well spent, I say!  Oh, and the show was fantastic.  Here’s a clip of them performing “Time.”

Whew!  So much has happened already, I almost forgot what we came for.

ECLIPSE TIME!!!

The eclipse was to begin at about 11:30 with full totality (Isn’t that a little redundant?) at 1:15.  And the skies were completely cloudy!  We debated driving to another part of the state, but the clouds were everywhere, and we didn’t want to take the chance that thousands of other people were driving too.  In the end, the skies cleared up, and we had perfect viewing.  We opted to just remain at our campground and watch from there rather than drive into town and try to park.

As we waited, we filmed the following Public Service Announcement in order to better acquaint those out of the viewing area with exactly what happens during an eclipse:

VIDEO – What is an eclipse?

The eclipse itself was an unforgettable experience.  You know, people sling around words like “profound” and “life-changing,” but this event really was just that incredible!  It was one of those things that reminds you that the universe is much bigger than we are, and life is special and we are all part of something amazing.

watching the eclipse

Stephanie watches the eclipse

At first we could see the moon starting to obscure then sun through our glasses, but the day didn’t seem any different.  It was still hot and humid and bright.  Then at about 60% coverage, it started to get ever so slightly darker.  As the eclipse continued, the temperature dropped, the skies darkened, it got cooler, automatic streetlights came on, the birds were quiet, and the crickets started chirping.  Even the evening mosquitoes came out and started feasting on us hapless humans who were too enthralled by the eclipse to care.

As the moon crept slowly across the face of the sun, we put one of our 200 pairs of eclipse glasses in front of the camera lens in order to get some photos.  They came out much better than we expected.  Just before totality, there is a second or two where the edge of the sun shines through the craters of the moon creating what’s known as the Diamond Ring where there’s a bright point of light on one side of the moon.

83 Total Eclipse of the Sun

Total Eclipse of the Sun

84 The Diamond Ring!

The Diamond Ring!

VIDEO – The Eclipse

VIDEO – Diamond Ring

Totality lasted for a full 2 minutes and 29 seconds – one of the longest in the country.  We were warned that it would feel like 10 seconds and it did.

We also used a pinhole camera we had made the day before to see a shadow of the eclipse.  And speaking of shadows, we noticed that the shadows of the trees had a crescent-shaped bit taken out of each leaf as the eclipse progressed.

As the eclipse wound down, I couldn’t stop watching it.  Stephanie, however, was focused on the important things in life, and grilled us lunch.  Yum!  That afternoon, we headed over to a municipal pool to cool off.  The pool had an alligator in it – much to Stephanie’s delight – and she had a good time playing with it.

103 Stephanie on a gator

Stephanie on a gator

On our way out of Jefferson City the next day, we stopped at the Lewis and Clark monument before setting our heading for Kansas City

110 Lewis and Clark monument

Lewis and Clark monument

“Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon”
-Pink Floyd

More Than Meets the Arch

Before we got to St. Louis, we knew nothing about the city except that it had a big arch, and is mentioned in the occasional Blues song.  What we found is that it’s a vibrant and fun city with much more to do than we imagined.

Our first view of St. Louis was from the Illinois side, and there was the Gateway Arch across the Mississippi River!  As we crossed the river and swung into the city, the Arch kept getting bigger.  As Stephanie directed us to our hotel, it got bigger still.  Sneaky Points-and-Miles Girl that she is, Stephanie had booked us a room at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch with a sweeping, panoramic view of the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse. (More on the Courthouse later.)  Seriously, any closer, and we would have been directly under the Arch itself.  What a great way to kick off our stay in St. Louis.

Arriving in St. Louis

Arriving in St. Louis

Rather than plunge on over to the Arch on our first morning, we set out to see some of St. Louis’s other offerings.  The kids in us would accept no less than the City Museum.  “Museum” is a bit of a stretch.  One might describe it as a crazy, multi-story playhouse filled with everything from giant slides to indoor caves to a rooftop Ferris wheel and all sorts of stuff on which to climb.  When it comes to the whimsical quirkiness of the City Museum, a photo is truly worth a thousand words…

Climbing up the slide

Climbing up the slide

VIDEO – Watch Stephanie go down the slide

Okay, okay…we’ll take you to the historical sites.  We took an afternoon Ferry ride from the base of the Arch along the Mississippi where we could get a water-side view and a little St. Louis history, including how the river impacted the formation and growth of the city.

We had time to kill before our Arch tickets so we went to the Old Courthouse.  This is where our history lesson began in earnest.  We learned a lot about the history of our country on this trip, and now you can too.  Be warned; it’s not all rosy flag waving….

***BEGIN HISTORY LESSON***
The Old Courthouse was the site of the Dred Scott Decision.  Dred Scott was a slave in the mid-1800s who sued for his freedom in this courthouse.  Scott had lived for a time in the free state of Illinois, and was recognized there as a free man.  In Missouri there was precedence for a slave to win his freedom this way.  BUT… rich white people being what they were then, he lost.  Dred Scott appealed his case all the way up to the U.S. supreme Court, who ruled that Africans are not citizens of the United States, may be treated as property, and therefore have no legal rights to sue for their own freedom.  This unconscionable ruling fanned the flames that led to the Civil War and paved the way for the Emancipation Proclamation
***END HISTORY LESSON***

After that downer of a history lesson, it was (At Last!) time to go up the Gateway Arch.  Woo Hoo!

It was named the Gateway Arch because St. Louis was known as the Gateway to the West.  It was here that pioneers and homesteaders would load up on supplies and provisions before making the grueling trek along the Oregon or Santa Fe Trails.  We watched a fascinating documentary on the building of the Gateway Arch.  Because it was built in the 60s, after the advent of video recording, much of it was captured on film.  (Part 1 and Part 2 are on Youtube.)

The ride to the top was pretty interesting.  Since the Arch curves, how was an elevator going to get us to the top?  The ride up was in a little train of pods that seated about five people each.  As the angle changed, the pods would tilt upright so that we were never at an angle.  We specifically timed our visit so we could be at the top to watch the sun set, and we were not disappointed.  At first it was crowded, but as the people thinned, we had one of the tiny windows all to ourselves to watch the sun go down.

In the morning we headed out to the St. Louis Zoo which is ranked as the top free attraction in America.  We expected to be there for two hours or so, and were amazed that it took us a good part of the day to see the whole thing.  The St. Louis Zoo is also a world leader in animal study and conservation too.  Who knew?  Of course, before we got to the zoo, we had to stop at the Turtle Park – a playground filled will turtle sculptures of all sizes.  And before we left the zoo, Stephanie adopted her very own baby orangutan.

98 Elliott REALLY rides a turtle

Elliott REALLY rides a turtle!

Prepare for Obligatory Animal Photos™

VIDEO – Mom & baby orangutan playing

160 We 'adopted' an orangutan

We ‘adopted’ an orangutan

What’s that?  They day’s not over??  Well then let’s head to the St. Louis Science Center (also free) for more educational fun.  Seriously, St. Louis offers a ton of free attractions including an art museum, a history museum and a greenhouse called the Jewel Box – all conveniently gathered in Forest Park.  We were just bummed we didn’t have time to visit all of them!

St. Louis is also well known for Barbecue and Blues – and we were about to experience both!  First we stopped at Pappy’s for a mountain of some of the best gol-durned brisket I’ve ever had.  As we went to admire the Arch at night, we stumbled on a free blues concert called Blues at the Arch.  What better to follow good eats than good tunes?

On our way out of the city the next morning, we stopped by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.  Normally, domestic churches don’t hold a candle to those in other countries, but this one is a little different.  When we were at the Church of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, we were blown away by the amazing mosaic work.  At 7700 square meters of mosaics, this cathedral has even more.

We were sorry we didn’t leave more time for a tour, but it was time to move on.  We did duck into the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, where we took a tour of the home site where our 18th president lived for a time.  It was before he freed some slaves that were given to him, led the Union in winning the Civil War, and earned himself a place on the $50 bill.  Oh, he also managed to meet and fall in love with his future wife there!

199 Ulysses S Grant lived here for a time

Ulysses S Grant lived here for a time

St. Louis had filled our days there with many fun activities.  And yet, I couldn’t help but think – at last, we were on our way to Central Missouri for The Main Event!

The Heartland of America

The time had come for another road trip across the good ole US of A.  We’d taken our “family and friends” road trip in July, but hadn’t really driven around the country since 2012, and there were plenty of new things for us to explore in the Midwest.  Stop #1: Indianapolis, Indiana for a taste of Americana.  Not knowing anything about Indiana, we only knew we wanted to check out the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500.

06 The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum

We had been warned that although we could take a lap of the track in a closed bus, we could not get off the bus at all, and the narration was pre-recorded. Wrong, wrong and wrong!  We signed up for the “Kiss the Bricks” tour which was on an open-air tram, and narrated by a real live human.  Best of all, we stopped at the finish line for a photo op at the famous “yard of bricks”…and yes, we kissed them.  Don’t ask me why!  For those of you who (like me) had never heard of this before, let me tell you about it.  The original Speedway was paved with 3.2 m-i-l-l-i-o-n bricks, and was nicknamed “The Brickyard.”  When it was resurfaced, they left three feet or one yard of the original bricks.  (Get it?)  These are right at the finish line, and it was here that the photos were taken.

The tram went slowly, but it was neat to feel the banked track on the curves, and to imagine the empty stands filled with thousands of race fans.  After the tram ride, we explored the museum which features many Indy-winning cars from the first race in 1911 all the way to the present.  We talked with a wonderful volunteer named Joe who seemed to know everything there was to know about auto racing having attended the last 52 Indy 500 races in person. (You read that right!)

We continued on to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, but as luck would have it, the museum is closed on Mondays.  Open however, was the attached art park called 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park.  This park is a 100 acre plot of land complete with a lake, and containing 12 larger-than-life-sized art installations.  Some of our favorites were these twisty benches that seem to come out of the ground, twist around a bit, and then dive back down, as well as a huge human(ish) skeleton made of climbable fiberglass called “Funky Bones.”

That night we headed to Fountain Square – an old, historic section of downtown Indianapolis.  We spent some time walking up and down the main drag admiring the architecture and checking out artsy stores like the record shop that actually sells vinyl records. (Man, have they gotten expensive!  I hope it’s worth it, hipsters!)  We also had to check out all the vintage clothing stores.  One was actually a Goodwill, but when you’re appealing to the upscale artsy crowd, you call the clothes “vintage,” not “thrift,” and you charge more.

There was also a Duckpin Bowling lane.  This is a variation on bowling that was popular in the 50s.  We had never heard of it, but at $40 a game, we decided “maybe next time.” I’m glad we held off, because as we walked, we found a retro 80s bar called Tapper’s.  Just as I was thinking “Hey, there was a video game in the 80s called ‘Tapper’,” we realized that this bar had an actual 80s-style arcade with some of my favorite games from when I was a kid.  Best of all, they were set on free play, with no cover charge required.  After Stephanie whomped me at Centipede, I showed her Burger Time, Donkey Kong, the original Mario Brothers, and Arkanoid before moving on to the granddaddy of them all: Galaga!  I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but let’s just say there’s a Galaga machine in Indianapolis with my name on the high score.

Sometimes we get lucky with our timing on a trip, and Indianapolis was one of those times.  The Indiana State Fair was underway, and our couch surfing host lived an easy 30 minute walk away.  The day we were there happened to be “$2 Tuesday,” and we love us a bargain, so off we went.  Neither of us had ever been to a full-blown state fair; Pennsylvania doesn’t even have one.  The fair was exactly what we pictured.  We started off watching the Clydesdale judging.  I have no idea what they look for in a horse, but the guys with clipboards were making lots of notes.  We caught a reptile show, watched some old-timey farm machinery in action, and checked out the needlework entries (to satisfy the cross-stitcher in me).  We even caught some pig racing – all before lunch!

Video – Pig racing

After lunch, I let Stephanie convince me to enter a watermelon seed spitting competition.  Mine went a paltry 12 feet, but Stephanie launched hers 23’11”, and almost earned herself a top ribbon.  It just goes to show that you never know what hidden talents your wife might reveal after almost 13 years of marriage.

109 Fire in the hole!

Fire in the hole!

Next up was a cow-milking demonstration.  Since neither of us had ever milked a cow, we decided to see what it was like.  It turned out this was a hands-on demonstration, and so each of us got to milk a cow.  I wonder if the cow could tell that we had no idea what we were doing.

 

We caught a show on hawks and falcons from a hilariously entertaining bird-of-prey expert, and then went to see some prize-winning veggies.  I have no idea how they judge a plate of potatoes, or a sheaf of rye, but we could easily see how they judged the giant pumpkins.  The winner weighed 1,232 pounds!

131 That's quite a pumpkin

That’s quite a pumpkin!

We ended our day with something new for me:  A full-blown, fully-sanctioned rodeo! We had it on our bucket list to attend one together someday, but here it was being handed to us.  In the time leading up to the show, they played one Country song after another.  Now, as I mentioned in our post on Nashville, Country music isn’t in my top 100 favorite music genres, but when in Rome, right?  I made it more palatable by people-watching, and keeping my musical judgments to myself.

They opened the show by having a cowgirl in red, white and blue sequins parade a large American flag around the field.  So far, so good as they talked highly about the flag and how America is a great country with a lot of freedoms.  But then they started saying that thanks to Old Glory, Americans are “free to wake up on a Sunday morning and go to any one of 300,000 churches across our great nation.”

136 She's behind the flag

She’s behind the flag

After recognizing any current or former military in the crowd, and singing the National Anthem, they said a prayer for America and the rodeo participants.  We were definitely a little thrown off not only by the prayer at a state fair, but the fact that it ended with “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  That would never happen in a blue state!  I was really upset, and felt all out of sorts for the next half hour.  I’m not offended by anyone else’s religion, but I am stunned that in America – the land of religious freedom – an unconstitutional preference for one particular religion was publicly declared at a State-sponsored event.  I was also upset that most of the people there might be so used to hearing this sort of thing, they wouldn’t even realize how many people were excluded.

Religious differences aside, it was time to enjoy my first-ever rodeo!  It started with the bucking bronco.  Very few of those guys could hang on for the full eight seconds it took to actually earn a score.  Next up was steer wrestling.  This is where you chase a young cow on your horse, leap off onto the cow, throw it to the ground, and tie up its hind legs.

Buckin' Bronc

Buckin’ Bronc

Right about here, Stephanie started saying she felt bad for the animals and wasn’t sure she was glad she had brought me to a rodeo after all, and I started to wonder what PETA thinks about rodeos.  I figured it can’t be as hard on the animals as it looks, or these things would have been shut down a long time ago. (Note: I’ve since heard otherwise.)  The announcer and the rodeo clown kept up a joking banter the entire time entertaining us between events.  My personal favorite event was the women’s barrel racing.  I swear those horses were having as much fun as their riders.  After the two-on-one steer roping (at which nobody succeeded), the rodeo ended with the grand-daddy of them all – Bull riding – at which nobody succeeded.  Score one for the bull!

Video – Bull riding

After all that, there was only one thing left to do: eat traditional State Fair fare.  And what are State Fairs known for?  Why, deep-frying everything of course.  There were about 20 different types of fried potatoes, fried veggies, fried pickles, fried candy bars, fried Reese’s peanut butter cups, even fried cookie dough.  I settled on deep-fried Oreos.  They’re like an Oreo wrapped in a funnel cake, and then fried up.  They were surprisingly good.  I may just have to try them again.  Stephanie – strong girl that she is – stayed away from the whole artery-clogging mess.

148 Fry me to the moon

Fry me to the Moon!

And just like that, we were done with Indianapolis; but not quite done with Indiana.  On our way to our next destination, we detoured to Vincennes, Indiana to visit the George Rogers Clark National Historic Site.  Who on earth is George Rogers Clark (I hear you cry)?  George was the older brother of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark Fame), but more importantly, during the Revolutionary War he led a secret mission to do an end run around the British, and retake the gateway to the west.  The British had recruited Native Americans to their side, and Clark marched his men for three days in the middle of winter through a nearly-frozen river to intimidate both the British and the Native Americans into backing off.  And it worked!  Hooray for the good guys.  The beautiful memorial is the largest national memorial outside of Washington DC.

We made a quick stop at the Illinois border to see a memorial to the fact that Abraham Lincoln once passed this way on his way to Illinois.  This trip, it turned out, would be full of Lincoln related national sites.

Chapter 1 of our road trip came to an end as we celebrated our first 1000 miles en route to Missouri.

It’s Not Just a Steel Town

If you read our blog and/or know me well you may already realize that with my points and miles hobby, it’s not all too uncommon for us to have “expiring award nights” – that is, hotel award nights we’ve been given for a credit card sign-up bonus or spend, that we haven’t gotten around to using for the past year (or sometimes two).  Last summer we found ourselves in that situation for some Fairmont Hotel award nights we had, and we were trying to figure out where we could use them without too much trouble.  I looked at the map of Fairmont Hotels, and one that’s local to home stood out: Pittsburgh!

All of these years, all of these travels, all of these countries; and we’d never been to Pittsburgh together.  It was time.  We booked the hotel and then timidly contacted a couple we had met five years before in a hot tub in Hawaii.  Gregory and Nancy had driven from their residence in Pittsburgh to Philadelphia once since then, for Elliott’s birthday party, but it had ended with an emergency room visit and we weren’t sure if they were too keen on seeing us again.  What a fabulous surprise, then, when they appeared delighted at the idea of us visiting their town, offered us a place to stay, and insisted on being our personal tour guides.

Gregory grew up in Pittsburgh and was proud of his hometown.  Elliott had never been, and I didn’t remember being impressed as a kid, but Pittsburgh apparently grew up and matured with us!  Even from our hotel room, we could see a nice-looking, clean city.

On our first evening in town, Gregory and Nancy showed us some local outdoor sights.  There’s a really nice walkway that goes right under some buildings downtown, and at least one of the many bridges lights up at night.  We found a statue with some really big eyeballs in front of it to see if we could freak out Elliott.

13 Our hosts Gregory and Nancy

Our hosts Gregory and Nancy show us the way

We also went to Point State Park and got a comprehensive history lesson on it and its role in forming Pittsburgh.  After a 12-year refurbishment period and $40 million, Point State Park reopened in 2013.  Point State Park is a Pittsburgh landmark like the arch for St. Louis and the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco.  It is located at the site where three rivers meet; or more accurately, where the Monongahela and Allegheny form the Ohio.  It’s marked by a huge 150 foot fountain at the edge of the park, and has great views, grassy areas on which to play or relax, and the nearby River Trail.

But Point State Park is more than just geographical; it’s highly historical as well.  It is the former site of not one but two forts – Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt – and where the “wild West” began.  Fort Duqesne was built by the French and used during the French & Indian War, but was also destroyed by the French when they no longer felt they could defend it from the British.  Once the British got hold of the land and found there was no longer a fort on it, they built their own fort – Fort Pitt.  Though neither fort stands any longer, a stone path in the park still marks the outlines of Fort Pitt.

18 Point State Park Fountain

Point State Park Fountain

Finally, we were excused from school and allowed to go to recess where we played in a fountain as it changed colors and form.

 

The next day, Gregory and Nancy took us to the Carnegie Science Center.  I got right to work on some important projects for mankind while Elliott took a nap.

On our third day, Gregory and Nancy decided to stop taking it so easy on us, and they packed our itinerary with activities.  We started out at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which were well worthwhile despite the sometimes blistering heat in those greenhouses!

31 At the botanical garden

Me, Elliott, Nancy and Gregory

 

Next up was the Heinz Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.  We were all very excited it was open and we could get inside, as Gregory and Nancy said it is often closed.

 

Gregory told us our visit to University of Pittsburgh would not be complete without seeing the Cathedral of Learning.  It was, indeed, a fun and interesting building to walk around!    Parts of it really did remind us of our favorite school: Hogwarts School of Withcraft and Wizardry of the Harry Potter series.

 

Last but not least, Gregory was sure to drive us to every great Pittsburgh viewing point he could think of.  We had a lot of great vantage points, and saw the city in a whole new way!  We can’t wait to go back and spend more time in this fun city with our amazing guides:)

Segelbaums over Pittsburgh

Segelbaums over Pittsburgh