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The Long Road Home

 


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Report #11

THE LONG ROAD HOME
...Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Dakotas, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia


April 24, 2007Texas wildflowers

In Brownsville we got caught up on the housekeeping – serious trailer clean-up, laundry, internet – preparing for the long road home.

Next morning we set out for San Antonio, home of the Alamo. It took all day to get there but it’s a pleasant drive. The sides of the road are literally blanketed in wildflowers - orange and brown gaillardias, white calliopes, pink masses, and blue masses, fat purple thistles, white Queen Anne’s lace.

Texas is Lady Bird Johnson’s home state. I recollect that beautifying American highways with indigenous wildflowers was one of her causes so I am thinking these flowers must be a legacy of those efforts. Too many cowboy movies I guess, but I had assumed Texas was all burnt out scrubland. Not so at all. Lots of green foliage, rolling hills, lazy rivers and of course, those wildflowers.

GaillardiaIn San Antonio we landed at the Travelers RV Park on Roosevelt. This was a serendipitous but lucky choice because it is very close to town and the city bus stops directly in front of the door.

First, the Alamo. I knew nothing about it before coming, but Steve was keen, raised as he was on Davy Crockett movies. The short version is this: Texas belonged to Mexico who encouraged colonization by Europeans and farmers from the American states because they were tired of skirmishing with the Comanche and saw the settlers as providing a buffer between Mexico and the Indians. They enticed the settlers to Texas with extremely lucrative land offers and promises of non-interference and full rights as Mexican citizens.

Only trouble was that the colonization went too well and Santa Ana, the dictator of AlamoMexico became concerned that the rapidly increasing numbers of settlers were going to overwhelm his ability to hold the territory. So he clamped down on colonization and started removing the rights he’d guaranteed them. And oh yes, charging taxes.

This infuriated the settlers. They’d left homes in Europe and/or the eastern states for exactly these reasons – curtailment of rights and unjust taxation. The settlers rebelled. Santa Ana sent a series of armies to straighten the settlers out. The first, led by Santa Ana’s brother-in-law was thoroughly routed.

San Antonio missionThis humiliation was not to be tolerated so Santa Ana himself led a troop of 6,000 men north and took on the settlers at the Alamo, a mission/fort in what is now known as San Antonio. Less than 200 men held off the Mexican army for three days but were overcome, with all men slaughtered on the third day. Davy Crocket actually survived the assault itself but was shot later.

Texans took inspiration from the slaughter, rallied an army and trounced Santa Ana once and for all. The phrase, “Remember the Alamo,” is a sacred rallying cry, even to this day. The place is literally a shrine.

San Antonio is a pretty city, at least the parts they’ve tarted up around the Alamo. RiverwalkThere is a River Walk which is nice ...although the river itself could use some cleaning up. Restaurants line the River Walk with outdoor bars and tables.

“Texas Barbeque” has always been held up as the gold standard, so of course, we had to go. Locals recommended The County Line. Disappointingly ordinary. In fact, Earls at home does a whole lot better job of ribs if you ask me.

We lucked into Fiesta Week so everyone was cutting loose down at Market Square. There were four bands rocking out in different locations – each geared to different Treep at Fiestastyles of music. Dozens and dozens of food vendors – the most disgusting of which was cooking up pots of tripe which they call “tripa”, pronouncing treepa. They wrap it in tortillas, cover it in hot sauce and declare it amazingly good. Don’t think so.

Everyone is wearing Mardi Gras style beads and fripperies and hats. Fun to see women kicking up their heels to the bands – dancing happily together. No worries about having partners or being old or looking the fool. Loved it.

Come evening we were putting our awning up when a man came over and warned us that there was a tornado watch. “You’ll regret leaving that awning up!”

Sure enough, sometime around midnight we were awakened by a terrible wind rocking our tiny trailer. Lightning was literally strobing, thunder roaring through like a never-ending freight train, rain lashing us from all angles.

The next morning people told us they’d sat up all night with their clothes on, convinced they would need to evacuate. I guess we were naive – popped in the earplugs, pulled the blankets over our heads and settled back to sleep.

But it was serious. About 75 miles to the west a trailer park was hit by a tornado and several people were killed. Everywhere around us the roads and paths were awash in water.

April 26, 2007

Next morning, after checking out all the other missions in San Antonio – and there are lots – we headed for Austin and checked into the Pecan Grove RV Park. This could One of many San Antonio missionshave been an idyllic setting, just south of the city. The park is massed in huge, ancient old oak trees but they were already full up so could only stick us in an overflow site that featured the four-lane road on one side and the al fresco dining room of a noisy restaurant on the other.

I imagined we were never going to get to sleep, but in fact, we both slept amazingly well.

We were in town to take care of some business and do some shopping. Interesting thing we’ve been noticing here in Texas. The mega malls are all closing down. Those that are still open have so many empty shops. I guess people are shopping at the free-standing big box stores now. Which I can understand. I paid $20 each for two pairs of excellent quality capris at Target. Why would I pay more at a fancy ladies shop in the mall?

Austin is the capital of Texas and, from what we saw of it, a really lovely looking town with lots of green leafy parks and suburbs and some amazing architecture in the middle of town.

April 27, 2007

In the morning we headed out initially on Hwy 71 so that we could connect with the “green” scenic route of 281 north. It was a lovely drive through green rolling hills, more wildflowers, lots of small farming towns. Some looking prosperous and spruced up ...others dried up and weary.

Stopped for lunch at a local institution, the Koffee Kup Kaffee. People were actually lined up to get into this cafe in a hoakey little old house. Everything was old and patched together including lots of the locals with too much makeup and helmet hair. On the other hand, there were also lots of bubbas in cowboy boots with ripped muscles on tanned arms in jean jackets with the sleeves ripped off. Lots to look at.

Nice people though, Texans. Friendly, warm and helpful.

Steve had a clubhouse, I had a BLT. We shared a plate of onion rings, the house specialty. The rings were bland and rubbery, a big disappointment. But the other specialty – cocoanut cream pie, was just fine.

Carried on to Witchita Falls for night. Tomorrow we’ll make it through Oklahoma and into Kansas.

April 28, 2007

Headed out of Witchita Falls on Hwy 44 to just north of Lawton where we turned west on the 49. This took us through the Witchita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. This is a wonderful drive over rolling hills past thousands of oak trees, masses of big rocks tumbled over each other. Beautiful country. In the midst of it all, roaming bandsBison of buffalo and long horn cattle. Magnificent with their massive shoulders and towering strength. At one place they were very near the road so we stopped to take photos. We stayed in the truck but even so, this humongous guy was staring us down, his mates gathering behind him, rumbling.

Yup, we were intimidated alright. The damage they could do to the truck and trailer would be devastating, never mind what they could do to us. We moved on.

Prairie DogsAlso enjoyed watching the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. They are of the squirrel family - cute little fellows, ducking in and out of their holes.

The Wildlife Refuge was the highlight of the day for sure because after that we passed through small town after small town that was either literally boarded up and abandoned or simply closed for the day. And this was a Saturday afternoon when you would think small town merchants would be open and busy.

We noticed the same thing in small town Australia last year. Too often the small towns were simply deserted, the trade having presumably driven off to larger towns.

Dinner time found us in the area of Woodward, OK so we pulled into Boiling Springs State Park. It is lovely and cool and quiet here. Lots of twisted old oak trees in a natural rural setting. Even so, we have electricity and water. Very nice.

Tomorrow we will be in Kansas, although Steve is lining up lots of things for us to do in Dodge City so I am sure we won’t make it through in one day.

April 29, 2007

Arrived in Dodge City about noon. Walked over to the Boot Hill Museum, $6.50 for seniors, $7 for adults. The museum is located on the original Boot Hill cemetary and “Front Street.”

Most of the bodies were removed to a city cemetery years and years ago, but they expect that there are still some under the ground here because grave markers were few and far between for these dead. People with family or the means to pay for it were buried in the church cemetery. But anyone who was killed in a bar fight or had no one to look out for them would be dumped in a hole here ...with their boots on.

It is an interesting museum with a 13 minute movie, lots of memorabilia and Boot Hill Front Streetartefacts. There is lots of information about longhorns and buffalo and the pioneers of the area. Rooms full of dresses and men’s clothing and children’s stuff, household implements and tools and so on.

I found the story about the buffalo most interesting. First, it is called an American Buffalo or Bison. The male grows up to one ton and has horns with a spread of up to three feet. The cows are 900-1100 pounds. Calves are 65 pounds at birth and can be up and running with the herd at one hour of age.

In the 1800s they believed there were up to 70 million. They were the lifeblood of the Indians who had already begun taking offence at the white men’s incursions into their territories. So the governor decided that if there were no buffalo in the area the Indians would leave. He advertised open hunting in eastern papers and thousands of hunters came out, shooting over 100 buffalo in a day, basically exterminating the buffalo in just a few years. By 1880 there were believed to be only 1000 buffalo left. Brilliant.

Longhorn CattleThe other species that defines this region are the Long Horn Cattle. These are believed to have been introduced to the area by Spanish conquistadors exploring Texas who basically brought along their own “beef on the hoof.”

They are prolific breeders and with no help from man, multiplied through the late 1800s. By 1890 the US Department of Agriculture estimated there were 60 million Longhorn Cattle. They are magnificent to see, with the longest, most elegant horns you’ve ever seen.

They are a tough animal, needing little water and thriving on whatever scrub grass they find on the prairie. Unfortunately they carried a disease called Texas Fever. While they are immune to it, other cattle are not. By the 1920s the Longhorn had been virtually bred out of existence.That’s why there are now wildlife refuges to protect the longhorn cattle and the American buffalo/bison.

The Dodge City museum has also recreated Front Street, a living museum that is fashioned after the original Front Street with a general store, a saloon, apothecary, undertaker, bank, etc. There are actors in some of them, welcoming you to Dodge.

A couple of other trivia facts to tuck away: the Masterson family, i.e., Bat and Brett Masterson, former sheriffs of Dodge were actually Quebecers, their family having Lake Scott State Parkmoved to Kansas when they were boys. And lastly, that Wyatt Earp was never a full sheriff, only a deputy.

Left Dodge in the afternoon and carried on to Lake Scott State Park where we are ensconced for the night. Lovely peaceful lake. Very quiet, nice breeze. The people at Dodge told us that a week ago there was 10 inches of snow. Apparently it melted by morning, but a huge shock to everyone. Glad it was “last week.” Tonight it is lovely and warm.Monumental Rocks

April 30, 2007

Saw the Monumental Rocks which are pretty interesting, out in the middle of a farmer’s field.

Looking for a cup of coffee, we saw a steak house that advertised coffee and breakfast. It was 10:00 in the morning. As we sat there nursing our coffee, couldn't help noticing the staff filling up the buffet with beef stew, fried chicken and so on. I thought they must be nuts. But in minutes the place started filling up and there were hordes of people filling up plates with mashed pots and gravy, corn on the cob and steak ...at 10 am. Still can’t figure that one out.Chimney Rock

Came to Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska. This is the landmark that signalled the end of the settler's 4-6 week trek through the Plains. From here they started heading through the foothills.

We drove to the top of Scott’s Bluff. It has amazing vistas of the Platte River Valley and the area the settlers would have come through. Steve got the bright idea to descend via the walking trail so I took the truck back down and waited for him. There is a visitors centre at the foot with lots of pioneer artefacts. After reading about that for a while I went outside and walked up to Mitchell’s Pass. I just stood there, letting the quiet of the prairie sink into me.

Mitchell Pass at Scott's BluffIn the quiet, I experienced the presence of the women who had passed over this exact spot. First it was their shuffling footsteps, then the murmur of their voices. I felt the weariness in their limbs as they walked, one foot in front of the other, but also the hope they had for a better life. They’d made it this far - across the prairies with its unrelentingly harsh sun and scant water. There was hope again ...with the trees and the greenness and the rolling hills. They WOULD make it to a new life.

Pondered quite a bit on the motivations of people who would leave all that they knew and risk all that they had for a new life and realized that it is no different than the Mexicans we met who would do the same – such was the impoverishment and hopelessness of their lot in Mexico.

Continued north to Rapid City, South Dakota. This has been another eye opener. South Dakota is so beautiful. Nebraska was too ...lush rolling landscapes. Tons of cattle everywhere. But here in South Dakota all that rolling green hill stuff jBadlands flatlandsst takes it up another notch or two.

Camping at the KOA here. Arrive Tuesday afternoon and go for a drive through the Badlands National Park. This takes about four hours. When you first start through it is fairly flat . Suddenly the scenery does a fast forward and you find yourself traveling up through and on top of spectacular sandstone escarpments that are striated Badlandswith different shades of white, grey, tan, brown, orange, and green/blue. That last green/blue layer is the decayed jungle that once stood here.

The Badlands is also where all the criminals used to hide out from the law – the landscape, after all, where all the true stories behind the wild west were actually lived out. You can easily imagine them hiding out in these canyons and gullies, never to be found.

Tomorrow morning we set off for Mount Rushmore.

May 2, 2007

First stop is Bear Country, USA. This is a privately owned wildlife park with 200+ bears. I was imagining it as some kind of bear rehab refuge but apparently not. Since returning home I looked into it and Bear Country “owns” these bears, most of them born in the park. Each spring the new cubs are removed from their mothers and hand raised so that they will be “human-printed” and easy to manage. There are WAY too many bears for the enclosures we saw.

Some animal rights group needs to get on top of this place because while the bears did not seem to be overtly mistreated, having dozens and dozens of bears pacing around inside of relatively small fenced areas (for their numbers) is just lunacy. Sorry I gave these guys my $13 admission.

There were also all kinds of mountain sheep and goats, reindeers, elk, mountain lions, Arctic wolves and regular wolves, coyotes, a couple grizzly bears. The gift shop was hopeless, nothing but the tackiest crap I’ve ever seen.

Mt RushmoreCarried on to Mount Rushmore, also known as America’s “Shrine to Democracy.” The faces were carved by a fellow called Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers over 14 years, from 1927 to 1941. Work on the sculptures was halted when Congress refused to advance any more funds for the work.

The area is a National Park with an attractive pavilion and terrace for viewing the sculptures. They also have a great cafeteria – had a very nice pot roast lunch for $8.50.

Carried on to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Now this is even more amazing. This Crazy Horse Modelfellow, Korczak Ziolkowski worked on sculpting this mountain all by himself. He started in 1948, dragging hand drilling and blasting equipment up and down the mountain by hand.

The story is that Ziolkowski was working with Gutzon Borglum on Mount Rushmore. Lakota Cheif Henry Standing Bear asked him to help them create their own memorial because the “red men have great heroes too.”

Mr. Ziolkowski died in 1982. His family have carried on since. The face of the Crazy Horse Memorial was only completed in 1998. The sculptor never saw it but must have had one helluva an imagination. It’s an unbelievable story of commitment and determination and sheer lunacy.

Crazy HorseThe work is ongoing and truly amazing. Go to the website, www.crazyhorse.com for more info.

Carried on to Deadwood ...a complete waste of time. Just a small town that has taken to gambling in a big way. .

May 3, 2007

The drive today was a hard one because there were terrible winds over North Dakota. On the radio they said up to 100 mph. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad always, but there were certainly extremely patches when it was hard to control the rig because the wind was hitting us broadside. Other times it was pushing us from behind and that felt better.

At one stop I went into the trailer and the wind ripped the door right out of my hands, smashing it against the side of the trailer and throwing its alignment out of whack.
When we arrived at the border and had to open the trailer for the border guard, it wouldn’t budge. Steve had to crank it open with a crowbar.

Mt Roosevelt BadlandsMostly, North Dakota is a matter of gently rolling grasslands. The only deviation from that is at Roosevelt National Park where “Badlands” prevail, those eroded sandstone escarpments that were so captivating in South Dakota.

We saw a lot of deer today, probably well over a hundred. They are very easy to spot with their white bottoms flashing in the sun. They run with the wind and jump like gazelles. Just beautiful to watch.

SaskatchewanBy evening we’d made it all the way to the Saskatchewan border. We are spending the night in the Ourangie Memorial Park. It is a bit strange. There are about 30 big house trailers and 5th wheels parked here. Some look like they are being stored, but most look like they are people’s homes with barbeques and bikes and lawn chairs sitting on decks and in the small gardens that permanent residents of trailer parks create. But there is no one here. Not a single vehicle or person except us and all these empty RVs. As if all the oldies who actually live here have been spirited away by a UFO or something.

No one ever came and collected money from us. There is a restroom but it is locked up and the water was turNearly Homened off. So Steve jimmied the door lock then followed the water line over to the shut-off valve and turned it back on. We turned it off and locked up again in the morning. Most strange though and the spookiness of it all was enhanced by the terrible winds that continue to follow us over the heartland.

We’ve made it back home to Canada. Tomorrow will find us in BC and the next
day, parked in our own driveway.

Carolyn Usher

 

Unless otherwise noted all prices are quoted in US$ or Mexican Pesos. At time of writing, 10 pesos = $1 US or CDN.