The True Northernmost Extreme Point: Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, the top of the worldWhen we started planning our return visit to Alaska, we knew that in addition to visiting our final two national parks up there we also had to trek to Barrow, Alaska.  Why?  Because our visit to the previous “northernmost city” in Minnesota [see Northwest Angle post] had an asterisks behind it — it was only the northernmost city in the contiguous United States.  If we wanted to make the claim that we visited the true northernmost place in the whole of the U.S. on this road trip (which we did/do!) then we had to trek all the way up to Barrow, Alaska; for Barrow is the true northernmost north point — the ‘Top of the World’ as they claim.

Barrow is 330 miles above the Arctic Circle; it’s right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet.  It’s the undisputed northernmost city in the U.S.; the ninth northernmost city in the entire world.

Barrow is so far north that trees can’t grow up here.  One of the photos I’ve shared below shows an interesting perspective of this native village as we approached it from the air, and you can see how flat all of this land on the North Slope is — it’s permafrost underneath tundra that’s covered with snow for much of the year.  Barrow is not on the road system; the only way to get up here is via plane, barge, or an ice road in the wintertime.  Incidentally, said barge (also in the photo mosaic below) makes just one trip per year, bringing goods people order and need to have shipped up here in shipping containers — trucks, 4-wheelers, non-perishable food, etc.  Then once the natives empty out their containers, they use them for additional storage for their households.  Photos also show a lot of re-purposed shipping containers dotting the village.

Nighttime in Barrow, AK
11 o’clock at night in Barrow and still lots of light.  Note the lack of grass and trees.  See also the roads — asphalt would get too warm in the summertime and destroy the permafrost just below the surface, so roads are gravel and kick up a lot of dirt.
Locals all seem to bring their cargo limit of three 50# containers every time they come up here
Locals bring their cargo limit of 150# every time they come up to Barrow

As we checked in at the Anchorage airport for our flight up to Barrow, we were a bit befuddled when we first observed everyone with coolers and boxes of cold/frozen food that they were checking as their baggage.  My initial thought was why would they be coming down to Anchorage to fish and ship that all back up to their village which is right on the ocean?, for the Anchorage airport is full of people flying freshly-caught Alaskan fish back to the Lower 48.  But then we learned that it’s cheaper for Barrow residents to fly from Barrow to Anchorage when Alaska Airlines offers cheap fares, purchase food there (there are two Costco’s in Anchorage that are wildly popular), then bring their limit of 150 pounds of cargo (three 50# containers are allowed per person) with them on their flight back to Barrow.  And that now makes sense to us after a visit to the AC Co. store, which carries everything from basic groceries to Carhartts, from sofas to housewares.  Let me tell you, food up there is E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E!  Transportation costs are the primary drivers, and short-shelf-life items are particularly pricey.  A gallon of milk will run you about $16; a very small pineapple flashed a price of $10.39; a 5-pound bag of carrots will set you back $14.39; and 1.75 gallons of Tide detergent (slightly bigger than what Costco offers) costs a whopping $58.99!  We wondered how people could afford to live up here and pondered the paradoxical notion that these Iñupiat natives, of all folks, could arguably least afford such outlandish prices.

Laura & Fred at Whale Bone Arch in Barrow, AKOur Top of the World hotel offered a 4-hour tour, lead by a lovely Iñupiat native.  Seven of us joined in, stopping to see the icons of Barrow including the Whale Bone Arch, the school, the Iñupiat Heritage Center, the big blue football field [made possible because of a very generous benefactor from Florida who saw that this eager team had no field and instead was having to play on the rocky, sandy Arctic road; ESPN profiled this story – check it out:  E-Ticket: Save The Whalers], and several other spots.  We had the opportunity to take a true Polar Bear Plunge in the Arctic Ocean, but passed — I was happy enough just feeling the cold water with my hand; Fred braved a short wade in the waters for a photo op then quickly got out of the frigid sea.

Fun fact: when the sun sets here in just a couple of months (around the 18th or 19th of November), it doesn’t rise again for 65 days.

Here are a few more facts about Barrow:

§  Barrow is the 8th coldest place in the world to live — the lowest recorded temperature is -56ºF

§  On average, Barrow’s high temperature is above freezing only 120 days per year, while temperatures are at or below zero 160 days per year

§  Barrow has around 4,200 residents, most of them native Iñupiat whose ancestors have lived here for over 1,500 years

§  Native Iñupiat survive largely by hunting whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, waterfowl, caribou, and catching fish from the Arctic Ocean

§  Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and Barrow has been called “ground zero” for climate-change science

Here are some photos from our visit to the very unique place that is Barrow, Alaska:

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

These photos are from the wonderful Iñupiat Heritage Center, one of the stops along our Barrow tour:

While our visit to Barrow was a short 24 hours, I think we packed in all that we could, short of joining one of the more than 40 whale crews to pursue a Bowhead whale or row out to the ice floats to see polar bears.  [For the record, the ice was still 10+ miles off the shoreline, and so, too, the polar bears.]  Happily, we can now claim unequivocally that we have been to the true northernmost north of the United States!

Back from Alaska!

Creekside in Denali

We’re BAAACCCKKK!  We’ve been back for a couple of days now actually, but we are still catching up on missed sleep and three weeks of “stuff” that we hadn’t been able to attend to from the Alaskan tundra.  But alas, that trip is behind us and we’re now into our next park visit.

We’re working on getting all our photos sorted — and there are a bunch of good ones! — but until we get through them all and get a couple of posts together, let these couple of photos be a teaser for what’s to come.  It goes without saying that this year’s trip to Alaska was another fabulous one!

Creekside in Denali

Kobuk Valley NP

Kayaks tied up for the night in Gates
L&F grabbing some shore along the Noatak River in Gates of the Arctic NP

The Parks of The Dakotas

We have visited three national parks in less three weeks — that’s hardly enough time to write about each of them as well as the other national park units we have visited [Devils Tower NM, Mount Rushmore NMem, Jewel Cave NM, and the other ones I wrote about in my latest post], let alone enjoy them all as they should be enjoyed.  And we’ve been making final arrangements and packing for our big Alaska trip — I’ve got so much to post about and so little time!

While each of these three national parks deserves its own spotlight, I’m going to have to lump them all into one post — sorry about that Wind Cave NP, Badlands NP, and Theodore Roosevelt NP!  Here are the highlights of each of our visits to these three parks:

Wind Cave NPWind Cave National Park — As the name suggests, this park protects a cave system of twisting mazes and passageways that exists beneath the ground, and that was the original mission of this park that was established as our nation’s seventh national park by Theodore Roosevelt — one of five he created — in 1903.  But it also protects a lush and beautiful rolling prairie above the ground.  

The original Wind Cave entrance
The natural entrance to Wind Cave, this small hole blows out nice, cool 53-degree air

While the cave was known to Native Americans as a sacred place for centuries, it was first discovered by white America back in 1881 by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, who heard a loud whistling noise which lead them to a small hole in the ground — still today the cave’s only known natural entrance — and the wind coming out of the cave is said to have blown Jesse’s hat off.  Once known, others took to exploring the cave and more of it continues to be mapped to this day.  Based on barometric wind studies, it is believed that only five percent of the total cave has been discovered.  Presently, the cave is the world’s seventh longest, with 143 miles surveyed.

Boxwork, the unique speleothem found in Wind Cave
Boxwork, the unique speleothem found in the cave system that is Wind Cave NP

A ranger-led cave tour was the main highlight of our visit to the park.  Ranger Earl guided us through this underground labyrinth to view the many features and underground formations, or speleothems, in what is one of the most complex cave systems in the world.  Unlike most caves with which we are familiar, this one has very few stalactites and stalagmites.  Instead, there is a profusion of “boxwork” — thin, 3-D honeycomb-shaped calcite structures — which is not found in any other cave in the world.

Above the ground, the plains of Wind Cave are right at the edge of the famed Black Hills of western South Dakota.  The entire region was once home to millions of bison — some sources say upwards of 60 million! — the enduring symbol of the Great Plains area.  But changes in human population patterns and over-hunting drove them to near extinction.  Thanks to conservation efforts on the part of the park system, bison herds roam freely and beautifully here once again, along with other wildlife such as prairie dogs, pronghorn, coyote, mule deer, and elk.  

And so it is at Wind Cave — one park, but two distinct places.

Badlands National ParkBadlands National Park — As the name seems to suggest, this place may not be to everyone’s liking, particularly those homesteaders, “sod busters” as they were called, who tried to settle in the area but found it too difficult to tame.  But we found Badlands to be a big, wonderful, beautiful surprise.

The area was first established as Badlands National Monument in 1939 to protect the colorful tiered cliffs, buttes, and pinnacles that extend out as far as the eye can see.  It was later designated a national park in 1978, and today not only protects these geological wonders, but also features one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America, evidence that ancient, often strange (by our terms today) creatures once roamed here.

The Yellow Mounds of Badlands NPThe Badlands draws visitors from around the world, many of whom simply drive the loop road through the park, stopping at the various overlooks to look off in the distance and admire the rugged beauty of the rock formations seemingly growing out of the mixed-grass prairie.  Others, like my photographer husband Fred, or Fransel [Adams] as I like to call him, repeatedly went into the park to watch and photograph the way the light shines upon and casts shadows on the infinite peaks throughout the park.

Life in the otherwise harsh BadlandsWhile the summer sun bakes this land and it seems, and often is, quite harsh, particularly in the 100-degree weather we experienced during our entire visit here, the natural elements of this park are wonderful.  Erosion carves these buttes so they are ever changing.  And while it appears that no life could be sustained here in the blistering sun and endless winters, more patient visitors notice life all around.

Fred’s prior post features wonderful photographs of pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs — rewards for all the time he spent in the park.  

Fred & Laura at Badlands NP

Badlands National Park is actually comprised of three units, but with two being in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, most people, including us, just visit the North Unit, where there is more than enough to take in and enjoy.

Theodore Roosevelt NPTheodore Roosevelt National Park — This is the third in our trifecta of national parks in the Dakotas featuring grassy plains, noisy prairie dog towns, wandering pronghorn and grand bison herds.  But one thing that makes this park stand out is the name itself: Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park that is named after a person.

Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States [1901-1909] came to North Dakota as a 24-year old to hunt bison, but he returned to the area regularly throughout his life.  He mourned the loss of his young wife (she died in childbirth) and his mother here; tragically, the two dying hours apart.  He even entered into a ranching business here.  The time Roosevelt spent in this area gave him an appreciation of the hardships of life in the Badlands and a passion for conservation that informed his presidency.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Theodore Roosevelt  proclaimed in 1918.

Known as “The Conservation President,” Teddy Roosevelt did more for the national park system than any other president.  He doubled the number of sites within the system, creating five national parks including Crater Lake NP in Oregon, Wind Cave NP in South Dakota, Sully’s Hill NP in North Dakota [which was later designated as a game preserve], Mesa Verde NP in Colorado, and Platt NP in Oklahoma [which is now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area.]  But much more enduring, he enacted The Antiquities Act on June 8, 1906, enabling the President to set aside for protection “…historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States….”  These protected areas were then designated as “national monuments.”

Below are a few photos of our time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



Fred’s Badlands National Park


Before coming to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, I had thought that it would be harsh, desolate, dusty and dangerous, and that I would primarily see nondescript gray stone formations. French trappers in the 18th century called the region a “bad land” when they first visited it, and I’m sure that many others have called it much worse names as they attempted to travel through it. I got some sense of the challenges that one might confront on a 10-mile hike that I did that wound through and up and over various formations and grasslands. However, in the case of my trek, I knew that there was a cold bottle of water and a car with air conditioning waiting for me at the end. What I found on this visit is that while the land can be harsh, desolate, dusty, dangerous and there is a great deal of gray rock, it is also stunningly beautiful. One time in particular stands out where I experienced the raw, natural beauty and force of the badlands and nature.

One of our days at Badlands a strong thunderstorm rolled through southwest South Dakota. I had planned to get up very early in the morning to go into the park and shoot sunrise, but not at 0300 when the full force of the storm hit. What a brilliant light and sound show that we witnessed. Since I was up anyway, I decided to make myself a thermos of tea and head into the park. As I drove on the road that winds through the park I watched the incredible light show out of my front window and climbed up to one of the wonderful overlooks in the park called Panorama Point. The brunt of the storm had passed over me, but was still roaring in the near distance. It was now 0345, and as you might imagine, I was the only one at the overlook. In the dark and a light rain I walked out to the point and took in the incredible show occurring in the west. As the time approached 0500 I looked back to the east and even though the sky was black, there was a sliver of open sky right at the horizon. If this held, there would be just enough room for the rising sun to come through and illuminate the vista spread out before me.

In a spitting and blowing rain I watched the first rays of the day hit the bank of magnificent rock formations in front of me against a deep blue backdrop as the rain fortuitously turned to a drizzle and then stopped. I started taking photos, one of which is above, and simply took in the extraordinary scene that unfolded before me as I watched periodic lightning flashes in the distance. But the show was not over, as a small shaft of rainbow light then pierced the middle of the scene. It would not last long, as the rising sun slowly disappeared into a dark cloud bank and then disappeared.

I stood there for some time after that, still alone at the overlook, the storm likely deterring most from venturing into the park,  and just took it all in as I watched the light show continue on the horizon. As the storm moved farther off to the west I packed up my camera gear, put it into the car, and then started to drive around the park, wondering what other surprises and beauty would await me around each corner.

Photos from this stunningly beautiful park are below. 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.






Fred’s Devils Tower National Monument

I had wanted to see it since I saw the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind way back in the late 80s. Since then I have seen the film at least five other times, and a portion of it too many other times to count, and every time it came on the screen I would be reminded that it was still on my bucket list to visit this monolith in person. So on a July day as I drove on a winding state road through Wyoming, both Laura and I had our eyes peeled for the distinctive tower out the picture window that is Charley’s windshield. Finally, there it was, large and imposing on the horizon, Devils Tower.

Devils Tower is the namesake of Devils Tower National Monument, which was the first monument in the national park system. President Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a national monument in 1906 under the newly enacted American Antiquities Act of 1906. This was just one of many public lands that would be protected by Roosevelt during his time in office. Referred to as Bear Lodge by Native Americans, it was given the name Devils Tower by Colonel Richard Dodge in 1859 while escorting an Office of Indian Affairs survey team to the massive rock formation. Rising some 1,267 feet from the Belle Fourche River, it stretches 867 feet from base to summit.

So after over 30 years of this incredible formation residing on my to-do list, I was finally standing at the base of it and gazing up, way up. Making the experience even more special was that the campground where we set up camp was near the base of the mountain, and every evening at dusk the campground showed Close Encounters of the Third Kind on a large-screen television with the tower looming high above the makeshift outdoor theater. While I planned to get up very early the next morning to shoot the mountain at sunrise, there was no way that I could pass up watching the movie once again, this time with the star of the show as part of the experience. About half way through the film, a thunderstorm rolled into the area and it began to rain. While most others in attendance left, I moved under a tree and continued watching the film with three other brave souls. It was fun when Devils Tower made its first appearance in the movie and almost in unison we all said, “There it is.”, and  clapped a few times. As I sat there I watched with one eye on the tower waiting for lightning flashes to illuminate it, and once again thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful film, one that is so full of possibilities and hope.      

Photos from Devils Tower National Monument are below.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



Fred’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial


The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

        Gutzon Borglum

Seven-hundred sixty-eight days. That is the number of days since we launched on this Odyssey and up until this past week we had not spent any time in our new home state of South Dakota. We also had not seen one of the most iconic symbols of America, Mount Rushmore, but that changed recently when we made the trip from our campground near Wind Cave NP to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

I have to admit that we both thought that Mount Rushmore would be very touristy, crowded and a bit kitschy, but as we were driving up the winding road leading to the memorial we came around a bend in the road and there it was, the four great men carved in stone with a brilliant blue sky as a backdrop. Both Laura and I were struck by, well, the magnificence of the extraordinary sculpture.

The idea of South Dakotan historian Doane Robinson, the sculpture was designed and executed by the Danish-American Gutzon Borglum, an already accomplished artist when he undertook this monumental project, and his son, Lincoln Borglum. It was Gutzon Borglum’s idea to create a sculpture that included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, and to carve the piece in Mount Rushmore, near Keystone, South Dakota. There is a wonderful national park visitor center with a movie that explains how the project began in 1927 and did not end until 1941, just months after the death of Borglum, who labored tirelessly directing a team of workers over the 14-year period. Lincoln Borglum saw the project through to completion after the death of his father. Interestingly, 90% of the 60-foot tall sculptures were carved in granite using explosives, with jackhammers used to smooth out the rough edges.

Yes, we did have to pay $11 to park in a three-level parking garage.  Yes, it was crowded. And yes, there were somewhat kitschy items in the gift shop. But you know what, when you move past all of that, consider what an artistic and engineering marvel the sculpture is, walk through the Avenue of Flags from every state and look up at the four individuals who were so important in making this great country what it is today, you can not help but feel a tremendous sense of awe and pride.

Photos from Mount Rushmore National Memorial are below.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



North Dakota, our 50th State!

Nebraska - our 50th state!

Yesterday was a milestone for us — we made it to our 50th state!  As I mentioned on my Facebook post, it’s been 2 years, 1 month and 18 days of life on the road for us, and finally we tallied our 50th and last state.  We’re getting very close to completing our goal of visiting all 59 national parks.  We’re currently at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota which is park #53 — just six more to go!

Journey Through Nebraska and South Dakota

Ever since returning from our short “vacation from our vacation” in L.A. to see Garrison Keillor’s last show, we have been turning it up on national park and park unit visits.  We are taking advantage of the nice summer weather by spending the better part of July in the north central part of the U.S., a.k.a. the Great Plains grasslands area which, incidentally, we just learned is the largest ecosystem in the U.S. — who knew?!  Anyway, we are having a busy three weeks in Nebraska and the Dakotas before we make our way over to Billings, Montana, from which we will fly back up to Alaska to visit the final two [of the eight up in Alaska] national parks we missed during our trip up there last year.  But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nebraska and South Dakota first.

NPS Passport Cancellation StampI’ve decided to do something a little different with this post.  Instead of uploading photos from this Nebraska/Dakotas leg of our trip, I’ve decided to share drawings from my sketchbook.  For those of you who don’t know, the National Park Service Visitor Centers sell passport books and then each NP Visitor Center has passport stamps for inking into your passport book.  Instead of the traditional NPS passport book, I have created my own; I’m actually on my third book of sketches and stamps now — I figure I’ve drawn over 200 pages for all of the national park units that we’ve visited.

Here are my renditions of what we have seen in Nebraska and South Dakota:

My sketch of Scotts Bluff NMScotts Bluff National Monument – Gering, NE — The Oregon Trail represented promises of a new life out west.  The California Trail promised gold.  The Mormon Trail lead many seeking religious freedom to the Promised Land out in Salt Lake City.  All three trails brought early pioneers through Nebraska where, after weeks of travel across prairie grasslands, they met up with 800′ bluffs.  Thousands of wagon trains passed by the daunting bluff known as Scotts Bluff which was accompanied by a tricky climb through Mitchell Pass.  Also passing by here, in the short-lived era of the Pony Express [1860-1861], riders changed horses at the Scottsbluff station.

My sketch of Chimney Rock NHSChimney Rock National Historic Site – Bayard, NE — Before they got to Scotts Bluff, settlers saw this iconic rock monolith.  Visible for miles around in the flat Nebraska landscape, this eroded remnant of a butte reaches 325′ into the sky and was certainly a prominent landmark for the westward-bound settlers.

During our two-day stay in this area I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to travel across the country in a bumpy wagon train — the dust from the dry tracks of the wagon trains that came before… the foul smells of the oxen… the unpredictable weather that no doubt included rain, sleet and snow… terrible terrible sickness and frequent death that beset travelers not up for such a strenuous trip… the list of unpleasantries goes on.  And yet in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” travel across the country these pioneers did, in search of a better life.  I guess I shouldn’t complain about my small closets in Charley, now should I…?


My sketch of Agate Fossil Beds NMAgate Bluffs Fossil Beds National Monument – Harrison, NE — Rich deposits of fossils have been found in this area by paleontologists suggesting that ancient but now distinct creatures once roamed in this area.  Given the volume of fossils here, it is believed that during a period of drought animals concentrated around the scarce watering holes that were available.  Over time they ate up all the vegetation around these few water spots, and then in the heat and drought grew too weak to walk farther out for food, thus they died by the watering holes, became covered in mud, and were then preserved as fossils.  Among the skeletons found here are strange looking creatures including a small rhinoceros, a carnivorous bear-dog, a land-dwelling beaver, a bad-ass hog, a tiny gazelle-camel, and other Miocene-epoch animals.  For over 100 years now paleontologists have been studying these fossils which has helped answer questions about the past.

A second part of this national monument is an incredibly impressive collection of American Indian artifacts given to one James H. Cook, a frontiersman in this area, by people of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe.  In 1874 Cook met Chief Red Cloud and the two developed a steadfast friendship over decades, during which time Cook received many gifts from the Indians.  Today the family’s collection belongs to the park and many priceless items are on display that tell of the Native ways of life.


20160717_185203Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, SD — There are several cave systems in this area, including the nearby Wind Cave National Park — another Jolly Out There destination, of course — and each is known for something specific.  Jewel Cave is named for its gem-like calcite crystals that sparkle when illuminated.  These are just one of the many speleothems, or cave formations, that can be seen when touring the caves.  While Frostwork is the signature formation, others include Draperies, Dogtooth spar, Gypsum flowers, and even Popcorn and Bacon.

The only way to see the caves is through ranger-guided tours.  Jewel Cave offers a couple of touring options, but visitors only see a small portion of the 180 miles of mapped passageways; the rest of the cave has been set aside for research and is not open to the public.  Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world but it is still being explored and new passageways discovered by volunteer cave explorers.


My sketch of Mount Rushmore NMMount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD — What started as a preposterous idea to draw sightseers to the state of South Dakota became a work of art for the ages.  This is Mount Rushmore, the magnificent American symbol that honors our past presidents who were dedicated to the birth, growth, development, and preservation of our nation.  

Initially conceived to be a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier, the idea for a huge granite sculpture as a gateway to the West was met with skepticism and even hostility.  Undaunted by public opinion, champions of the idea called upon master sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a Danish (yay!) immigrant who was just beginning to achieve fame for his “big” work.  Borglum changed the location and even the subject of the initial idea, and in doing so elevated the memorial to a national cause.  

Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927 and work commenced.  It took 14 years to complete the four heads carved high into the granite outcroppings where the Black Hills rise from the plains [and incidentally, the original name of the rock Borglum chose was Mount Rushmore so the name stuck], but only six of those years involved actual carving on the rock face.  Borglum died in March of 1941 but his son supervised the final work which stopped in October 1941 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II.  Mount Rushmore overwhelmed its critics and continues to dazzle the world with over two million visitors each year.

My sketch of Minuteman Missile NHSMinuteman Missile National Historic Site – the grassy plains of SD — “At the end of World War II — the first and only wartime use of atomic bombs — the United States possessed only six nuclear weapons.  After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb four years later, the arms race took off.  Within four decades, the global arsenal had multiplied to a peak of around 65,000 weapons.”  The display inside the Visitor Center at the Minuteman Missile NHS charts the world’s nuclear stockpile and illustrates how the United States , its allies, and its enemies went to the brink and back during the Cold War.

Fortunately for mankind most of the missile silos have been deactivated and destroyed, but a couple of these 1960s missile sites were preserved and turned into a museum where visitors can explore the significance of the arms race, learn about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and understand their role as a nuclear deterrent that maintained peace and prevented war.  Delta-01 is the launch control facility and a couple of miles away, Delta-09 is the old launch facility, both preserved in time.

The Last Show


That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.          

Garrison Keillor – A Prairie Home Companion

The memories sometimes find their way out…I am five years old lying on a sofa in the front room of my grandparents’ farm house drifting off to sleep and faintly hear my grandmother mention her friend Verna and that they would be going to the church bizarre on Saturday…I am playing in the barn with my brothers at the homestead making believe that an old furnace that is stored in the barn is a submarine…I am singing Silent Night at the end of the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church…I sit in the baseball stands at the Chenoa Park watching my father walk across the infield toward the Crosley that he will drive in the 4th of July parade for the last time later that day…my mother is frosting chocolate drop cookies in the kitchen of our farm house…I’m looking at a photo of my grandfather and my uncles standing in front of a team of horses pulling a wagon full of corn…I think of my grandfather right before he died drifting in and out of consciousness mumbling about his two Belgian workhorses, Brownie and Jack…As I listen to the show on the radio, the memories sometimes find their way out.  

I think that it is mostly the stories and the voice. Oh, there is certainly a wonderful variety of music: folk, bluegrass, blues, classical and others. There is also a great deal of humor, none of which is off-color, just good, clean comedy. Sometimes there is poetry. In a throwback to times gone by, there are even sound effects generated by a single individual working frantically at a small table. But it is the stories and the voice that draw out the memories and take me back to moments now residing in the deep recesses of my mind.

On July 1, 2016 Garrison Keillor made his final appearance as host of the radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. Normally broadcast live on Saturday evening, this show was actually performed and recorded on Friday night and was then broadcast on Saturday evening at its usual time. After 42 years of writing and hosting the show that he created so many years ago he is turning the show over to the next generation and freeing up his weekends. For those who have not listened to the show, A Prairie Home Companion, and Keillor’s weekly monologue in particular, is about my hometown, Chenoa, Illinois. OK, not really, but it could be about Chenoa or just about any other small Midwest town.

The show is performed live and is like an old-time variety radio program with various types of music, comedy skits, poetry every now and then, and Keillor’s monologue about life in a fictitious town in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon. He talks about the quirky personalities who reside in the small town, about those who gather at the Chatterbox Café, the Sidetrack Tap, the local Lutheran Church, potlucks, school plays, farmers and farming, and just about everything that you might experience in a town like my hometown. While the various characters in his monologues tend to be Norwegian, they could just as easily be of German ancestry with names like Jacobs, Rhoda and Wahls. If you can imagine a radio program from the 1940’s, then you have a pretty good sense of what the show is like. Keillor’s inspiration for the show was a Grand Ole Opry performance in 1973 that he listened to through a window of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville because he could not get a ticket to the show.

I have listened to the radio program on Saturday evenings on various NPR stations since the early 80’s, but had never seen it live, something that I always wanted to do. And so I would have one last chance and decided that the one show that I would see in person would be his last show, the one at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Just a few minor hitches: we did not have tickets for what would be a much anticipated show; we did not have a place to stay in LA; and we were currently in Arizona and would have to somehow get to LA for the show, while making our way into Colorado where our next stops would be.

Laura, the Chief Logistics Officer on this trip, was not terribly happy with me for changing our itinerary, as she had made reservations at Rocky Mountain National Park over the very popular Fourth of July weekend months in advance, and now I was not just going to throw a monkey wrench into the works, but the whole darn toolbox. After some major cajoling, I got her to buy in on a plan that would take us to the Denver area where we could leave Charley and fly to LA for the show. I was also able to find a couple of tickets on a secondary market and secured a hotel room at a place that is a 10-minute walk from the Hollywood Bowl. We were set.       

Attending the show that evening at the Hollywood Bowl with more than 17,000 other fans was indeed worth the 30+ year wait. Our seats were close to the stage so we could see everything that went into the live performance, and Keillor does indeed wear many hats. Besides creating the show and hosting it, he writes it each week, is a humorist, sings beautifully, is a political commentator, and writes original songs for most shows and then sings them. Wearing a somewhat rumpled linen suit, his trademark red shoes and red tie, it was fascinating to watch how intently he focused on the task at hand, glasses sliding down to the very end of his nose and haphazardly dropping pages of the script to the stage floor after he read them.

He is also a combination of director and conductor, roaming around the stage as others perform and occasionally stepping in to provide harmony; gesturing to two fiddle players that he wants them to play an impromptu duet; talking to the technician on the sound board during a fellow performer’s solo. The man without a baton keeps the swirl of activity moving so seamlessly, that listening to the show and not seeing it one might think that everyone is fixed in their position on stage and simply waits for their turn to perform.

With a few exceptions, Keillor’s final show was pretty much void of sentimentality and a long goodbye. In listening to or watching the program, if you were not aware of the significance of the evening, you would think that this were just another Saturday evening production. There was no string of stars who would appear in the final show, only his usual cast. There were no elaborate gifts like a motorcycle, or a car, or some exotic trip that we have come to expect when sports stars or entertainment personalities retire. There were only a couple of nods to the specialness of the event: Keillor wrote a wonderful farewell note that was distributed to those in attendance; and the other acknowledgement was a call from President Obama during the show. Even then Keillor kept turning the conversation back to the President and appeared uncomfortable hearing the kind things that the President was saying about him.

When his longtime cast members attempted to convey their sentiments, he politely brushed the compliments aside and moved on. There were no hugs or handshakes, just the show. Finally, after the show had concluded and they were no longer doing the radio program, he came back from the wings, walked to the front of the stage for a curtain call of sorts, and began to sing a collection of six songs acapella with the audience singing along that seemed to be chosen in the moment, that ranged from “Happy Trails” to “The Doxology” to “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” He appropriately finished with the Amen Chorus, took a shallow bow, said thank you, and then walked off into the darkness at the edge of the stage.

I will miss him on Saturday nights. While the show will continue with another host, it will be much more musically oriented and we will no longer hear the voice or the stories. The voice that is so perfect for radio: a wonderful baritone, smoooooth, evenly paced delivery, but most importantly, calming. When I listen to the show the voice resonates deep within me and I can actually feel myself relax. And his stories about life in a small Midwest farming community so perfectly lend themselves to the easy way in which they are told. These stories about local farmers, or the Lutheran Church, or the 4th of July parade, or his aunts and uncles, draw out of me wonderful memories of family, friends and growing up in Chenoa. Regardless of where I might be, when I listened to the show I am back there again, on the family farm outside of a small town in central Illinois, playing with my brothers in the barn, sitting outside on a warm summer’s eve talking with Mom and Dad, or having dinner with my grandparents.

With all of the craziness whirling around us in today’s world, it was nice every now and then to step out of life and transport myself to Lake Wobegon. A place on the edge of the prairie, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and the children are above average.” Yes, I will miss him.

Photos from our evening with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion at the Hollywood Bowl are below.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.